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Susan Leem's picture

Human Connections Matter, Discover Israeli and Pakistani Peers

View on PakistanA Pakistani rickshaw driver waits for customers at a commercial market in Rawalpindi on October 8, 2012. (Photo by Farooq Naeem/AFP/GettyImages) My interest in Pakistan and its people didn't start with politics. Although Pakistan was far away from my Jewish American experience, from the few encounters I had with Pakistani people, I must have instinctively identified — or projected — notions I thought I recognized. Like Israelis and Jews, Pakistanis are also a people with a new country, born of turmoil and trauma (around the same time as Israel) and still under construction. Like Jews living in the diaspora, I gathered that Pakistanis abroad also care passionately about the place where they are not, and struggle to reconcile multiple identities. Their country appeared to me to be a place of contradictions that can perhaps best be described though an epic kaleidoscope fusing history and fantasy. Then there was the Pakistan depicted in the news. At some points during the 1990s, Pakistan came across as a country of stylish, modern Muslim political leaders with putatively democratic intentions, who were sometimes steeped in accusations of corruption. Then for about a decade following 2001, Western media typically focused on Pakistan as a nuclear-armed hotbed of religious extremism. It was never clear to me who truly held power, and the state often seemed to be on the verge of disaster — or embroiled in it. I confess that my knowledge ends there. But the fascination remains. "We are the real Pakistan"Pakistani students take part of a protest against an anti-Islam film after the Friday prayers in front of the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad on September 28, 2012. (Photo by Farooq Naeem/AFP/GettyImages) So when an American colleague told me that two liberal Pakistanis were interested in establishing contact with like-minded Israelis such as those from +972 Magazine, the liberal, independent blog where I write, I jumped at the opportunity. These two Pakistanis, who both live in the West, have provided me with a new window on their country. One is a United States-based scholar of religious fundamentalism. Another is one of the founders, editors, and writers of a liberal, independent blog called Let Us Build Pakistan (LUBP). From our first conversation, I felt we understood each other; surely in part because we felt like peers, who were similarly engaged and passionate about the public affairs of each country. Our conversations have the broad goal of learning more about one another's political, social, and cultural realities, and possibly sharing those realities with our readers through our blogs. Geographically scattered, we have met only on Skype. Yet even this limited channel allows me to pursue a more nuanced mapping of the socio-political environment of Pakistan than mainstream Western media offer. I find it refreshing to speak with like-minded people facing similar challenges in the country they are trying to build. For example, we are both critical of state policies we believe to be destructive. But our young societies often react to such criticism defensively. We are commonly treated with suspicion or even hostility by the political and social establishment — which perpetuates those very policies. Another realization was that all of us are deeply troubled by the alliance of religious extremists with the military establishment and political leaders in Pakistan, a phenomenon which is unfortunately familiar for me: this is precisely how Israel has established and entrenched the occupation of Palestinian territory since 1967. To this day, Israel's justification of the Occupation rests on a mixture of security concerns, religious grounds, and the notion that the internal political costs of concession are too high for Israeli leaders. The struggle against state-reinforced militarism is another towering issue for my Pakistani colleagues, just as the entrenched militarism of Israeli life is an on-going source of sadness for me. My Pakistani colleagues feel that mainstream international media has not sufficiently covered human rights abuses in Pakistan, such as the worsening assault on the Shia population, bemoaned by many Pakistanis. Similarly, we at +972 Magazine felt that crucial topics about the Occupation and other aspects of life in Israel were not being covered due to commercial or political unpopularity. Nonetheless, despite all these shared troubles, our conversations have made me optimistic. Ultimately it is our mutual commitment to universal values — human rights, democracy, and freedom of expression — that has brought us all together. We are learning from each other about the role these values can play in addressing the separate challenges we face. Beyond these universal values, I also harbor a certain hope in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After a fresh phase of horrific faith-based violence, relations between at least parts of the Muslim world and the West seem to be at a precipice. Israel — and its relationship to Palestine — is so often the epicentre. At such a time, I feel that every constructive human connection counts.
Dahlia ScheindlinDahlia Scheindlin is an independent public opinion researcher and political strategist, as well as a doctoral candidate and lecturer at Tel Aviv University. She blogs at +972 Magazine. This article was published by the Common Ground News Service on October 2, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Susan Leem's picture

