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Issue Date:  March 7, 2008

A lesson from Egypt

A U.S. rabbi meets members of the Muslim Brotherhood


I returned from a State Department-sponsored trip to Egypt six weeks ago, having developed more acquaintances in both the security services and the Muslim Brotherhood than I ever imagined I would. And the lessons of that trip are very much related to the political/religious issues that occupy everyone from our sitting president who is looking for a legacy in that region, to the candidates who seek his office, to so many of us who will make the choice about who that should be.

The combination of faith and politics, of political and religious identity is more powerful right now than perhaps at any time since the Crusades. Unless we find better ways in which to think about this new/old reality soon I fear that all of us will suffer, regardless of whatever side of whichever divide we find ourselves on. None of us is well served when the dominant thinking is either militantly secular or defensive about the decency and goodness of religion.

My recent trip to Egypt, itself a country deep in the throes of a religious revival, provided many opportunities to reflect on the challenges of the increasing role of religion in national politics, and while Egypt is not America, this American brought back lessons that might help all of us here at home. None of those lessons was more powerful than that learned in the family home of a young Islamist journalist and political activist, whose name I will not use out of concern for his safety.

Raised in a medium-sized village about 90 minutes out of Cairo, far from the typical tourist stops of the pyramids, the Khan el-Khalili market and the National Museum, he wanted me (the only rabbi in the group) and the Muslim and Christian community leaders with whom I traveled to meet his parents to better understand why he works so hard to turn Egypt into an Islamic republic. Not exactly sure how I would be welcomed into their home, I got into the white van that was waiting for our little delegation in front of the Nile Hilton, followed by members of the security services, who were none too comfortable about our trip.

Greeting me at the door, the journalist’s father embraced me warmly, fully aware that I was the “Jewish rabbi” (is there any other kind?) his son had told him about. Taking my hand, he led me and the rest of the group into the cluster of cement rooms that made up his very modest home. With my hand still in his, he brought me into their living room, which was free of any furnishings other than a large rug and the floor cushions on which we were invited to sit.

As the rest of the group filed in, I looked up to see the only decoration in the room -- a single poster that was pasted to the wall directly across from me. On it were the faces of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, the now deceased leaders of Hamas, an organization that has orchestrated the murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocents in their pursuit not only of an independent Palestinian state but the destruction of the state of Israel.

There they were, staring down over an image of the golden dome capping Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock -- the place where two Jewish temples once stood and from which Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven -- placed over a caption in Arabic. Seated to my left, a Sudanese-American imam for whom I have the greatest respect noticed my gaze and casually asked if I knew who those men were.

I explained that I knew all too well, knowing people who were their victims. He asked if I would like to leave, offering to walk out with me if that would make it easier. I told him no, but that I needed him to translate the Arabic caption. While I can sit down with almost anybody, including those whose actions I detest and whose views I oppose, for our conversation to have any integrity or purpose we must not hide or sugarcoat our real intentions.

The caption read, “Take heart Jerusalem, the night of your torture is ending, the dawn is breaking, your redemption is near.” I swallowed hard. Again, the imam asked if I wanted to step out. I told him that to the contrary, this is why I came to Egypt. And over the next two hours, I had the most honest and direct conversation of the entire trip with a group of men whose political-religious vision is about as different from my own as one can imagine.

It was also the place in which my religious needs as a traditional Jew and my personal comfort were of greatest concern to my hosts. I was an honored guest, despite having views that were as problematic for some of them as theirs were for me. By holding together both the truth of my pain sitting in front of that poster and the warmth of my welcome in that room, I was able to participate in an unprecedented conversation. And it is by holding together the insights of opposing parties or perspectives that we can fashion a new conversation about faith and politics in this country.

We must all make room for the insight and the goodness that are found among even those with whom we most deeply disagree. We must create a culture in which the wisdom of one point of view is not demonstrated by denigrating the views of others. When that happens, the public square, both nationally and globally, will be big enough to include the most piously religious and the most militantly atheist.

Whether in Egypt or here at home, the ideology we value most, religious, secular, conservative or liberal, must be in constant conversation with the ideas we most oppose, and when that conversation yields ongoing learning on both sides, both our beliefs and our nation will be healthier and stronger.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of the recently published book You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism and president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2008

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