Delivered 25 March 2015. Posted 10 May 2015.
Speakers for Schools is a charity for which I have been doing speaking engagements since January 2015. While most of the talks so far have been about lessons from my personal journey and career, Hazel Grove High School asked me to talk to their sixth form about the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester.
That talk is reproduced below, as it summarises many of my views on how community cohesion is improved in practice.
Good afternoon. When I hear an introduction like that, [the teacher had read out a summary of my life and career] I always wonder: “Is that really me he is talking about?”
I’m going to talk for about 15 to 20 minutes and spend the rest of our time on questions and answers. I want to cover the following six things:
At my secondary school, I was exempt from the religious part of the school assembly because I was a Muslim. The other group of boys who were exempt were of course Jewish, so I got to know some of them just from chatting while we were in another room missing the assembly.
My time at university also gave me an early introduction to kosher food restrictions. It was relatively easy for me to manage the halal food requirements while eating dinners and lunches at Clare College. You just don’t eat the meat!I had a Jewish friend, and catering was more challenging for him. I have never forgotten watching him frying “Nuttolene” which as the name suggests was a meat substitute made from nuts. You can still buy it 40 years later!
I have always been interested in other religions as well as Islam. At university, I read the Bible from cover to cover. Has anyone here tried doing that? Regardless of your religious beliefs I recommend doing it. No book has had a greater impact upon humanity than the Bible.
Has anyone seen an old film, from 1954, starring Humphrey Bogart, called "The Caine Mutiny" It’s based on a book by Herman Wouk who is a devout Jew. At university I also another book he wrote, called "This Is My God". It gave me a fascinating introduction to Judaism. It was so good that when one of our tax managers was leaving Price Waterhouse, I bought her a copy as a leaving present, because she was going out with a guy who was Jewish.
When you study Christianity, Islam and Judaism you realise very quickly that Islam and Judaism are much closer to each other, than either is to Christianity. There is a document on my website which explains it in detail. “Triangulating the Abrahamic Faiths.” You can find it via my home page. I won’t go into the details now, but if you want we can discuss it during the questions.
In 1994, for the first time I attended a Passover meal. That was in New York State, at the home of an American client who was Jewish. I was in the USA on business at the time.
However having lived in Manchester for over 50 years, by my mid 50’s I had never set foot inside a synagogue. I knew Jewish professionally, such as my American client, and as colleagues at work. However I didn’t know any Jews socially.
In 2004 I received an invitation from Manchester Town Hall. It came from the Deputy Lord Mayor, Councillor Afzal Khan. I wasn’t surprised by the Deputy Lord Mayor writing to me. Afzal Khan was a friend of mine. The invitation was co-hosted by a Jewish chap, Henry Guterman MBE, sadly since deceased. Henry was a former President of the Jewish Representative Council of Greater Manchester and Region. He had come to Manchester as a child as a refugee from Nazi Germany after Kristallnacht.
The invitation was to listen to two individuals from London. Rabbi Herschel Gluck and Ismail Amaan. They talked about their Muslim Jewish dialogue group in North London. Rabbi Gluck explained that he had realised he had no contact with Muslims in his area. He took direct action by going to the nearest mosque and ringing the doorbell!
A few months later there was another public meeting. This was to discuss whether we should set up a similar forum in Manchester. I was one of the people who volunteered to help set it up. I ended up writing the constitution along with a Jewish barrister, David Berkley QC.
Many people think that Muslims and Jews always fight. On Tuesday evening I was sitting next to an MP at a black tie dinner. He thought Muslims and Jews had been fighting for the last 1400 years. That is actually completely wrong.
There was some fighting between Muslims and Jews in the earliest days of Islam. Then there was 1400 years of no conflict. The reason is very simple. Muslims vastly outnumbered Jews in North Africa and the Middle East, so the region was always governed by Muslims until modern times.
We only started seeing conflict between Muslims and Jews in the early part of the 20’th century with the rise of Zionism and large numbers of Jews moving to Palestine. Since then, there have been many wars and smaller conflicts between Israel and its neighbours.
When planning the forum we realised something. If we discussed the Middle East, we would never talk about anything else. The Middle East subject would take over everything else. The Middle East is of course also immensely divisive between Muslims and Jews. We knew that sitting in Manchester neither the Muslim nor the Jewish communities could change what happened in the Middle East. Accordingly we wrote the objects of the Muslim Jewish Forum very carefully.
Let me read out the key clause from our memorandum of association. That is clause 3.
3. The objects for which the Forum is established are to develop the cultural and social ties between the Muslim and Jewish Communities of Greater Manchester; to educate members of the Muslim and Jewish Communities in relation to their shared values and common Abrahamic tradition, heritage, history and culture; and to promote better understanding within the wider community of the interests and values that are common to the Muslim and Jewish Communities.
This objects clause is entirely local. The Middle East is out of scope.
Obviously all of the detailed rules of the Forum require equality. We have equal numbers of Muslims and Jews on the executive committee. We have two co-chairs, one Muslim, one Jewish.
When we started, I was worried that the Forum’s membership might be dominated by Muslims. There are about 10 times as many Muslims in Greater Manchester as there are Jews. Our experience was the opposite. There were far more Jews interested in the Forum than Muslims, especially in the early days. I think there are several reasons.
Having started off with fewer Muslims, international events made it worse. In the summer of 2006 there was a war in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah. Muslim participation in the Forum went down. The same thing happened in 2009 after the Gaza conflict that January. However in both cases we simply kept going. Muslim attendance grew back up.
We now have roughly equal attendance at many of our events. The Gaza war in 2014 did not have the same dramatic impact upon us as the earlier wars I have mentioned.
Our website has a list of all of our past events. The URL is www.muslimjewish.org.uk You don’t need to remember it. If you Google the two words Muslim Jewish, there are over 66 million results. We are always in the first 10. I’m very proud of that since I built and run the website.
Just counting backwards, let me list the last five items listed.
Our website is a way of spreading our message. Also, after each significant event we issue a press release. These are normally used for stories by the Jewish and Asian press. Doing that helps to spread the message that Muslims and Jews are doing things together in Greater Manchester.
As well as the Forum’s events, other things have happened because the Forum brought people together. David Berkley QC who I mentioned earlier, and I, have given talks to all kinds of audiences. Our subjects have included Muslim Jewish dialogue itself, our different attitudes to conversion and what Jerusalem means to Muslims and Jews.
On Jerusalem, instead of each of us standing there saying “My claim to Jerusalem is better than yours”, we took a different approach. I spoke about the Jewish connection with Jerusalem. David Berkley spoke about what Jerusalem means to Muslims.
Six of us, three Muslims and three Jews, visited Krakow and Auschwitz together. Afterwards I wrote a blog about the visit and also an article for the Jewish Chronicle. You can find both of these on my personal website.
Most of the same group have taken other holidays together. We have been to Granada, Marrakesh and Dubrovnik. In March 2014 a much larger group visited our sister organisation in Paris. Some of us originally brought together by the Forum, along with others, visited Israel and Palestine.
Let me summarise how we have made a difference in the last 10 years.
A couple of years ago The Manchester Islamic High School for Girls and King David’s School in Manchester entered into a formal twinning arrangement. As far as I am concerned, that is one of our big successes. I say that despite the Forum having zero direct involvement in the twinning. What we did was make things like that seem normal. We changed the atmosphere in Greater Manchester.
The original goal was instrumental. Muslims and Jews care about many of the same things. Three examples are religious slaughter, circumcision and non-invasive postmortems. We can lobby far more effectively if we do so together rather than separately. Our religious slaughter petition is a good example.
However, almost as soon as we got started, I realised there was more to it. It was not just about two communities trying to achieve common objectives. It was people getting to know each other as people. Through the Forum I have been to places I might never have gone to. I have made friends I would never have had. Also, I know that we are making a difference. That means I am making a difference.
That’s enough talking. Let’s go over to the questions.