“The problem is two-fold; anti-Semitism is declared to be a thing of the past, while Islamophobia is not even acknowledged as a thing that exists.”

This poignant reflection came from one of the participants of the 2017 Muslim Jewish Conference, a week long event I attended earlier this month in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The non-profit organisation works on creating dialogue between Muslims and Jews of every denomination across the world, from Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia to Brazil and the US.

The annual event was packed with workshops, seminars and intense conversations, with around 100 people from 40 different countries, Muslims and Jews, rooming together at night, debating during the day and discussing differences and commonalities from evenings to early mornings.

“People are so excited and surprised to see Muslim and Jews exchanging and working together, but that is bad. Why should it be so strange for us to sit together?”

So said Senaid Koblica, one of the speakers during the week and an imam in the Muslim community of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Norway, summarising why the conference was so needed.

The other

The aim was to engage with the other – many of the participants had never had meaningful exchanges with people from the other faith – and to be able to challenge our own and others’ ideas and assumptions in a safe, neutral space.

One of the activities was asking blunt, sometimes intrusive, questions anonymously to members of the other faith.

Wall of anonymous questions at the “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism committee.

Calling a hater ‘a hater’

The “Combatting Islamophobia and anti-Semitism” committee that ran throughout the week ranged from understanding why people ‘hate, the science behind the emotion, the role of the media in perpetuating harmful stereotypes and ways to tackle such hatred and stereotyping.

One recurring theme was confronting hate and dealing with racist behaviour. We learnt that during conflict – defined as a disagreement with a subjective emotional element – reason becomes irrelevant.

Addressing emotions rather than intellect is much more likely to be effective, as the other person is not operating under a rational context. Rather, the ‘reptilian brain’ is in control, reacting to the perceived threat, regardless of whether that threat is real of fantasised.

In this scenario, acknowledging the other person’s feelings allows progress, while dismissing irrational arguments and using logic rarely works.

The sheer number of nationalities of the participants meant the spectrum of antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred observed all over the world was wide and varied. As a result, brainstorming ways to combat hate and discrimination covered many different extremes.

Some of the problems identified were the use of religion for political purposes, a lack of accountability for those propagating antisemitic or Islamophobic sentiments, and national legislation introduced in countries like France that curtail the practice of religion in public spaces, which can lead to community tensions.

Some of the solutions brainstormed to tackled hate and discrimination.

Assumptions

Intercultural and interfaith communication was identified as an important target to combatting hate, as there is (still) relatively little dialogue between the two communities.

Tackling antisemitism and Islamophobia within the Muslim and Jewish communities was also discussed.

Vladimir Andrle, a member of the Jewish community in Sarajevo, said:

“We have to have the courage to tackle discrimination stemming from our own community. We may be victims of prejudice but we also contribute to it when we don’t talk against it with courage.”

Getting more interfaith dialogue between the communities often involves removing negative assumptions made about the other, too. Throughout the week, we also discussed how ignorance could lead to assumptions, which could lead to fear and then hate.

The rise of fake news and Facebook news have created echo chambers for like-minded individuals. Diversifying the media and the news sources was one of the most important solutions put forward.

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