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South Asian Holocaust Educator: A Personal Journey

By Mehnaz M. Afridi

By 1948, as the great migration drew to a close, more than fifteen million people had been uprooted, and between one and two million were dead. The comparison with the death camps [Holocaust] is not so far-fetched as it may seem. Partition is central to modern identity in the Indian subcontinent, as the Holocaust is to identity among Jews, branded painfully onto the regional consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence. The acclaimed Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal has called Partition “the central historical event in twentieth century South Asia.” She writes, “A defining moment that is neither beginning nor end, partition continues to influence how the peoples and states of postcolonial South Asia envisage their past, present and future.”[1]

As a first generation Pakistani, a child of Indian refugees, I was raised with pride to be a Muslim and a Pakistani – Pak-istan, literally translated as “the land of the pure”. My experience of the partition is limited, even non-existent, but my parents’ memories remain engraved in my mind for better or worse. The story of my paternal grandfather who lost his clothing business in Aligarh, India and when he arrived in Karachi, Pakistan, his small saved fortune was stolen from his room. His hope of supporting and beginning a new business in Pakistan was broken by the fear that he had to support his seven children and his wife. Dismayed and finally trying to create a small business, he ended up selling raisins in the streets of Karachi to garner some support and living in a cemented two-story building with old fashioned squat bathrooms with a large Sahayn (courtyard) that could act as a symbol of some financial success. My grandfather, a Pathan, an Afridi, was uprooted from the old mountains of Tirah Valley to the intimidating lights of a large urban city, Karachi. My mother’s father, a man who worked for the British railroad service fared better but he and his family of four also left Hyderabad, India, in a panic because they were Muslims, and the urgency of this family was my pregnant grandmother. Pregnant women were at risk and she was for certain to be the first victim of massacres. The story of my mother as a five year old sitting upon my grandmother’s lap for a long train ride over to Pakistan so that no one could see that she was pregnant is a memory that I have carried with me for some years. These and other stories shape my own unconscious or genetic leanings of sensitivity, remorse and journey as a Muslim Pakistani woman living in the United States teaching about anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and genocide.

My journey and work is focused on the many experiences and realities on the ground in terms of the relationship between Jews and Muslims. Spending all my summers in Pakistan and living in Europe amongst Jews and Christians transformed my thinking. Teaching anti-Semitism and Islamophobia to both Jews and Muslims can be a challenge and simultaneously a place where one can experience the vulnerability of human identity in terms of what we choose to protect and criticize as human beings of faith and nationhood. For example, the anti-Indian sentiment that still brews in my extended family, the mistrust of Indians, false rumors of terrorism about the Indian government and the battles over the intimate cultural artistic expressions of both Indians and Pakistanis.

Pakistan was created by many complex events and actions with the intermingling of the British, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. It was a time of confusion and also a time of order where people had to make a death or life choice about identity and belonging. This choice and in most cases the refugee status which is something that many Jews faced starting from the exodus from Egypt to the making of Israel in 1948. Jews recall their history with the celebration of Passover every year marking the escapes from others and a celebration of life as Muslims mark the revelation of the Qur’an and the beginning of Islam at the end of Ramadan. The memories of retaining something that is about identity and perseverance is part of these and other cultures. However, my focus is on suffering and learning how one can undergo traumatic genocide and mass murder yet still attain a certain understanding of the world and the message of peace.

From the Exodus from Egypt to the Holocaust Jews that were murdered and expelled, they realized that they needed a safe place and nation that they could escape to and be protected by.  Although Zionism was always a long-term idea beginning with theological prescription and political European proclamations in the 19th century, Jews recognized that they needed to leave and majority of them who could not or did not unfortunately perished. The history of such turmoil also existed for millions of Indians and Pakistanis and consequently they built their own borders and ordered the world with borders. However, the order and boundaries were broken and the wars eschewed between the two and we are still facing one another at the Indo-Pakistani border with guns pointed at one another and men in military uniform staring at one another with the knowledge that nuclear power lies beneath the chance of any enormous power struggle.

