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Denver’s Abrahamic Initiative: Creating Dialogue/Islamophobia and `Islamo-Fascism Week’.

October 29, 2007

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Yesterday I went to a luncheon at the Denver Country Club (yes, forgive me for slumming – I do it on occasion and find it great fun) and then to St. John’s Cathedral to hear Nihad Awad, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, speak. He was invited to Denver by the Abrahamic Initiative, an interfaith dialogue group based largely at St. Johns. Although essentially secular, I was interested to hear Awad and get a glimpse at how the `dialogue’ promoted by the Abrahamic Initiative is going these days.

I’d attended one of their meetings several years ago where a film was shown of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers getting to know each other that was followed by a panel that included a Christian (Larry Grimm, Presbyterian minister and a friend), Rima Barakat (an organizer for the Palestinian Community) and Jan Cooper-Nadav (a Jewish psychologist) spoke. The Israeli kids later went into the army, the Palestinian teenagers seemed to have joined the resistance, all very depressing but not surprising. Still the fact that they had touched each other’s lives, each other’s humanity suggests – or at least I would like to believe – that somewhere, sometime in the future, if they all haven’t killed each other, that they’ll be among the peace makers. And I hope they will (be among the peace makers that is). The event was attended by a hefty 300-400 people and although I couldn’t tell precisely, it seemed that a goodly number of Christians, Moslems and Jews were in the audience and that in fact, something of an honest, if difficult dialogue took place that day. A climate of mutual respect, understanding seemed to be in the making or at least that is how I saw it. Of course then Israeli war against Lebanon intervened and some of that good will went the way of all flesh. As I hadn’t been back since, I was wonderging about it all, hoping that the `dialogue’ continued and had not broken down.

That was several years ago.

My friend, Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni. is the executive director of the Abrahamic Initiative and it was he that extended the invitation that I attend. We frequently speak (and co-author op eds) together. Actually I am quite supportive of such dialogues (as long as they are not contrived or controlled) although I always wonder where people like myself fit in, those of us who do not fall under the label `children of god’. But trying hard to be flexible, and both interested in the subject matter and curious as to what kind of `dialoguing’ is actually going on and who is doing it, I accepted Ibrahim’s invitation.

The `dialogue’ – at least that portion that I witnessed, was, in most ways, more interesting than Nihad Awad’s remarks which were rather flat (more on that below). If my impression is accurate, today the Abrahamic Initiative is mostly a `Moslem-Christian’ dialogue, or more specifically, a Moslem- Protestant dialogue. As such it seemed quite alive and honest. There were a number of people from both faiths there; they seemed genuinely interested in open discussion with each other. They were people of some prominence within both communities, clearly community leaders and seemed earnest and committed to participating and building bridges. I couldn’t help being moved by this, and for a fleeting movement wished I were more religious so that I could find an excuse to partipate along with them, if only to listen to their concerns and dialogue. It gave a bit of hope.

But Where Are the Catholics and Jews?

There was one Catholic at the luncheon and I apologize for forgetting her name – I am very forgetful of such things these days – but she represented herself as being the local leader of the Sisters of Loretto, the order to which a number of my close friends belong. There didn’t appear to be any others, virtually no one that I could tell from what might be called main-stream Catholic circles.

Very few Jews, hardly any.

But there was a man named Goldberg. As a general rule, it’s safe to say that a Goldberg is rarely a hindu or sufi so I presume he is probably Jewish and ask his apology if instead he turns out to be some kind of wahhabist. He asked what I thought was a very decent question – about how people of different faiths might cooperate on dealing with global issues that threaten humanity – war, the environment, poverty -etc and I thought the answer that he got from Nihad Awad was disappointing. Don’t know if Goldberg is attached to some larger entity. There was another friend, who will remain nameless for the moment, and, yours truly, and it is very questionable what I represent outside of myself (although painful as it might be to some, there’s no denying that I’m Jewish).

