From Anti-Semite to Bridge Builder

A Conversation with Imam Abdullah Antepli
August 3, 2021Aron Hirt-Manheimer


Editor's Note: This piece was originally published 5/4/2017

Imam Antepli is a globally acknowledged scholar and leader of cross-religious and cross-cultural dialogue, sowing seeds of understanding between religions while upholding their cultural integrity and dignity. In July 2019, Antepli joined the Sanford School of Public Policy as associate professor of the practice, with a secondary appointment at the Divinity School as associate professor of the practice of interfaith relations.

He previously served as Duke University's first Muslim chaplain and director of Center for Muslim Life from July 2008 to 2014, and then as Duke's chief representative for Muslim affairs from July 2014 to 2019. Professor Antepli is also a senior fellow on Jewish-Muslim Relations at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he founded and co-directs the widely recognized Muslim Leadership Initiative.

Imam Abdullah Antepli, was a featured speaker at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial in Boston, December 6-10, 2017. I sat down with the Turkish-born cleric at that time to gain his insights on the state of Jewish-Muslim relations in the United States.

Reform Jews protested the Trump Administration’s Muslim ban at airports, and Muslims donated money to help restore vandalized Jewish gravestones. Do these actions signal a new era in Jewish-Muslim relations?

Imam Abdullah Antepli: I welcome these goodwill gestures, but I’m highly skeptical that they can overcome the main obstacle dividing our communities – namely, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jews and Muslims everywhere have become proxy foot soldiers, defining each other as adversaries through the prism of this conflict. There’s nothing wrong with being pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, for lack of better terms, but defining an entire community in the context of that conflict is suffocating us and empowering anti-semites in the Muslim world and anti-Muslims in the Jewish world. I want to emphasize that I am not making some false equation. For the most part, antisemitism  in the Muslim world is on a much larger scale and a lot more serious.

Is Muslim antisemitism an outgrowth of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Muslim antisemitism has always existed on the margins, not as a core theological teaching. The creation of the State of Israel brought those marginal elements to the forefront. Whereas for Jews, the creation of Israel is experienced as a homecoming story, not only in the aftermath of the Holocaust, but because of 4000 years of connection with that part of the world, for Muslims, it is seen as a Judeo-Christian-European land grab, another wave of Crusaders humiliating the world of Islam. This narrative has shaped the overall image of Judaism and Jews, Zionism, and Israel and pumped all sorts of toxic information into the hearts and minds of Muslims.

How would you evaluate Jewish-Muslim dialogue in the U.S. on the national level?

With the exception of the Reform Movement and a few other progressive Jewish organizations, mainstream Jewish and Muslim communities have for many decades been in an adversarial relationship, attempting in various ways to undermine one another. One way has been to invest in each other’s renegades. Some Jewish groups, for example, reach out to marginal, self-hating Muslims who enrich themselves by validating the monstrous image of Islam and Muslims. Returning the favor, some Muslim organizations commission self-hating Jews to reinforce their existing anti-Jewish stereotypes.

How effective has Jewish-Muslim dialogue been on the local community and college campus level?

Most interfaith conversations I’ve witnessed are well intentioned; unfortunately, they do little to bring the two faith communities closer together on a lasting basis. Too often, these encounters either take the shape of political debates that turn into shouting matches in 15 minutes. Or, to avoid confrontation, they settle on eating humus together and talking about what kosher and halal chicken have in common.

What I’ve seen on college campuses is increasing polarization between diehard anti-Israel groups, such as those that advocate BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and equally zealous pro-Zionist Jewish partisans. But even more troubling to me is the increasing numbers of Jewish and Muslim students who are so alienated and disillusioned with this seemingly intractable conflict that they walk away, check out permanently.

How do you respond to such students who say, “a plague on both your houses?”

I try to engage them in a deeper conversation about the causes of divisiveness in our society; in particular, the kind of racism, bigotry, and disinformation that makes us vulnerable to character assassination.  

An example: about 29% of Americans still believe Barack Obama is Muslim, and that it is a bad thing, because 70% have negative attitudes and views towards Muslims and Islam. Those who insist he is a Muslim actually mean he is Black. The fact that they don’t just say Obama is Black in a pejorative sense is a safe way of unleashing their own racism.

What is your message to Jews and Muslims who want to fight racism and bigotry?

I tell them that the Jewish and Muslim communities cannot defeat antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry on their own. We need each other. We need to be conversation partners. We need to develop a deeper, sustained relationship that can withstand the violence of another Gaza war or the diplomatic disappointment of another Oslo Accords.  Even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were solved tomorrow, that conflict has gone on so long, it may take generations of work to bring our communities into peaceful equilibrium.

We have no time to lose. If not now, when?

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