As a South Asian, I discovered many parallels in the creation of Israel and Pakistan but also our faiths and the ways we are perceived and seen as an “Other” in Europe and the United states.  Two groups of people who wanted to build something good, better and perhaps safe have both been challenged by the idea that nothing is indeed pure and that nations have always been built where others have lived and are living. The parallels are there and we need not be shameful of comparisons of identities and nations. As we experience terror in many parts of the world, the highest incidences of violence and prejudice are still against Jews and Muslims.

My journey with the Holocaust and anti-Semitism began as I studied the Holocaust in university and also my friendships with Jews, my trip to Israel and then my visit to pay respects to the murder of Jews at the Dachau concentration camp, Germany. As a South Asian and, especially a Pakistani, I began to see very disturbing patterns of anti-Semitism within my own community and Muslims at large. The old European anti-Semitic hatred had begun to filter into the Muslim community and I was frustrated by the lack of education and understanding of Jews, Judaism and Israel. So, I began to focus on educating people about the horrors of the Holocaust and how far it had reached even into North Africa. The amazing technological and systematic murder of Jews was unprecedented and as Muslims we could not and cannot deny it. I focus on how to acknowledge the pain and suffering of others before we share the pain of our own communities.

Unfortunately, I discovered that anti-Semitism was lurking everywhere, in the recent attacks by ISIS, in the streets of Cairo as the revolution unfolded, in the alleyways of Karachi as drone attacks are deployed, in the minarets of Saudi Arabia as women are dismayed, in Damascus as tanks roll in, and in Tehran as Ahmadinejad calls for Holocaust denial – anti-Semitism is everywhere  like smog that looms in the air – thick, dirty and hard to breath in. Even in Karachi the “Jews” are everywhere, although they have not lived there as a large community in several hundred years. As a Pakistani-American woman, this is my challenge and by now the familiar themes of European anti-Semitism – the blood libel, the protocols of Zion, the international Jewish conspiracy, and the rest – have become standard fare in much of the Arab world. Noting the attacks by extremist Muslim groups that use the Jews as a target and project them as enemy against Islam through schoolrooms, the pulpit, the media, and even at the butchers shop in the Defense Karachi marketplace, where I recall that Jews were blamed for the bird flu. As a Muslim, aware of the anti-Semitism and Holocaust Denial in many parts of the Muslim world, I was dismayed, frustrated, and sad. And more importantly, I am troubled at the silence of non-Jews about anti-Semitism.

As I’ve journeyed through these issues for several years, there are certain silver linings and glimmers of hope that have taken me by surprise in an isolated place. This lining of hope comes from my own professional life of a Muslim academic who teaches Islam at Manhattan College, a Catholic institution and where I direct the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center.  As a Minority, I am privileged to hold these positions but the crucial fact remains that I have dedicated my life to speaking out against anti-Semitism and Holocaust Denial. Working hard to stop anti-Semitism, I’ve discovered that there are many positive ways to bring this education to the Muslim world through speaking the truth, rejecting anti-Semitism, learning history, and sharing the positive role of Muslims during the Holocaust.

Finally, I decided I wanted to meet with survivors and interview them; I wanted to listen to them, and talk with them about anti-Semitism. But then curiously I found myself entering into dialogue about Muslims, Jews, and Genocide. They were curious and also at times prejudiced in terms of their understanding of Islam and they were shocked to meet a Muslim woman dedicated to Holocaust education. Here is an excerpt from one of my interviews with Renee Firestone, an Auschwitz survivor. She asked me the following questions:

How is it that Osama bin Laden or these extremists are out to kill Jews?

I know the Qur’an is very similar to the Jewish Bible. We are cousins; that’s another thing we are really the same tribe that’s another thing I don’t understand.

One of the things I wanted to talk about but since we are not politicians about Israel and Palestine and what’s happened there. Why is it that in Muslim countries or in the Arab world, there is no education about the Holocaust or other genocides? If you believe that Jews are controlling everything and America what are you learning as a child? Not only that but they are giving weapons to children that are five-years-old. That’s terrible.

I sat in silence but was happy that I was working on these issues and trying my best to introduce Holocaust education to Muslims.

[1] Retrieved November 22, 2015

Dr. Mehnaz M. Afridi is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, Manhattan College and the Director of its Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Shoah through Muslim Eyes (White Cloud Press). She serves on several boards of non-profit organisations, like the Committee on Ethics, Religion and the Holocaust at US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C. and Jewish-Muslim Dialogue at Raul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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