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Conversation with Dr. Mehnaz M. Afridi

The author of “Shoah through Muslim Eyes” offers a new way of creating understanding between two communities through Holocaust education.

By Cindy Mindell


Mehnaz M. Afridi

It’s not every day that a Muslim educator chooses to take up the subject of the Holocaust. But consider a Muslim educator who dedicates her professional life to interfaith relations, and the gap between a quintessentially Jewish experience and its Muslim interpreter appears to shrink.

Mehnaz M. Afridi is assistant professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College. She will present “Teaching the Holocaust through Muslim Eyes” on Thursday, Mar. 3 at 7:30 pm at the University of Hartford. The public lecture is part of “Contemporary Studies in Jewish Civilization: Racial and Ethnic Violence,” a new course taught by Dr. Hazza Abu Rabia of the university’s Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies. The lecture is co-sponsored by Voices of Hope and JFACT (Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut).

Born in Pakistan to a Muslim family, Afridi grew up in Pakistan, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, England, and Switzerland, before her family relocated to Scarsdale, N.Y. in 1984. After graduating high school there, Afridi earned a BA in English and religion and an MA in religious studies at Syracuse University, spending a summer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2006, she took part in “Venice, the Jews, and Italian Culture: Historical Eras and Cultural Representations,” a summer institute for university educators funded by a National Endowment of Humanities grant. Afridi earned a Ph.D. in Islam and Religious Studies at the University of South Africa in 2009.

Afridi taught in Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University and Antioch University, and National University, before joining the Manhattan College faculty in 2011. The following year, Afridi was appointed director of the college’s Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center.

Afridi’s personal and academic philosophy is about bridging gaps between various – and often adversarial – groups. “I am a Muslim who believes that we should focus on trying to understand other faiths and beliefs,” she writes. “My scholarship puts into question the problems of religious bias, competition, and identity. My focus on keeping the memory alive of Holocaust survivors has involved the work of students, community, and local survivors.”

In her research, Afridi primarily focuses on Islam and contemporary literature, as well as the intersections of Judaism and Islam. Her recent work addresses the Holocaust and the role of Muslims, antisemitism, and Islamophobia.

She serves at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., as a consultant and a member of the Ethics, Religion and the Holocaust Committee.

In addition to many published articles and op-eds on Jewish-Muslim relations and how the Holocaust is perceived in Muslim societies, Afridi wrote “Collaboration through Acknowledging the Shoah” in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Collaboration and Conflict in the Age of Diaspora, edited by Sander L. Gilman (Hong Kong University Press, 2015) and “Acknowledging the ‘Other’ in Suffering: Reconciliation in Jewish-Muslim Relations?” in Remembering for the Future: Armenia, Auschwitz and Beyond, co-edited by Michael Berenbaum, Richard Libowitz, and Marcia Sachs Littell (Paragon Press, April 2016). Her book, Shoah through Muslim Eyes, is forthcoming from the Academic Studies Press “The Holocaust: History and Literature, Ethics and Philosophy” series edited by Michael Berenbaum.

Recently, the Ledger spoke with Afridi about her book and her upcoming talk.


Q: How did you, a Muslim woman, develop an interest in the Holocaust?

A: I am Muslim by faith. I was raised in Western Europe and the Middle East. In Western Europe, I was in international schools where I hung out with Jews and Christians and Hindus. I started to ask some questions while I was living in the Middle East about the tension between Muslims and Jews, and then through my education, I developed a keen interest in religious studies because I felt like I could really ask questions in that field.

I did a teaching assistantship for a professor where I learned about the Holocaust, which blew my mind, and then I started to dig into what that meant for Jews. I studied Judaism in 19th-century Germany and then did my Ph.D. in Islamic literature.

I started to think that it’s really important for people who are not from one faith to understand that faith. I’m not a Jew, but I wanted to understand Judaism and also understand the political tensions between Israel and the rest of the Muslim world, not just Palestine. I wanted to carve out a way of acknowledging each other’s suffering.

I’m directly involved with the Holocaust in a way that most people aren’t, but I think that’s very important for me because I’m also looking at other genocides: Bosnia, Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia. A lot of [these issues] stem from religious differences, and how we can see people as the Other because they’re religiously different. It’s not really physical; it’s a deep racism about a theoretical notion that we have about each other. When I was studying in Israel, people thought I was Jewish.


Q: Why did you write Shoah Through Muslim Eyes?

A: Unfortunately, the Holocaust is not taught in Muslim countries or communities.  Muslims are aware of the Holocaust but it is not part of a curriculum.

My book grew out of a frustration about denial and relativism around the Holocaust in Muslim society.

