Searching for Religious Common Ground

Searching for Religious Common Ground

As conflict intensifies throughout the Middle East and around the world, it's more important than ever to foster greater understanding between religions.

"Religion today is the biggest NGO in the world, is the most influential NGO in the world. Religion, for most people in our world today, it decides people's identity, people's narrative, people's story. Therefore, religion has a very, very crucial role to play either a positive crucial role or a negative crucial role." -Rabbi Michael Melchior 

Europe's refugee crisis and globalization more generally has lead us to an increasingly pluralistic society in which we must learn to live with our deepest differences, or face severe consequences. 

In this hour-long program, we explore how organizations and individuals are working to build bridges between religions, often in the most conflict-ridden places in the world. 

We travel to Amsterdam, where Jewish and Muslim community leaders are using their friendship to bridge the ever-widening divide between their two communities. And in Cordoba, Spain, we visit a cathedral built inside a mosque, where Catholics and Muslims are in the midst of a fierce debate over how and whether different religions can coexist in a shared sacred space.

Featured guests include:

Two Friends Find Common Ground in a Divided Holland

Rabbi Lody van de Kamp, a bearded, bespectacled, yarmulka-wearing rabbi, is a 66-year-old retired director of an orthodox Jewish school in Amsterdam. He's pretty well-known in the small Jewish community here. Back in 2010, Rabbi van de Kamp's students told him that Muslim youths were hurling racist epithets at them. And that it was happening all over the city.

The rabbi is what you’d call “visibly Jewish,” so, together with a couple of his students and a film crew from the local Jewish broadcaster, he walked through Amsterdam’s Muslim-majority neighborhoods to collect footage. At one point, the group walked past a group of teenagers. One of the boys stood up, thrust his arm into the air, and gave Rabbi van de Kamp a Hitler salute.

The interaction was broadcast on Dutch National Television the next day, and for a few days after, this incident dominated the larger discussion of the integration of Muslims into Dutch society. One Dutch Moroccan activist saw the program and later facilitated a meeting between Rabbi van de Kamp and the boy who gave him the Hitler salute. They talked and became friends.

But since then, attacks by Muslim extremists on Jews and Jewish institutions have become common in Europe, such as the 2014 attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels and the shooting in the kosher supermarket in Paris early this year. Similar incidents were happening on a smaller scale in Holland too.

Some Muslims have tried to address the problem, like Fatima Elatik, former city Alderman for Amsterdam East for the center-left Labor Party. Her colorful headscarves and red lipstick are as recognizable throughout the city as her outspoken views on tolerance.

“The Jewish community is a very small community in our society and when I hear Jewish people say, ‘I want to leave. I don’t feel safe,’ that hurts me,” she says.

When conflict breaks out between the two communities, Elatik makes it a point to call her Jewish friends — among them, Rabbi Lody van de Kamp. She recalls calling him after the supermarket attack in Paris: “I told him, I’m ashamed… Because someone is abusing my religion that gives me so much inspiration, to hurt people like you who are my friends.”

She says this gesture is one step towards changing the society they live in. And it’s the core of the mission of Salaam Shalom, an organization she founded with Rabbi van de Kamp. Salaam Shalom, which means peace in Arabic and Hebrew, has one simple but ambitious goal: to keep the conflict between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East from spilling over to Amsterdam.

It's not the first organization of its kind in the Netherlands. After Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a self-described jihadist in 2004, Amsterdam’s mayor at the time called together leaders of the Muslim and Jewish communities, including Rabbi van de Kamp and Fatima Elatik, to form a group to discuss the tensions between Jews and Muslims.

But the group was widely criticized as a tea-drinking, subsidized, talking shop, even by its own members. After ten years, it had made little progress, often getting caught up in city politics and bureaucracy. To no one’s surprise, it was disbanded last year by the current mayor. But Elatik and van de Kamp were undeterred. They still saw a real need for a place to continue this conversation.

“We thought, well, we don’t need organizations to stay in touch with each other. We don’t need organizations to support each other. We don’t need formal platforms to be able to do something in our society. All we need is our friendship,” Elatik says.

