Taboo Topics

We are pleased to be sharing, over the coming weeks, a series of four reflection pieces on the State of Formation visit to the United Stated Holocaust Memorial Museum this spring.

I’ve been working in the field of interfaith dialogue for more than a decade. On good days it’s a lot of fun, and I really see the benefit. On bad days, it’s nothing but headache and heartache. Why? Maybe because there are some topics that are off-limits, and so become the elephant in the room in a very difficult way.

Everyone who is involved in interfaith dialogue has a different set of taboo topics. For a Christian-Muslim group, it may be the Trinity. For theist-atheist groups, it may be God. There are so many topics that we can’t talk about because we feel that there is no use in discussing them, that there’s no commonality to be wished for. Taboos exist because we believe – falsely – that there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, no hope of coming to an agreement.

Think about what that taboo is for you and your group(s). As for myself, the #1 taboo topic is Israel-Palestine. Even writing it here seems almost sacrilegious, and I can hear you thinking: why is she bringing politics into religion? And perhaps that’s why this topic is so taboo: because while we have gotten over our hesitancy regarding religion, we haven’t yet done so with regard to politics. Or maybe because Israel-Palestine is too complicated, a religious issue wrapped up in a political one, or vice versa.

So what do you do when you bring together a group of Jews and Muslims in a room and ask them to discuss faith? There is so much to talk about, because we have so much in common. I am part of a couple of such groups and most of the time there is a sense of loving excitement as we start conversations and find so much in common that it blows our minds. I don’t think there are any two religions that are so close culturally and theologically as Judaism and Islam. But there is one problem: the only reason we get along is because in these groups we have banned political topics. In fact, one of these is an online group where we can only refer to Israel as “the land that cannot be named” and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as I/P. Any other reference is immediately deleted by the admins.

Sound drastic? Absolutely. Needed? Probably. That’s what taboo topics are all about, aren’t they? We know we need to discuss them, but the benefit of an interfaith conversation far outweighs the need to discuss the taboo. So we continue talking about how similar we are, discussing faith and practice and prophecy and sacred literature, hoping and praying in our hearts that by learning to love each other in our safe group, we will wish the elephant in the room away and one day there will be no elephant at all. Poof, just like that. Pretending the taboo doesn’t exist will somehow make it vanish.

Sadly, we know that’s not going to happen. Not just in the case of Israel-Palestine, but in every case where a taboo exists. At some point we have to be brave enough to talk about the elephant, and maybe by talking about it, the elephant will shrink small enough for it to be manageable.

Let it be known that I/P has been on my mind quite a lot lately. The more we ignore it, the bigger it gets in my mind. So it was timely that on March 30th, State of Formation sent me and a few other scholars to the United Stated Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. for a day of tours, discussions and presentations. Much was learned during this highly emotionally-charged day, and much was considered internally. On my way back home to Houston, I sent a long message to my Jewish-Muslim interfaith group describing the program and how I was energized to talk about “the taboo.” You can read more about my experiences at the Holocaust Museum and my reflections about that day in reference to Holocaust Remembrance Day here.

For the purposes of this discussion, below is an excerpt which I hope addresses the question of taboos, regardless of what that particular elephant may be in your room:

Yes, for Muslims that will mean shouting over the voices of the Holocaust deniers, teaching our kids about that era in our shameful past, and healing as a multi-faith community. For Jews, that will mean giving up the Jews-only narrative of the Holocaust, and more significantly, supporting Muslims in current day genocides like Syria. It will mean understanding that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are actually one and the same thing, two ugly sides of the same tainted coin. We need to look out for each other, for if we don’t then who will?

Consider for a moment what that ultimately entails. It requires – no, demands – getting over our fear of taboos and being brave enough to speak about them. Yes, it will be painful, and we will lose many friends in the process. But eventually the taboo will disappear, and we will be the better for it. Our interfaith conversations will be the better for it. So think about what your particular taboo is, and let’s get to work shattering that wall.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Share this!
  • Print
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Reddit
  • RSS
  • Twitter

One thought on “Taboo Topics

  1. Dear Saadia, thank you so much for this wonderful, plaintive article. In fact, I’m doing my doctoral research on dialogue in Rome and I have also found that in the “interfaith society,” which generally hinges around the “totem” of human, interreligious “unity,” there are also a handful of taboos, and the most frequent one is Israel/Palestine. Bringing it up is the fastest way to splinter and derail a dialogue. The Jewish and Muslim communities here have a lot to talk about but they just cannot do it once they get embroiled in discussions about Israel.

    So, as you have seen, the conversation is compartmentalized. This might have the effect of creating stagnant positions on the topic. But it might also allow for the development of more trust and less fearful relating, which would build a deeper foundation that could accommodate Israel discussions one day in the future. So, when I’m feeling optimistic, I like to think of it as a temporary taboo or a delayed discussion.

    In fact, this principle is engaged by the Interfaith Encounter Group of Israel, which brings together Palestinians and Israeli settlers. Their only rule is “no political discussions.” They are frequently criticized for this “evasion” or for “banalization.” But the director insists that you don’t cure a wound by scratching it. You strengthen the whole body, you favor the area and protect it for a while. The thought is that the relationships that result from a diffused exchange of more personal narratives might be able to better accommodate a political discussion in the future.

    Time will tell. Here’s hoping. Whether people heal enough in the context of these compartmentalized encounters is often subject the mysteries of temperament, upbringing, will, value, discipline, and capacity for transformation. That is a black box my research tries to poke at but only succeeds in exposing the complexity of human healing.

    But, in positive news, there is also growing awareness of the benefit of bringing Palestinians into a personal knowledge of the Holocaust in order to understand the trauma that undergirds the Holy Land. I’m thinking of these examples:, and, and the Bearing Witness projects. Of course, it’s also disappointing to see how these trips were “broadly condemned” (

    It seems as though the topic will always reopen wounds and traumas. The question is not whether or not to make it taboo, but–what are we doing to help people withstand the discussion?

Comments are closed.