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At the Death Camps, Muslim Leaders Grapple With Jews’ Pain

It was a perfect summer day at the Dachau concentration camp. The clear skies and pleasant breeze seemed almost offensive. And there, beneath the main monument, a bronze sculpture of writhing bodies intermeshed with barbed wire, was an uncommon sight: a group of Muslims leaders prostrate in prayer.

Prayers and Learning: Muslim delegates (above) chant their afternoon prayers before the main monument at Dachau, during a visit by North American Muslim leaders to Nazi concentration camps. Max Mannheimer, 90, who survived Auschwitz and Dachau, shows the delegates the number imprinted on his arm as he recounts his war- time experience. Image by PHOTOS: A.J. GOLDMANN

At the end of the service, prayer leader Muzammil Siddiqi, imam of the Islamic Society of Orange County, California, offered up an additional prayer: “We pray to God that this will not happen to the Jewish people or to any people anymore.”

Siddiqi was one of eight American Muslim leaders on a study tour to Dachau and Auschwitz that was co-sponsored by a German think tank and the Center for Interreligious Understanding, a New Jersey-based interfaith dialogue group. The delegation’s sole female member was Laila Muhammad, daughter of the late American Muslim leader W.D. Muhammad and granddaughter of Elijah Muhammad, the late leader of the Nation of Islam.

The excursion, which ran from August

8 through August 10, was one the U.S. government itself invested with great importance. Accompanying the group were several government officials, including Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, and Rashad Hussain, special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

The unusual trip was the brainchild of Marshall Breger, an Orthodox Jew and a Republican who served as a senior official in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Breger, who wore his yarmulke on every leg of the trip, said he first had the idea of organizing the expedition last year, while he was in Israel during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. He described it simply as a kind of eureka moment.

“There is a view that there is growing anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, reinforced by people like President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, that there is growing Holocaust denial in the Muslim world,” explained Breger, now a law professor at Catholic University. “In light of that, the idea was to offer education to those who might not have the kind of knowledge that we’ve had about World War II and the Jewish community, and to do this in a public way.”

It is impossible to know what the long-term impact of such a trip will be. But if the heartfelt comments of the trip participants — including some with a history of previous statements that many Jews view as problematic — are any guide, Breger did not underestimate the value of direct experience in promoting education, understanding and even, perhaps, change.

Among other developments, Mohamed Magid, imam and executive director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a mega-mosque in the Washington area that serves more than 5,000 families, is preparing an article on Holocaust denial for Islamic Horizons, the magazine published by the Islamic Society of North America. “No Muslim in his right mind, female or male, should deny the Holocaust,” said the Muslim leader, a native of Sudan. “When you walk the walk of the people who have been taken to be gassed, to be killed, how can a person deny physical evidence, something that’s beyond doubt?”

Breger related that he had appealed to numerous Jewish organizations for financial assistance without luck, as he sought to make the trip a reality. But the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank affiliated with Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, agreed almost immediately upon being approached.

The delegates were put up in five-star hotels, and sampled German and Polish delicacies at a number of gourmet restaurants. But the trip was physically and emotionally grueling. The experience of grilled fresh flounder followed by a visit to the crematoria only added to the frequent sense of jarring dislocation.

On Monday, August 9, the delegates met in Munich and traveled to nearby Dachau. There they met with Max Mannheimer, a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau, before being guided through the camp. The visit to Auschwitz, and to Birkenau two days later, included a meeting with Wilhelm Brasse, a non-Jewish survivor of Auschwitz who took photographs inside the camp for the Nazis, including some for Josef Mengele.

The delegates’ level of knowledge about the Holocaust prior to the trip seemed to be fairly low. Some had read up on it online, while others had seen films that depicted horrors of the Nazi period. None, however, was an expert in the subject. Some were visibly shaken by what they saw. The delegates seemed especially affected by seeing the number tattooed on Mannheimer’s arm by the Nazis. They asked things like, “Did you see any of your family members killed?” and, “When did you find out about the crematoria?” As they toured the sites, they posed questions that seemed tinged not with skepticism, but rather with outrage and a desire to understand.

“These imams all have significant constituents in American Muslim communities as recognized legal scholars, people with mega-mosques, people with radio shows, people on the web, people who reach out to youth,” Breger noted. He said that the Jewish community, in contrast, often looks to engage with Muslims who meet specified criteria but do not have large constituencies.

Indeed, it was not hard to imagine that some of the Muslim delegates might be viewed as imperfect candidates for dialogue by Jews wary of discussions with those they see as Islamists or as prone to extremist views.

Siddiqi, who also serves as chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, a body that interprets religious law, has gained attention for issuing a Fatwa against suicide bombing. At the same time, he has been criticized for failing to denounce such groups as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Eleven months before the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, Siddiqi also gave a speech that critics have since used to assail him: “America has to learn, if you remain on the side of injustice, the wrath of God will come. Do you remember that? If you continue doing injustice, the wrath of God will come.”

