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By Henry Millstein, PhD, Content Consultant
As the Jewish community and people of conscience around the world commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is timely to reflect on the persistence of anti-Semitism and what some people are doing to counter it. The news media have rightly brought the recent hostage situation at a Texas synagogue to the nation’s attention. There is one aspect of that story, however, that hasn’t received anywhere near the attention it deserves: the support and solidarity that Muslim neighbors of the targeted synagogue showed before, during, and after the incident. This is important to me as a Jewish American because, in a world where anti-Semitic incidents have surged, it reminds me that we have friends and supporters everywhere, even in communities we might be tempted to write off as adversaries.
It does not seem that anyone showed any anxiety when Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British national, showed up on January 14th right before a Shabbat service at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, seeing Malik as a person in need, welcomed him in and offered him a cup of tea. Malik, according to synagogue vice-president Jeffrey Cohen, was initially jovial and friendly. About a half-hour into the service, however, Malik pulled out a semi-automatic weapon and took the rabbi and three congregants hostage. He demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman convicted of terrorism for an attack on US military personnel in Afghanistan, serving an 86-year sentence in a prison not far from Colleyville. The stand-off ended 11 hours later, when Rabbi Charlie threw a chair at Malik, providing a diversion that enabled him and the other three hostages to run to safety. Malik was killed in a barrage of gunfire as police and FBI stormed the building.
Malik, who according to his brother had a history of mental illness, made clear in several statements he made as the FBI attempted to negotiate the hostages’ release that he bought into the anti-Semitic canard that Jews control the United States, leading him to believe that the rabbi could wield levers of power that would secure Siddiqui’s release. Various comments of his, including the claim that “America cares only about Jewish lives,” show that his actions were motivated by rampant anti-Semitism.[i]
Anti-Semitism—including anti-Semitism by people identifying as Muslims—is nothing new. But what’s striking to me in this story is the support that Muslims—themselves under attack by Islamophobes—gave to the Jewish community. Malik’s brother Gulbar pleaded with him in a 10-minute phone conversation to release the hostages and end the stand-off, saying, “You don’t need to do this,” and pointing out, “Those guys you’ve got there, they’re innocent people, man.”[ii]
Also seeking peace in this situation was Imam Omar Suleiman, founder of Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, which is less than a 30-minute drive from Beth Israel. As soon as he heard about the stand-off, he rushed to the synagogue to support the Beth Israel community and join the negotiators to try to end the confrontation; he stayed through the 11-hour stand-off. [iii] Speaking after the hostages’ escape on MSNBC, he recounted, “When you get there, all the politics of it really disappears.” It became a matter of securing the release of four human beings and bringing a family back together. Concluding, Imam Suleiman declared, “I hope for our neighbors that we can be there as they heal for the long term.” Another Dallas-area Jewish leader, Rabbi Nancy Kasten, said of Imam Suleiman, “He is a Muslim who embodied the Jewish commandment: Never forget that you were slaves in Egypt. Never forget that when one faith community is attacked, all faith communities are attacked. Never forget that if our neighbor is not safe, neither are we.”
Dr. Asra Khan, a Muslim American psychologist and resident of Colleyville, had been actively engaged in interfaith work and developed a close friendship with Rabbi Charlie, his wife Adena, and their two daughters. When the hostage crisis began, Dr. Khan and Adena were in close contact through phone. In Dr. Khan’s words, “This extraordinary gift of a human being, our beloved Rabbi Charlie, was being held hostage by someone supposedly representing my faith group…a faith group that Rabbi Charlie has genuinely extended his heart and soul to. I was distraught, angered, scared, saddened…you name it. Nonetheless, this is an opportunity for me to emphasize the true character of who Adena is. Rather than showing rage, anger, or fear towards me or Muslims in general, she was more concerned about my feelings and the fear of any repercussion to the Muslim community that she loves.” Dr. Khan then drove to be with Adena during the crisis, who was at a local church near Beth Israel. Dr. Khan recounts, “Adena and her daughter were waiting for me among dense security. She reached her arms out to me, and we hugged for what felt like a lifetime. I could feel her body trembling with fear…This was my dear friend…who was in the most undeniably desperate situation of her life. That hug meant everything to me and confirmed my belief in humanity.” Dr. Khan’s relationship with the Cytron-Walker family is a testament to their character and love for one another that extends across faiths.
This interfaith network of support did not just happen. As Pastor Bob Roberts—also a close friend of Rabbi Charlie and Beth Israel—pointed out, it was “because of the relationships we’ve built that we could come together” at this moment of crisis.[iv] The Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities in and around Colleyville have a long history of working together that made mutual support possible. Imam Suleiman and Dr. Khan had developed close relationships with their neighbors and friends of other faiths. Similarly, every major Muslim American organization has released a statement in solidarity with Jewish Americans, including CAIR, ISNA, ICNA, MPAC, and Islamic Networks Group or ING. In our message we state, “ING stands in solidarity with the Jewish American community and those at Congregation Beth Israel…We pledge to continue working as allies with the Jewish community to counter anti-Semitism in all its forms.”
The strong multifaith support that this one Jewish community received at a crucial time heartens me. At the same time, the whole incident reinforces the importance of standing together, as individuals and communities, against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, and all forms of bigotry. Only by finding our common humanity and unity in our diversity will we be able to counter and defeat the forces that threaten to tear our country and our world apart. Through increasing our interfaith efforts and standing in solidarity with one another, we will defeat bigotry and racism.
I have had the privilege of working closely with the Muslim American community for over a decade as a Content Consultant at ING. ING is a peace-building organization that provides face-to-face education and engagement opportunities with Muslims and other misunderstood groups. A number of ING’s presentations and panels, which are offered to schools, colleges, universities, and other institutions, focus on Muslim-Jewish interfaith dialogue, including our “Muslim-Jewish Relations in the US” panel and our “Halaqa-Seder” project, which brings Muslims and Jews together to study the Exodus narratives in the Quran and the Torah. To learn more, visit https://ing.org/resources/for-faith-groups/halaqa-seder/.
Dr. Henry Millstein is a Jewish American and Content Consultant at Islamic Networks Group (ING). He holds a PhD in Jewish Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union. He has taught humanities and history of religion at the GTU, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UC Davis.
[i] Michelle Boorstein, “Synagogue hostage standoff reveals interfaith progress—as well as entrenched hate,” Washington Post, Jan 17, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2022/01/17/muslim-jewish-hostage-synagogue-interfaith/.
[ii] Danica Kirka, Sylvia Hui, and Jill Lawless, “Phone call shows brother pleading with Texas hostage-taker,” Associated Press, Jan. 20, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/texas-united-states-europe-england-manchester-c77276d916a693b7677531f8c0c16f3d.
[iii] Nancy Kasten, “Why a Muslim imam showed up at the Colleyville synagogue to offer spiritual help,” Dallas Morning News, Jan. 18, 2022, https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2022/01/18/why-a-muslim-imam-showed-up-in-colleyville-to-offer-spiritual-help/.
[iv] Rob Collingsworth, “During the Synagogue Standoff, We Showed Up to Help Our Neighbors. We Ended Up Praying Together,” Christianity Today, Jan. 21, 2022, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/january-web-only/texas-synagogue-rabbi-hostage-interfaith-prayer-bob-roberts.html.