August 12, 2010


At the Death Camps, Muslim Leaders Grapple With Jews’ Pain (A.J. Goldmann, August 11, 2010,The Forward)

Krakow, Poland — 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.

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 Foundation and the Center for Interreligious Understanding, a New Jersey-based interfaith dialogue group. [...]

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’ 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, the 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.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 12, 2010 5:43 AM
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