Last March, Salaam Shalom hosted Muslim and Jewish delegations from Paris, Brussels, London, and Oslo for a European Day of Solidarity, in response to the attacks in Paris. Around the same time, they held a solidarity walk where men wearing yarmulkes, women in head scarves, and bearded older men in hooded Moroccan djellabas, all mingled together. The group walked through the city to various Jewish and Muslim locations, where each person left a flower. The march ended at the Al Kibir Mosque where the packed crowd listened to speeches from a Rabbi and Imam standing side by side. There was even a young Muslim boy rapping about tolerance.

As warm and well-meaning as this march was, it’s been a far cry from reality.

Anti-semitic attacks in the Netherlands have doubled since last year, according to a publication of the Dutch/Jewish organization The Centre for Information and Documentation Israel (CIDI). Not only have there been more incidents, but they’ve also been more public. CIDI researcher Guy Muller says this rise closely correlates with events in the Middle East, like Israel’s military operations in Gaza last year.

“We can conclude that anti-Semitic incidents become harsher, heavier — people telling Jews [they] should be gassed or should be re-gassed or Hitler was right or Hitler did not kill enough Jews or Hitler didn’t kill all the Jews so he could show them why he did kill the Jews,” Muller says.

Rabbi Lody van de Kamp is seeing the effects in his classroom as well.

“I was once teaching a class of five girls, orthodox girls, and we came to talk about different religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. So one girl, suddenly out of the blue, said, ‘You know… all Muslims hate us.’  I asked them, ‘Where do you know this from? Do you know Muslims?’ [They said,] ‘My mother says so. My parents say so,’” he says. “We are very biased as a Jewish community against Muslims. The same way the Muslim community is very biased against Jews. And then you feel there's a lot of work to do.”

Work that the government is not making any easier.

The PVV, or The Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, is arguably Europe’s most effective extreme right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim political party. The PVV’s popularity has forced most mainstream Dutch political parties, and society as a whole, to shift to the right.

That has meant that Fatima Elatik and Rabbi van de Kamp’s high profile cooperation has come at a price. The Salaam Shalom Facebook page was recently shut down due to anonymous complaints of discrimination, although it’s back up again for the moment. And Elatik and van de Kamp have each felt pressure from within their own communities.

But they both say they intend to carry on, despite the personal threats and consequences. And they are more determined than ever to find people who think that finding common ground is more important than winning arguments or scoring points. They say an important part of their success is that sometimes, they must agree to disagree.

“Fatima can go on Sunday to a pro-Palestine demonstration. I can go to a pro-Israel demonstration, if I want to go. And on Tuesday we sit together to carry on again,” van de Kamp says

The pair’s relationship will no doubt be tested in the coming months. Thousands of Muslim migrants are crossing the Netherlands' borders, and the anti-Muslim Freedom party is currently projected to win the next election. So van de Kamp and Elatik's commitment to dialog through friendship is likely to be more important than ever.

Reporter Jonathan Groubert is an award-winning journalist and former host of the internationally lauded public radio show “The State We’re In” first from Radio Netherlands and then as a podcast for WBEZ Chicago Public Media.  Jonathan teaches journalism, storytelling and podcasting for RNTC and His work has been broadcast by the BBC, NPR, the Australia Broadcasting Corporation and Deutsche Welle as well as the podcasts Vox Tablet and Snap Judgment. 

Can Two Religions Coexist in One Space?

In the 8th century, the Moors invaded Spain and crowned their conquest with the Mosque of Cordoba. They then ruled Spain for 500 years until they were defeated by the Christians. But rather than tearing down the mosque – as was normal practice – the Catholic Church built a cathedral inside of it.

Today the Catholic Church calls the site “the Cathedral of Cordoba” in official literature. But it still stands as the most important Islamic heritage site in the western world. It’s also a major tourist destination and the center of tense debate in which the church has been accused of downplaying the role of Islam at the site, and Muslims are working to maintain their cultural, if not religious, legacy there.

