The title of “We Refuse to Be Enemies: How Muslims and Jews Can Make Peace, One Friendship at a Time” suggests that its authors have a world-changing mission. While no single book can hope to solve religious divides, Islamophobia, or anti-Semitism on its own, this collaborative work offers a major contribution. Sabeeha Rehman and Walter Ruby, the respective Muslim and Jewish friends behind “We Refuse to Be Enemies,” draw on their background in inter-religious dialogue to make the case that adherents of all religions, including Islam and Judaism, can coexist.
“Neither author is an imam, rabbi, scholar, or community leader,” says a note at the beginning of “We Refuse to Be Enemies,” “but together they have spent decades doing interfaith work and nurturing cooperation among communities.” The core of the book’s call for a rejection of religious intolerance comes from the authors’ direct experience with interfaith dialogue.
The core of the book’s call for a rejection of religious intolerance comes from the authors’ direct experience with interfaith dialogue.
“The two of us, coauthors of this book, are an American woman and man of about the same age (late sixties/early seventies), but of vastly different life experiences,” Rehman and Ruby wrote in the first of the book’s chapters, many of which open with epigraphs from religious texts. “One of us is a devout Muslim who immigrated to America from a traditional culture; the other an iconoclastic, non-believing American-born Jew shaped by the utopian spirit of the 1960s.”
In the pages that follow, “We Refuse to Be Enemies” greets readers with an engaging narrative that owes much to Rehman and Ruby’s accessible writing style, honed throughout their careers. Rehman, author of the well-received memoir “Threading My Prayer Rug: One Woman’s Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim,” has penned a number of op-eds and runs a blog. Ruby, who first entered the world of journalism in 1976, has published articles in outlets as varied as Long Island Jewish World, The Jerusalem Post, and The New York Times—as well as Inside Arabia.
The heart of “We Refuse to Be Enemies” lies in Rehman and Ruby’s retellings of their personal engagement with religious pluralism. One chapter recounts Ruby’s attendance of a 2007 event in honor of Hassan Askari, a Muslim student from Bangladesh who stopped an attack on Jewish passengers of the New York City Subway. Just a page later comes Rehman’s account of joining other Muslim families to host a gathering for Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2017.
Rehman and Ruby’s own time in multifaith spaces informed their conclusions on how best to promote interfaith dialogue and tolerance, which Rehman condensed into a list of five recommendations: “let each group define itself,” “enter with an honest intent to listen,” “focus on commonalities” such as “shared heritage and shared values,” “stress pluralism as enjoined by the faith,” and “keep politics mainly out of it,” which includes “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Instead, participants in interfaith dialogue should “focus on working together here at home.”
Though an ever-growing number of authors have written books on inter-religious dialogue, many of which approach it from more scholarly standpoints, “We Refuse to Be Enemies” reinforces its points by grounding them in direct experience. Rehman and Ruby’s penchant for storytelling increases their book’s accessibility. The pair added a personal touch—the book’s greatest strength—to a topic that a more academic writer might have turned into a far drier read.
To increase the religious credibility of “We Refuse to Be Enemies,” Rehman and Ruby seeded their narrative with a variety of scriptural references. “Our second shared principle is that we have an obligation to protect the stranger, for we ourselves have been immigrants and marginalized strangers many times and in many places throughout history,” reads the introduction to the fourth chapter, “going all the way back to when the ancient Hebrews were slaves in the land of Egypt and when the Prophet Muhammad made his hijra [migration] from Mecca to Medina.”
The allusions to the Tanakh and the Quran in “We Refuse to Be Enemies” contextualize Rehman and Ruby’s experiences within the wider history of Judaism and Islam, giving a religious foundation to their argument that Jews and Muslims already have a blueprint for coexistence.
A compelling case for interfaith dialogue and religious pluralism from start to finish, Rehman and Ruby’s book only stumbles when it ignores its own advice to “keep politics mainly out of it.”
Rehman and Ruby’s book only stumbles when it ignores its own advice to “keep politics mainly out of it.”
“The lands each of us hold dear—Pakistan and Israel—were cast in the same mold,” begins the eighth chapter, which discusses Rehman’s relationship with Pakistan, her birthplace, and Ruby’s ties to Israel, where he spent several years of his life. “Both were created at the same historical moment—1947 and 1948 respectively—for the same purpose: to be a homeland for the Muslims and a homeland for the Jews. Israel was created to be, and remains, the world’s only Jewish state; Pakistan is the only country in the world created explicitly as a Muslim state.”
The historical parallels between Israel and Pakistan warrant acknowledgement. However, the initial comparison neglects to mention nuances such as the unique regional circumstances behind both countries’ establishments, the key distinctions in Israel and Pakistan’s perceptions of religious identity, and Israel’s status as the sole Jewish-majority country in a world where many governments have followed Pakistan in describing themselves as Islamic states.
Rehman and Ruby’s book shines when it weaves the writers into the narrative. A later chapter on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, structured as a conversation between the coauthors, avoids the pitfalls of other political detours by giving Rehman and Ruby an opportunity to showcase their lively personalities; the pairs ‘voices give the book its combination of warmth and punch.
As a whole, “We Refuse to Be Enemies” makes a convincing argument for the coauthors’ unique approach to interfaith dialogue and peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews, which – if widely accepted and practiced – could have significant implications for Israel, Palestine, Pakistan, and the United States.
“Sabeeha and I love our people,” Ruby concluded in one of the book’s most evocative, moving sections. “We sang and danced with them on the shores of the Mediterranean and the campus grounds of Lahore, but we ultimately embraced America, Americans, and the dream of America. This land has given us the freedom to exercise our choice—to practice our faith, to wear it on our heads, be it the hijab or the kippah if we choose to.”