Civil Society, Headlines, North America

RELIGION-US: Who Says Halal and Kosher Don’t Mix?

Adrianne Appel

BOSTON, Mar 19 2007 (IPS) - If you happen to visit Fredericksburg, Maryland soon or other U.S. towns, you may find yourself invited to a local mosque for dinner – especially if you are Christian or Jewish.

“Our community is getting more and more involved in bringing neighbours in,” Zahid Bukhari, director of the American Muslim Studies Programme at Georgetown University, told IPS.

“It is a new phenomenon that is becoming more common,” Bukhari said.

It’s a way to serve up understanding and tolerance together with the delicious food that can be shared among local Muslims, Christians and Jews, Bukhari said.

The mosque events are just one of many interfaith efforts at work in the United States today, a devout nation where religion is very influential.

Interfaith activities that focus on social change are underway at all levels, from groups of national leaders and large coalitions of many faiths, to small-town dialogues among local Muslims, Christians and Jews. Unlike the religious right, which preaches intolerance across the airwaves, many interfaith alliances focus on healing and justice.

The Interfaith Alliance, a national coalition of 185,000 members and 75 faiths, tries to neutralise the influence of the extreme religious right in Washington, many of whose leaders enjoy close ties to President George W. Bush.

“It’s so incredibly important for us to be in existence now more than ever,” Kim Baldwin, director of policy at the Alliance, told IPS.

“Perhaps the religious right isn’t as loud as they once were, but make no mistake, they are just as active as before and they are making tremendous strides in trying to make their points of view at a local level,” Baldwin said.

To make its own voice heard, the Alliance promotes federal legislation, like an anti-hate crimes bill that is being well received in the U.S. House of Representatives, and which would provide more money to local police to investigate and prosecute attacks on people because of their race, religion or other characteristic.

It’s become common in U.S. elections to probe candidates about their religious background, and this shouldn’t be happening, Baldwin said.

“People are very concerned about the manipulative role that religion is playing. People are really frustrated that we are obsessed with the fact that [presidential candidate] Mitt Romney is a Mormon,” Baldwin said.

Democrats seem to feel pressure to flaunt their religion, and are invoking scripture while arguing for legislation, and saying they are reaching out to “people of faith” – a short-hand term for right-wing Christian evangelicals, Baldwin said.

“It just seems that after the 2004 elections, there was a huge call for democrats to ‘go get religion’,” Baldwin said. “It seems inauthentic.”

Many interfaith efforts were born after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, when people preaching anti-Muslim rhetoric gained a larger audience.

Wright Salisbury, a retired architect and graphic designer, and a Christian, started the Alliance for Jewish, Christian, Muslim Understanding after his son-in-law was killed on Sep. 11.

“I had read about some pretty nasty things that went on, including someone killed,” after Sep. 11, as a result of fear and misunderstanding, Salisbury told IPS.

The alliance hosts interfaith discussions at churches, synagogues and mosques in Massachusetts, and twice held large, open peace meetings on the outdoor common in the centre of Boston.

“I thought it would give us a forum in which to discuss religion, an opportunity for people to meet people from other religions,” Salisbury said. And he includes himself.

“I have to say, except for a cab driver or two, I had never met a Muslim in my life,” Salisbury said. “It’s been an enriching experience.”

Los Angeles is home to the third-largest Muslim community in the U.S. and second-largest Jewish community. There, the Progressive Jewish Alliance has joined with the Muslim Public Affairs Council on a new project to build strong, lasting bridges between Muslims and Jews.

A group of 18 Jews and Muslims train together for 10 months so that they can later work together in their communities on issues of mutual concern, like homelessness, immigration and poverty, Malka Fenyvesi, co-coordinator of the project, told IPS.

The participants “talk about issues that are hard and divisive, and about things they have in common,” including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she said.

“We really feel the reverberations here of what happens there. Many people here have very close ties to what’s happening there,”‘ Fenyvesi said. “The programme is being received really well.”

Other groups focus more on the day-to-day problems of working families. In Boston, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organisation, a broad coalition of religious, labour and other groups, works for social justice with an eye toward issues of class and race. The organisation pushes for decent housing, better pay for workers and even helps its members avoid or get out of debt.

Obtaining credit in the U.S. is extremely easy and many people, rich and poor, are tempted to borrow too much money.

The organisation heard repeatedly from its many members, “I am drowning in credit card debt. I can’t make it to the end of the month and pay my bills,” Joel Schwartz told IPS. “We decided this is a serious problem.”

To address it, Boston Interfaith created a “Debt to Assets” programme, which Schwartz leads. About 241 people have taken the class so far, which is offered in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole and Cape Verdean Crioulo.

“The response in general has been far more enthusiastic and powerful than we expected, Schwartz said.

People who are lower income receive additional financial planning advice and a 500-dollar grant, to use toward savings, college or debt. The programme is supported by a bank.

The fact that it has the backing of churches and unions is important to people’s success with it. “The pastor or rabbi can stop in and ask, ‘how’s the budgeting going?’,” Scwhartz said.

When Schwartz isn’t running the debt programme, he’s busy planning the second annual Jewish-Cape Verdean Passover Seder in Boston.

“You’d think they couldn’t be more opposite,” he said of the two cultures. But “right below the surface they have so much in common.”

Both have been immigrants, both have large diasporas and both can relate to the Passover story of freedom from slavery, Schwartz said.

Also, Jews emigrated to Cape Verde twice and about a third of Cape Verdeans have Jewish ancestry, Schwartz said.

“The tradition is kept alive,” Schwartz said.

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