It’s a very sincere book; it’s not angry, but is just talking about my journey and what I witnessed. I interviewed survivors for the book and they were very curious about my being a Muslim and asked whether I get oppressed. Here I am interviewing a Holocaust survivor from Auschwitz and they would say, “Wait, you’re a Muslim. How do you feel about your religion?” It became like a counter-interview.

I hope that Muslims will read the book because I talk about antisemitism in the Muslim world, about our principles, and I carve out a history pre-Holocaust and talk about how Muslims rescued Jews during the Holocaust and were interned with Jews in places like North Africa and Poland.  A common narrative stems from these extreme experiences of being the “other” or “outsider.”

I recently spent four weeks in Europe, three weeks teaching in Venice, Italy, in the Jewish ghetto, which is 500 years old this year. I took students there and they learned so much about the Muslim and Jewish influences on Venetian culture. I think that’s a really important place to look at how certain people came together 500 years ago and actually didn’t kill each other. In a sense, Venice was one of the most multicultural places. So, I have all these really good examples of looking at things differently.


Q: In your opinion, how does the Muslim view of the Holocaust influence Arab-Israeli relations?

A: In my book, I look at the Jewish diaspora before the Holocaust and at Judaism and the history of Jews at different moments of history, when they’re persecuted, then they settle, and then they try to assimilate. This goes on since the time of Christ. I talk about the need for a nation for the Jews, and what happened under the British Mandate, and how there were people who sold land to Jews and there were Arab farmers.

The perspective of a lot of Muslims and Arabs is that the Holocaust is an excuse for the creation of Israel. I want to dismantle that because it’s not only totally false, but it’s very complicated and a gray area. Jews are seen as the imperial European entity in the Middle East, and they weren’t. They were from all over the world. I think that we don’t have enough of the pre-Holocaust history about Jews. It’s almost like, after 1948, [Muslims] don’t see anything. I think that’s problematic, because if that were said about Muslims, then we would really be an empty kind of culture and religion.

The kind of tension between Jews and Muslims is very recent in terms of history. That’s important to show — and it’s important to show that Jews and Muslims worked together in places like Iraq and Egypt, where they translated texts together. Jews fared much better – not perfectly, but better – under Muslim empires than under Christian empires.

In the book, I also talk about how Islam recognizes Jews and Christians as people who are promised paradise. If you look at our tradition, we have parts of the Torah and the Gospel in the Qur’an. When you read someone else’s tradition or sacred texts, you have to read it from their perspective. I know it’s really challenging, and this is where my academic sense comes in.


Q: If Muslims should learn about the Holocaust in order to better understand Jews, what should Jews know about Muslims?

A: Jews need to understand Muslim history and their colonial history and what was going on from World War I through World War II.

Jews and Christians — and Americans especially — have to understand that every Arab Muslim country was colonized. There was a certain kind of vacuum of growth and development because there were other entities in their countries ruling and taking away resources. I don’t think that’s ever been

really looked at full-frontally. There are scholars who talk about it, but Jews don’t really look at that; they say, “Arabs have their own nations and their own identity and place;” but they didn’t really, until the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s, when these places became independent.

If you look at Syria and Iraq today, those boundaries were carved by the British. We are forgetting that.

We’re not understanding why the Arab Spring happened or looking at the dictatorships that took over and how imperialism still was part of a lot of these countries. For example, Pakistan is still under a British parliamentary system. We haven’t had time to recover from colonialism. All of a sudden, after 200 or 300 years of colonialism, we said, “We have to regroup. What do we have in common? This thing called ‘Islam’ that we kind of practice.”

I think what happened with this thing called “Islam” is that we went to this notion of a pure, ideal Islam, which doesn’t exist and, in some cases, the louder voices were men who wanted to purify themselves of this western influence. They wanted to ‘detox’. I’m talking in general terms, just to give you an idea. We went into this kind of fundamentalist strain. But we Muslims have to realize that there is no such thing as purity: there are always going to be problems, and Islam allows for interpretation and we have to keep doing that in order to survive.


Q: In this age of extremism and polarization, the bridge you create is unusual. Where do you find your peers?

A: I’m holding a conference at the end of the month at Manhattan College [that focuses on the] Abrahamic faiths in this climate of challenging extremism. I have a bunch of really wonderful scholars – Jewish, Christian, Muslim – coming from all over the country to speak about encounters between the three faiths: early, medieval, modern, and present. There is a growing pocket of scholars who are interested in these questions. I know of one man in India who studies the Holocaust and he’s Muslim.

In Islam, we’re taught to be ethical and egalitarian. Unfortunately, most people don’t see that because of the voices of extremists. So I’m really taking the path of Islam to do what we do. We have a crisis going on in Islam and I’m very open about that. If you look at history, every faith, every religion has gone through crises. If you look at the medieval ages in Christianity, it’s terrifying — versus something like Islam at that time, which was in its renaissance.

