In May, for the second time in three years, I traveled with a dozen imams and other Muslim religious leaders to the concentration camps at Dachau and Auschwitz. The imams met with survivors and "righteous among the nations"; they confronted the face of evil and found themselves overwhelmed with human compassion. Both trips were a joint project with Rabbi Jack Bemporad of the Center for Interreligious Understanding. The first time, we took American imams; this year, the participants came from countries as diverse as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Bosnia, India, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority.
The trip was a voyage of discovery in which the Muslim delegation grappled with the Shoah's universal significance and began to understand the roots of Jewish pain and trauma. I, too, learned many things on the trip--about myself, about my Muslim colleagues, about Islam and about human nature. Some of these lessons have important implications.
First, we have to recognize that the Muslim world--certainly the community outside Western Europe and the United States--is largely uninformed about the Holocaust. One imam asked me in all honesty, "What happened at Auschwitz?" At worst, our participants had been taught conspiratorial theories as to how the Shoah narrative was used to promote Western or Israeli political agendas. And if they do have some knowledge, it is as relevant to them as a medieval massacre in Central Asia would be to us. So we must start not by condemning their unawareness but by providing opportunities to learn the truth.
Second, to confront the mechanized horror that is the Holocaust will impact any human being. As religious people, the imams instinctively responded with prayer: They prostrated themselves in the salat prayer before the Auschwitz "Wall of Death" to pray for the souls of those murdered there. One Muslim leader told me, "After leaving Auschwitz, I feel that I shall no longer be silent when witnessing injustice."
Third, those skeptical about the "agenda" of what they read in history books had no such skepticism about the contemporaneous movies taken by German troops of Einsatzgruppen Aktionen or the film footage shot by the Red Army on liberating Auschwitz. Meeting with living survivors, they collectively leaned forward in their chairs upon seeing the tattoos and spontaneously stood to honor the speakers as they concluded their personal accounts. And of course, there were the camps...