Some of you may have seen this account on Stories of Faith before, but it is so inspiring that I’d like to give others a chance to read it. It is a wonderful story of how a man found the means to forgive violence that had been done to his family, and how he began dedicating his life to healing the rifts between Islam and Judaism. For anyone who has gotten discouraged because of the destructiveness that so often results from religious extremism, the story of Imam Haitham Bundakji and his work for interfaith reconciliation really offers a lot of hope! The following article was originally published in 2004 in World and I magazine, and is posted now with permission from worldandi.com.
World and I, May 1, 2004
Imam Haitham Bundakji has transformed his life from seeking vengeance against Jews to being a dedicated worker for Islamic-Judaic harmony worldwide.
By Larry Moffitt and Robert R. Selle
Twenty years ago, if you were Jewish and lived next door to Haitham Bundakji, your life would not have been easy. Residing alongside such a Mount Saint Helens of hatred, constantly aware of being in the presence of white-hot loathing, you might have found your tires slit and yourself subject to physical abuse, likely involving police intervention at some point.
Haitham Bundakji hated Jews. “I never carried a weapon or anything,” he says in an interview, “but I used my fists a lot. I had many fights. I did many stupid things.”
Bundakji is now president of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, California, the largest Muslim organization in the western United States. An imam, he is the spiritual leader of 1,200 Muslim families in Southern California, and he is never far from tears when he recalls those hair-trigger days of his early manhood.
TWO BROTHERS MURDERED
Shortly before he was born, his parents lived in Betshan, north of Jericho, where they had moved from their original homeland of Syria. Palestine in the 1940s was beset by open conflict between some extremist Arabs and renegade Jewish paramilitary groups, who terrorized each other for years before the creation of the Jewish state. “The Jewish organizations were stronger and better armed,” says Bundakji, “and determined to take over Palestine.” During that time, men believed to be from the Jewish organization Itzel shot and killed his parents’ first two boys. “One was four years old and the other was six,” he says. The violence, together with Arab broadcasts asking people to flee, caused an exodus of Palestinian refugees.
His father took the family to Jerash, in Jordan, where Bundakji was born in 1948, the same year that Israel came into being. In Jordan, where his brother and three sisters still live, the suffering of his parents created and nurtured his hatred. His mother never stopped grieving for her two slain boys. “She cried constantly until 1986, when she passed away,” he says. “I never saw my mother happy in the way that other human beings are happy.”
The imam’s father was not very religious—a Muslim in name only. One of his uncles, however, was the leader of an Islamic group. Under the latter’s influence, Bundakji was steeped in the faith of his fathers and brought up in the atmosphere of Islam, helped along and encouraged by friends and teachers along the way.
Being raised near a Palestinian refugee camp, he never actually met a Jewish person face to face until 1967 at age 18, when he left Jordan to visit some friends in a coastal town in Greece. Looking out to sea, they spotted an Israeli flag on a ship named Haifa. “I thought, this is my chance,” says Bundakji. “We went to the docks and hid until the first person came ashore. I remember that was the very first Jew I ever saw in my life. I confronted him and I told him I was an Arab. I called him some nasty names, then I attacked him and started beating the daylights out of him. My friends got frightened and pulled me away.” With that act, Bundakji, an excellent wrestler and street fighter, inserted himself into the endless payback loop that has characterized Arab-Israeli relations.
A year later, a strong, athletic young man filled with rage, he immigrated to San Francisco. Friends met him at the airport and took him directly to an anti-Israel demonstration. “The Jewish Defense League was there in full force,” says Bundakji. “There was a big fight. I beat up a couple of guys. I don’t remember any demonstration where we didn’t get into a fistfight. The JDL confronted us at every demonstration we held, and I did my crazy stuff.”
During the 1970s, he vigorously promoted pro-Palestinian activities, organizing demonstrations and meetings. He recruited people for the cause and booked speakers at universities. He was fully committed: “I never said the word Jew without an expletive before it. Whenever I went to a store that had any kind of Jewish display, such as for Hanukkah, I always made sure I took a small can of spray paint. When no one was looking, I would spray it, mess it up.”
