Muslim leaders visit concentration camps as part of effort to combat Holocaust denial

By Jeff Diamant
Saturday, August 21, 2010

The scenario might have seemed unlikely: prominent Muslims and Jews from the United States, crossing the Atlantic in mournful, spiritual solidarity to visit two Nazi concentration camps. Together.

The trip to Dachau and Auschwitz was meant to combat the rise in Holocaust denial that has popped up in various Muslim and non-Muslim circles around the world -- and online -- in recent years.

"The best way to convince someone about the truth of something is to let them see it for themselves and experience it for themselves," said Rabbi Jack Bemporad of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Carlstadt, N.J., who organized the trip. "I feel that it was important to take Muslim leaders who have a really significant following in the American Muslim community."

Some of the eight imams on the week-long trip, which ended Aug. 12, had worked with Jewish groups in interreligious dialogue. Only one of the eight, Yasir Qadhi of New Haven, Conn., academic dean for the AlMaghrib Institute, had been quoted in 2001 doubting the extent of the Holocaust, but he recanted long before the trip, saying his past views were based on misinformation.

On their return, the imams released a statement citing the deaths of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, among 12 million Holocaust deaths overall. It added, "We condemn any attempts to deny this historical reality and declare such denials or any justification of this tragedy as against the Islamic code of ethics." In interviews, the imams said the trip affected them deeply.

"The experience was overwhelming," Qadhi said. "It was a very moving experience for all of us imams, in particular myself. I had never seen anything like this. I was just overwhelmed throughout the entire trip. I was just overwhelmed at the sheer inhumanity of it. I could not comprehend how such evil could be unleashed."

Like other imams, he said the historical truth of the Holocaust should not be distorted by the past 60 years of tension in the Middle East.

"Politics should not play a role in historical facts," Qadhi said. "Whatever happened post-Holocaust should not diminish the evil that was the Holocaust. . . . The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very complicated. Let's leave anti-Semitism out of it."

Some said the trip's most emotional part was seeing collections of victims' hair, suitcases and belongings.

"Almost everybody was in tears," said Muzammil Siddiqi of the Islamic Society of Orange County, Calif.

"I laid a wreath of flowers there at the wall and recited the words from the Koran, which says killing one person is like killing all of humanity and saving one life is like saving all of humanity. I said, 'Here it feels part of us were killed. It's part of our human brothers and sisters.' "

The imams said they also were moved by meetings with Holocaust survivors, and by seeing their tattooed numbers.

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