The Muslim Holocaust Researcher
Prof. Mehnaz Afridi, a Pakistani Muslim, has been the director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center in New York for the past decade.
Don't even bother to try and label Mehnaz Afridi. A professor in religious studies, Afridi is a Pakistani Muslim who has been the director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center in New York (HGI) since 2011. She researches and teaches the Holocaust, genocide and Islam from a multi-cultural perspective.
This year, due to the coronavirus, the March of the Living in Poland did not take place, and Afridi was invited to participate in a virtual ceremony for the International March of the Living. This is how I came to know her, a warm and impressive woman. Her book, Shoah Through Muslim Eyes (2017, a series edited by Michael Berenbaum), offers a unique and fascinating perspective on this chapter in history. In these times of factionism and strife, Afridi's devotion to the topic of the Holocaust, her continued activism for reconciliation and her commitment to interfaith dialogue are moving.
When I delved into researching the Holocaust, I understood the need for the State of Israel.
Afridi has traveled across the Middle East, Western Europe and the US throughout her life. It seems like the seminal paradigm in her identity is that of the other and foreignness. A sense of detachment and discrimination are not foreign to her and are a central part of her biography: "I was born in Karachi to a Muslim Pakistani family. My father worked in international banking. That means our family had to migrate often. In 1984 we moved to Scarsdale, New York, where I finished high school. In most of the schools I attended, I was the only Muslim. Dark skinned, with a different language and culture.
"In Switzerland, I felt 'too dark'. In Dubai, I was an outsider. In New York, I was a Pakistani. I knew racism. In some of the schools, I became friends with Jews, who also stood out for being different. As time went on, I became more curious about Jews."
Q: Do you come from a religious home?
"My mother was religious. My father was a believer, but secular and more relaxed. I keep customs, fast during Ramadan, I don't wear a hijab. I pray, since praying is like meditation for me."
Q: How does a Muslim woman become so interested in the Holocaust and end up scientifically researching it?
"I did my Masters in religious studies at Syracuse University. Almost by accident, I became a teaching assistant to Alan Berger [a veteran Holocaust researcher who was a professor in the religious studies department – RT]. In his lessons, I was exposed deeply to the Holocaust. I completed my doctorate at the University of South Africa. Michael Berenbaum, an orthodox rabbi and researcher of the Holocaust, was also one of my mentors. That's how I found myself studying Judaism, researching the many points where Judaism and Islam meet, and finding how the concept of God is so similar. My interest in the Holocaust grew and I began to understand the need for the State of Israel."
'This is the degree of humanity'
She shares with me a defining moment in her life. The summer of 2007 when she was invited to speak at a conference in Munich, after which she felt the need to visit Dachau, the death camp in Germany. "I always wanted to visit the camps," Afridi says, "and in Dachau, I felt an emptiness, everything was exposed, the white rocks were blinding. I was holding my newborn baby daughter, her crying echoed inside me, and I asked myself what were you thinking, why did you bring her to Dachau?
"I stood in the crematorium and prayer spontaneously rose inside me from the Koran (2:156) that is said when a person passes away. I wanted to give the dead the respect they deserved. The meaning of the prayer is that 'we belong to God, and to Him do we indeed return'.
"I didn't realize then how that powerful moment would define me. I didn't know exactly why I wanted to visit Dachau. Maybe as a Muslim witness, to tell of the rage over Holocaust denial in the Muslim world and to raise attention to the dangers of ignoring history. I felt a responsibility for the dead, to be a voice for them in the Muslim world. I found myself looking into my daughter's eyes, feeling that remembering these horrors is the only way to avoid this happening again to anyone. In Islam, human dignity is a right given by God to all people, as those who accept the divinity across the world, whether a person is dead or alive (as is exemplified in the Koran, such as Surah 5:31).
"Unfortunately, the Holocaust is not taught in Muslim communities. Muslims are aware of the Holocaust but it's not part of the curriculum. I wanted to bridge these stories to Muslims. To tell my community: 'accept the Holocaust, recognize the pain.' It may not be your pain, but it is the pain of humanity.
"I've seen attempts in the Muslim community to refute the Holocaust, to distort history and numbers. My research was born out of this Holocaust denial and the relativism towards it. It hurt me as a Muslim, not only as an intellectual. I wanted to give the Holocaust the mantle of Islamic ethical justice."
Q: How did your family and friends react to your choice?
"My father died 20 years ago. My mother found it hard at first. She wondered why I didn't study a normative field. At first, she feared Muslim extremists. Today she supports me and has even come with me to Israel. I have two children, and as a mother, I can understand the motives. My children read books and watch movies about the Holocaust. They have close Jewish friends. I do not believe in occlusion but in exposure to a diverse environment. This is the way I wanted to live and raise my children, in religious freedom with understanding and tolerance for the other. In my eyes, this is the degree of humanity."
For her book, Afridi interviewed survivors over the years.
