by Will James
On Thursday, September 14, Americans for Informed Democracy, a non-partisan activist group, hosted “Hope not Hate,” a forum on the future of U.S.-Muslim world relations. A large part of the forum was dominated by discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and American foreign policy.
The event took place in the SAC auditorium at 8:00 P.M. Three panelists gave short introductory speeches, and then answered questions from the audience. The panel featured Rabbi Joseph Topek, the Director and Jewish Chaplain of Stony Brook Hillel; Markus Dressler, an assistant professor of religious studies at Hofstra University; and Ghazi Khankan, the former Executive Director of Council of American-Islamic Relations in NY, and a current Senior Advisor.
The event was designed by Kiran Siddiqi, the President of the AIDemocracy chapter at Stony Brook, and Radeyah Hack, the Vice-President, and the regional Director for AIDemocracy in New York. According to Siddiqi, AIDemocracy, “seeks to create a new generation of globally conscious leaders.”
Rabbi Topek kicked off the forum, speaking in length on America’s domestic security progress since the attacks on September 11th, 2001, eventually concluding, “Not a lot has been learned by the 9/11 commission.” On U.S. foreign policy, Rabbi Topek said, “I don’t support President Bush’s notion that we can liberate a country, and force it into democracy for its own good.”
At one point, Topek said, “Most Americans do not understand Islam or the Muslim world.” Later, he said, “I see American Muslims struggling with the same issues that Jews did 50 or 100 years ago.” “We thought he would be able to articulate the Jewish-American point of view,” said Hack, of the Rabbi.
Dressler was chosen to provide an objective, academic point of view, according to Hack. According to Dressler, religion is a topic that largely obscures the various ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, citing other motivations as the roots of violence. This is a point that all three panelists essentially agreed on.
At the end of the forum, Rabbi Topek said, “I’m in complete agreement with the other two panelists’ assessment of the Middle-East conflict, that it’s not about religion, the Israel-Arab conflict. It’s not a war between Judaism and Islam. It’s about land, it’s about power, it’s about politics, it’s about a lot of things.”
The ability of the panelists to remain civil in their disagreement was in jeopardy at certain points.
During his introductory speech, Khankan, a Muslim Imam, said that Jerusalem is three times as important to Muslims as it is to Jews and Christians. He continued to say, “We’ll not accept it to be occupied, militarily.” He proceeded to read a poem, inspired by Martin Luther King’s philosophy, about the three Abrahamic religions existing together in peace.
Khankan blamed the American education system and media for misconceptions of Muslims, and called for more focus on the positives of Muslim civilization. He said, “The present situation is based on the ignorance of the past, concerning the Muslim world.” At one point, he told the history of the Arabic numeral, as an example of Islam’s contribution to society. During the question-and-answer segment, Khankan said that the Jews who colonized Israel were terrorists. He continued to say, “There is nothing Islamic about terrorism. There is nothing Jewish about terrorism. There is nothing Christian about terrorism.”
He also said, “U.S. foreign policy has made things worse by supporting the Israelis.” There was one moment of tension between Khankan and Rabbi Topek, over their views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sparked by a question from the audience. However, the situation diffused itself after a moment.
“Hope not Hate” ended after about an hour and a half, when Dressler had to leave to catch a plane. Debates between the audience members, however, continued outside the SAC auditorium after the event closed down. “At least we inspired dialog,” said Hack, later in the week. “I think it’s great that we had an Imam and a Rabbi sitting down together,” she said.
According to Hack, Stony Brook’s AIDemocracy chapter has a packed calendar, this semester. On September 28, they’re planning a seminar about international trade system reform. On October 16, they’re hosting an event about the spread of deadly weapons. Future events include a forum about America’s relationship with the U.N., and a seminar on World AIDS day. Later in the year, AIDemocracy will be working with “One Voice,” a non-profit organization that is designed to inspire dialog between Israel and Palestine.