When Rabab Nassabieh, a 24-year old Muslim woman from Germany was chosen to join the Muslim Jewish Leadership Council’s Young Ambassador Programme, she jumped at the chance.
Deeply curious about other cultures and religions, Nassabieh admitted she’d only met a few people from the Jewish community prior to the programme. “It’s not very common to meet people from other faiths, because you’re so often in your own bubble. But this was an opportunity to see what kind of potential there is in dialogue between religions.”
Several hundred kilometres away, Vitalina Pasarenko, a young Jewish woman from Poland, had a similar response to joining the programme. For her, it meant showing her family and community that people of all faiths share common values and that Jews and Muslims aren’t as different from one another as the media often suggests.
“I wanted to show that we can be open and crush stereotypes. We are normal people, we have families, we go to the supermarket. Jews and Muslims live lives like anyone else,” she said.
Equipping Young Leaders to Transform Communities
Both Nassabieh and Pasarenko are part of a group of eight young ambassadors from Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK. Each country has one Jewish and one Muslim ambassador who work together under an experienced mentor. The programme is hosted by the KAICIID-supported Muslim Jewish Leadership Council (MJLC) which brings together some of the most influential faith leaders in Europe to counter prejudice and disinformation and to promote pluralism and rights for religious minorities.
Ethan Susser, Coordinator for the MJLC, said that although the Council is normally involved in high-level policy discussions, they were keen to raise up a new generation of leaders. “Young people are underrepresented in interreligious dialogue settings, but the MJLC sees the value they bring to the conversation.”
The MJLC’s selection committee chose ambassadors based on their willingness to openly engage with new faiths and cultures. “They have a wide range of experience, but each one is capable, eager to learn, and willing to leave his/her comfort zone,” Susser said.
The ambassadors have already undergone a series of tailored workshops and trainings which kicked off in December 2022. KAICIID provided expert interreligious dialogue coaching, and programme mentors and other experts provided tips on project management and advocacy and conducted a course on countering hate speech online.
Susser says that equipping the ambassadors with practical skills was a core goal of the programme, since many young people are often ignored and underutilized. “By investing in these young community leaders through training, guidance, and project funding, the MJLC hopes to empower our ambassadors to make meaningful change in their communities in both the short term and the long term.”
Women of Faith Need More Leadership Opportunities
One notable aspect of the programme is that, in addition to being young, many of the ambassadors like Nassabieh and Pasarenko are women. Nassabieh is determined to change the stereotypes that women from certain ethnic and faith backgrounds can’t be bold leaders in their communities.
“There is a very backward perspective about Muslim women who, in reality, are so independent and strong. However, they aren’t always in formal leadership positions like they deserve to be and this needs to change,” she said.
Nassabieh adds that initiatives like the Young Ambassador Programme can help by working directly with communities to transform harmful stereotypes and provide young women with leadership opportunities. “The narrative that Muslim women are oppressed needs to be abolished. It holds them back and keeps them from reaching their full potential. Instead, we need to encourage them to be present and active in all areas of life.”
Bringing Dialogue to Their Communities
Now that the trainings are complete, ambassadors have returned to their home countries, where they’ll spend the remainder of the year implementing community-wide initiatives under the guidance of their mentors.
Pasarenko, Nassabieh, and the other participants have been bouncing around tons of ideas to unite local Jews and Muslims – from interfaith field trips and meetings with policymakers, to art and cooking classes which could incorporate elements of dialogue. In the UK, programme mentor Shayk Faid Mohamed Said, a prominent Imam and Islamic scholar, has been working with his young ambassadors to plan a series of events which will help the Jewish and Muslim communities learn more about each other's beliefs and cultures. Recently his Jewish mentee visited Said’s mosque to learn more about Muslim traditions.
The curiosity and openness is encouraging to Said, who says that the younger generations are slowly casting aside distrust and conflict in favor of dialogue.
“As the older generation, we come with our own challenges, but our greatest failure will be if we do not bring the next generation together. They are the future. As a result of the programme, I see now the level of understanding between our two young ambassadors from the UK. Hopefully, when we bring young Muslims and Jews together in understanding and respect, they will be better than the generations who came before them,” he said.
Finding Strength in Cultural and Religious Identity
Nassabieh and Pasarenko believe most people fear dialogue with other religions because they aren’t confident in their own identities.
According to Nassabieh that’s slowly changing as society begins to recognize that people often have two identities – as Europeans and as Muslims. “I think there's a lot more openness toward our faith. And we are also becoming more confident with our Arab backgrounds but also having roots in Germany. Although of course there is still racism and discrimination which we need to tackle as a society.”
Pasarenko says she also sees hesitancy from young Jews, often because they don’t understand how their culture or faith intersects with their daily lives. “I think our families, our history, our traditions are a part of ourselves. You don’t know who you are until you know your story.”
Said adds this is why he encourages young people to tackle their fears and engage in interfaith dialogue. “That way they can understand that before being Muslim or Christian or Jewish, we are humans first. It is our purpose in this life to spread goodness and stand up for the principles of justice, kindness, mercy and compassion.”
Sharing a common humanity, Nassabieh says, is exactly what societies need to understand, in order to deconstruct narratives that Jews and Muslims can’t get along.
“During the workshops, we discovered that we have much more in common with the values we hold dear,” she said. “Rather than engage in the narrative that our two communities are prone to conflict, the programme chooses to take the more promising path of dialogue and mutual understanding.”