Q: What is the added value of a Muslim interviewing a Holocaust survivor?
"I'm not another Jew or Israeli asking for their testimony. As a Muslim I felt that I wanted to interview the Holocaust survivors myself. One of the survivors, for example, decided that he no longer wanted to be interviewed, but when he heard I was Muslim he got very excited, changed his mind and spoke with me. The interviewees were curious about me and my religion. I keep in touch with many of the survivors, I visit their homes, eat with them on holidays, a close connection was forged. The view of Islam is based on a warped perspective given by the media. I let them meet with Muslim students and you can immediately see the difference in how people react to each other. These things define me and my life, these are the transformations I yearn for."
Q: In your book and research, Islam is the fundamental model through which you observe the Holocaust, by using the Koran and Hadith.
"Indeed, I am a Muslim dealing with the Holocaust of the Jews, and therefore my perspective is different. The soft and tolerant voices of Islam are not heard enough. The message of Islam was always universal: promote tolerance, equality, and acceptance of other faiths and cultures. That and moreover, the Koran says that if you are exposed to false testimony, even from your own people – you must rise against it and stand for justice. Through Islam, my ethical responsibility towards humanity, as God has commanded, is not to tolerate false testimony (4:135). Therefore, it is my duty as a Muslim to condemn Holocaust denial; also, history must be known, if you disconnect Islam from its roots you miss similar stories, the shared heroes, traditions, and sisters. Therefore, I am committed to the Holocaust, it's strange, but that's how it is."
Q: Who reacted more harshly: Muslims or Jews?
"Both. I'm interested precisely in these junctions of Judaism and Islam. My appointment to head the Holocaust center was controversial in both communities, unfortunately, they don't trust each other enough. In Muslim circles they asked why I don't study Islamic issues, why I don't write about the Palestinians; and it wasn't easy for the Jews as well. When I took the job, it was the first time in history that a Muslim woman was chosen to head any Holocaust center in the world. It was an unusual decision that evoked opposition, such as 'it would be better to give the job to a neo-Nazi' or 'a Muslim chosen to direct the center will diminish the Holocaust as a seminal event for Jews.'"
These reactions broke her heart, and also made her feel how important it was for her to bring change. With time, thanks to her research and personal interactions, more people in the community began to trust her. Even the more extreme elements were impressed: "In time they learned to understand my activism against anti-Semitism. Today I have Jewish friends whom I treat like family."
Q: You are a woman, a Muslim woman, a Muslim woman dealing with the Holocaust, and an intellectual making her way in academia. Is it a lonely journey?
"I'm fighting on two fronts. I'm drawing Muslim students to study the Holocaust: Albanians, Pakistanis, Syrians, Iraqis, Saudis. The male Muslim students have the most difficult time with me. But I have a lot of support from Muslims and Jews, such as the women's fraternity 'Salaam-Shalom'."
Q: The Holocaust is a seminal event in Jewish modern history that you think Muslims should know more about. What should Jews learn about Muslims to understand them better, what are our blind spots as Jews?
"We are 1.5 billion Muslims spread around the world. Islam has many colors. There is Muslim aggressiveness, like the Taliban, Hamas. But there are millions of silent Muslims, suffering victims, like in China, Bosnia, Kashmir. Muslims are treated as an extreme group, as troublemakers. As Muslims we also are victims of stereotyping, of Islamophobia. Even when I brought a group of 52 women to Auschwitz, some of them Muslims, we encountered anti-Muslim revelations."
Afridi also deals with the Muslim Chinese minority of Uyghurs, of which China is holding in forced labor camps en masse. "They've been through abuse and rape of women and children. There is a silenced suffering of Muslims around the world. There are many 'pockets' of discriminated Muslim minorities, and many times it's the non-Arab Muslims. In Islam there is a hierarchy: The Arabs are on top, then the Asians and at the bottom are the Africans. A racist Muslim hierarchy. The Arabs see themselves as the 'pure Muslims', the pure receivers of the message, since the Koran was delivered in Arabia. But most Muslims are Asians and the minority are disadvantaged Africans."
The tensions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict definitely complicate the way the Holocaust is perceived. Afridi mentions Prof. Mohammed Dajani Daoudi from Al-Quds University, who in 2014 initiated a tour of Palestinian students to Auschwitz, for the first time ever. He received death threats and was forced to pack up and escape to the U.S.
Q: Is it easier for a non-Arab Muslim to teach the Holocaust?
"Maybe. There is more Holocaust denial in the Middle East, due to the tension with Israel. It's a painful discussion, submerged in political propaganda. There's an identity competition over the narrative, while everyone has a place in memory. By understanding the Holocaust we can improve the dialogue between us. We must show empathy outside our identity. It doesn't mean you lose your faith by doing so, but you become more aware of the sensitivities of other faiths and cultures. That is the only way to grow, to progress."
This article originally appeared on Israel Hayom. Photo credit: Louis Constant Dui