September 25, 2018

Jewish and Muslim courage in the face of hate

On Saturday nights, a man stands on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica yelling false and insulting words against my religion and its followers. I am Muslim; I wear a headscarf, so this feels personal. And while I’ve become somewhat desensitized to it, it is still awful to listen to false accusations against my role model and prophet (Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him) who stood for dignity for all people.

Islam is literally the Arabic word for peace. Just as it does in the Talmud, the Quran, my holy book, states that killing one person is like killing all of humanity, and saving one person is like saving all of humanity. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world—almost a quarter of the world’s population—and yet a small number of criminals claiming to be followers of Islam are in the lime-light. Criminals whose acts are covered in the media while voices like mine, at a rally against violence on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall with mayor Garcetti last December, went largely uncovered. And now this man stands there and preaches lies about my religion, my beliefs and my fellow Muslims as if he knows them better than me. How can he deride me? He doesn’t even know me.

And hate is not just directed against Muslims. Yes, three Muslims were killed by an angry neighbor in Chapel Hill; and nine African American churchgoers were killed in Charleston; forty-nine mostly LGBTQ Latinos in a nightclub in Orlando; two more Muslims several weeks ago in Queens, the day after Khalid Jabara was shot in Tulsa by a neighbor who had been harassing his family, calling them “dirty Arabs” for years, and making good on threats to harm them.

My friends and I decided to stand up to the rising hate and fear by organizing what we call a Circle of Courage, where we told our stories in a public space and invited other people to do the same. It was amazing, and it showed me that hate is not incurable.

My co-organizers came from Muslim and Jewish backgrounds. We met through a high school leadership program with NewGround: a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. I joined the program, MAJIC, but still I wondered how would it work? Joining NewGround put me in unfamiliar territory. I had had very few encounters with Jews in the past; my preconceptions about them were reinforced by biased social media and my own ignorance.

So often we paint an entire religion with a broad brush. I had never, in my mind, separated the human from the Jew and the Jew from the politics. The friendships I developed with NewGround pushed me to change. And then, together as a group, we created this Circle of Courage where we spoke out publicly against hate.

One Sunday morning, I stood with a group of Jews and Muslims, my friends, on the busy Santa Monica Promenade—on the same ground where that man yelled out insults to my faith. That morning, together we challenged our comfort zones and use the same voices of peace and love in defense of Islam. People who I once believed to be my enemies used their own Jewish identity to call out the inexcusable behavior driven by hate and ignorance.

We made room for people to speak. There was one woman whose grandmother survived the Holocaust. She spoke from personal experience about the danger of the rising tide of Islamophobia. I was blown away by her courage, and by my friends’ courage to speak out against the ills in society, the courage for Muslims and Jews to stand together in public space, challenging the false pretense of our born hatred.

The Circle of Courage proved to me that we all have the ability, regardless of age, regardless of faith, to make change, to diminish stereotypes, and get to know and accept one another, no matter what identity we hold true. The Circle of Courage was a moment that showed me what I thought was impossible is possible, that Muslim and Jews can join hands to defend one another, speak out against hate and bridge the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In the Circle of Courage, it became clear that Jews have suffered from the effects of anti-Semitism, and Muslims have been haunted by Islamophobia. Unfortunately—but also fortunately—it was through that shared injury we found common ground. We used it as an incentive to ignite our passions, and to speak loud for all that is good, and to tell our stories.


Jannah Jakvani is a student at Mount San Antonio College and a founder of One Medium, a non-profit organization bringing people from different faiths together to help those in need.