And what if our hyper-connected world could provide us with opportunities to change the nature of Jewish-Muslim relations? We met Rima: the result was a long conversation, much ike one of those epic Mizrahi style dinners that seem to never get to an end. And that leave a good taste in your mouth.
We live in times where access to multisource information and to a wide range of “otherness” has never been so easy and foreseeable. This may be exciting for some, and bewildering, at times terrifying, for others. The way we react face to the countless opportunities that the world gives us to meet the other says a lot about ourselves and our set of values. Especially when with this “other” we share a long story of commonalities, but also enmity. Ignoring each other is hardly practicable. The choice then relates to how we use the tools of our hyper-connected world: to rub salt into wounds or to try healing them.
I meet my interviewee at her office in Milan. Rima Sghaier is a 25 years-old Tunisian activist, blogger and researcher. She holds a BA in Law and Political Sciences from the University of Tunis and is currently pursuing her MA degree in the same field. She has a journey of digital engagement that started when she was in high school, opened for her a window out of Chebba (her coastal, small native town) to the world, and eventually (for now) brought her to Milan. Here, she works as the Outreach Director of the Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights, an NGO who develops technologies in support of whistleblowing (for the general public: if you want to denounce corruption in your environment and to do it safely, call these guys). In 2016, she was nominated by The Guardian as one of 10 Africa’s top emerging talents for the continent’s digital transformation. Among her many activities, Rima is intensely committed to interfaith dialogue, and specifically to Muslim-Jewish relations: she volunteered in the PR department of the Muslim Jewish Conference and she’s now part of the team behind the Muslim Jewish Interfaith Coalition, with the role of Senior Digital Strategist.
Muslim Jewish Conference, Muslim Jewish Interfaith Coalition. Most likely, our readers know little or nothing about these initiatives. What are they about and how do they differ one from the other?
“The Muslim Jewish Conference is an NGO based in Vienna. It brings together, once every year, Muslims and Jews who want to know each other, work against mistrust and tackle the challenges faced in their communities. I participated for the first time in 2014 and it was a life-changing experience. As for my other activities and passions, my interest in interfaith dialogue started on the Internet, and particularly with the involvement in YaLa Young Leaders, since I was 18. [YaLa Young Leaders is an online, Facebook-based movement who promotes peace and understanding among the youths of the MENA region through online learning]. The Muslim Jewish Conference was different from YaLa, when you’re there you’re not on the Internet anymore: you meet for the first time face to face, but – and this is the special thing – you’re in a safe space. A safe space is a privilege that you can’t afford in your daily life: it enables you to put on the table all the very hot subjects, so you try to get the best out of it. The opening of each MJC edition always starts with dividing the participants into their groups of affiliation and openly share the rooted stereotypes against the other side. The activities that follow are rich and diverse, very much focused on grassroots, they try to address people that are not trained to be interfaith activists. Also, it was the first time I took part in something that really hit the core of religious issues, and that was very new for me.
Since then, I’ve been involved with the PR team in another MJC forum, in 2016 in Berlin. Today I am glad to be part of a new grassroots initiative: the Muslim Jewish Interfaith Coalition [The Coalition], whose inaugural forum is scheduled for the end of August in Essaouira, Morocco. Many of our staff came to the important work of Muslim-Jewish bridge-building through engagement with local and international organizations and are eager to build on what they learned and expand to reach ever wider audiences. Our efforts complement one another, in that we’re all working towards the same goal of healing mistrust between people of our two faiths communities. In addition to dialogue and relationship building exercises, the Muslim Jewish Interfaith Coalition’s inaugural forum offers attendees with specialized professional development skills and, for those who opt into it, organizing tools. All of our events will have some form of text-based learning and theological elements and will not exclusively focus on cultural connection. Ultimately though, what sets this organization apart will be our targeted focus on working with two particular sets of communities: Orthodox Jews/Conservative Muslims and Mizrahi Jews/Arab Muslims”.
So, does the Coalition’s specific focus reflect on the choice of the location (Arab world, not Europe)?
“The Coalition plans to organize future forums in European cities too, but for what it concerns the launch, the choice of the location is indeed very symbolic. It relates to the intimate story of the founder, Rachel Delia Benaim. Rachel is a US-born journalist and reporter, she’s the daughter of a Moroccan Jew and her grandmother grew up in Essaouira, a city who used to be 40% Jewish and whose Jewish heritage is still felt very strongly. Rachel thinks that Mizrahi Jews and Arab Muslims are a key of a healing work that needs to be done for Muslims and Jews globally.
Jews of Mizrahi heritage and Arab Muslims have so much in common, but they are also divided by different narratives and perceptions about recent history. Jewish communities in the Arab world nearly or totally disappeared within a couple of decades and we want to discover more, to talk more about what happened. It’s not about the past, it’s a testing ground to discuss how our countries can be more inclusive”.
Let’s talk stereotypes. According to society’s mainstream narrative, Muslims and Jews are supposed to be enemies. So, why do you engage in such initiatives? Is it just for the sake of rebellion, of transgression against how society expects you to behave?
“Look, on a general level, it happens all the time that you get criticism for whatever you do. Why do you do this and not that? For example, I write a lot about human rights violations in the MENA region. If I write something about Egypt, people will ask me why I’m not speaking about Syria, and so on. At one point, you have to stop caring about these attacks which have nothing constructive and focus on what it’s really important for you. Back to our topic, I know of many interfaith dialogue initiatives that are more “universal”, open to a wider range of people and faiths. Yet to tackle specific issues, we also need to zoom in and work on specific solutions. I chose to focus specifically on Muslim-Jewish dialogue, because it’s something that is really missing.
It is true that Muslims and Jews are supposed to be enemies: and they are, on many levels. This is something that affects the daily life of many people in many countries. So, it’s not about rebelling against your society because it’s “fancy”, it’s about confronting a reality that it’s scary. In my country, Tunisia, calling someone “a Jew” is an insult; so it is the word “Arab” for many Israeli Jews. I want to investigate why there is this hate, where this ugly image of the other comes from. There is a lot of healing to be done. I myself had to reshape my prejudices, coming from a very conservative background. But I notice that more and more people are showing an interest in facing these issues. It takes a lot to do, from the organization, to make people applying and coming. Yet the encouraging thing is that you get applications from any type of community, no matter how blinded it is, there is always someone willing to open up. The human factor of these initiatives is just extraordinary and it is the catalyst for healing”.
Is there any special story that you would like to share?
“There are so many, I’ll pick up the story of Mohammed Al Samawi, who is a dear friend of mine. Mohammed is a Yemeni young man, who got engaged in interfaith dialogue through online activism. When the civil war broke out, he found himself in grave danger, with his city being bombed all the time and extremist militias surrounding his house. He turned to the people of his online network, people he had never met in real life. And the miracle happened: four people, from three faiths responded to his call and without any previous experience in international diplomacy, succeeded in taking him out of the country. Mohammed lives now in the States and recently published his story in a book, The Fox Hunt. I don’t want to spoil it more! But I really wanted to share this story, because it really answers your previous question about the reasons for engagement. It shows that sometimes, the effort of knowing the other can save somebody’s life”.
Now back to the Muslim Jewish Interfaith Coalition: how will you work, what will your strategy be?
“The main endeavor is to target a challenging audience, that is to say to address people who are not actively involved in interfaith dialogue – I’d even say, that they are not so much ok with it. The Internet can play a powerful role. I work in the digital strategy team. We are three young women who met, collaborated and became friends thanks to other peace-building and interfaith initiatives. Our strategy aims at keeping the interfaith dialogue on beyond the face-to-face meeting, creating web and social media content that promotes understanding and cooperation between communities from the two faiths and campaigning for awareness about each other’s cultures and countering hate speech through digital education. Have you heard of “People of the Book”? It’s a YouTube channel created by an Arabic-speaking Jewish journalist and rabbinical student, Elhanan Miller. He creates short animated videos in Arabic to explain Judaism to Muslims. He’s one of our partners, actually, and we aim at creating similar videos, in Arabic, Hebrew and other languages, in order to address ignorance and misconceptions about the other side’s traditions and beliefs.
The online work is complementary with face-to-face meetings. As I said, we don’t want to meet just once but to create and maintain a continuity. Our forums will address different targets and subjects. For example, this inaugural forum is meant for young professionals. But we plan to have one for students, one for religious leaders, one for political ones…we want to investigate and try to break down the narratives that create in-group hostility towards the other. Also, the Coalition will have space for intra-faith dialogue, since it’s really important to explore the diversity among members of the same community”.
Many of the participants in these interfaith initiatives live in the West, as a minority. They have to relate to a “third other” who represents the majority and who has power and influence in politics, media, society. The recent study “Being a Christian in Western Europe” of the Pew Institute of Research showed that nearly a quarter of Christians in Europe wouldn’t accept a Jew or Muslim as neighbor or family member. The question is: how do you convey your message to outsiders?
“The starting point is content creation against hate speech, which starts from ourselves. With the Coalition, we’re planning to create content in different European languages. Localization is the key-word. We want to create a content that is local, have a network of grassroots organizations; empower young professionals and committees that interact with the institutions, lobby for better laws and create safe spaces for interfaith dialogue in their countries. Show that for every negative situation there can always be a different answer. For example, the hateful “Punish a Muslim day” in the UK provoked so many amazing reactions, so many people who put all their effort to make their Muslim neighbors feel safe”.
How did a person like you, born in a small city in North Africa and, as you mentioned, raised in a conservative environment, end up here?
