Wednesday, April 27, 1994
Jews and Arabs Talk at Brotherhood Synagogue
The Friday April 23rd Sabbath service was an incredibly emotional event for the congregation. This was the first time that the sermon was given by a Muslim.
In line with the principles of peace and brotherhood between nations as well as between individuals espoused by Rabbi Block and his successor, Rabbi Alder, they along with Rabbi Brooks and David Landis, a past President of the congregation, had attended a Muslim service and met Seif Ashmawy, the publisher of The Voice of Peace, an Arab/English/Spanish language monthly newspaper. Seif was invited to address the congregation.
One must understand where Seif comes from. He is a man with a mission, a mission of peace. A naturalized American and a business executive, he and his Italian-born wife Maria, who is a self-employed pharmacist, started the newspaper with their personal funds right after the Gulf War, and were suspected by both Jewish and Arab extremists as being In the pay of Saudis, or the CIA. But they have persisted. Seif today is heard as the voice of moderate Sunni Moslems (90% of the world's 900 Million Moslems) on WABC, once a month.
Seif's message is that of unity, of the common origin and beliefs shared by Moslems, Jews and Christians. He does not speak of the differences. Rather, he brings forth the common principles: that the true Muslim believes in all the Prophets and Messengers , including Noah, Abraham (Ibrahim), Moses, David and Jesus; that he must believe in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament as well as the Koran: that above all, he must believe in the Oneness of God. At which point he recites the Shmah, the basic statement of Oneness of God in Hebrew.
He is concerned that the troublemakers among Muslims, as among Jews, are misinterpreting the teachings of the scriptures, of love, mercy and justice. According to Seif, the Muslim Jihad, the holy war, was not to overpower the world, because Islam does not believe in conversion. It was to defend Islam. The concept originated with the Prophet Mohammed's flight to Medina, from the disbelievers in Mecca, and his successive defenses against the Meccan agressors. The extremists in Islam who advocate fighting against non-Muslims, are doing it to dominate the society. This does not reflect the teachings of Islam, says Seif.
Further, the Sunnis do not recognize a religious hierarchy, or clergy. The relationship between the person and God is direct. An Immam is a leader, yet a layman. Among the Sunnis there are no ayatollahs.
This message, delivered without script but with frequent browsings in a sheaf of biblical and Koran quotes, initiated an hour of discussions during the social Oneg Shabbat after services, during which Seif was surrounded by questioning congregants. Seif came to Brotherhood accompanied by the Consul-General of Egypt, Hon. Sameh Darar, who too believes in the message of peace, but must travel with bodyguards, for fear of political attempts. There were also three Ashmawy supporters from the Egyptian- American community, as well as his wife and his college-bound son Omar, both active editors in the Voice of Peace.
Judging from his followers, it is easy to believe when Seif Ashmawy states that the majority of Muslims are for peace. He holds no brief for the regimes that provide for the average Muslim no means of expressing his opinion, and abhors the
terrorists that respond to moderates with violence. The peace effort must go on.
The Brotherhood congregation opened it its heart to this hopeful message. The traditional embraces between the Arab visitors and members went on and on. I saw an ordinarily sceptical woman survivor of the Holocaust death camps shower kisses on Seif. There were members of the congregation persuasively expressing trust in Seif Ashmawy's person and message, deep in discussions with their more doubtful brethren.
It is understandable that the magnetism of Ashmawy's personality and the optimism of his message is appealing to middle-class Americans, both Arab and Jewish. It is doubtful that the same appeal can be made to the ragged Arab masses, in desperately hopeless conditions and incited by fanatics promising salvation and a a better life. Economic conditions as much as politics and religion drive the social unrest that threatens not only the peace effort in Israel but also the governments of Egypt, Algeria and particularly the rich oil states. But unless we support the peace effort, no matter how doubtful the outcome, we are certain to have wars.
Ashmawy is a panelist on the once-a-month ecumenical session of a popular call-in program, Religion on the Line, on WABC Radio every Sunday, 6AM to 9AM. The other three sessions are individually hosted by Father Paul Keenan, Rev Dr Byron Schaeffer and Rabbi Joseph Potasnick.