Where will good intentions lead?
THERE WE stood: 200 women in a central London venue — practising yoga. In sync, we raised our hands up high and leaned from side-to-side. Upper-bodies stretched, we linked arms and inhaled deeply before letting out a sisterly chant as we exhaled. But this was no ordinary meditation session. On Sunday, women from across the country attended the first female interfaith conference for Jews and Muslims in the UK. The event, led by grassroots group Nisa-Nashim, encouraged guests to wear pink or purple to celebrate the initiative.
Over cups of coffee and cake, new friendships were formed and marked by selfies posted on social media and the exchange of contact details throughout the day. It was heartwarming to witness.
Clusters of women eagerly talked about shared family values and religious practices. Others pointed to mutual concerns, from the rise of racism post-Brexit to the threat posed to both faiths by campaigns against religious slaughter and circumcision. Young women talked about similar demands they faced from their own families, including the relentless pressure to marry suitable partners.
But for all the warmth that came from the group exercises (both physical and mental), one large elephant lingered in the room: Israel.
Interfaith initiatives have long highlighted historical alliances and reminded us that, as people of faith, we have more in common than apart. Yet, prejudice and suspicions linger on both sides. Time and again interfaith groups have broken down whenever a conflict in the Middle East rears its head. Some have even attempted to ban any mention of Israeli-Palestinian politics in a bid to prevent tension between “friends”.
Yet, how strong can these so-called alliances be if they cannot even withstand simple discussion of one of the most key issues facing both of our communities? What kind of bond needs censorship to keep it alive?
After taking part in a panel on “challenging the narrative”, I put this question to Nisa-Nashim co-chair Laura Marks. She maintained that this interfaith group is different: the women are in charge.
“Instead of trying to persuade people that they are wrong, we are trying to persuade people that we are worth talking to,” she explained. “That is a massive piece of interfaith work that men are not doing. They are not going to get anywhere until they have a friend.”
But still, the unspoken tension exists. “Our policy on Israel is to acknowledge that it is the elephant in the room — and we have parked it. We are not ready to talk to people about it, we haven’t got a relationship with people where we can talk about it. The moment you get into it, you just clash.”
Outside the lecture theatre, I met Leeds councillor Salma Arif, the local co-chair of Nisa-Nashim who had come with six group members to the conference. Listing all the things our communities had in common, I questioned whether they meant much if we could not talk about the issue that hit us at our core?
“There has to be respect and friendship first. Otherwise, if we just go into a room and talk about ‘Israel and Palestine’ we are just not going to agree. If we concentrate on getting to know each other, then we can sit down and have a good conversation.”
The intention is clear. Once positive groups like NisaNashim are ready for that good conversation, opportunities for real relations between our communities are endless.
One large element lingered in the room: Israel
Sandy Rashty is a a journalist at Sky News. Follow her on Twitter: @SandyRashty