I still feel optimistic. In my journey, I meet wonderful people from all faiths and races and cultures who want to learn and change.

I think racism is a real problem and misunderstanding of traditions is a real problem and the way we use rhetoric is a problem.

When I was in Los Angeles before I moved to New York, there were a lot of people who would ask me to come to [interfaith] dialogs. I got frustrated because I felt like people weren’t really talking honestly; we would get together and talk about commonalities but not about differences.

I started doing that more with an honest voice and taking risks in public and I thought that people were getting more out of that.

There’s a lot of hope. I think America has the answers because we can do that here: there’s no legislation against religious freedom, which you find in many parts of Europe or some Arab countries. I think that this is where we can really do something.

The following upcoming lectures by Dr. Mehn Afridi are free and open to the public:

“Teaching the Holocaust Through Muslim Eyes,” Thursday, March 3, 7:30 p.m., University of Hartford, Charles Dana Hall, West Hartford. Reservation required: (860) 768-5018, mgcjs@hartford.edu.

“Race and Religion in Muslim America,” March 3, 3 p.m., UConn, Zachs Hall, 85 Lawler Rd., West Hartford. Info: jfact.org.

“A Community in Solidarity: Stronger Together,” Monday, Feb. 22, 7 p.m. at Stamford High School, 55 Strawberry Hill Ave., Stamford (co-sponsored by UJF of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien and the Interfaith Council of Southwestern CT.) Info: interfaithcouncil. org.


At U of Hartford, an Israeli Arab brings Holocaust history to Muslim students

By Cindy Mindell

hazza abu rabia

Hazza Abu Rabia

WEST HARTFORD – Dr. Mehnaz M. Afridi will present “Teaching the Holocaust through Muslim Eyes” in a public lecture that is part of a new course at University of Hartford on ethnic and racial violence, taught by Hazza Abu Rabia.

An Israeli Arab from Nazareth, Abu Rabia came to the University of Hartford in 2002, along with his wife and fellow academic, Maha Darawsha, and their two sons. The two were co-sponsored by the university and the Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, where they both teach.

Abu Rabia earned a BA from University of Thessaloniki, an MA in Christian-Muslim Relations from Hartford Seminary, and an MA in Judaic Studies from University of Connecticut.

In addition to his adjunct professorship at the University of Hartford, Abu Rabia has taught courses in Arabic and on Islam and the Middle East at UConn, Central Connecticut State University, Quinnipiac University, Connecticut College, Trinity College, and Dartmouth College. He is a former Fellow of the Institute of Zionism and Israel Studies at Brandeis University. In December, he completed his PhD in Educational Leadership at the University of Hartford.

Abu Rabia has long cultivated an interest in religion, which led him to study at the Hartford Seminary and then into Judaic Studies. He was inspired to develop a course on the Holocaust by the large number of Saudi Arabian students in his courses on Islam and the Middle East.

“Most of them graduate without knowing anything about the Holocaust and I think this is a shame,” he says. “I am an Arab-Israeli and the Holocaust is a tragic event in world history and I think that, regardless of your political point of view toward Israel, this should be taught to everyone in order to prevent it happening to other people. I thought we should create a course for them, and since they may not be sympathetic toward Jews, we came up with ‘Racial and Ethnic Violence.’”

Abu Rabia and the Greenberg Center launched the course this semester, and the approach has worked so far.

“In the class, we talk about different genocides in the world: we start with the Armenians, the Jewish genocides in Europe during World War Two, the Bosnian genocide, and now we’re talking about the genocides between the Muslims themselves – the Sunni and Shi’a inside Iraq, for example,” Abu Rabia says.

One of the assignments is a short paper on any aspect of genocide. “I was surprised to see that, out of 20 students, at least 12 want to do something about the Jewish genocide during World War Two,” he says. “When I ask them why, they say that there is a lot of literature on the subject. I am pleased because that’s my main purpose: to teach these students about the Holocaust itself.”

Abu Rabia models neutrality to his students by putting any personal bias aside and teach the history of the Holocaust as history. “Regardless what the effect of this has been on the Israel-Palestine situation, this event in world history was tragic and shouldn’t have happened,” he says. “There was injustice done to a certain population, mainly in Europe, because of antisemitism and racial hatred against the Jews. I want to make the students aware of genocide as a tragic event that can destroy other nations and nationalities and cultures, just because people don’t believe in other races and think that they are superior. This can happen to anyone; it’s not like it happened only to the Jews and stopped there. For example, today, it’s happening in Myanmar against the Muslims – maybe in a different way, but we still see it.”

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