Nevertheless, mere weeks after 9/11, he condemned the attack strongly, most notably at an interfaith prayer meeting with President Bush in Washington.

In addition to leading the prayer at Dachau, Siddiqi spoke at the wreath-laying ceremony at the Death Wall at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he quoted a verse from the Quran (similar to the Jewish adage) stating that he who kills one person kills all humanity.

Later that same day, during an audience with the archbishop of Krakow, Stanislaw Dziwisz, Siddiqi was even more forceful. “We came here to witness the place where the most horrible crimes were committed,” he said. “We came here to understand the pain of the Jewish community. This is in order to improve relationships, because you cannot build relationships with people unless you know what they’ve been through,” he said.

After flying to Krakow, the delegates were driven to Auschwitz, only an hour away. They met with one of the museum’s directors before the guided tour. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, they saw the collections of suitcases, shoes and human hair, as well as the only remaining gas chamber and crematorium. After entering the vast expanse of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, they moved on to the male barracks and followed the train tracks from the Judenrampe to the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria, as the noonday sun beat down on their heads.

Emerging from the crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the delegates signed a memorial book. One of the inscriptions, from Sayyid M. Syeed, an interfaith activist, read, “For Muslims to see the Holocaust is an overwhelming experience.” It went on to quote a verse in the Quran stating that though man was created by God in excellent form, he is capable of becoming the lowest of the low.

Addressing the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, at a dinner August 10, Syeed called the trip particularly valuable “for some of us who are coming from the background that there was very little information provided to us during our school and life.”

The envoy Hussain, who, like Rosenthal, was attending in his official capacity, saw the trip as a follow-up to President Obama’s visit last year to Cairo, where he directly addressed the issue of Holocaust denial. “To the extent that some of the people I deal with have questions, it’s very important for me to reinforce that I’ve been here and I’ve seen the horror,” he explained.

If, and how, those noble sentiments can be implemented remains to be seen. At several points during the trip, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was invoked, as well as the perceived linkage between the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel that often makes the Holocaust itself a difficult topic in the Muslim world. Some acknowledged that this posed a potential impediment to widespread acknowledgement of the Holocaust in their own community.

In some of their most sensitive discussions, several delegates grappled with the issue of how to present the truth of the Holocaust in a way that would be accepted and taken to heart by their congregants. Breger, citing the need for the participants to speak freely to each other on this, ruled these exchanges off the record. But broadly, one suggestion was that Muslim acknowledgement of the Holocaust should be followed by similar initiatives on the Jewish side, acknowledging Palestinian suffering and the role that Israel’s founding and the country’s subsequent policies had in this.

The delegation’s youngest member was Yasir Qadhi, 35, dean of academics at Al Maghrib Institute, in New Haven, Conn. He also reaches Muslims across the globe via lectures on the Internet. Qadhi was arguably the delegation’s most controversial member, owing to comments he made nearly a decade ago that disputed Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews.

Qadhi has since recanted, both vocally and in print, explaining that the spurious claims stemmed from ignorance. “The fact that I was in a certain environment and a certain culture [where] I was taught this doesn’t exonerate me,” Qadhi told me, adding that he had exposure to “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” while studying in Medina, the Muslim holy city in Saudi Arabia. “That’s why I was very happy to come on this trip, because I wanted to see for myself how wrong I was.

“Anybody who is a Holocaust denier should deserve a free ticket to see Auschwitz and Birkenau, because seeing is just not the same as reading about it. And we met people who have seen and witnessed it,” he continued. Qadhi said that he couldn’t peer into the displays of children’s toys and shoes without thinking about his own four children.

Suhaib Webb, an imam from Santa Clara in the Bay Area, was the second-youngest delegation member, at 38. A convert to Islam, he grew up in a white Christian household in Oklahoma and probably had the greatest exposure to the Holocaust of any of the Muslim participants. Still, after walking around Auschwitz with tears in his eyes, he said, “It was far worse than I imagined.”

On the ride back to Krakow, Webb and Magid of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society discussed the possibility of taking Muslim and Jewish students on a tour of Auschwitz and Bosnia, specifically Srebrenica, the site of the 1995 genocide of 8,000 Bosniak Muslims. “We want to bring youth, have them go through this and become ambassadors against genocide and dehumanizing people,” Magid explained.

“We have a shared narrative that sometimes gets lost in all of the political problems that we have,” Webb said, citing the 20th-century examples of Jews and Muslims helping each other in times of genocide. He noted that there were Muslims who helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust. More recently, Jewish organizations helped lobby for the arms embargo to be lifted during the Bosnian crisis.

While echoing those sentiments, Qadhi stressed the importance for Jews and Muslims to understand and accept each other’s narratives of suffering. “There’s no denying that we have problems we need to talk about, but dehumanizing the other is not going to solve our problems. I hope that both sides, Muslims and Jews, can overcome stereotypes that they have of the other. If we stick together, we will no longer be a minority. But if we continue to remain minorities trying to stereotype other minorities, then we’ll be lost,” he concluded.

Contact A.J. Goldmann at [email protected]

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