French-Muslim activist laments lack of pluralism

Interfaith activist Samia Hathroubi: “I can bring you hundreds of moderate  Muslims. I am not an exception.”  Photo by David Holzel
Interfaith activist Samia Hathroubi: “I can bring you hundreds of moderate Muslims. I am not an exception.” Photo by David Holzel

Jews and Muslims in Europe can make common cause, but the “blind to religion” constitution of many European countries, particularly France, means the two minorities will find the environment less conducive to religious pluralism than they do in the United States.

This was one takeaway from a discussion between Muslims and Jews involved in interfaith work, held Feb. 24 at Washington Hebrew Congregation, a Reform community in Washington, D.C.
The event, attended by 80 people, was a showcase for the main speaker, Samia Hathroubi, a French Muslim whose family roots are in Tunisia. Hathroubi, European programs coordinator for the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher shootings in Paris in January, she assembled the only joint Muslim-Jewish delegation to the mass Unity Rally.

She visited Washington and New York last week, attended meetings at the State Department and on Capitol Hill, and visited college campuses and heads of Muslim and Jewish organizations.

Born in Lyon and raised in Paris, Hathroubi, 30, took long family visits back to Tunisia when she was growing up. She said she was aware of the presence of Jews – the Jewish storekeeper who spoke Tunisian Arabic with her mother, the art nouveau synagogue with the magen David. But Jews and their history in France and Tunisia were a “blank,” she said.

So she studied the history of North African Jews, who make up the majority of France’s Jewish community. And she taught school in the heavily Muslim suburbs of Paris.

“In my kids, what I saw was a great ignorance of who they are. We’re supposed to be French and that’s all,” she said.

She became more involved in her community and in the anti-racist movement in France. “But it wasn’t enough,” she said. “I was passionate about Muslims and Jews. But in France you can’t talk in the public space about being Muslims and Jews.”

You could in Jerusalem and Ramallah. In 2012-13, she took part in the Yala Youth Leaders program, sponsored by Peres Center for Peace and YaLa Palestine. Back from the Middle East, she was hired by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which promotes racial harmony and strengthens inter-group relations.

As European programs director, she first looked for issues common to Jews and Muslims. She found them in circumcision and ritual slaughter, which were in danger of being banned.

“On these common issues we were pretty successful,” she said.

But the two communities were in a competition of victimization, with some Muslims, for example, complaining that they do not get equal treatment with Jews when they face discrimination. The two groups also operate without regard for the other.

“In France, Jewish organizations deal with anti-Semitism and Muslim organizations deal with Islamophobia,” she said. “We need to change the paradigm: When you attack a Jew you are attacking democracy, you are attacking all of us. Same for the Jews.”

After the attacks in Paris, “I’ve seen a great shift among the Muslim community. Imams are opening their mosques to non-Muslim people. I saw Muslim activists, which I never thought would happen, calling me – ‘how should I do an interfaith event in my hometown?’”

“I can bring you hundreds of moderate Muslims,” she told the audience. “I am not an exception.”

On stage with four Jewish and Muslim panelists involved in interfaith work, at an event sponsored by nine Jewish and Muslim organizations, Hathroubi said, “I would never use ‘pluralistic’ in a European context. What you’re doing here would never happen in my hometown [Paris].”

That’s because French law does not recognize the presence of religion in the public sphere, she said. “France is completely blind to faith,” and so has no language for religious minorities to identify themselves and discuss issues publicly.

By contrast, “In America, the Muslim and Jewish relationship has come to the level of trust that we host each other’s communities,” said panelist Imam Mohamed Magid, executive imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS Center), based in Washington’s Virginia suburbs. “Trust is built on the fact that we stand with each other in times of difficulty – not [just] at a time of ease.”

But it has only been in the last eight-to-10 years that American Jews and Muslims have been “destroying these walls” between them, said Sayyid Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America’s Office of Interfaith and Community Alliance.

He said it will take a long time for Muslims to become integrated into Europe. “Our Muslim minority in Europe is like the African Americans. It took hundreds of years for them to be integrated,” and the United States experienced a civil war and civil rights movement during that time.

“Jews and Muslims will have to work together in France for there to be a transformation,” Syeed said.

Rabbi Bruce Lustig of Washington Hebrew Congregation warned his colleagues against believing that American exceptionalism can provide a solution to the problems of European Jews and Muslims.  Thinking that way is “optimistically foolish” and “ethnocentric.”

“Ethnocentrism has never worked,” he said.

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