Conquering prejudice face-to-face

Overcoming prejudice and clearing up misunderstandings through direct encounters: thatʹs the goal of Abrahamic Teams. A Christian, a Jew and a Muslim inform people together about their different faiths. Claudia Mende spoke to the projectʹs initiator, Jurgen Micksch

By Claudia Mende

Mr Micksch, what inspired you to create the Abrahamic Teams?

Jurgen Miksch: In 2001, a teacher at a Catholic school in Hanau wanted to invite me to come and give a talk on Islam. It was after the 9/11 attacks. I suggested a Muslim speaker instead and her reaction was: thatʹs out of the question. Our students are frightened of Islam. That was the mood at the time. Then I suggested coming myself and bringing a Jewish and a Muslim speaker with me. I never heard from this woman again, but that was how the idea came about of sending Abrahamic Teams of Jews, Christians and Muslims into schools. The first event took place in November 2001 at a Catholic school in Mainz. After that, the project started to run in schools, museums, police forces and church congregations. Weʹve now run more than 500 of these events and what seemed impossible at the beginning has become perfectly normal. 

How do you put the teams together?

Miksch: We have a pool of participants comprised of more than 200 personalities from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, from all over Germany. When the enquiry comes in from a school, for example, we put together a team based on the topic theyʹve requested. As a rule, the team members have a background in theology. Theyʹre teachers, professors, imams, rabbis, priests or experts on one of the three religions – and they come from all over the country. It can sometimes be difficult to find the right people, in the eastern part of Germany for example, where we generally tend to have fewer events.

Can you give me a few examples of the kinds of events you organise?

Protestant theologian Jurgen Micksch (source: Abrahamisches Forum)
Der evangelische Theologe Jürgen Micksch war 1994 bis 2017 Vorsitzender des Interkulturellen Rates in Deutschland und ist Initiator der Internationalen Wochen gegen Rassismus und des Abrahamischen Forums.

Miksch: They are very diverse. We have teams made up of women, who talk about the view of women taken by each religion. Schools might invite the teams in if there have been conflicts between students from different religions or cases of sexual harassment, for example. The police invite Abrahamic Teams in to learn about how they can inform people of different religions about a death in the most appropriate way. And then there are requests for lighter topics such as cooking together.  We cover every subject you can think of, from Abraham as the Biblical father of all three monotheistic religions, all the way to political issues to do with the conflicts in the Middle East – although politics isnʹt the main focus of our work.

What kind of questions do you get?

Miksch: School students should be able to ask about anything that concerns them, and they do. There are often questions about violence, the role of women, why Muslim women wear headscarves. In schools, itʹs often the first time that teachers and students have met a Jewish person: this personal engagement with the Other is central to what we do.

Our work has also been evaluated a number of times. What weʹve learned from these evaluations is that the important thing about the teams isnʹt so much the events, but the friendships that are formed within the teams. These friendships are very solid and make a very strong impression. And that also has an effect on the students. Once, the Jewish representative was late to an event in a school classroom. The imam was already there. He stood up and hugged the Jewish woman. It made a huge impression on the students: a Muslim gets on so well with a Jew that he hugs her. These images stay in peopleʹs minds.

Has the recent anti-Semitism debate affected the work of the Abrahamic Teams?

Miksch: Absolutely. Weʹve expanded the activities of the Abrahamic Teams as a result. But it should also be said that there are no reliable sources on anti-Semitism among refugees and migrants. I was expecting severe anti-Semitism from the Syrian refugees, due to the politics in Syria. But in all the surveys Iʹve conducted, I havenʹt been able to verify that. Still, these debates exist, and claims are being made, and thereʹs a lot of fear. So now, in collaboration with the International Weeks against Racism, weʹve started inviting Jewish personalities to Friday prayers in mosques, where they get to speak to the assembled faithful.

And that works?

Miksch: We tried it out for the first time last year, in Raunheim (Hesse). It was a huge challenge for the Jewish partners, but it worked wonderfully. All the big Islamic associations endorsed the idea. This year, these Jewish-Muslim encounters are taking place in eleven places across Germany.

How did this particular project come about?

Miksch: We went to the mosque communities and encouraged them to invite people from the neighbourhood to Friday prayers during the UN Weeks Against Racism. Then we had the idea of inviting personalities from public life – mayors, for instance – into the mosques. That was very well-received. In March 2018, during the Weeks Against Racism, there were 1700 events in mosques, and in many places city mayors took part as well. Because of the anti-Semitism problem, we came up with the idea that Muslims should just get to know Jews. As a rule, mosque-attending Muslims have never met a Jew in their lives. We approached the Muslim associations and they were all ears. Right away, they all wanted to participate. And during the preparations, none of the mosque congregations we approached made things difficult for us.

What do these Jewish personalities talk about at the mosques?

Miksch: Thatʹs left up to each individual, of course, but usually they speak on the topic of racism, the problem of anti-Semitism and their own experiences of hostility. They also talk about what people can do together to overcome these problems. And then the imams take up the theme in their Friday sermon. In Germany both anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism are an issue. We see our task as being to dismantle these prejudices through direct human contact.

The Mediterranean region seen on a globe (source: Abrahamisches Forum)
Abrahamische Teams rund um den Globus und der MENA-Region: Ziel dieses Projektes Abrahamische Teams in MENA – Ländern ist die Verbesserung des Miteinanders zwischen Juden, Christen und Muslimen in Ländern der Region Mittlerer Osten und Nord Afrika (Middle East and North Africa), insbesondere in Mittelmeerländern wie Ägypten, Israel oder Marokko. Im Januar 2016 konnte eine erste Veranstaltung mit einem Abrahamischen Team aus Juden, Christen und Muslimen in Israel durchgeführt werden.

And are these interfaith encounters making progress?

Miksch: At the grassroots level, there have been a lot of very positive developments, even if they arenʹt well known among the public. When we started the Abrahamic Teams in 2001, Catholic priests or Protestant church leaders sometimes said: weʹre not going to have a Muslim come into our congregation. In the initial phase, it was often difficult to win the church congregations round to the idea of hosting events. That is no longer the case. Today, we have events in synagogues, which was unthinkable at the beginning, in mosques and in churches. As far as the Christian community is concerned, we get the most enquiries from Protestant congregations. And of course, despite these socially-engaged congregations, there are still a lot that donʹt have any contact with people from other faiths. Thereʹs still a lot of work to be done.

Do the teams experience any hostility when theyʹre carrying out their work?

Miksch: For years now, weʹve had hardly any problems at our events. These days, itʹs just isolated cases. A while ago in northern Germany, for example, an army officer insulted a Jew from an Abrahamic Team using anti-Semitic language. We had an in-depth discussion of it straight away at another event. But such incidents have become extremely rare. At the beginning, we sometimes couldnʹt find venues to host our events, because people didnʹt want to support us, but that doesnʹt happen anymore. These days the Abrahamic Teams enjoy widespread acceptance.

Interview conducted by Claudia Mende

© 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon