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Muslim professor devotes his life to bringing Jews, Muslims together to find common ground

<p>Abdullah Antepli</p>

Abdullah Antepli

In the anti-Semitic and secular town in southeastern Turkey where Abdullah Antepli grew up, no one expected him to work in interfaith Jewish-Muslim relations one day. They were proven wrong.

In August, the now 46-year-old was ranked among the NonProfit Times Power and Influence Top 50, in honor of his work co-founding the Muslim Leadership Initiative, also known as MLI. 

The MLI recruits engaged, pro-Palestine American Muslims, ranging from scholars to journalists. These participants are connected with a credible Zionist institution, the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI), whose stated mission is to help “strengthen Jewish peoplehood.” During the program, members learn to critically understand the complex religious, political and socioeconomic issues of people in Israel and Palestine, Antepli said.

“I am extremely proud of this cutting edge social and educational experiment that we were able to initiate,” Antepli said. 

In his brand-new office in Rubenstein Hall, the Sanford School of Public Policy’s new associate professor of the practice and long-standing associate professor of interfaith relations at the Divinity School apologizes for “the mess” in his perfectly tidy bureau. His office does, however, overflow with books, most of which are religion-themed. 

“I never go anywhere without a book,” Antepli said. His gem at the moment is “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. 

Dressed in a grey shirt tucked in black pants with sleeves rolled up, Antepli first gives off the impression of a restless businessman. But the father of two’s hearty “salaam—meaning “peace,” a common greeting in Arabic—immediately lets those who walk through his door know that he will gladly share his time. 

A resentful child

Antepli, the University’s first Muslim chaplain and inaugural director of Muslim life at Duke from 2008-2014, grew up during a critical time in southeastern Turkey when religion was despised. 

Although his parents were not religious, they were anti-Semitic, he said. His upbringing quickly led him on a path of resentment toward the Israelis. He recalled as a child scapegoating the Jewish community for the grievances of Muslim everyday life.

“The seductive thing about hate is that it gives simple black and white answers to complicated questions,” Antepli said. 

Muslim friends and teachers introduced Antepli into the world of Islam and he promptly came to devour the religion. His religiosity just happened to emerge simultaneously with the Israeli-Palestine conflicts.  

“The first thing I remember is an IDF [Israel Defense Forces] soldier with a piece of rock breaking the bones of Palestine protesters,” Antepli said, remembering his first time watching international news at the age of 12. 

Antepli said that studying Islam in Turkey “slowed [him] down on the highway of hate.” Immigrating to the United States and meeting the Jewish community further saved him. 

“I would call myself a recovering anti-Semite,” he said, soberingly. “Once exposed to hate, it becomes a lifelong struggle.”

“If he had this illness once, I don’t see any traces,” professor of religious studies Laura Lieber  said. “He stands out as being so much on the other end of the spectrum.”

Crossing borders

The idea of interfaith work between Israelis and Palestinians took roots when Antepli came upon Yossi Klein Halevi, an author and journalist from Israel and a former Jewish extremist, who had made regular journeys to Palestine to listen to their stories. After reading his book “At the Entrance of the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope,” Antepli felt connected to Halevi on a deeper level. 

“He was my Jewish version, a fellow traveler and ‘recoverer,’ if that word even exists,” Antepli said. 

Humbled by Halevi’s journeys to his own religion, Antepli reached out to the Israeli author in an attempt to reciprocate. His developing friendship with Halevi “gave wings and legs” to his recovery and inspired him to engage vigorously not only in his own recuperation, but also that of the Muslim people. 

“I knew I had to play a role in uniting and healing our divided and wounded communities,” Antepli said.

MLI’s doubtful beginnings

In the last two decades, Antepli noticed the perception of Muslims in the United States dramatically worsening, even 10 years after 9/11.  

“People created a culture of fear around Islam,” Antepli said. He felt helpless watching fabricated images of cultural propaganda flood the media. “A hate for one group is everyone’s problem.” 

He began to make change in the best way he knew how—religious scholarship. He and Halevi founded the Muslim Leadership Initiative. The participants of this program would be North American Muslims and they would learn about Judaism, Israel and Jewish peoplehood in a hands-on-manner. Every cohort involves a trip to Jerusalem in which Jews and Muslims are brought together for fruitful discussions in an effort for mutual understanding.  

Upon its establishment, the program ignited troubling tensions within the Muslim American community. This mild-mannered man, at five feet and eight inches tall, became a polarizing figure. 

Ismail Akbulut, an alumnus of the MLI program who considers Antepli a great mentor and friend, had reasonable concerns himself. 

“Working with the enemy, why would you do that?” Akbulut said, recalling his first reaction to the initiative. “It felt like a betrayal to the Muslim community.”  

In particular, he feared that it would be too one-sided. But he was surprised in most positive ways.  

“They will listen to you and you can challenge their views—it is not a one-way engagement,” said Akbulut. “It is a dialogue with the people on the other side and not a brainwashing attempt.” 

Nevertheless, Antepli was continuously put under scrutiny and sometimes even received threats. 

“It was a gross misunderstanding of the program,” he said. 

Yet the activist at no point regretted launching the initiative. He doesn’t scare conflict or disagreement, and commented that the key to gaining from these situations is to “develop generosity toward people you disagree with.”

“He has a preference for situations where there is a specific difference in thinking,” Ellen Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns professor of Bible and practical theology, said. 

She shared just how stressful that can be through a particular instance in their travels to Jerusalem, when Antepli brought students to the home of a U.S.-born Jewish settler who helped found a settlement outside Jerusalem. The man considered himself a native to the land due to a divine Jewish covenant, celebrating the Palestinians’ departure from the territory in 1948. 

As he continued to suggest that Palestinians had expelled themselves, Antepli “literally bit his tongue to keep silent,” Aminah-Al Attas Bradford, a doctoral fellow at the Divinity School who was in the same trip, said. Amidst growing tension between the Jewish habitant and he, Antepli insisted they stay seated at the same table and continue the discussion.

While Davis remembered having to talk him out of this situation, she added that she admires his passion for engagement with people who think differently from him. He is not afraid of being wrong or knowing less than those around him. 

“Oh, I stand corrected” is one of his signature phrases, Davis mentioned. 

“He cares about us”

His twelve first-year students, to whom he teaches the Great Abrahamic books as part of Duke’s Science and Religion in Public Life first-year Focus cluster, called to mind a similar impression of their professor. 

“He’s always asking questions on the intersection with Islam, Christianity and Judaism,” first-year Angela Greene said. 

Greene recalled being sick two weeks into the semester. In the subsequent weeks, Antepli continuously asked her how she was doing even though she had been healthy for a long time. He cares about us as students but also as people, Greene said. 

His big brown eyes light up when he talks about his children, his students said. 

“He loves bragging about his daughter,” first-year Connor Blue said, laughing. 

“He updates me on his daughter every time I talk to him,” Greene added. 

Antepli may have been talking about his children extra these days, as he and his wife recently became empty nesters. Their daughter has moved to California for college, while their 15-year-old son goes to boarding school.

That is not all for new adjustments in Antepli’s life. He was used to traveling up to 200 days a year for his projects. 

“Duke loaned me to the world,” he said, chuckling. 

Now that the interfaith scholar has moved to Sanford, he is excited to focus on public policy conversations on site and reconnect with his roots at Duke. 

Looking at the future of interfaith relations, Antepli is determined and hopeful that there will be a reciprocal program, a Jewish Leadership Initiative. 

“But the ball is in our court as Muslims,” he said.

He commented that a Muslim equivalent to the SHI will be required where a broad spectrum of Islamic narratives could be taught without any impositions. The next step would subsequently be the recruitment of North American Jewish leadership.

“That’s why I continue to do the work,” Antepli said. “I hope many similar and even better programs will emerge.” 


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