A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in the home of Imam Salahuddin Barakat in the Swedish city of Malmö. I’ve just met him for the first time; but his other guest, Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen, is a regular here. As the imam serves Arabic coffee and kosher cinnamon buns, I adjust my camera and the rabbi, with a notable air of familiarity, makes himself at home on the couch.
The two men first met three years ago, after Imam Barakat reached out to the local Jewish community in an attempt to bridge the gap between Jews and Muslims in Sweden’s third-largest city, which has justly earned a reputation for virulent anti-Semitism and gang-related crime—much of it associated with the largely Muslim immigrant population. The imam’s move, as bold as it was unexpected, was politely but unambiguously rebuffed.
Salahuddin Barakat is in no way a liberal. Raised in Sweden by somewhat secular Lebanese-born parents, he started attending religious services in his early teens and went on to study sharia in Yemen before becoming a conservative Sunni scholar. In 2013, he launched his own religious network, Islamakademin, which services nine different Muslim groups around Malmö.
Rabbi HaCohen has a similar pedigree. His parents, immigrants to Israel, met while studying at the Hebrew University, together embraced Orthodoxy, and then settled in Tekoa, a tight-knit West Bank community. As he describes it:
In Tekoa we lived close not only to other Jews but also to the Palestinians, and we solved problems and dealt with conflict in a genuinely humane way. It’s not that it was idyllic, but we were right there, you know, rubbing up against each other and being forced to deal with having each other around.
Imam Barakat’s own encounter with “the other” came through his then-mandatory military service, in his case in the Swedish air force. In describing the experience, he switches from English to Swedish, and I’m somewhat taken aback by his effortless regional dialect; it reminds me of my uncle, who hardly ever left the tiny village outside of Malmö where he was raised. “A big part of my own success,” the imam explains,
has been knowing the Swedish language while staying true to my faith and culture, so I decided that at Islamakademin I would teach Islam in Swedish, providing both those things at the same time to people who desperately need them.
Again Rabbi HaCohen’s experience was similar. Long disturbed by the extent to which the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and suffering have come to define Jewish identity in the Diaspora, he was curious to see what might happen if a community under pressure—and, arriving in Malmö, he certainly knew the city’s reputation—started focusing on the positive aspects of who and what they were. “The Jews in Malmö,” he says,
are perhaps not religious, but they are certainly the most traditional in the country, and they have been through a lot in the past few years. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, coming here, but I knew I wanted to bring more to the table than just the bare minimum. I wanted [to give them] direction and purpose.
After reaching out to the Jewish community for a second time, Imam Barakat met Rabbi HaCohen, and the two immediately hit it off. Over countless cups of black coffee, they exchanged stories of their lives and experiences and in time established a trust that would embolden them to attempt the impossible.
“We quickly realized that we viewed the world in a similar way,” Imam Barakat says, “not because we are similar or believe similar things but because of our radical differences.” And not just their own personal differences. As the imam elaborates, the secularism of most Swedish Jews makes them even more baffling to Muslims, whereas “meeting someone Orthodox and visibly Jewish like Rabbi HaCohen makes us realize that we share so many challenges of faith.”
As a few initial meetings developed into a true friendship, the two leaders decided to bring members of their respective communities into the conversation. They formed the organization Amanah, a word that means faith or confirmation in Hebrew and trust or reliability in Arabic—the two words share a common Semitic root—and started contacting schools in the city’s infamous “no-go” zones, offering to come address the issues no one else wanted to touch.
“The first thing I do when I enter the classroom is to draw a giant star of David in blue marker on the whiteboard,” says the rabbi. “All the Muslim kids turn to the imam in shock and look at him as if to ask if this is acceptable.” After the shock wears off, the men talk about religion—one of the last taboos in secular Sweden—explaining the historic relationship between Judaism and Islam and the role of prophets within both cultures.
At this point it’s worth mentioning that the real tension at the imam’s home is between me and Rabbi HaCohen. Reporting on the plight of Swedish Jewry early in my journalistic career, I wrote and spoke critically about the work he was doing with the imam. To my mind, it risked sending a signal that the two communities shared equal responsibility for the violence and persecution, giving credence to the idea that the problem was one of “intercommunal tensions” rather than one of anti-Semitic violence. (This same misdirected refrain, heard frequently in France, has now cropped up in the U.S. in describing attacks on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and Jersey City.)
A few days after expressing these thoughts in print, I’d received an email from the rabbi inviting me to a conversation about the work he does and why he does it. It was over a year before I could take him up on his offer, and when I did, he was—perhaps understandably—somewhat reluctant to agree. So in this encounter I decide to address the issue directly. Turning to the imam, I explain that because the Jews are a weak and vulnerable minority, I worry that the stronger majority (Muslims make up a third of the population in Malmö) will chew us up and spit us out, gaining public goodwill in the process.
As I speak my piece, I can see the first signs of annoyance shadowing the imam’s face. “You call us the strong majority, but you couldn’t be more wrong,” he replies.