But the mainstream and more obvious leaders of the Jewish Community as well as those ideologically tethered to them were absent. Although a few had gotten involved at the outset a few years ago, there was not a rabbi in the room. Gail Kahn, organizer for the American Jewish Committee, had worked with the Abrahamic Initiative for a while but has, I am told, given a resignation in writing. I have my own understanding as to why mainstream Denver Jews are essentially shunning the Abrahamic Initiative (that I won’t go into here, at least not yet), but I think that they are making a mistake to stay away. I don’t need to lecture them on why they should be a part of it. The essence of it is of course, that they tend to hear things that make them feel uncomfortable, especially about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that and the fact that there are limits to how and where they can steer the initiative. They would be better off participating, for most of these people have long been in dialogue with Jews and frankly, want to remain so. There reaches a point – and we are there – where one can no longer manage or control the dialogue and subject matter. In any case, the rabbis and the AJC and ADL will do what they will. I hope other, independent Jewish voices, religious and secular, consider joining in.

Nihad Awad and the Council on American Islamic Relations

The invitation extended to Nihad Awad to speak to the Abrahamic Initiative `caused some concerns’ because some of the Initiative’s members didn’t know how he was and what he would say. In the end, the invitation was extended. I attended not so much because of the controversy but because of the subject matter: islamophobia. The country had just come off of a week of activities organized by the David Horowitz Freedom Center `Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week’, or as I like to call it, Horowitz’s Jihad. Horowitz (what can one say anymore about him that has not already been said – an intellectual hatchet man of the extreme right) claims it was a great success with a stable of famous speakers of impeccable credentials fanning out throughout the country. Ann Coulter, James Woolsey (former CIA director, one of the key instigators of the Iraq War), Frank Gaffney (neo-con extraordinaire for decades), Rick Santorum (right wing Republican from Pennsylvania) were all spewing their bigotry throughout the nation. Theirs was, as a college student commented `thinly veiled attempts to demonize and brand a whole community’, actually a whole religion.

But if the United States intends to bomb Iran, including perhaps with nuclear weapons, it is nothing short of `tradition’ to vilify the enemy beforehand, to make the hitler comparison as a prelude to going to war. Indeed, Horowitz, aware of the fact that the nazi-hitler label is not playing so well in Middle America these days, even takes it a step further. In an interview with NPR (why did they give him the time of day? and such respect?) claims that today’s `islamo-fascists’ are `a greater threat than the Nazis, communism or the Civil War’ – the jerk. There were hundreds of events planned, mostly on college campuses with a special emphasis – Horowitz’ little touch no doubt – of targeting Women’s Studies programs for their lack of interest in Horowitz’s jihad. Despite Horowitz’s claims to the contrary, `Islamo-Fascism’ Week (October 22-27) appears to have transpired without making much of a dent here in Colorado. I’m trying to gather information about events that might have taken place on the Front Range, to date I am not aware of any. If any readers are aware of such events I’d appreciate being contacted. (robertjprince@comcast.net)

I was quite interested in what Nihad Awad had to say about all this.

In the end, it really wasn’t much. He hardly talked about Islamophobia other than to make a passing reference to `Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week’ and to, very meekly I might add, call on the Bush Administration not to bomb Iran. He seemed almost embarrassed to talk about either subject in much detail and went on to give a kind of `first generation immmigrant monologue’ about how great and diverse is America which made someone sitting next to me inquire as to what country he was talking about. Awad missed an opportunity to analyze the sources of the current anti-Islamic sentiment in the country which is one of the more virulent forms of racism in the USA today. Nor did he reveal much about either its different manifestations (yes there were a few comments about the portrayal of Moslems in Hollywood, but fleeting comments, hardly developed). Finally he told us nothing about what can be done to counter this explosion of bile and bigotry. Sorry. Wish I could be more positive.

For all that, although I won’t be much of a part of it, I hope that the Abrahamic Initiative can `keep it together’ and continue with the work it is doing to facilitate interfaith dialogue. It remains one of the more honest and vibrant interfaith processes in the region and I believe that good things can and will come of it. And if they find a theological space for those of us of a more secular persuasion, who knows, it could be even more interesting still.

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