• A Muslim Woman Speaks Out for Holocaust Acceptance and Tolerance

    The views expressed in this article do not represent the opinions of HMTC.

    “…through others’ sufferings … we can often hear the voice of empathy and compassion.” – Mehnaz Afridi

    Appalled by the Islamophobia after 9/11, I hungered after books, workshops, and seminars to learn about Muslims and their religion. At one seminar, I met Rabbi Reuven Firestone, an authority on Islam.  He encouraged me to meet his good Muslim friend, Mehnaz Afridi, soon to head-up the Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center at the Catholic Manhattan College. Weeks later, Mehnaz and I met, spent several hours in intense conversation, and, among other things, talked of her desire to write a book about Muslim Shoah denial.

    Somehow our paths diverged after that and years passed until I listened, once again,  to her passionate words last Spring as keynote speaker at our Center’s Yom Ha’Shoah commemoration. After her presentation, I re-met her and bought her book which fulfilled her long-standing dream, ”Shoah Through Muslim Eyes.”  Upon purchase, I vowed to study it and write an article to support her sorely-needed struggle.

    Mehnaz introduces the volume by describing her unusual and varied background which prepared the ground for her life’s work.  Born in Pakistan to Indian refugee parents, she lived in Europe from age four, later moved to Dubai, and eventually came to the US in 1984.  During these years she met people of all faiths, and her parents helped her develop a passion for Islam as a religion of peace, justice, and tolerance.  Both elements of her background fueled a deep desire to understand “the other.’

    With her multi-cultural perspective and compassionate values, Mehnaz recoiled in disgust when she learned of the extreme contrast between the horrors of the Shoah and the silence and relativism of the Muslim community’s response.  This contrast “screamed out” at her and implored her to take action, notwithstanding the personal suffering caused by isolation and condemnation from many Muslims.

    The exploration of this widespread Muslim Shoah denial and trivialization Mehnaz initiates by highlighting a revealing incident.  Moments before speaking at an interfaith panel, an intelligent Muslim woman from McGill University, acquainted with Mehnaz’ work, accosted her, asking, “… isn’t it accurate that only two thousand Jews died in the Holocaust?”  This incident etched into  Mehnaz’ memory  because it epitomized the blunted sensibilities of many Muslims to Jewish deaths and adamant refusal to accept the established figure of six million.

    Two misplaced beliefs of many Muslims, explains Mehnaz, formed the genesis of this denial. After World War II, western powers, such as Britain and the US, gave Jews an illegally created homeland in Palestine as a present because of their suffering in the Shoah and to assuage western guilt.  Jews have compounded this injustice by exaggerating the Shoah death toll to gain western sympathy for the existence and expansion of Israel.  These widely circulated myths, amplified by Muslim politics and coupled with long-standing negative Jewish stereotypes, have distorted Muslim reality of the Shoah.

    Troubled by this toxic condition, Mehnaz embarked on several efforts toward reconciliation.    Misinformation and forgotten history, one source of the problem, she addresses by educating that Mohammed was friendly toward Jews, conversed with them about religion, appreciated their belief in one God, and commanded Muslims to accept Jews as People of the Book.    She continues this positive focus by illuminating the lost history of the once flourishing Jewish-Muslim partnership, where they lived, worked, and learned from each other, sharing food, language, music, and religious ceremonies.

    To help understand “the other,” she interviewed Shoah survivors.  The Quranic verse, “Do not withhold any testimony or be concealing what you had witnessed,” (2:238) inspired her to   bear witness to the pain and suffering through personal encounters with the victims.  “Witnessing the story of the survivors had impacted me deeply” ,reflected Mehnaz after the interviews. There were nights I lay on my bed thinking of the humanity in their stories and dehumanization of men, women, and children.  I have been a witness.”  As a stranger and a Muslim woman, she felt particularly honored to hear their horrific experiences, and listen, laugh, cry, and connect deeply with them.

    On another front, Mehnaz wanted to build bridges by changing Arab-Muslim understanding about their involvement in the Shoah.  Most Muslims, she decries, hear only the Arab narrative about the Shoah which largely ignores any Arab role.  To ameliorate this inaccurate and damaging view, she presents the complete Arab-Muslim Shoah story.  This includes the many Muslims in Turkey, the Balkans, and especially Albania who rescued Jews as well as the collaborators, bystanders, rescuers and victims in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya under German and collaborationist Vichy government. Muslims need to realize, asserts Mehnaz, that they, too, were part of the story of the Shoah, not simply observers.

    Despite her strenuous efforts and those of others to heal the wounds, Mehnaz warns the hatred between the two groups is higher than ever. In addition to her previously mentioned undertakings, she urges a deeper, twin-path out of this worsening cycle of intolerance. This would entail helping Muslims accept historical Jewish suffering and the Shoah and dismantling mutual negative stereotypes. If achieved, it would open the door for increased connection and respect.

    Although it may be necessary to reverse the negative downward spiral, striving for Shoah truth and improved understanding of “the other” can be risky, as Mehnaz shows in the example of Mohammed Dajani.  A Palestinian Professor, removed from Al-Quds University, Dajani received death threats and his car set on fire after taking his students to Auschwitz in an effort to teach empathy and tolerance.  As Dajani says, “You need to understand the other because reconciliation is the only option we have…empathizing with our enemy does not mean you sanction what your enemy is doing to you.” Dajani as well other upstanders cited in the book compel us, despite the risks, to take constructive action.

    As part of this constructive action, with bravery and wisdom, our Center chose to honor Mehnaz Afridi.  By struggling at great personal cost to preserve the truth of Shoah history, fighting against strong headwinds to educate about its vital lessons, and promulgating harmony in place of enmity, she more than deserved this prominence and the opportunity to propagate her message.  From the vantage point of our Center, Mehnaz increased our grasp of Muslim Shoah denial and motivated us to find solutions for a way forward.

    I hope many more Muslims, Jews, and others recognize Mehnaz’ work, reflect on her ideas, and most importantly, use this as a spur for healing action, which would be the greatest tribute we could pay her.

    By Frank Miller-Small


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