Safya Khan-Ruf spent a week in Bosnia engaging in deep dialogue with Jews and Muslims drawn from across the globe.

There is something “unique” happening at the Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC), an annual gathering of young Muslims and Jews held in a different international location each year. You often hear this term – unique – bandied around events, so it is hard to explain my week in Sarajevo. Speaking to the founder of the MJC, Ilja Sichrovsky, I found it was a common problem.

How do you explain the sort of created atmosphere that allows brutally honest conversations between strangers from opposite ends of the globe and religion? Or the efforts made by the volunteer organisers in planning seven 18-hour days for 100 people? Or the close friendships built with people you hadn’t known a week ago?

As a journalist, conferences are comfortably predictable occurrences. Whether I’m covering science, policy or religion, they mostly blur together into half-remembered interesting conversations, very or not so very engaging speeches and copious amounts of mini-sandwiches.

I had no reason to expect anything different when I was accepted as one of the 100 participants of the 2017 Muslim Jewish Conference. I had done some basic research and knew the MJC was a non-profit organisation working on creating dialogue between Muslims and Jews from across the world.

Courtesy of Andreas Danzer

I came to the event in Bosnia and Herzegovina prepared to do what I usually do at an event. To slide into the background, get the right quotes and write about the interfaith initiative from a critical perspective – cutting through the jargon, the self-important announcements and extra fluff.

My scepticism rose on the first night as I heard alumni members of the conference use terms such as ‘life-changing’, ‘eye-opening’ and ‘life-lasting friendships’.  In my experience, the more dramatically a conference is described, the more overblown the claims.

Besides, I didn’t hold antisemitic views, so what impact was it supposed to have on me?

Learning and Experiencing

It turns out, quite a lot.

First, calling it a conference severely misinforms the reader about what this week-long experience entailed.

The MJC involves getting young professionals and students, most of them from Muslim and Jewish backgrounds, from over 40 different countries and of varying levels of faith into close quarters. The organisers then proceed to intellectually stimulate, physically exhaust and emotionally test the minds through engaging workshops, trips, seminars, and conversations.

Visit to mosque. Courtesy of Omar Zreika.

I had signed up to the “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism” committee, planning to write about whatever solutions could be found in a week. Discussing the hate and discrimination that exists and what to do about it with people from both another religion and from all over the world was fascinating. You can read about it here.

But somehow, despite assuming it would be the main source of knowledge at the conference, I gained so much more outside the committee rooms.

The country of Bosnia and Herzegovina itself is a reminder of what happens when you allow ethnic and religious divisions to be stoked. I may have known about the thousands of men and boys as young as 12 who were systematically murdered in 1995 while many of the women were raped and tortured by the Bosnian Serbs, but visiting Srebrenica made me realise the scope of the genocide in a way I couldn’t before.

Srebrenica. Courtesy of Dana Wegman

As we were shown the UN building – where thousands tried to escape the Bosnian Serbs in what they believed to be a UN safe area protected by Dutch peacekeepers – by a guide who himself was a 13-year-old boy at the UN gates during the genocide, the sheer recentness of the horror was anchored into our minds.

Cemeteries across Sarajevo are distinctive, both because of the striking white stones set on each grave, but also the multitude of them, tucked between streets and houses, part of their daily lives.

When we reached the cemetery in Srebrenica, the white stones reached beyond the horizon, some graves freshly dug. During the genocide, the Serbs dug mass graves and moved the bodies multiple times in an attempt to hide their crime. Every year, new victims are identified and join the cemetery. Here, Muslims and Jews prayed side by side in a poignant moment of shared sadness at the scope of human horror.

Srebrenica cemetery

Tackling conflict

I was intrigued by how the MJC would handle the always-near subject of Israel and Palestine. Would they set aside the topic realising no agreement could be reached or would they allow a heated intellectual debate about the issue, potentially souring forming relationships?

It turned out to be neither.

Instead, they invited Osama from Palestine and Dana from Israel to speak to us. Both are part of a Palestinian Israeli organisation for people who have lost loved ones during the occupation.

There was silence in the room as Dana spoke of losing her father while Osama spoke of losing his grandfather, father, and two brothers-in-law, each describing their path through anger and towards joining the Parents Circle. The group’s slogan states: “It won’t stop until we talk”.

The message was clear: if Osama and Dana, who had lost loved ones, could sit down together and talk, who else could refuse to listen?

They didn’t talk about history or paint the geopolitics of the region. They spoke of their human experience, their painful loss and their hope to create a better world for their children. A different one.

It completely shifted the tone of further discussions.

Osama. Courtesy of Andreas Danzer

Dana and Osama did all this without sugar coating the occupation or pretending hate didn’t exist.  When Osama was asked how you educate a child living under occupation, he replied: “We do not educate our children, the situation does… Living even one day there; you don’t need to teach a child how to hate, they learn to hate.”

Many of us exited that seminar feeling emotionally raw and gathered together without prompting as people opened up about assumptions they had never even realised they had adopted. People who were on completely different sides of the issue spoke about the misconceptions they had nurtured or narratives they hadn’t questioned.

Courtesy of Nadja Smailbegovic‎

Our frank discussion was all the more illuminating because of the Palestinian and Israeli voices taking part. In my experience, such discussions involve very set viewpoints and not admitting any weaknesses that could be exploited by “the other side”.

That was what the MJC did right.

Osama and Dana reminded everyone in the room about their shared humanity and lifted the veil of defensiveness to allow honest discussions where “the other” was listening.

Finding your People

Beyond the committees and even the seminars, our days often didn’t finish before dawn the next day because of the people.

I’ve never encountered so many people in a week with whom I wanted to spend another full week grilling and asking intrusive questions about their life stories, or how they saw the world and what they were going to do about it.

Most of the participants were aged between 20 and 35, but the stories they told and experiences they shared made them feel infinitely older. I listened to a man who found his way out of both neo-nazism and Islamist extremism, and to a woman describing the struggle to create a new life away from the war-torn country she fled. I listened to a student trying to stamp out antisemitism in her own community – each held a sense of optimism despite the things they had seen.

Somehow, the organisers managed to create a space where natural shields – especially the one’s that come around religion  – were down and people were emotionally brave enough to put themselves forward and express ideas and thoughts usually reserved to their closest.

It wasn’t a liberal festival celebrating how interfaith would solve everything. Rather, there was hope and a willingness to try, edging the exchanges.

Courtesy of Victor Estrugo Rottenstein

I would have breakfast, lunch and dinner with a different person every day and whether they were Jewish or Muslim, whether they were from Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia or Israel, whether they were secular or religious, we would barely acknowledge formalities before falling into deep conversations about power, religion, politics, and why Bosnian ice creams tasted so good.

I did not always agree with the ideas put forward, but I understand why the MJC is sometimes accused of preaching to the choir. Targeting people already “in the network” is often an issue when it comes to interfaith efforts. Surely the people who misunderstand and hate the most – who need the intense MJC experience – would be the last to apply?

Perhaps. But we also need to focus on the impact of MJC on the people who do attend. I gained much, both professionally and personally. I think every MJC-er goes back to their job, their network and their communities with a renewed sense of purpose and a much deeper understanding of the other. You don’t have to be an Islamophobe or an antisemite to have assumptions, or hold ignorant views or to just have something to learn.