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Israeli Initiative Seeks Dialogue with Europe’s Moderate Muslims

August 8, 2005
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As Europe begins to wake up to the dangers of home-grown radical Islam, Israel is reaching out toward the other face of Islam — the moderates. Israel’s Foreign Ministry recently launched a project designed to build bridges to what Israel considers the "silent majority" of European Muslims.

"Most of those communities are not Arabic, and therefore are less influenced by events in the Middle East," Ambassador Reda Mansour, head of the Islam in Europe project told JTA. The majority of European Muslims are believed to be from North Africa or Turkey.

The Foreign Ministry doesn’t harbor hopes of returning to the supposed Golden Age of Jewish-Muslim relations in Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries. But it does feel that out of an estimated 20 million Muslims living in the countries of the European Union, most are more interested in making a decent living and raising their children than in carrying out terrorist attacks.

"Our main purpose is to reduce anti-Semitism and terrorism by reaching out for the silent majority," Mansour said. This could be done by encouraging European Jewish communities to initiate dialogues with their Muslim neighbors, he explained.

Not that they can’t do it on their own. In Holland, for example, CIDI — the Israel Information and Documentation Center — has been working on a project to help the Jewish and Muslim communities learn more about each other.

Still, Mansour stressed the symbolic significance of an official Israeli statement blessing such efforts.

"Many Jewish communities still look up to Israel on such delicate issues," he said.

The project was partly inspired by "The Crush Within Islam," a new book by Emmanuel Sivan, one of Israel’s foremost historians of Islam.

The book argues that the internal debate within Islam is just as dramatic as the ideological debate between Islam and the West posited in Samuel Huntington’s "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order."

Sivan argues that Huntington and his followers were misled by radical Islamists into believing that their ideology was the only true Islam. Illuminating the many schools of present-day Islam, Sivan believes that relations between Islam and the West are more complex.

The Middle East Media Research Institute, which specializes in translating documents published in the Arab world, has recently cited a number of contemporary Islamic thinkers who have spoken out against radical Islam.

One Arabic writer published a story about relations between Jews and Arabs that condemns the practice of blood libels in the Arab world. The journalist Munir Al-Mauri of Yemen wrote an article justifying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state because the Arabs have "22 religious countries."

Rahman Abdul Rashid, head of Al-Arabiya, an Arab satellite-television network, wrote an article urging Britain to detain and deport radical preachers who misuse freedom of speech.

Retired Brig. Gen. Yigal Carmon, head of MEMRI, told Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper that "the reformist trend cannot be stopped. This is going to be the tsunami of the Arab world."

But Uri Kupferschmidt of Haifa University, an expert on European Islamists, does not share his optimism.

"The scene is too complicated. You just cannot identify all the various elements of European Islam, and it’s difficult to determine the real power and influence of the various camps."

Kupferschmidt doesn’t think Israel should have launched the "Muslims in Europe" project.

"I believe we Israelis should keep a low profile. Let the work be done through the local Jewish communities," he said.

Some leaders of the Islamic Movement in Israel, eager to improve their own public image, rushed to embrace the new initiative.

"Yes, I think it is feasible that Israel could establish contacts with moderate Islamic elements," Sheik Hashem Mahajneh, mayor of the Israeli Arab city of Umm el-Fahm and one of the leaders of the Islamic Movement, told JTA. "The majority of Muslims in the world have moderate views and favor such a dialogue. We, too, condemned the recent attacks in Britain."

So far, European Muslims have not reacted to the Israeli initiative. Mansour has not yet received any substantial feedback, but he noted that the project is only a month old.

The Foreign Ministry project is part of its diaspora and religions division.

"Now is an opportune moment to make an effort in this direction," said Nimrod Barkan, the ministry’s deputy director-general for Diaspora affairs. "The Muslim community in Europe is subject to heavy pressures ever since the terrorist attacks in Spain and recently in Britain, and this is why we believe that they will meet our initiative," he said.

Islamic radicals carried out massive bombings in Madrid in March 2004 and in London last month.

While Israeli embassies in Europe have been involved in a dialogue with Muslim communities for some time, until now their attention has been focused mainly on radical anti-Semitic elements in the Muslim community. Currently, they’re seeking out moderate voices as well — with the entire effort to be orchestrated by Mansour from Jerusalem.

"The novel element here is that we also want to find the silent voice — to give it a means of speaking out so that it will condemn terror, condemn anti-Semitism and connect with the local Jewish communities for the sake of joint civil actions," Mansour said.

The initiative will focus on countries with large Islamic communities, such as Britain, France, Holland, Belgium and Italy.

Of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s 1,000 employees, only seven are non-Jews. Mansour, 40, a Druse, is one of them. A resident of the Druse village Usfiya, on Mount Carmel, Mansour already has a rich career behind him.

He served as Israel’s ambassador to Ecuador. Prior to that, he was posted at the Israeli Embassy in Portugal and the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco. He speaks five languages, has published three books of Hebrew poetry, is a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and is at work on a doctoral dissertation about Syrian intellectuals in the 1980s.

Some Muslim observers feel that Israeli public relations would have gained more credibility if the official named to head the new initiative had been a mainstream Muslim.

"This is not the right person to do the job," Mahajneh said. "They should have appointed a Muslim, and not just any Muslim. This is not something for diplomatic small talk. They should have appointed a man of stature."

But Mahajneh, who represents a movement that often seems to seek confrontation with the Israeli establishment, said he would have rejected the job had it been offered to him, saying he is too busy.

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