He even invoked God as an ally in his resentment. “I prayed always to find ways to get back at the Jews,” he recalls. “Whenever I heard an ambulance siren, I said a small prayer hoping the ambulance would be on its way to a Jew about to die.”
Such abhorrence and venom are hard to reconcile with the image of the jovial, soft-spoken imam sitting quietly at the table fingering a string of prayer beads. “But the worst thing I did,” he says, his expression saddening, “is that I tried to inject my own hatred of Jews into my children.” And he begins to weep.
In 1984, Bundakji had an epiphany during his first pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj, which is one of the acts of devotion that Muslims all over the world aspire to accomplish. As is traditional for those going to Mecca’s Kaaba, the central shrine of Islam, he also paid a visit to nearby Mount Arafat to pray. (In Arabic, arafat means “knowing one another.”) The mountain, a sacred site, is so named because it is believed to be the place where Adam and Eve met.
“I went there a few days before people normally go,” he says. “I was all by myself, and I went to the top to be alone with my God.” He cried out in his prayers, feeling the need to ask forgiveness for various personal sins that weighed heavily on his heart. Beating up Jews, however, wasn’t one of them.
“That wasn’t part of my plan. I had no concept that hating the Jews was something that needed to be repented for,” he says, “but as it is with atonement, when you begin confessing, sometimes a lot of other stuff comes out too. In this case, it was thoughts of my parents.”
Suddenly, he began to hear verses from the Qur’an flow through his mind:
- “Be accountable to yourself before someone comes to question you. Weigh your deeds before they can be weighed for you.”
- “… those people who hold their anger and forgive people.”
- “We have created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know each other, not that you may despise each other. The most honorable of you in the sight of God is the most righteous.”
- “No one should pay a price for the mistake of others.”
- “He who harms Christians and Jews [literally taxpayers in Arabic] will be my enemy until the day of judgment.”
He describes the verses as running through his mind like a quiet river. “Then, in my prayer, all the people I had beaten up in those fights had individual faces. They were not just collective Jews, but were real people. I remembered them all, and I remembered spraying the Hanukkah decorations. Everything started coming to my mind, and I found myself asking God for forgiveness for that. And I was surprised that, for the first time, I felt guilt for having hated the Jews.” Indeed, he felt that he had been living completely against the godly way.
“All this stayed in my mind and in my prayers,” he says. “The next two weeks, when I was in Mecca and Medina, I felt God’s forgiveness. I felt like a heavy load had fallen from my shoulders.”
But, he says, he still had two bridges to cross: (1) to meet Jews and not wish them ill, and (2) to attend interfaith meetings as then-vice president of the Islamic Society of Orange County and embrace Jewish participants to convince himself his repentance was genuine.
The pilgrimage caused Bundakji to change not only his attitude toward Jews but his whole perspective on life. The experience, he says, and the deepening of his faith that followed it, made him a much better human being—more peaceful and affectionate—and a far more loving father, husband, and grandfather. “I used to use my arms to solve most of my problems, through fighting, because I was so proud of myself being so strong,” he says. “But today I still use my hands and arms to solve most of my problems, but that’s by hugging and embracing and handshaking.”
He then began to study the Qur’an “the proper way, the way that God wanted us to study the scripture and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.” As evidence of the “proper” way of Qur’anic exegesis, Bundakji cites a hadith, or saying, of Muhammad, which states: “I swear to God, I swear to God, I swear to God that you will not enter Paradise until you become true believers. And you will not become true believers until you love one another.” So Bundakji started concentrating much more on all the scriptural verses that had to do with love and peace and human harmony.
THE ‘BEAUTIFUL’ REBIRTH EXPERIENCE
This caused him, he says, to grow spiritually far more than he ever dreamed he could. This growth was propelled all the more by his interfaith work. … “I thought I was reaching excellence before that,” Bundakji says, “but I found out there was much more to gain and learn.” He says it’s a blessing and a responsibility to learn more and grow spiritually every day. As the founder of Islam also said, “Seek knowledge from the day you are born to the day you die, from the cradle to the coffin.” The imam says that the whole process after his “rebirth” has made him no longer interested in the quest for material wealth and far more focused on helping others. “It’s just a beautiful, beautiful experience,” he says.
