So an imam, a pastor, and a rabbi walk into a bar…
On Sunday, they might. But not until after they have a panel discussion, and even if they do, as the imam, Abdullah Antepli, joked, “Of course, as a Muslim, I don’t drink, so I’ll be the designated driver.”
Imam Antepli is warm, accessible, and laughs easily, but the subject of the talk, “Christians, Jews, and Muslims in America: Debate and Dialogue in an Age of Fear,” is no joke. (See the box for more information.)
It’s sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a branch of the Jerusalem-based organization devoted to pluralistic (and very smart) research and education. The three speakers are Imam Antepli, the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, who is the senior minister of Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan’s East Village, and Rabbi Joanna Samuels, a Jewish Theological Seminary graduate who founded and heads the Many Cantor Center, part of the Educational Alliance, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Imam Antepli is the co-director of the Muslim Leadership Institute at Hartman and the chief representative for Muslim affairs at Duke University. The other director is Yossi Klein Halevi, the American-Israeli author and journalist.
“I’ve been working with the Shalom Hartman Institute in a number of programs,” Imam Antepli said. “We are training young American Muslims about Judaism, Zionism, and Israel. We have to understand each other’s stories from the other perspective. That will improve our understanding of each other.
“A lot of the problems are based on ignorance, which is the root cause of most problems,” he continued. “All hate and bias is based on ignorance and requires unlearning.”
“As a result of the increasing hate, bias, and polarizing division, our communities are suffering. The messages of hate within our communities are getting louder and stronger. We need a strong, clear, religious, civil, and political leadership who will speak loudly against hate and any forms of exclusion, and will promote the universalistic ideals of our respective communities.”
There is a need for such work, he continued, because “even now, 15 years after 9/11, many Americans still ask ‘Where are the moderate Muslims?’ Realizing that the mainstream media does not give enough space and coverage to moderate Muslim leaders, I and many others are going out of our way to reach out to Americans and be a useful partner in education.”
But, he continued, “This is not my work. This is my calling.
“It is what as a Muslim leader I feel most fulfilled when I am doing. No religious leader — and certainly no Muslim leader — can run away. It is our responsibility to educate the public about Islam and Muslims, at a time when the religion and its members are grossly misrepresented, at times even by its own members.”
Imam Antepli, who was born in Turkey and worked in Myanmar and Malaysia with the Association of Social and Economic Solidarity with Pacific Countries, began his work on college campuses in 2003, at Wesleyan University. He got to Duke in 2008. “I am the Blue Devil imam, and I love it,” he joked. “Our basketball team is the biggest religion on campus.”
His campus group is similar to Hillel; the big difference, though, is that there is no national or international organization. “But private universities are investing in organized Muslim communities on their campuses, and hiring professionals who work not only with Muslim students” but also with anyone on campus who is curious or interested. Yale also has a Muslim leader, and Rutgers just “hired a very nice young gentleman a couple of months ago,” Imam Antepli said.
Combating prejudice, misunderstanding, and hate “is hard but essential work, but as they say, if there is a will, there is a halachic way.”
“If there is a will, there is a halachic way,” he said, repeating a mantra popular in some segments of the open Orthodox world.
“The similarities between the Abrahamic religions are incredible, but especially between Judaism and Islam,” he said. “If you only talk and look at the normative legalistic, judicial, and religious language of Islam and Judaism, it’s almost as if they are two denominations of the same religion.
“I am not watering down our differences. We are two distinct religions. But over the centuries Judaism thrived under Islamic rule, and was deeply influenced by Islam, and influenced Islam. It produced a common language.
“At the core of both Islam and Judaism is a radical monotheism. That’s not so in Christianity, which took a departure from that early on. The core of Christianity has a different language. But Islam and Judaism are singing the same song in a slightly different tone.
“If you go deeper — and as an imam I do — I always continue to swim in oceans of pleasure when I study Judaism and Jewish texts. Not only the legalistic part, but also the ethical and moral framework. It pretty much uses the same frame of reference as Islam, but each tradition articulates it differently.
“I study the world’s religions, which have incredible similarities but also eye-opening differences. As an ardent and hard-working student of Judaism, it is a special pleasure for me whenever I get into a chevruta.
“Whenever I study Talmud, I feel at home,” Imam Antepli said.