“I frankly don’t know, I studied enough sociology to know I can’t precisely explain my choices! Perhaps it was my eagerness for knowledge. Reading and Internet played a big role, I would look on it for everything I couldn’t find in the little library of my school. Then Tunisian Revolution happened. It was 2011 and I was 18: till that day, I had been indoctrinated that I can’t change anything. And suddenly, the cloture started to dissolve. Since then, I first got involved as a content creator in the admins team of “The Enlightened Minds”, a Facebook page created by Lebanese civic activist (now a scientist) Moustapha Itani, whose purpose was trying together to criticize our societies and prejudices. From that experience I decided to put all my possible efforts in promoting understanding through new technologies. Then I moved to the country’s capital, Tunis, for my academic studies and I became part of a youth committee of Amnesty International Tunisian Section, and later on of the Young Leaders of Tunis, a project for promoting the engagement of the youths in public life. My first experience with a MENA-focused initiative has been joining the MENA Leaders for Change Program of YaLa Young Leaders and becoming interested in peace-building and interfaith dialogue was just the next step”.
You referred multiple times to the importance of discussing spirituality and faith. How does that relate to your personal experience in life?
“Since my adolescence I witnessed people being excluded because of their “unconventional” thinking about religion. In my community, for example, it’s still a big deal to openly declare that you’re not religious and that you’re a “different” Muslim who objectively and constructively criticizes and attempt to reform what is believed to be a Muslim laws, rules or traditions. Those who do it have a hard life. Religion is still perceived as a matter of family heritage that shouldn’t be put into question. This generates injustice and oppression, and also reflects on public life and on the difficulty to keep it separated from religion, despite that being a fundamental principle of our new Constitution. During the years I learned to elaborate my rage face to injustice, with an effort to understand why (a large part of) my society thinks this way, and what I can do to improve the situation. We Tunisians are “officially” Maliki Sunni, which is just one of the many schools of Islam. My interfaith activities helped me not only with knowing other religions, but also with discovering new ways of perceiving and practicing Islam. This is why I insist so much on the importance of exploring spirituality and practice intra-faith dialogue alongside with interfaith dialogue”.
Let’s go back to what you said about the purpose of the Coalition to work on healing the wounds of history. When it comes to the Jewish exodus from Muslim lands after the creation of Israel, the two sides tend to stick to black and white narratives. “You put our life in danger and threw us out”, the Jews say. “No, you spontaneously decided to move to Israel, nobody forced you to leave”, the Muslims say. How do you go beyond this dual narrative?
That is exactly what we want to address. Things happened differently depending on countries, families, situations. We want to let people share and discuss all their different narratives, we don’t want to come up with one single answer. Because once again, the matter is not to enjoy history lectures. We want to explore the past to understand the present, to understand what doesn’t make sense in our societies: what happened? How did we end up like this? We want to restore what can be restored.
There’s a last point about which I’d like to have your insight. On one side, as we just said, you have this dual, confrontational narrative. On the other side, the leaving of Jews from Muslim countries left a great nostalgia behind. You can find it in the work of Jewish artists of Mizrahi descent, who long for the open, cosmopolitan Mediterranean of the golden age. You can find it in the tales of the elderly, in how some aspect of Jewish heritage (such as the great Jewish singers) are still so popular in Muslim countries. You didn’t live any of this history, but the society into which you were born is the product of it. When you work for bridging between Muslim and Jews, aren’t you looking for a part of yourself?
“This relates to what I said earlier about the effort to make our countries more inclusive, to make our society more aware that cultural heritage is the product of many different contributions. For example, if you ask about Tunisia, there’s no doubt that Jewish heritage is part of myself and my country’s culture. You mentioned music, and indeed we had these prominent artists who created new schools of music and are still so famous and beloved. But I don’t think of them as“Jewish Tunisian musicians”, for me they’re just Tunisians. At the time nobody cared, they were talented people who happened to be Jewish. We have to preserve these memories, but not only from the “Ya Hasra”, nostalgic perspective, rather out of the awareness that digging into our past and stories allows us to discover more about ourselves, to go beyond the taboos and to find intersections in which we can identify into each other”.
In 2011, a few months after the outbreak of the Tunisian Revolution, Sarah Benillouche (a French film-maker of Tunisian origins), traveled to Tunis to find out what was left of the memory of Habiba Messika, (1903-1930), the great Jewish Tunisian singer and actress who became a myth for her generation and those who came after. The result was Ciao Habiba!, an “impressionist documentary” (in the words of the film-maker), with professional and not-professional actors sharing their thoughts and memories on stage. At the end of my conversation with Rima, the monologue by Annie Fitoussi, who performs near the end of the movie, resonates in my mind:
“They all portray her the same way. Habiba didn’t like closed groups, she wasn’t a sectarian, she would make love with everyone, Jews and Arabs. Habiba didn’t live in the ghetto. What can I tell you about her? That she wouldn’t love what we’re doing. She would love to see dances, songs, she would love the indignant movement! […] But not nostalgia, not repetitions, not ‘We loved Tunisia, and I was born in that street, and my dad did this, and my grand-dad did that, and we would see each other, and we would eat peanuts…come on, stop it! That is over, that world doesn’t exist anymore. We are no longer there: we are here”.
We are here.
A master graduate in Languages and Cultures for Communication and International Cooperation at the University of Milan, Silvia studied Peace & Conflict Studies at the International School of the University of Haifa, Israel. She has been living there for a couple of years and has been active in several local realities engaged in the fields of mediation, education and development. She is passionate about nature, books, music and cuisine.