“Do you agree that this movie presents a lesson in interreligious work?” Imam Salahuddin Barakat and Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen are seated on the stage of the movie theater Panora, not far from Möllevången in Malmö. It is an evening in May and they have just finished the screening of Besa – about Muslims who protected Jews during World War II. They respond in general terms to the moderator’s questions and those who had expected the conversation to veer towards the relations between Jews and Muslims in Malmö will be waiting in vain. But that is not the purpose. Not tonight. Instead, this will be a rather low-key presentation of a new and unique partnership. The relationship between the minorities in Malmö has been tense for many years. There has been dialogue in the past but most agree that it never had any real grounding at the community level. Rather, the perception has been that the minorities were placed in a room together as a political reaction to an infected situation. Now, the time has come to go at it on their own. For the first time ever in Sweden. Two young men, an Imam trained in Yemen and a Rabbi from the West Bank, have been tasked to make sure that it succeeds.
A few months earlier, I met up with rabbi Moshe David HaCohen in the city´s synagogue. His appearance is not exactly that of a spiritual paper pusher. This day in March, he is wearing a baseball cap, not a kippah, and a dark hooded jacket. His face is framed by a bushy beard and sidecurls that are tucked behind his ears. The new Rabbi of Malmö has recently left the West Bank, where he lived with a seemingly endless conflict right on his doorstep. His role model is the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, who advocated equal rights for the Palestinians on the West Bank. This tradition has also given birth to the grass roots organization Shoreshim (“roots” in Hebrew), which gathers both Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank. The goal is to understand each other’s perspectives in the conflict, to advocate non-violence and to support each other in times of escalating conflict.
– We need to ask ourselves what we can do to learn from each other, which does not mean that we have to give up part of our identity. Peace (Shalom) comes in the name of God and is not a political process. It is about accepting the Other, says Moshe David HaCohen.
These are the experiences that Moshe David HaCohen brings to Malmö. Even if you can’t compare Malmö to the West Bank, it is a place that has acquired a negative reputation internationally, not the least because of the vulnerability of the Jewish population.
– You can imagine when I told my friends, neighbors and family that I was moving to Malmö? They of course googled it and all of the negative stuff comes up. The most violent city, the antisemitism, extremism, gangs. Sure, extreme acts might take place, but normal people are not interested in extremism.
When Moshe David HaCohen was being discussed as a candidate for the rabbinic position in Malmö, the board of the community reflected on his geographical background.
– I have never visited the area where Moshe David HaCohen comes from (a part of the Tekoa settlement), but I have understood that there is quite a lot of work going on related to cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, says community chairman Freddy Gellberg.
For the dialogue project in Malmö, his background could have been both positive and negative. Positive, in the sense that he has experience in working with Palestinians in a complex situation. Negative, considering the volatile nature of the Israel-Palestine question. To hide the rabbi’s background from the potential dialogue partner was never an alternative. Instead, they did the opposite.
– When we have met with Muslim representatives, Moshe David HaCohen himself has come out and told them. I haven’t felt that it has been a major issue. If you meet an imam who is not influenced by political conflicts alone, he might know more about the background than most other people do.
Last fall, the Jewish community invited Salahuddin Barakat and Andreas Hasslert to the Jewish Community Center, to be part of the employment process for the new rabbi. Andreas Hasslert converted to Islam 15 years ago and has become a key figure among Arab-speaking Sunni Muslims in Malmö.
– The board of the community wanted to know if we would be able to advance the dialogue and the process with Moshe David HaCohen, Hasslert says. The answer was affirmative. Both Salahuddin Barakat and I came to the conclusion that he has exactly the right spiritual qualities and the social engagement that we would desire in a rabbi in order to resolve these issues. The Islamic Association in Malmö liked the idea of a dialogue project with the Jewish Community. During the year, the process has been grounded above all in the Arabic Sunni Muslim communities in Malmö.
– They have a much more emotional connection to Palestine, and there are many Palestinians in Malmö. That’s where the dialogue needs to be at its strongest.
Do you think that people with strong emotional bonds to Palestine might question the dialogue?
– Yes, but we need to return the questions: in which way do we move the issue forward by demonstrating in a town square? I understand the frustration but it doesn’t lead anywhere and it doesn’t resolve the situation here in Sweden. Those who only have the Palestinian issue on their minds will have a hard time digesting the concept of dialogue to begin with.
Salahuddin Barakat is a busy man. His Islamic academy is growing and he teaches and preaches in several mosques. When we meet at a venue belonging to the Islamic academy in central Malmö, he apologizes for having to water the plants. There just hasn’t been time. Salahuddin Barakat came to Sweden from Libanon at the age of seven. His family was fairly secular, but his personal interest in spiritual matters made him read the Bible, the Quran and Greek mythology at an early age. His big dream was to become a pilot, but the 9/11 attacks threw a wrench into those plans. (He did his military service as a flight mechanic and platoon leader in Ronneby in the south of Sweden. He didn’t get good enough grades to apply for pilot training. “Without good reasons, as I see it, and I was also bullied by the commanding officers. Unfortunately”.) During his studies at the university, life took another direction when he delved into Islamic studies. The meeting with a Yemenite imam inspired him move to Yemen for studies at a theological college. He stayed for four years. Today, not yet 40, he has become maybe the most influential imam in Malmö. Working with the Jews in Malmö just seems natural, he says.
“We live in a time where life for minorities will only grow more difficult. We have a lot to offer each other. The Jewish minority has a deeper grounding in society, while the Muslims are a large minority group. Their experience, coupled with ours, makes us a strong voice in a society that unfortunately is turning increasingly “brown.” There are common issues to rally behind, such as the kosher / halal topics and the question of circumcision. Areas where freedom of religion are under threat in Sweden. Cooperation is also important in order to resolve the conflicts that exist between Jews and Muslims in Malmö, says Salahuddin Barakat. “There are some Muslims with anti-Semitic ideas, as well as there are Jews who harbor islamophobic and anti-arab perceptions. That makes cooperation around our common issues more difficult.” What is important, according to Salahuddin Barakat, is that the Israel-Palestine issue is left off center stage in the dialogue effort.
Some of the divisions between the groups that have existed in Malmö are seen to originate in that conflict.
– Yes, without a doubt. While antisemitism is an ideology that exists independently of the conflict in the Middle East, the conflict has nourished these anti-Semitic notions. The Palestinian question will without a doubt be discussed when we are out talking, but it is not our task to resolve that conflict. Our task will be to get people to keep things apart, at least to the level where you are not subjecting others to hatred and threats.
At the end of July 2017, the conflict once again spills over into Sweden. After two Israeli policemen are killed by Israeli Arabs, Israel establishes rigorous security measures at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The intrusive surveillance procedures in connection to the prayer upset Muslims, leading to clashes and deaths among both Israelis and Palestinians. During a demonstration in Helsingborg in the south of Sweden, an imam is heard calling Jews the “offspring of monkeys and swine”. Salahuddin Barakat is invited to comment on the episode on Swedish radio, where he deplores the imam’s statement. When he sends out an invitation through the Islamic Academy for a night of prayer for the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Moshe David HaCohen writes on his Facebook page: The time has come to put an end to violence at holy sites. I wish we could hold a common prayer at the holy site. As people of faith, we can strengthen each other and work together against this place being occupied through violence by anyone in any way.
During the spring and summer of 2017, the ties between the Jewish and Muslim communities have kept growing stronger. When Salahuddin Barakat and Moshe David HaCohen meet at the Jewish Community in August, a lot of work has been done on the project description of what is to become the flagship program for the cooperation: Amanah. The name comes from the Hebrew word Emunah (faith) and Amen. In Arabic, the word approximately means “fulfilling or upholding” trust. The name is meant to reflect the hope of faith-based trust between the Jewish and the Muslim communities.
– The ambition is not only a dialogue that brings the minorities closer to each other, but also to work together against prejudice towards minorities in general, Salahuddin Barakat explains. Moshe David HaCohen elaborates: – This is about more than tolerating each other. It is about creating faith and trust at a deeper level through a common identity and theological discussions.
In which way will we notice Amarah in Malmö?
– When conflicts appear, we will be present and able to help our communities. Together, we can contribute to creating an atmosphere that is more open and permitting. We can contribute in underscoring the historic Jewish existence and grounding in the city and provide them the complete right and openness to entirely realize their identity. The same is of course true for the Muslims, says Salahuddin Barakat.
Andreas Lovén is a journalist, working in Skåne
Translated from Swedish by Erik Gribbe.