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As a Muslim Hebrew teacher, the Texas synagogue hostage attack made me anxious and sad

Having seen and heard conspiracy theories about Jews among fellow Muslims growing up, I began to study Arabic and Hebrew at university to help me better understand things for myself. My year abroad in Jerusalem was incredibly eye-opening, and after graduation, I began working at a Jewish Sunday school as a Hebrew teacher

Zain Hussain
Thursday 20 January 2022 13:47
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<p>Law enforcement personnel continue the investigation to the hostage incident at Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, USA, 16 January 2022</p>

Law enforcement personnel continue the investigation to the hostage incident at Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, USA, 16 January 2022

The Jewish community in Texas is still reeling from the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue hostage situation, which hit headlines around the world over the weekend and early this week. The identity of the perpetrator has been disclosed by the FBI. British citizen Malik Faisal Akram, 44, from Blackburn in the UK was shot dead after a standoff with police. Two teenagers have been arrested in Manchester in connection with the attack.

While this particular incident has captured the attention of the world, it’s not even an isolated incident. Just last October, a right-wing extremist, Franklin Barrett Sechriest, set a fire in the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue.

As a Hebrew teacher, I watched the incident unfold with horror. I couldn’t help but feel that this incident could have happened at my synagogue in London. As a Muslim, a part of me was also concerned about the anti-Muslim rhetoric that might unfold: how people might generalise about Muslim communities as a result and how Islamophobia might be bolstered by the reports.

A rise in the far-right across Europe and the US means that Jewish and Muslim communities are more under attack than ever before. In the summer of 2017, Darren Osborne drove into Finsbury Park mosque in London, killing one and injuring nine. In April 2019, John T. Earnest carried out a shooting in Poway synagogue, San Diego. Just days before, he had set fire to a mosque in Escondido. Then we had the October 2019 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. The Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand of March 2019 had happened just a few months before.

Right-wing extremism is an overwhelming physical threat to Jewish communities in Europe and the US. However, to discount Muslim antisemitism would be disingenuous. While it is too early to say what the exact motives were, it seems that the perpetrator made links between the structures of power holding Aafia Siddiqui in custody and the Jewish community. The dissemination of right-wing and white supremacist conspiracy theories about Jews ruling the world, or governing the media, unfortunately plagues many Muslim circles. Although only a small number of Muslim extremists will actually carry out terrorist attacks, it remains true that jihadists and Islamist extremists often use antisemitic conspiracy theories to justify their ideology and actions.

My fear — as is the fear of many Muslims who watched the news of the synagogue hostage situation with horror — is that this latest attack will be used to justify false, Islamophobic narratives about all Muslims. There is precedence for these concerns. In December 2021, Chairman of the Jewish National Fund UK, Samuel Hayek, was interviewed in a Jerusalem Post article headlined “Jews do not have a future in England”. The article stated that “antisemitism has been constantly rising [in the UK] and is only expected to grow,” adding, “One of the reasons is shifting demographics. The population of individuals who are anti-Jewish and anti-Israel, most significantly Muslim immigrants to the UK, is increasing and their influence on the government is too.” It continued: “The Muslim population in England has been growing consistently. An article published in the Telegraph in 2017 stated that the Muslim population could triple in the two decades and is likely to number around 13 million by 2050.” This piece, which drew a direct correlation between rising levels of antisemitism and the presence of Muslims in the UK, was disappointing to read. The fact that it encouraged Jewish people to leave the country was also deeply saddening.

The Trump administration instituted a Muslim ban not too long ago, and right-wing politicians have been calling for limits on Muslim immigration in Europe for many years now. The anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism that has plagued media and politics in the US, UK and elsewhere since 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror is so normalised that a whole community of people are often blamed for the violent actions of a few.

None of this means that antisemitism in Muslim circles should not be called out. It means that the response to what happened cannot be a demonisation of Muslim immigrants and communities. The heartwarming fact that Rabbi Cytron-Walker is a proud supporter and practitioner of interfaith dialogue, and has relations with a number of Muslim communal organisations, shows that Islamophobes and antisemites alike have no leg to stand on. Working together is possible — and is incredibly rewarding.

Dealing with antisemitism and Islamophobia has been important for me as a Muslim Hebrew teacher. Having seen and heard conspiracy theories about Jews among fellow Muslims growing up, I began to study Arabic and Hebrew at university to help me better understand things for myself. My year abroad in Jerusalem was incredibly eye-opening for me in a number of ways. It also showed me the ways in which Muslims and Arabs are racialised in Israel to justify an oppressive status quo of violence and occupation against Palestinians. I saw how many diaspora Jews coming to Israel had often internalised these ideas.

When I returned to the UK, I began teaching Hebrew at a Jewish Sunday school, and soon started doing interfaith exchanges between the students of my mosque and my local synagogue. We focused on our shared communal understandings of faith, commonalities between Judaism and Islam, their similar Abrahamic roots and the importance of tackling antisemitism and Islamophobia together.

We urgently need to deal with antisemitism and Islamophobia in both of our communities, and stand firmly together against the right-wing threats that threaten us equally. Watching young people during interfaith exchanges, sharing food and faith, discussing commonalities, and strategising about how to fight prejudice as a united group, has made me realise that interfaith action is a key way forward.

Zain Hussain is a Hebrew teacher and educator who specialises in interfaith dialogue

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