Last of three parts.
NEW YORK | Rabbi Marc Schneier’s Upper East Side office at the Foundation For Ethnic Understanding is relatively stark; a bookshelf here, an abstract painting there, and little hint of the outsized role he’s played in bringing opposites together.
When he founded the FFEU 20 years ago, it was geared toward improving relations between the black and Jewish communities. Then three years ago, he switched to a much harder mission: Muslims and Jews.
“The challenge of the 21st century,” he said in an interview, “is to narrow the chasm between Judaism and Islam.”
So he threw his energies into meeting with the world’s top Islamic leaders. In 2007, he hosted a summit of rabbis and imams in New York. In 2008, the FFEU began a yearly “twinning” weekend each November, when a mosque and synagogue in the same city would pair up, attend each other’s services and begin the slow and cumbersome business of getting to know each other.
That same year, Mr. Schneier attended the World Conference on Dialogue, convened by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and hosted by King Juan Carlos of Spain. In September, he attended a similar gathering in Vienna, Austria, also sponsored by the Saudi king.
“The king has realized how much damage has been done by religious fundamentalists and extremists, particularly in Islam,” he said. “It’s become a preoccupation with Abdullah.”
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The king is the main driver behind an effort to build an interfaith center either in London or Vienna, the rabbi said, a surprising move given that one of the Saudi king’s honorific titles is that he guards Islam’s holiest sites, in Mecca and Medina.
“For someone who’s supposed to be the ‘guardian of the two mosques,’ to be behind an interfaith center speaks volumes,” Mr. Schneier said.
What’s in this for the Saudis?
“The future of Islam,” the rabbi responded. “They have this internal struggle between moderates and radicals. I believe the moderates will win out, but we’ve got to help them take back their religion from the cadre of extremists who’ve hijacked it.”
But what if the Saudis have the ulterior goal of converting the world to their religion?
“I’m not questioning their motives,” the rabbi said. “I am focused on the ultimate result.” Jews and Muslims are likewise invested in the need for world peace, he added, saying that “not only do we share a common faith, but a common fate.”
Edward Curtis, religious-studies professor at Indiana University and author of the book “Muslims in America: A Short History,” said it is no surprise that Muslim leaders have encouraged recent gains on the interfaith scene.
“The fear is there will be a ‘clash of civilizations’ and that the main clash will be between the West and Islam,” he said. “They are trying to make sure religion won’t be used to spark a crisis.
“Plus, Muslim rulers are being challenged from the margins by a form of Islam that is intolerant and exclusivistic. They want to oppose that form of Islam to defend their own legitimacy as rulers. Supporting interfaith dialogue justifies their relationships with the West.”
Interfaith work is a family business for Mr. Schneier, 51, whose father, Arthur Schneier, heads up Park East Synagogue in Manhattan, a shining star in the interfaith universe.
Many major religious figures, from Pope Benedict XVI to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, stop by when they are in New York. This spring, the elder Mr. Schneier is slated to get the Guru Nanak Interfaith Prize, a $50,000 award from Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., made possible from a bequest from a Sikh family for individuals who do “extraordinary work” in interfaith relations.
“I grew up in a home where you make a spiritual contribution to society, as well as a social and human relations contribution,” the son said.
The younger Mr. Schneier also has been invited to interfaith meetings in Kazakhstan, whose president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has sponsored three triennial Traditional and World Religions conferences in Astana, his country’s new capital. The first was in 2003 in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, with the aim of bringing together different religions for dialogue.
It was also a calculated way of winning an international reputation as a peacemaker for Kazakhstan, a mainly Muslim and Russian Orthodox country with a rising evangelical Protestant population.
Kazakhstan, Deputy Foreign Minister Muktar Tleuberdin explained to journalists attending the first gathering in September 2003, had as many as 40 faiths represented, and thus had a “moral right” to host the congress of world religions.
Some human rights groups take issue with that; after all, they claim, Kazakh authorities have targeted Hare Krishnas, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unification Church members and Baptists. The supreme mufti of Kazakhstan, Absattar Derbisali, referred to these groups as “sects” in February 2009, as the country’s constitutional council stepped in at the last minute to nullify a proposed amendment to the country’s religious laws that would have barred such groups.