His religious transformation incited the naturally compassionate Bundakji to become even more warmhearted and desirous of ministering to his fellowmen. “Even when I was tough,” he says, “my heart would often melt. That has increased by far.” He quotes a saying of the Prophet Muhammad to the effect that “God has created some of His people for the benefit of other people, to help other people. Those people are saved from hellfire, and they are loved by God.” He says he strives every day to be one of those people. And when he sees a Muslim doing something wrong, he’s quick to kindly yet firmly correct him, because, again quoting Islam’s founder, “The true believer is a mirror of his fellow brother or sister.”
Letting a fellow spiritual traveler honestly know when he is off track is one thing, but talking about the person behind his back is quite another. Since his metamorphosis, the imam has had a positive revulsion against gossip in all of its forms, “justified” and not. The only way to really help a fellow human being, he says, is to talk to him (and him alone) honestly and directly.
Bundakji knew that he had to reeducate his children to unlearn the hatred he had been instilling into them—virtually “injecting into their veins,” as he puts it. “As it turns out,” he says, “my children were relieved. They were relatively young. They had Jewish friends from school they had never been able to tell me about, and now they could bring them over to the house.” The imam has eight children and, today, two grandchildren. He has been married to a woman of Syrian descent for the past 35 years.
Since coming to terms with his children, Bundakji has put as much energy into atonement and reconciliation between Muslims and Jews as he earlier put into vengeance. “I met a rabbi in Irvine,” he relates, “named Bernie King. He didn’t trust me, because newspapers had written a lot about my activities. I had been outspoken on radio and television. So I started to make an extra effort. In the years since, Rabbi King’s family has become my family.” At Bundakji’s invitation, King became the first rabbi to speak in a mosque in Southern California.
A successful entrepreneur in the restaurant business and real estate investing, Bundakji decided not to work so hard in his business so he could dedicate his life to building bridges. He serves as a chaplain for the Garden Grove Police Department, where he counsels officers and civilian employees of all faiths, and started the first Islamic shelter for battered women in California. In addition, he is a counselor to Muslim prison inmates and adviser to both the Orange County sheriff and the Garden Grove police chief, who is president of the International Police Chiefs Association.
The imam’s passionate involvement in Christian-Jewish-Muslim reconciliation work is typical of his furious work ethic. “I’m a workaholic,” he admits. “And not in terms of earning money; I just love work. I’m willing to work all the hours that God and my body allow me to serve. I say to myself, ‘Take a vacation? In heaven I’ll have a vacation, one lasting vacation.’ “
Summing up the change in his life, Bundakji says, “I cannot afford to be our prophet’s enemy until the day of judgment. Nobody can. I focus on the verses I heard on Mount Arafat, and I study the Qur’an. As a result, my Islamic values and conviction have become stronger. Through becoming a better Muslim, my hatred dissipated. And I mean completely.
“I still have political differences with Israel. I still want the liberation of Palestine. That will not change. But as to how to solve the differences, that has changed completely.”
Looking toward the next generation, he says, “I would love to see my son marry a Jewish or Christian girl.”
His transformation calls to mind those of Saint Paul and Malcolm X. Both men carried an inordinate load of resentment toward another group of people. Like the two men in whose footsteps he walks, Bundakji was not just healed of his unreasoning anger. His healing, like theirs, was transformed into an engine that propelled him toward good.
So what does the imam think the future will bring? In this regard, he’s an optimistic idealist but also a hard-nosed realist. Concerning efforts toward interfaith reconciliation and social change, he says, “I believe that our efforts, and efforts of good people and good organizations, will definitely bear fruit. It may take a little longer than we wish, but you have to be consistent, persistent, have patience and perseverance, and it will happen.”
He looks forward to more deeply religious people getting involved in the political process. “I think that will help us more, because God loves people who know Him, and those people usually are much more altruistic people. And they will make the right decisions, not based on how many people are going to vote for them but based on what is good for the community and world at large.”
I hope that you like this amazing story as much as I did! Finally, here is a thought to consider:
“Humankind should end the perverse cycle of war, which only sacrifices the lives of our children and squanders enormous sums of money. The time has come for the countries of the world to pool their resources and advance toward the kingdom of the peaceful, ideal world desired by God, the master of this great universe.”
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