By: Jonathan Levin  | 

Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa, Muslim Leader and 2020 Combat Anti-Semitism Award Recipient, Speaks About Jewish-Muslim Relations at YU

Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa, secretary general of the Muslim World League and recipient of the 2020 Combat Anti-Semitism Award, and President Ari Berman addressed Yeshiva University students and staff on Wednesday, Oct. 20 regarding the future of Jewish-Muslim relations.

The Muslim World League is a non-governmental Islamic organization, headquartered in Saudi Arabia, that aims to champion moderate and tolerant Islam (“true Islam”), engage in dialogue with others and combat radicalism to achieve “peace, justice and coexistence,” according to the organization’s website. In June 2020, the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement and the American Sephardi Federation awarded the Combat Anti-Semitism award to Al-Issa for his successes, which included his unprecedented visit to Auschwitz in January of that year. 

The event, titled, “Jews and Muslims: A Look Toward the Future,” was co-sponsored by YU’s President’s Forum — a new initiative of Berman engaging with global leaders — for which it was its inaugural event; the Muslim World League; YU’s Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs; the American Sephardi Federation and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Held in Belfer Hall’s Weisberg Commons, the talk attracted over 100 attendees.

Berman opened the program, speaking about how the biblical story of Abraham, Issac and Ishmael can serve as a model for Jewish-Muslim reconciliation. He was followed by Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who introduced the sheikh, after which Al-Issa himself took the podium. 

Speaking in Arabic that was then translated by an interpreter, the sheikh spoke about the responsibility of religious communities to engage in interfaith dialogue, the importance of meaningful dialogue in achieving peaceful co-existence and the need to teach values in the education system. The sheikh used the lessons of the Holocaust to emphasize why teaching values is integral, as Nazi Germany did not lack culture, knowledge nor an education system. Rather, Al-Issa said, they only lacked values to guide their advancements. 

“We have a shared responsibility toward the followers of different faiths to build bridges and improve relationships … so that we can have a better tomorrow for future generations,” Al-Issa told the audience through his translator. 

After the sheikh concluded speaking, he and Berman conversed together on the main stage, with Berman posing preselected questions from Yeshiva University students to him. They spoke about Al-Issa’s family and his views on the Middle East today. “Of course both family and education have had a big influence [on me], but also having an open mind and a positive outlook towards the whole universe is very important to understanding the wisdom of diversity,” Al-Issa told Berman. “Diversity should be a tool used for better understanding and better relationships, and not a tool to make people grow apart.”

The event ended with the university presenting Al-Issa with a gift recognizing his achievements in furthering Jewish-Muslim relations.

“In the Torah, Ishmael and Isaac reunite at the funeral of Abraham,” Berman said in a press release. “Today we have an opportunity to not only come together to bury our past but build our brighter future. The visit by Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa to the flagship Jewish university, reflects the enormous opportunity today of reconciliation not only between nation states but between peoples.”  

The sheikh told The Commentator, “It was a great pleasure to join the faculty and students of your prestigious university. It was also edifying to learn of your mission of combining academic excellence with an education of values. Such a values based approach is critical in today’s world, in which we too greatly focus on scientific and technological prowess at the expense of examining our core, common humanity. We need leaders who not just push the boundaries of knowledge, but elevate our consciousness and unite humanity.”

After the sheikh’s visit to YU, he also met with World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres about promoting tolerance and religious freedom on a global scale.

Since taking office in August 2016, Al-Issa has promoted these goals worldwide. His achievements include convening over 1,200 Islamic Scholars in May 2019 in Mecca to sign the Makkah Charter, which promoted moderate Islam and interfaith cooperation, as well as the aforementioned visit to Auschwitz with a delegation of Islamic leaders from 28 countries. He was also a vocal proponent of healing between the Muslim and Buddhist communities of Sri Lanka after the Easter Bombings in 2019.

The sheikh has visited multiple countries and leaders spanning the political divide worldwide, including at the White House, the Vatican, French National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, and the Deputy Prime Minister of Japan. He has also earned many awards for his work in fighting anti-Semitism and for promoting peace, including an honorary doctorate from the United Nations, the 2018 Galileo International Award, and the 2020 Combat Anti-Semitism Award.

Al-Issa also heads the Saudi Defense Ministry affiliated Intellectual Warfare Center, which combats terrorist and extremist ideology.  

In 2020, the Institute of Gulf Affairs, a D.C. think tank that is critical of the Saudi government, accused Al-Issa of antisemitism based on his appearances on Saudi radio in 2014. The Muslim World League responded by saying that it was aware of a “small group” that was trying to “sully” Al-Issa’s achievements with Jewish organizations and would not let themselves “be distracted by the deplorable efforts of any organization that seeks to divide Muslims and Jews.” The American Sephardi Federation, one of the groups that awarded Al-Issa the 2020 Combat Anti-Semitism award, told The Forward that the Shiekh has shown friendship to the Jewish people “in word and deed.”

Over the past few months, the university has engaged with different initiatives with Muslim leaders and countries. In April 2021, Berman visited Dubai for Yom HaShoah, where he spoke and met with Muslim leaders in business, education, politics, and academia. Additionally, on Oct. 5 of this year, Sheikh Abdullah bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Political Affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain, visited YU as part of a two-day trip meeting Jewish leaders across the city. According to the Bahrain Center of Excellence, he spoke about the “importance of the role of global research and academic institutions in supporting a culture of peace and religious tolerance.”

“This next generation of Muslims and Jews have a great opportunity to reconnect the personal bonds that we shared among our communities for generations, only to sadly let them fray because of politics in recent decades,” Al-Issa told The Commentator. “We have so much in common, so much shared history, culture, tradition and even religious practices. We must not let political issues stand in the way of our inter-communitarian relations, which have the power to do so much to heal old wounds and build a stronger alliance against the common foes of hatred, intolerance, racism and extremism.”

He added, “I see us making progress. Obstacles remain but inshallah we shall prevail.”

Toward the end of the program, Berman asked the sheikh, “What do you think prevented an event like this from happening earlier in history, and what do you think changed to make this event possible today?”

Al-Issa responded, “Maybe I didn’t receive an invitation before.”

Photo Caption: President Ari Berman spoke with Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa to over 100 attendees.

Photo Credit:  Yeshiva University