A few months later, Kazakhstan hosted 184 delegates — including 146 spiritual leaders — from eight major religious traditions, including, for the first time, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormons, who seemed delighted at being included, sent Elder Paul Pieper, president of what the church calls its “Europe East Area” and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, the church’s top governing council.
Also invited was Israeli President Shimon Peres, on his first state visit to Kazakhstan. While there, Mr. Peres called on Saudi King Abdullah to meet with him in Jerusalem or Riyadh to move forward with the Middle East peace process. Thanks to its interreligious engagement, Kazakhstan also would be suitable as meeting place, Mr. Peres added.
Then on Feb. 1, Mr. Nazarbayev announced that his country would sponsor a June 29-30 conference on religious tolerance and nondiscrimination in Astana.
“Kazakhstan views its mission to bring rapprochement between the Muslim and Christian civilizations, and improve understanding between the East and the West,” he said in a statement.
Blake Michael, chairman of the religion department at Ohio Wesleyan University, said the level of interfaith dialogue has increased greatly in the past five years.
“I always suspect that when governments are involved, they have their own motives, but that doesn’t mean the activity is illegitimate,” he said. “A lot of Muslims around the world are utterly bewildered by terrorist and jihadist efforts. They want to get the truth about the complexity of Islam out there. They feel the Western media cover a narrow strand of what Islam is about.”
The irony of the Saudis and the Kazakhs — both of whom have checkered records on human rights issues — sponsoring these events gets swept under the rug, he said.
He added, “You can be sure the Saudis are not sponsoring these events out of just intellectual or faithful interest,” he said. “They see it in their national self-interest to have others understand Islam in a different way, in spite of the ways they practice it in their own country.”
Jews and Mormons
Rabbi Niles E. Goldstein, 44, has a black belt in karate, is the founder of the New Shul, a synagogue in New York City, and has written books such as “Gonzo Judaism.” His latest project: an interfaith think tank based in Salt Lake City.
Salt Lake City?
“Sometimes to have national impact, you have to get away from the major metro areas,” said the rabbi, who lives in Brooklyn. “Salt Lake City is a natural. Not only is it easily accessible, but because of the [Latter-day Saints] community, it has a very diverse population.”
Together with two Mormon officials, he has begun the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy (https://fidweb.org) to encourage a variety of religions to begin talking to one another.
The top two participants are Jews and Mormons, which in the past have argued over “proxy baptism,” the practice of baptizing a living individual on behalf of a dead one. Mormons believe those who have not accepted Christ in this life may do so in the next if someone agrees to be baptized in their place. When they began “baptizing” victims as well as perpetrators of the Holocaust, some Jewish groups strenuously objected. In response, the Mormon church removed 300,000 names of Holocaust victims from its genealogical database.
Mr. Goldstein said these are the areas where interfaith dialogue needs to become entrenched.
“We want to be provocative,” he said of the think tank. “We strive for peaceful tension. I sit at a table with a Mormon, and we talk about proxy baptism. That is a deal breaker for them, and they can’t be asked to compromise on that. I would, like a sparring partner, fight back in a respectful way and say this doesn’t make sense and agree to disagree.”
Referring to the opening scene in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” he added, “Even in the presence of God, angels don’t always find harmony and agreement. How can we as flawed human beings do so?”
The grass-roots religious population, he said, is impatient with the typical interfaith initiative that is all “warm and fuzzy and feel-good things” that does not get down to the hard issues.
But Jews and Mormons are religious minorities who have persecution in their respective histories. Both favor social change.
“We’re one of the world’s oldest religions, and they’re one of the world’s youngest,” the rabbi said. “There’s 15 million of them — and us — worldwide. They are well aware they have a PR problem, and they feel they are misunderstood. They have looked to the Jewish community for guidance.”
Mr. Goldstein said he is eager to work with Mormons while they’re still open to outside input, and he warns some groups — including evangelical Christians — that they may be missing an opportunity by not engaging more with faiths such as Mormonism.
“So many people focus on what’s going on with [megachurch pastor] Rick Warren or organizations like Focus on the Family, while this whole other thing is going on under the radar,” he said. “It is absolutely fascinating. It’s happening all over. It really is a movement. What Sept. 11 did was blow everything out of the water. That event was a wake-up call to everyone.”