House of One, Berlin
By Anna Brosius
Student Interfaith Activist
American University, Washington DC
On November 11th, 2017, I was shocked as slogans calling for an “Islamic Holocaust” were chanted at parades commemorating Poland’s Independence Day in Warsaw. That such horrific words were evoked in the capital of a country which had been the site of some of the most horrific exterminations of Jews only decades before left me worried that Europe was not only forgetting its own terrible history of religious intolerance but also giving up its resolve to “never again” commit such atrocious acts.
However, in this time of profound division and nativist sentiment, my faith in a pluralist Europe was renewed when I was fortunate to speak on behalf of Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland, at a special American University event to welcome the unprecedented House of One initiative in Berlin, Germany.
The House of One is a joint effort envisioned by several leaders of Germany’s Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious communities to create a shared space of worship in the country’s capital. Its leaders hope that creating such a space will signal to the rest of the society the enduring influence and place of each of its representative religions and serve as a model that all faiths can live respectfully with one another. The space will also operate as a place of learning and dialogue between all faiths and will be open to the general public for various educational programs and events.
Hosted at American University’s Kay Spiritual Life Center, itself a pioneer of interfaith learning and worship founded in 1965, the event was opened by powerful remarks from Ambassador Ahmed. The BBC has called Ahmed, “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam.” He shared insights from his forthcoming book, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (Brookings Press, February 2018) on Islam in Europe and the place of Islam in European history and civilization. Highlighting the rise of alt-right groups and other forces of hatred and intolerance throughout Europe, Ahmed emphasized the need for all Europeans, and in particular its religious leaders, to stand up to intolerance and Islamophobia and incontrovertibly denounce actions like those taken in Poland.
Ahmed also reminded the audience of the example provided by Frederick II of what can be achieved when a leader reaches out to build bridges with the religious other. As one of the greatest European heroes of the medieval era, Frederick II ruled as the Holy Roman Emperor in the 13th century and unlike other leaders elsewhere in Europe, had a Muslim bodyguard, included Arabic writing on his royal mantle, and corresponded frequently with the greatest Muslim scientists and intellectuals of the era. Ahmed recounted the story of how the Sultan of Egypt was so impressed by Frederick that at the height of the Crusades, he handed over the city of Jerusalem, which had been violently fought over for decades between Muslims and Christians, to the Emperor without one drop of blood being spilled. In turn, Frederick II secured the rights of Muslims in the city to worship and live as they pleased.
After Ahmed’s remarks, I had the opportunity to congratulate the House of One delegation for their courageous work to bring those of different faiths together under one roof to engage with one another in a meaningful way and to build bonds of friendship and trust. I underscored the need for interfaith dialogue in our challenging times of division and nationalism throughout the world and I expressed my excitement as an American of German heritage to see Germans leading the way in interfaith.
Pastor Haussmann of St. Marien Church noted the symbolic importance of sharing a meal to break bread with one another. The Pastor opened his presentation by sharing one of the project’s sources of inspiration, the American icon Dr Martin Luther King Jr. According to the Pastor, on Dr King’s way to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1964, he stopped in East Berlin and spoke at the church now forming the Christian congregation of the House of One, St Marien’s. He then went on to say in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that “we have inherited a large house, a great ’world house’ in which we have to live together - black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu - a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
As a young American today who considers herself an interfaith leader, it is heartening to see the dedication and commitment of the delegation towards building lasting interfaith relations. Far too often, interfaith dialogue is thought to lack conviction. Labeled as “kumbaya” or “touchy-feely,” most people envision interfaith dialogue as involving elite clergy who are unable to make long-term impacts on their communities and societies to bridge the real differences and prejudices they face. And yet, here is a group of leaders who have shown that interfaith engagement can be more—it requires each and every one of us, from clergy to lay person, from the secular to the most devout of any religion, to decide that it is essential not only to know those who hold different beliefs, but to openly share our lives and experiences with them.
As America suffers from similar populist and exclusionary movements as our friends in Europe, we in America must also follow the example set by the House of One. Without hope or conviction, we will certainly all face destruction to both our people and our cherished ideals of pluralism - let us not repeat history and slide down the slippery slope of hatred and prejudice.
(Anna Brosius is an undergraduate student and interfaith activist at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC)