Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has made a compelling case for the creative and culturally dynamic role that religious minorities can play, even in societies where the majority of people deeply oppose their religious inclinations, as was the case for much of the history of the Jewish people in Christian territories. As a Muslim, living as a minority in the West—in a culture often portrayed (by Muslims and non-Muslim Westerners alike) as locked in a fatal struggle with Islam—I found in the rabbi’s comments much cause for hope.

In briefly addressing Islam by way of contrast, the rabbi noted that Muslims, unlike Jews, have not had substantial experience with living as a religious minority. To some extent, this is true, and insofar as it is true, Muslims do indeed have much to learn from the experience of Jews in predominantly Christian lands; and some Muslim public intellectuals in Europe, particularly Tariq Ramadan, have begun to speak about the necessity of Muslims finding ways to maintain their distinct religious identity while engaging productively with European culture and society in ways vaguely reminiscent of the Jewish Reform movement of the eighteenth century.

The idea that Muslims do not have experience as a minority, however, is not completely accurate. Of course, like many religions, Islam in its early years was a persecuted religious minority in Arabia, experiencing an attitude and a situation clearly evoked in its scriptural text, the Qur’an. Even after Muslims successfully conquered the Fertile Crescent, Iran, and large parts of North Africa, they remained a minority within the territories they controlled for several centuries; and even in premodern times, the Ottomans ruled as a minority over a predominantly Christian population, and the Mughals in India controlled what always remained a majority-Hindu population. Thus Muslims do have experience as a minority, but as a dominant minority.

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