The Muslims of Malmö are a fractured group; we came from countries where religion was cost-free and part of society and came to a place where religion isn’t only expensive but also taboo. This has led to our youth turning away from religion, turning toward materialism and fast money, losing their traditions and their culture.
When it comes to the local Muslim view of the Jews, he adds, most see them as a model of integration, and not even as a minority. And that, he adds,
is probably part of the problem. We view Jews as members of the majority, as people with influence and power, who have cracked the code of [how to enter Swedish] society. It wasn’t until the government tried to ban male circumcision recently that a lot of Muslims realized that Jews also are religious and are under attack as much as we are.
Chiming in, Rabbi HaCohen reminds us of other prevailing stereotypes of Jews, like the trope that they control the media and the banks; these are widespread among Swedish Muslims, and they contribute to the deep and real issues between them that are in need of being addressed. That is why the two men started Amanah. Still, he adds, speaking to and with the Muslim community hasn’t been his biggest challenge. “Speaking to the Swedish church is much harder, because there is less of a sense of direction there; they are more unsure of where they are heading.”
Imam Barakat nods. “The moment we two start talking about sharia and halakhah, we understand each other, and we find a common language.”
Pushing back a bit, I ask whether they’re afraid they will go too far in seeking similarities, perhaps imperiling the disparate religious identities that brought them to the table to begin with. Rabbi HaCohen shakes his head and smiles: “You don’t lose religion by meeting; you only gain.”
What, then, of the backlash that each has faced from his own side?
Imam Barakat is a very outspoken critic of Salafism, the radical interpretation of Islam that animates Islamic State. Salafist imams have indeed cited his work with the Jewish community to accuse him of being a stooge.
Rabbi HaCohen, for his part, has been widely criticized by fellow Jews (myself once among them). Though he usually shakes it off, at times it cuts a bit close to the bone:
I have been accused of lying about the state of anti-Semitism in Malmö, for hiding attacks on my children and whitewashing the situation in Malmö, and that genuinely hurts me. I’m not a liberal person with a political agenda; I am an Orthodox Jew. . . . My life is far from liberal.
For the past three years, the rabbi and imam have visited most of the schools in Malmö, including those catering to newly arrived immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. They organize mutual events for religious holidays; during this year’s commemoration of Kristallnacht, Imam Barakat was the first speaker.
I made a point of speaking only about anti-Semitism, because I know how it feels to have your issue hijacked by other causes, muddying the waters and diluting the cause. This was not the time to mention Islamophobia, but a time to show respect toward the Jews and what they have lived through.
For both men, this is a rule as much as a habit developed through their many meetings. They support each other, but don’t use each other; they study religious texts together, but do not seek consensus or strive to be alike. When a mosque was burned down earlier this year, Rabbi HaCohen showed up at community prayers to lend support. When there are anti-Semitic attacks, the imam makes clear public statements of condemnation. They’re able to work side by side precisely because they are so clearly different, each so deeply religious, knowing that neither party will bend to the other but rather act as neighbor and ally in difficult times.
I ask the two men what they have learned from each other as well as what they have accomplished together. “Well,” the rabbi says as he shifts a bit on the couch and smiles at the imam,
I certainly gained a true friend in an unlikely place. And I learned that [Sweden’s] ultra-secular society views us both as a problem to be solved. Swedes ask themselves how to integrate us immigrants and still preserve their freedom from the religions we live by. The imam and I don’t see each other or our communities as problems; we choose to emphasize freedom for religion, rather than freedom from it.
For his part, Imam Barakat sees much to be learned by the Muslim community from what the Jews have achieved:
You [Jews] integrate almost everywhere you go. You learn the language and the codes [of behavior] and lead successful lives. This is to be emulated rather than envied and despised. Another powerful thing is Israel, having a nation of your own. We, the Muslims, have all fled from countries that we either can’t go back to because of war or that won’t have us. Where would we go if something happens, as you would go to Israel? . . . Jews and Muslims here have this in common: we don’t fully trust the state. Our histories have taught us to have a back-up plan; the Jews have a much more stable one than we do.
The recently proposed bans in Sweden on male circumcision and import of kosher meat have helped the two religious leaders reach many in their communities who previously were skeptical of their collaboration. Today, both say that the situation in Malmö is getting better, although it is far from ideal. I ask Rabbi HaCohen if wears a kippah publicly and if he is ever accosted; it does happen, he confirms, but much more rarely than the media would have one believe.
Yes, I get yelled at, people say nasty things, but also a lot of Arab shopkeepers recognize me and come up to say Shabbat Shalom. And, to be perfectly honest, getting yelled at would happen anywhere in Europe.
After about an hour of conversation and cardamom coffee my time is up, and I follow the rabbi out as Imam Barakat hangs back with his children. Before we part ways, I ask the rabbi if he thinks the tide of anti-Semitism in Malmö can be turned. He shrugs a little, a slight movement connoting guarded hope rather than apathy:
A lot of people want Malmö to fail, just as they want Salahuddin and me to hate each other. We’ve chosen not to play along.