A Muslim tourist named Ashrif took time off from his job as a pediatrician in England, packed his prayer mat, and flew to Cordoba with his family to visit the site. He’s dreamed of coming here since he was nine-years old and living in Syria. But when he approaches the Mosque Cathedral with his prayer mat, he’s told he’s not allowed to pray. Anyone that looks Middle Eastern is stopped and reminded they’re entering a cathedral, not a mosque.

“There is so much nostalgia vibrating in this place… It’s not only [a] main part of Islamic history, it’s a main part of Arabic culture as well,” Ashrif says. “There is a space for everyone there, so I think that Muslim visitors should be able to pray if they wish.”

He’s disappointed that he’s been turned away, but he’s not confrontational about it. Instead, he wanders through the courtyard with his family to line up for audio guides. They file into a space big enough for 40,000 people. Pink, gray, and white marble columns hold up Moorish horseshoe-shaped arches striped like candy canes. The arches surround a chapel in the center of the building. Tiny details cover every square inch, reaching up the walls beyond where the eye can see. There are Cuban mahogany sculptures, gold inlay, bronze vines, and angels cloaked in granite.

The site’s Islamic and Christian artistry suggests inter-religious harmony for the hundreds of tourists speaking different languages as they wander through the building’s nooks and archways. But beyond these walls, Spanish Catholics and Muslims have had a strained relationship for centuries, and in recent years that hostility has escalated.

In 2004, Islamic extremists killed almost 200 people in a train bombing in Madrid. And this year, a gunman linked to ISIS killed 38 people in a Spanish hotel in Tunisia. There’s evidence of widespread discrimination against Christians in the Muslim world as well. In a recent TV interview, the Cordoba Bishop Demetrio Fernandez expressed concern about the Muslims’ motives for the site.

“Islam as a religion doesn’t allow Muslims to pray together with Catholics anywhere in the world. So when Muslims ask to join the Catholics at the Mosque Cathedral, they’re actually ordering the Catholics to leave,” said Fernandez.

Catholic University professor and inter-religious dialog expert Pim Valkenberg says the idea of Muslims and Catholics sharing the Mosque Cathedral, much less praying together, is next to impossible in the current climate.

“Both the Catholics and the Muslims argue on historical grounds that it has been a sacred space for them for a long time,” he says. “I don't think that it will be wise to start a possible dialog or a possible encounter between the two with these historical questions right away, because first, you need to build trust.”

Some Catholics and Muslims in Cordoba are working to do just that. Local high-school science teacher Miguel Santiago grew up just blocks from the Mosque Cathedral. A gold cross hangs from his neck, but despite his religious beliefs, he doesn’t support the Catholic Church’s exclusive policies.

“In an architectural space that is a mix of different arts and cultures, what better way, in a world full of conflict, to show the world that we can all live together,” he says. “These stones are a mirror of the reality of humankind.”

Muslim leader Isabel Romero is the director of Together Islam, an organization that represents Muslims in Spain. She respects that the owner of the building is the Catholic Church, and she won’t insist that Muslims be allowed to pray there, but she says there needs to be more tolerance and a better understanding of Muslims’ role in the building’s history.

So far the Cordoba Diocese has refused to meet with Romero, but that doesn’t mean the fate of the Mosque Cathedral is sealed.

Throughout the building are faded inscriptions of the word “Allah.” Catholics kept these inscriptions, saying that it doesn’t matter what word you choose to say God. “Allah” refers to the same God for both religions.

The mixed religious influences throughout the Mosque Cathedral show collaboration, a shared history that many hope might one day be able to unify Muslims and Catholics in this shared space. But that isn’t likely to happen soon unless the stakeholders are willing to dial down the heat. 

Reporter Katie Manning launched her career as a multimedia journalist, landing in Santiago, Chile. She reported for a Chilean newspaper called Mi Voz and freelanced for three years, covering stories about poverty, indigenous rights, environmental controversy, and politics. Katie then returned home to set up shop in Charlottesville, Va. Now she travels for stories as far as her Spanish language skills can take her. She contributes to PRI, BBC, Duetsche Welle and NPR. Her favorite stories are about heroes, the fighting underdog and human rights. She holds her master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University and a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Virginia.

Supported By: 
El-Hibri Foundation