Religious and Secular Identity in Berlin

Brandenburg GateHistory meets modernity at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Sebastian Niedlich/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0

Several recent incidents in Berlin have escalated tensions between Muslims, Jews, and the city's secular majority. Over a month ago, Rabbi Daniel Saltera rabbi wearing a kippa, or yarmulke, was beaten by four "Arab-looking" youths after being asked if he and his daughter were Jewish. Public outcry led to a large demonstration in support of Berlin's Jews, including a flash mob of Jews and non-Jews wearing kippot. Tensions escalated days later when a second incident, in which Jewish school girls were harassed by a group of youths that included a girl wearing a head scarf, led to an exchange of harsh words between Jewish and Muslim leaders, though in neither case were the attackers caught or identified definitively. After being advised to urge greater religious tolerance, Muslim leaders denied responsibility for the attacks and pointed out their own experiences of intolerance in the city. Then on Yom Kippur, two more anti-Semitic incidents took place — the first when a young white man threatened a local Jewish leader and told him to go back where he came from, and the second when a mother and her daughter were forced out of a taxi after telling the "German" driver they were going to synagogue. Diedre Berger of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee has now intervened, asking the German government to develop an action plan to combat anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, a contrasting alliance between Jews and Muslims has formed in the aftermath of a regional court ruling against circumcision. Government and religious leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, have denounced it and announced plans to create government regulations allowing circumcisions to be performed. And in Berlin, a demonstration against the case featured Jewish and Muslim leaders "united for circumcision," according to a headline in the Tageszeitung. Religious leaders at the demonstration welcomed the chance to work together — despite current tensions — against what they consider to be the greater adversary of secular intolerance toward religion. It was against this background that public attention shifted to the global conflict over the anti-Islamic film, The Innocence of Muslims. In Berlin, right-wing nationalists announced plans to bring American pastor Terry Jones to Berlin for a showing of the anti-Muslim film, but the government blocked his visit, and the event did not take place. Observant Jews and Muslims constitute small minorities in Berlin, though people of Turkish descent number around a quarter of a million. The Jewish community of Berlin has about 11,000 active members, a fraction of the city's total Jewish population. Self-identified Christians are more numerous, but even they are greatly outnumbered by non-practicing and unaffiliated Berliners. In a city famous for decadent nightclubs and countercultural artists, religion has become a kind of curiosity. The recent "Long Night of Religions" featured open houses at sixty-five different religious organizations, ranging from Buddhist and Muslim to Quaker and Sikh. A smaller event featuring Christians in particular, the Berlin Festival of Churches (with an appearance by pop-star-turned-Christian Nina Hagen) followed two weeks later. All of these stories have received significant attention in local and national media. But "religious" issues can only be understood in the larger context of "secularized" Berlin. What other factors divide and unite Berliners? How do conflicts and alliances between religious minorities reflect dynamics within the majority? Political, economic, social, generational, and aesthetic divisions are obvious, but economic and cultural indicators suggest that the greater sources of division remain the Cold War and the two World Wars in which Berlin was a geographic and political center. Berliner Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) identified the culture of distraction as a key political feature of modern life. Debates over how to memorialize the past, renovate neighborhoods and public places, and manage economic changes preoccupy Germans ambivalent about the image and swelling budget of their capital city. It is no wonder that a city so burdened with history succeeds so well at providing diversions, from new beach volleyball venues to all-night techno parties. But without a broad discussion of German and Berliner identity, the status of minorities here remains uncertain, leading Jewish leader Charlotte Knoblauch to ask, "Do you still want us Jews?" For residents still grappling with a catastrophic modern history, the concerns of Jewish and Muslim minorities could either serve as an interesting distraction or a chance to examine the markers and dynamics of "secular" identity in Berlin.

Brian BrittBrian Britt is a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. His most recent book is Biblical Curses and the Displacement of Tradition. He is currently a guest fellow at the Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung in Berlin working on a book about Walter Benjamin and religion. This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.