Unfortunate ‘dent’ doesn’t take away value of Oslo ‘Ring of Peace’

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Several prayers in our synagogue liturgy refer to “a world torn by violence and pain.” Recent events in which unspeakable atrocities are committed by groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram and their various hydra heads of terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa make that reference painfully real.

A refrain that is often heard in response to events like the beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya by an ISIS offshoot and the literal burning alive of a captured Jordanian pilot by ISIS often leads to questions as to why more Muslim leaders do not speak out against such events.

In fact, in the aftermath of the recent ISIS atrocities, numerous major Islamic scholars, imams, grand muftis and mullahs did speak out to forcefully denounce these crimes against humanity. The Muslim nations of Jordan and Egypt have responded with air strikes against ISIS targets.

In the midst of all of the finger-pointing about whether Islamic leadership denunciations have been sufficiently strong or whether the White House and State Department are fearful to describe such actions as “Islamic extremism” in order not to be branded as “Islamophobic,” came a powerful gesture by a group of Muslims in Norway. They  formed a “Ring of Peace” to protect a synagogue in Oslo this past Shabbat — both to protect the synagogue and its worshippers and to show solidarity with European Jews and victims of recent anti-Semitism. Some commentators noted that the number of Muslims forming the ring was much smaller than some media outlets reported, and that the “ring” was more of a line in front of the synagogue. An interfaith crowd of about 1,000 people participated and one of the organizers told the Times of Israel that the number of Muslims participating was “in the hundreds.”

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Whatever the numbers, the act was a major ray of sunshine breaking through the dark clouds of despair of recent months. Unfortunately — sadly — since the Ring of Peace this past Shabbat, an unfortunate “dent” has surfaced which does darken that ray of sunshine, but which should not take away from the positive aspects of the event.

JTA on Monday reported that the widely applauded “Ring of Peace” was marred by the revelation that one of its principal organizers, Ali Chishti, had admittedly made statements in 2009 against both Jews and Israelis in connection with the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the terrorist attacks in Mubai, India.  By his own admission, those statements,  based on long-discredited canards, were both “anti-Semitic” and “unacceptable.”  Indeed they are, and it would have been better for him to have admitted his past statements and apologies prior to the Ring of Peace demonstration.  Nonetheless, the concept of the “Ring of Peace” and its large number of participants who came together to repudiate anti-Semitism and to publicly demonstrate solidarity with the Jews of Europe was still worthwhile. 

Ervin Kohn, head of the Oslo Jewish community, despite the revelation about Chishti’s remarks, applauded the actual event and said it should be a model for interfaith cooperation and solidarity as a humane and positive gesture against hate and in favor of interfaith understanding and mutual support.

The Oslo Ring of Peace comes in the aftermath of the almost identical twin attacks in Paris and then Copenhagen, self-identified ISIS-influenced terrorists murdered more than a dozen people at a free speech meeting and at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, four Jewish patrons at a kosher market and a Jewish man standing outside a synagogue in Copenhagen.

Despite the revelation of Ali Chishti’s 2009 remarks, the majority of the Muslim group that organized the Ring of Peace around the Oslo synagogue proved that there are indeed members of the Muslim community who are willing to take courageous public actions to oppose anti-Semitism and to show solidarity with the Jewish communities in Europe and worldwide.

Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, which has branches in every nation in the world, prior to the reports of Ali Chishti’s 2009 remarks, issued a statement applauding the Ring of Peace demonstration in Oslo. He said: 

“This show of goodwill serves as a model for fighting the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and reminds us that there are voices of reason in all communities. …  Unfortunately, there are not enough who are willing to act against hate and terror. Combating anti-Semitism should be everyone’s fight; it should not be the sole responsibility of the Jewish people.”

Yes, as was noted by speakers at last week’s White House summit on combating terrorism, leaders of all faith groups have a moral responsibility not only to forcefully condemn terrorism in specific terms, but also to take actions like those of the Ring of Peace participants. In doing the latter, they illustrate that despite the horrific terrorism being perpetrated in the name of Islam, brave voices are opposed to terrorism and eager to demonstrate solidarity with the victims of bigotry and terrorism worldwide.

Interfaith activities such as  the locally sponsored Muslim and Jewish Day of Service, in which Muslim and Jewish volunteers relieve volunteers at Christian charities, hospitals and social service organizations on Christmas Day, and groups such as the Jewish Community Relations Council, AJC, the Anti-Defamation League and Interfaith Partnership, keep lines of positive communication open among all local faith communities.

Last month, many celebrated the immortal words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who prayed, “Let freedom ring” from every mountain top. In a similar vein, let us warmly welcome and applaud the Ring of Peace formed by brave and principled Muslims, Christians and Jews in Oslo this past weekend.  The 2009 statements by one of the event organizers, for which he has apologized, and repudiated, should not detract from the positive aspects of the Ring of Peace.

The next time we hear that “more Muslims” must condemn terrorism and show compassion for the victims of anti-Semitism, we should recall the 1,000 people of good will who took part in the  Ring of Peace demonstration and that indeed people of good will exist among all faith groups in the world, including in the Muslim community.