Taking interfaith relations seriously

Taking interfaith relations seriously

Muslim scholar who focuses on Holocaust to speak in Ridgewood

In a sane world, there would be nothing in any way eyebrow-raising about a Muslim scholar teaching a course about the Holocaust at a Roman Catholic college.

No, no, scratch that. In a sane world, there would not have been a Holocaust.

But suppose that after the war ended and the camps were liberated, the world came to its collective senses, recoiled in horror from what it saw, and decided that such evil never could happen again. In that world, there would be nothing at all surprising about a Muslim scholar teaching a course about the Holocaust at a Roman Catholic college.

We do not live in such a world. So it is both a surprise and an ongoing act of courage that Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, who is the director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College in Riverdale – and who will give the keynote address at the Interfaith Holocaust Memorial Service in Ridgewood this year (see box for more information) – has chosen to devote her life to it.

Dr. Mehnaz Afridi

Dr. Afridi grew up exposed to a huge range of cultures. Her parents are Pakistani, but because her father worked at the sort of high-level job that demanded that the family move every two or three years but afforded her access to good schools and cultural experiences, she met and felt comfortable around many people.

She lived in Pakistan, Dubai, London, and Geneva. Later, she moved to Scarsdale, N.Y., where she finished high school.

Dr. Afridi speaks an unaccented, colloquial English – occasionally she will come up with usages that are not entirely familiar here, but that is rare. “I feel very native in English, but I learned it when I was 9,” she said. “I worked at not having an accent, because as a teacher, you don’t want to sound like a foreigner.” But the language she spoke at home when she was growing up was Urdu, she had a tutor who taught her classical Arabic, and she “is comfortable in four or five languages,” she said.

“I was raised to accept people of all faiths,” Dr. Afridi said. “When I went to the Middle East, I was shocked, because there was no mention of Jews. There were no Jews in my classes. They would censor the word Jew. I asked my mother, and she said that Jews were fine, but Israel was a political thing.

“And then we moved to Scarsdale,” a very Jewish suburb in Westchester.

“I was about 14 – it was in the late ’80s – and I felt that there was a lot of anti-Arab sentiment,” she said. “Sometimes, as a kid, you get confused. What’s going on there?

“And then I went to Syracuse,” where she earned her master’s degree in religious studies, “and I took a class in the Holocaust. I realized that there is a lot of relativism and denial in Muslim society, belittling the Holocaust. They didn’t actually say that it was a fiction, but that it was far smaller and less important than we’re told. I became very suspicious. I started to wonder what was going on.”

She went on to the University of South Africa, where she earned a Ph.D. in Islamic literature. Along the way, her interest in the Holocaust deepened. “I wanted to understand more about it,” she said. “I also wanted to learn about Jewish immigration post World War II, and about Israel.”

She was particularly struck by “how unique it was. It was horrific. Jews were killed just because they were Jewish.” It was unlike other genocides – each is different, of course, and each is evil – “because in Bosnia, for example, it was terrible, the genocide, the rape camps, but they didn’t go to Albania and kill all the rest of the Muslims.” The genocide had geographic boundaries. On the other hand, there were camps in North Africa, where Moroccan Jews were imprisoned on their way to their deaths in Poland. The Holocaust, she said, was unbounded genocide.

Next, she realized that “I had never interviewed survivors, so I started to interview them,” she said. “My daughter had just been born, and I had decided to work only part-time, so I had more time. I started to interview survivors. I went to Dachau during that time.

“It was very hard. I couldn’t sleep at night.

“Many of the survivors had never met a Muslim before, certainly had never talked to one, and it became a very interesting conversation.”

Teaching about the Holocaust to mostly Catholic students has its own challenges, she added. “It is hard for the students to understand that these sentiments” – the hatred of Jews – “came from the Bible. A lot of them say ‘No way,’ and I say ‘Yes way.’

“I tell them that we are all capable of such horrific crimes. The question is what are you going to do about it? How do we do what is ethical? What is good? If a tiny minority of my students can hear me, if they can recognize it – and honestly young people today are so disempowered, there is so much apathy. They say, ‘What can we do?’ and I say, ‘If you hear a Jewish joke’ – and they probably will – ‘step in. If you hear something against Muslims, step in.'”

Dr. Afridi also went to Israel, getting an even more well-rounded view of the situation.

Why has the situation between Muslims and Jews deteriorated to where it is now? “Ignorance,” she said. “When you are not educated about each other, you only see each other through the lens of repressed and oppressor.

“We are bigger, and unfortunately extremists have taken this as a tool, and use it to say ‘We have to kill the Jews.’ It is very poor education. Muslims in America aren’t anti-Semitic, but they are still very nervous about Jews. They have these same old theories, about how the Jews control Congress.” They use the anti-Semitic tropes so familiar in the Christian world, as well as some new ones.

“For me, it was disturbing to see a dramatic version of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ in Egypt,” she said. “There is all this underlying resentment. Jews are seen by Muslims and Arabs as a colonial force because of Israel.”

Jews and Muslims have “two very different, very stark perceptions of each other, and that creates more problems,” she continued. “Look at what is going on in Europe, at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher grocery store. But the man who rescued the Jews? He’s a Muslim.

“There is really so much nuance in what is going on, but we have no time to learn about it. We live in sound bites. Jews also were colonized; they lived in Arab lands. And vice versa.

“There is always an underlying feeling in Middle Eastern, Asian, and African countries that we have to have our own voices, but the wrong voices are coming to power.”

“We have to start recognizing each other’s suffering,” she said. “That’s how I went on this journey.

“We have to challenge ourselves. When I talk to Muslims and Arabs, I say look at how people view us. It is terrible. They see us as extremists and oppressors. We are always looked at with suspicion. If you can understand that, then look at how we are seeing Jews. How different is that? We have to look at everything with a critical lens.

“What does the Koran say? It is the most positive book, but you can take all sorts of things from it.

“We can speak up for one another. When I am in a synagogue or in the Jewish community, I say that you can have dinner with each other. That helps a lot.” Of course, that’s not so easy. We tend not to know each other. “Even in the United States, we have segregated ourselves,” she said. “But if there is a place where it can happen – and this is the hope, that it will happen – this is where it can happen.”

It takes courage for Dr. Afridi to do her work, and she is quick to say that she is but one of many doing similar things. “I think a lot of it has to do with honesty and truth,” she said. “My goal is to educate, to create peace and understanding between two very beautiful communities with long histories, so much of it intertwined.”

Who: Dr. Mehnaz Afridi

What: Will headline Ridgewood’s Interfaith Holocaust Memorial Service

When: On Sunday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: At the Westside Presbyterian Church, Varian Fry Way, 6 Monroe St., Ridgewood

Sponsored by: The Donald and Helen Fellowes Memorial Holocaust Education Endowment. The Fellowes were members of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, a co-sponsor of the interfaith service. The Fellowes were Holocaust survivors, and their children were rescued by Raoul Wallenberg. The Jewish Standard ran a story about the Fellowes on November 28, 2014, shortly after Ms. Fellowes’ death at 102.

Information: Call Temple Israel at (201) 444-9320 or go to its website, www.synagogue.org.

read more: