Like many Indonesians, Syamsi Ali has a disarming smile. Years ago, when I first met him at the Indonesian mission in New York, he told me, in answer to a question, that he did public relations for the mission. I concluded that he must be the writing kind. He did not have the body language of the stereotypical PR man. It would surprise me the following Friday when I went to prayers at the mosque in Astoria, Queens, that the imam delivering the double sermon turned out to be Syamsi Ali.
Born in Bulukumba, South Sulawesi, and educated at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Syamsi Ali was teaching at the Islamic Education Foundation in Jeddah when he was invited by the then Indonesian Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Nugroho Wisnumurti, to lead a small Indonesian Muslim community in Queens. The job brought no salary, so for a living he had to do PR for the mission.
Since then his outreach has rayed out in many directions. He is now also involved in several Muslim centers in New York and the newly established Nusantara Foundation. He has also become what he calls an “interfaith bridge builder,” as he promotes dialogue with Christians and engages in partnership with the Jewish community.
I remember seeing him on TV at an event in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks when the religious leaders of America got together with George W. Bush to convey the “Religious Leaders’ Response” to the carnage. They wanted to demonstrate that the terrorists had failed to divide the world’s religions against one another. Instead, the religious leaders rose and stood united against extremist violence. On that occasion, Imam Syamsi Ali represented all Muslims in America. Today he is definitely the human face of moderate Indonesian Islam in the United States.
Now he is writing a book with a Jewish co-author, the famous Rabbi Marc Schneier, advocate of mutual tolerance among ethnicities. In spite of a dysfunctional married life and the rigors of a bipolar disorder, Rabbi Schneier is widely regarded as among America’s most influential rabbis.
The working title of the book is “The Sons of Abraham.” The immediate reference, of course, is to Ismail and Isaac, ancestors of Arabs and Jews respectively. In the Muslim version of the story, it’s Ismail that would have been sacrificed by Abraham. In the Judaeo-Christian version, it’s Isaac. In a larger sense, it refers to all the peoples who profess the faiths that came down from the Abrahamic tradition. In that case, some friends have suggested, why don’t they title the book, “The Children of Abraham” so the women are included? Both authors seem to be in need of further persuasion.
The book would make the same point that Imam Syamsi Ali has been trying to make with his life’s work: that there is a lot of common ground among the faiths that descended from the Abrahamic tradition. And that this common ground could become the basis of mutual trust.
The book would take up the similarities of notions like kosher and halal, jihad and just war, “best nation” and “chosenness.” Well and good. These are important notions.
But to my mind, the book would succeed only if it led to a common understanding of the larger concepts of justice and compassion and an acceptance of the equal worth all human beings. And if it made the case that the injustice borne by the Christian martyrs, the injustice that the Jews suffered over the centuries, the injustice of the Holocaust, is the same injustice that the Palestinians in the occupied territories are suffering today.