TORONTO STAR, Toronto, Ontario, October 18, 2003.

Abraham's children chat

Over bagels and samosas, the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims seeks common ground
The group strives to improve relations

Amicable small talk. Queries about work, kids, vacations. More chit-chat. Laughter. And food. Plenty of food. Middle East delicacies like hummus and baba ghanouj are sampled with spicy samosas and mounds of bagels. Food works. It's the great connector.

The bonhomie is undeniable and the lack of tension discernible among the 17 Muslims and Jews who gather this night at a Toronto Reform synagogue for one of their monthly meetings aimed at exploring each other's faith and finding common ground in their little corner of this overheated planet.

It's not a forced cordiality. Voices are sincere, well-modulated. Even the occasional joke is thrown in. Coming to blows, even verbal ones, is unthinkable.

Small steps for the children of Abraham, yet big ones at the same time.

No one on this night at least brings up terrorism, or Israel and the Palestinian conflict, although that has a presence of its own (referred to internally as "the elephant in the room.") And no one mentions the Qur'- an's vexing approach to Jews — describing them in strongly disparaging terms one minute and extolling them as fellow believers the next — or that the holy text forbids Muslims from befriending Jews ( and Christians, too).

While those and other sticking points aren't swept under the rug, they aren't dwelled on either. Rather, the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims acts on the maxim "think globally, act locally." It focuses on improving relations between the two groups here in Toronto, home to about 350,000 Muslims and 175,000 Jews, by first establishing mutual trust and a comfort level, and then learning about each other's religions, rituals and place in the world. The two sides also plan to join forces on domestic issues.

For example, in August, the group wrote to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien protesting the detention of 19 Pakistani Muslim Canadians on suspicion they might pose a threat to national security.

"We're trying to build bridges of understanding so that even if you disagree vehemently, you'll still see the other person as a person," explains the group's Jewish co-chair, Barbara Landau, a psychologist and mediator who specializes in conflict resolution.

"The idea is to listen as though the other person might be right."

The dialogue was founded in 1996 by two colleagues in Ontario's civil service, Jack Stevens, an Iraqi Jew, and Shahid Akhtar, a Pakistani Muslim.

"We noticed there was interaction between Christians and Jews, and there were multifaith groups, but nothing between Muslims and Jews," says Akhtar.

It lay dormant for a while, but the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks rekindled the effort, this time as an attempt to defuse the anti-Muslim backlash. Just three days after the attacks, the group read a joint message at a Toronto City Hall rally affirming the ideals uniting them as Canadians, including valuing human life, mutual respect and co-existence.

There's no official membership. About 100 regulars are on the roster, evenly divided between Jews and Muslims, the latter comprising both Sunnis and Shi'as mainly from Pakistan, India and East Africa. There are very few Arabs, and no Palestinians.

"That's not deliberate," insists Landau, who helps run a separate Jewish-Palestinian dialogue.

"We are here to learn about each other as well as from each other," pronounces Akhtar this night in the boardroom of Temple Emanu-El, before introducing the guest speaker, Parveen Ali, a London, England-based lawyer and academic who talks about the role of women in Islam. She begins with the traditional Muslim greeting "Salaam Alekum," meaning peace be unto you — the same as the Hebrew "Shalom Alecheim."

The floor is then turned over to Rabbi Edward Elkin, spiritual leader of Toronto's First Narayever Congregation, who expounds on the role of women in Judaism.

Participants nod at the similarities and agree that in the broad spectrum of both religions, cases can be made for women's full equality as well as for their status as second-class citizens.

"The more orthodox you get, the less legitimate everything else is," observes Landau.

The group has hosted an interfaith Passover seder and a Rosh Hashanah dinner, and is planning a joint Ramadan-Chanukah celebration.

The interaction isn't limited to exploring each others' religious traditions. There have been a number of joint initiatives:

The Canadian Jewish Congress supported Muslims on two occasions when municipal officials, citing zoning laws, tried to stop construction of mosques in East York and Mississauga. Both projects were eventually given the green light.

Earlier this year, Canada's Pakistani community created a journalism scholarship in memory of Daniel Pearl, the Jewish reporter for the Wall Street Journal beheaded by Muslim extremists in Pakistan last year.

The Islamic Society of North America (Canada) joined the Jewish congress in supporting the provincial government's controversial tax credit for parents of children in faith-based schools.

In February, Canadian Jewish Congress and the Islamic Council of Imams-Canada called on the federal government to exempt ritual slaughter of meats from proposed animal-cruelty legislation.

And in 2001 Canadian Muslims and Jews came together to urge Ottawa to deny public funding to a group that sought to outlaw the circumcision of baby boys.

A Jewish-Islamic study circle sponsored jointly by the University of Toronto and Beth Tzedec Congregation is in its second year.

But what about the really heavy lifting: Israel, the status of Jerusalem, racial profiling, terrorism in the name of Islam, even whether to allow the Arab TV network Al-Jazeera into Canada?

"Of course it comes up," says Akhtar. "It comes up all the time. We make it a point to talk about the difficult questions. But when we do, we do it in a most respectful manner, in a way we assume the other person could be right," he says, adding, with a chuckle, "We never come to blows."

Landau says her expertise in conflict resolution comes in handy.

"People who aren't listened to, escalate. When they are listened to, the rage dissipates. And when their stereotypical expectations aren't met, they move to curiosity.

"There's an old Jewish saying: `God gave us two ears and one mouth.' We should listen twice as much as we should speak," she says.

But relations are sometimes strained.

The Jewish congress was dismayed when, in 2001, the Islamic congress gave a "media excellence award" to a local newspaper that supports Hamas and Hezbollah.

"We would welcome greater public acknowledgment (from Canadian Muslims) that terrorism is a real and present danger," says the Jewish congress' Manuel Prutschi, citing the two communities' divergent views on federal anti-terrorism legislation and racial profiling.

Another sore point is anti-Semitism. Jewish officials say that in Canada today, it emanates mainly from Muslim circles.

"We will pursue good and better relations with the Muslim community," says Prutschi, "but we won't hesitate to expose and fight anti-Semitism."

Farzana Hassan Shahid, a Muslim from Pakistan who's been in Canada 19 years, was moved to the join the dialogue because she saw something welcoming among Jews.

"They appreciate the sanctity of life," says Shahid, who's president of the Ontario chapter of Muslims Against Terrorism, founded in Calgary in 1999. "They're very sincere in their efforts to promote peace and understanding. We need those in our community who are not convinced to see that."

For local interfaith activist Fredelle Brief, the dialogue comes down to "the issue of democracy in a time of terror. If we take away the civil rights of some, we take them away for all. And that's not something that's on the public's agenda."

Ron Csillag is a Toronto writer specializing in religion. He can be reached at

(File prepared 20 October 2003)