Fostering Dialogue in Berlin

Fostering Dialogue in Berlin

14 Jun 2016

Salaam-Schalom’s main aim is collaboration on fighting all forms of racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia at the same time, promoting peaceful coexistence and solidarity.

In the response to anti-Semitic slogans that appeared in Berlin’s pro-Palestinian protests, the Salaam-Schalom initative cooperated with the Sehitlik mosque to set up a human chain at a festival marking the end of Ramadan. When a law was passed in Berlin that banned all religious symbols in civil service, they organised an interfaith rally to promote equal employment opportunities for people who wear religious head coverings under the headline #MyHeadMyChoice.

Even though the initiative was established only less than three years ago, their activities have gathered considerable attention, and were even awarded the Ribbon for Courage and Reconciliation by Berlin Governing Mayor Michael Müller in April last year.

In the interview below, Rebecca De Vries and Iskandar Abdalla answer a couple of questions introducing the work of Salaam-Schalom Initiative.

First of all, what are some of the common positive and/or negative reactions that your activities attract?

Rebecca: A lot of people take in interest in our work, and the reaction of the German mainstream, especially, is usually positive. We are very critical of many aspects of German society, for example the scapegoating of Muslim migration for Antisemitism, and therefore have gotten critical reactions as well. But from the Jewish and Muslim side, the idea of bringing minorities together and working together on matters of shared interest has hardly been criticized. That still does not mean that everyone who generally approves will go as far as to participate.

What is the difference in the position, and acceptance of Jews and Muslims in the contemporary German society?

Rebecca: Islam and Judaism have a lot in common, especially when it comes to those aspects that set them apart from German secular society, such as ritual slaughter or circumcision. When circumcision is illegalized, as it was the case in Germany a few years ago, it affects both religious communities, and the discussions, portrayal of our cultures as primitive and brutal towards children, are hurtful and exclusive to both communities. But because of the German history, media and society will be more careful when criticizing Judaism than when showing Islam in a negative light. This is why the Jewish community has a special responsibility addressing anti-Muslim racism and keeping our eyes open not only for ourselves, but for all minorities.

To what extend do you feel that the initiative is endemic to Berlin and/or Germany?

Iskandar: The initiative primarily addresses topics that are related to the German context. When we speak of solidarity and coexistence among different minorities, we mean those who are constructed and perceived as ‘minorities’ vis-à-vis the majority in German society which has a certain legal and political framework. However there are of course many similarities in this sense between Germany and other European countries. There is already a Salaam-Schalom group in Denmark. And we have two local groups in Stuttgart and Hamburg. All these groups share more or less the same principles and guidelines but they work independently.

And do you think this approach could successfully be introduced to other cities/countries?

Rebecca: Yes, and it has been already. Of course every society has a different structure, and religious communities in other places will not necessarily face the exact same challenges as we do in Germany. But speaking for a group that works against racism, xenophobia and homophobia- these issues should be addressed everywhere. There is no country in the world that does not have these problems.

In a piece published by Forward, Armin Langer drew focus on the fact that the initiative consists of 'average people'. How do you perceive the importance of this being a civil, self-organised initiative?

Iskandar: I am not really sure what Armin meant by “average people” . What might be important to mention is that we are a very heterogeneous group. Not only in terms of the variety of confessions among its members, but also with regard to their political convictions, professions and educational backgrounds. Sometimes because of this, there is even potential for conflicts, but at the end, we share a common ground of certain values and goals that make us move forward.

In terms of language used, it's notable that you don't speak of 'tolerance' but ‘coexistence’ and ‘solidarity'.

Rebecca: The term tolerance comes from the Latin tolerare, which means to endure, to suffer. But nobody wants to be endured by the society they were born and raised in. If we do not manage to reach beyond that, how can any of us really feel at home? We want to reach more than the ability to endure each other without interference in each other´s business. We want to get to know each other, to work together, to have common goals and to support each other in solidarity.

Nobody wants to be endured by the society they were born and raised in. If we do not manage to reach beyond that, how can any of us really feel at home?

How have you approached the refugee crisis and the German public discourse on the topic?

Rebecca: There have been a few saddening reactions from parts of the Jewish community in Germany on this question. I find the discussion of whether or not Germany should take in as many refugees a matter of human conscience, historical and moral responsibility, and the refugee-convention, which we have signed, obliges us to it. [Being against acceptance of refugees] because some might have anti-semitic opinions, is absolutely disgraceful. It is not our right to check if we like people's opinions before we give them shelter.

And yes, hosting people of different cultural or religious background might be challenging for our society. But as Jews especially, we should remember that the same concerns were voiced when our grandparents escaped the Nazis and came as refugees to America, for example. This could happen to any of us, and we should be happy that today we are the ones lucky enough to have the opportunity to help and support others.

I am a daughter of a refugee.

What are your currently ongoing and/or what do you have planned for the coming months?

Iskandar: Well, it’s Ramadan. In many Muslim countries there is a tradition called “Ramadan Tent”. These are not literally real tents but they are places hosting cultural events after the Iftar and serve as a possibility for family gatherings. The tent is interestingly a nice Jewish motive too: How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob; how lovely are your homes, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5). We want to host one or two Ramadan tents in Berlin and discuss topics like fasting in Islam and Judaism in comparison or the prophet Joseph in the bible and the Quran.

Rebecca: We are also planning to participate once again in the Long Night of Religions by organizing a workshop on women's equality in Islam and Judaism, and are working on a concept for workshops on religion and minority rights for schools, because we are asked to come into schools quite often.

What would be the best way for someone interested in your work to learn more or join the initiative?

Rebecca: We usually have Brunches about every two months. They are open to anyone interested in meeting us, eating some vegetarian food and asking question or joining. Even though I think the next ones will probably be picnics or barbecues in a park, some time during the summer. We announce all events on the website and through Facebook.

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