Shoah through Muslim Eyes

cover image

By: Mehnaz M. Afridi

Boston, MA: Academic Studies Press. 233pp. $65.00, ISBN: 9781618113719

Volume: 6 Issue: 2

February 2018

Review by:

Michal L. Allon, PhD

Tel Aviv University

Tel Aviv, Israel

Afridi’s Shoah through Muslim eyes is a thin volume that covers many topics, and tackles many profound questions. The author took upon herself the difficult task of confronting the memory of the Holocaust (or Shoah) from a Muslim perspective. Muslims are often taught to downplay the genocide of the Jews during WWII – in large part because of its role in justifying Zionism. At the same time, Afridi, a Muslim woman herself, wants to introduce to Holocaust survivors, and to Jews in general, the tolerant face of Islam. She takes great pains to dispel the notion that Islam is inherently anti-Semitic, or that it is anything but a religion of peace and tolerance, which is often misinterpreted and misunderstood.

Afridi is a professor of religious studies and the director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center in a Catholic college in New York. The book is the story of her personal journey into the memory of the Holocaust, through several lengthy interviews with Jewish survivors. She has conducted extensive research of complex phenomena like antisemitism, holocaust denial, and interfaith mutual suspicion, and exhibits impressive familiarity with the subject matter. Throughout the book the spirit of hope for mutual understanding and reconciliation shines through every page.

The author explains her choice to use the Hebrew term Shoah when referring to the genocide of Jews by the Nazis in WWII. She cites the fierce controversy and the arguments for and against the use of the term ‘holocaust’ exclusively for that particular genocide, and opts for the Hebrew term Shoah as a way to emphasize that it is unique among historical genocides.

In the Introduction, the author recounts her personal story and her motivation for undertaking this project. In the first chapter, ‘Why the Shoah?’, the author talks about the importance of dialogue and reconciliation. She discusses antisemitism in the Muslim world, its relations to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the memory of the Naqba. Chapter Two deals with the way academia treats the issue of the Shoah in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Chapter Three, ‘Why is the Shoah unprecedented?’ presents ten compelling answers to this question. Chapter Four consists of interviews with holocaust survivors. Chapter Five discusses the history of anti-Semitism from Christianity to Islam. Chapter Six examines the role Muslims played during the Shoah.

One of the interesting observations that Afridi makes is that the majority of Muslim educational curricula is characterized by a refusal to study any religion other than Islam. The author attests to her own personal experience of studying the sacred texts of other religions as having enriched her understanding and perspective. She observes that unlike the situation in the United States, where diversity of religion is accepted, respected and engrained in the public sphere, the student in most Muslim countries is deprived of this exposure to the multitude of beliefs. Moreover, a Muslim student is not even exposed to the full history of her own religion with its full history of scientific inquiry, skepticism, and interfaith dialogue.

In the chapter entitled ‘Is Islam Anti-Semitic? No’ Afridi presents a thorough and comprehensive explanation of the roots of antisemitism in Islamist theology. It is very clear that the author is troubled by verses in the Qur’an that are disparaging to Jews and Christians, and tries to explain them away or give them a benign interpretation by considering their historical context. She also notes that every religion has in its tradition sacred texts that exhibit similar biases and prejudices. The author’s way out of this difficulty is to suggest that the task of religious pluralism is to emphasize the message of the positive texts, those that embrace the other as a fellow creature of God, and to reinterpret the texts that are negative or ambiguous.

A similar line of apologetic interpretation is central to the issue of the conduct of Arabs during World War II, and the persecution, incarceration, and murder of Jews. The author devotes a whole chapter to explain away the role of Arabs and Muslims in the persecution of Jews under Vichy’s colonial rule of North Africa. This she does by stressing the harsh circumstances under which Arabs lived during the Nazi occupation, and their consequent inability to protect their Jewish neighbors. She also minimizes the relationship between the Palestinian leader Mufti al-Husayni and Adolf Hitler.

The core of the book is the author’s interviews with Holocaust survivors. Though very compelling, there is little that is new in these interviews. The survivors had already given their testimony, often more than once. The novelty here is the dialogue with an unusual interviewer. In her recounting of an interview with a French-born American actor Afridi writes: “I have to admit that disagreeing with him or wanting to explain to him how I was religious without encrypted laws came to my mind, but I refrained. This interview was not about me, but him. I tried to keep this in mind…”. The feeling that one gets, however, is that the book is about the author, at least in the sense that her personal perspective on Islam as a religion of tolerance and love often substitutes a broader description of Islam at large.

The book is replete with quotations, poetry verses, quotations from the Qur’an, and the author’s reflections and feelings. The author is clearly devout, and a sincere tone of spiritual sentiment permeates the book throughout.

Reviews By Year

Reviews By Category