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Dr. Mehnaz Afridi: Defying All Stereotypes

Bridging the Jewish-Muslim Divide

Dr. Mehnaz Afridi: Defying All Stereotypes

by Ruth Broyde Sharone

In an age when Muslim-Jewish tensions are unusually high, when prominent Muslim leaders publicly deny that the Holocaust happened, and when UNESCO recently voted to declare that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is historically sacred only to Muslims, not Jews or Christians – it’s hard to imagine that a Muslim would have been selected to head a Holocaust center. Nevertheless, in 2011, Manhattan College, a Lasallian Catholic institution in Riverdale, New York, hired Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, a Pakistani-born Muslim, to head the Holocaust and Genocide Center and teach Islam and Religious Studies on their campus.

Don’t bother to attempt to stereotype Dr. Afridi. She is in a category by herself. Her own self-description reads: “I am a Muslim intellectual woman who teaches Judaism and Islam, a Muslim who seeks dialogue with Jews, a Muslim who sympathizes with Jews and understands the need for the state of Israel.” 

Understandably that has made her a persona non grata in certain Muslim circles where she has been labeled “Jew-lover” and a traitor who accepts money from Jewish sources to pursue her intellectual research. That is anathema to Dr. Afridi, who without any patronage has carved her own unique path in the intricate labyrinth of academia, interfaith engagement, and public discourse. A practicing Muslim who looks forward to her fasts for a month each year at Ramadan, Dr. Afridi has remained true to her principles and her faith all the while having to navigate some treacherous turns and twists in her relationship to both the Muslim and Jewish communities.

One can understand how Dr. Afridi might cause controversy in the Muslim world. Her academic research documents a historical strain of anti-Semitism in Islam, further fueled in modern times by the conflict in the Middle East regarding Palestinian rights and Israeli sovereignty. She has duly and publicly noted that the anti-Semitism of the past seems to have morphed into present-day anti-Zionist and anti-Israel sentiment. 

Dr. Mehnaz Afridi discusses the role of Muslims in the Holocaust.

Aside from stirring the pot in the Muslim community, Dr. Afridi caused controversy in the large Jewish Community in New York when she was first appointed to head the local Holocaust Center. Some members of the Jewish community expressed bewilderment; even more were aghast at the college’s unconventional decision to appoint a Muslim to head the Holocaust Center, making Dr. Afridi the first Muslim ever to head a Holocaust Center in the world! In time the critics calmed down because they had a chance to meet Dr. Afridi in person, establish a relationship with her, and eventually they came to value her and regard her as a person who was truly open to respectful Jewish-Muslim dialogue.

A warm and personable woman, with a hint of shyness, popular with her students and greatly respected by her interfaith colleagues, Dr. Afridi does not seek controversy. But neither does she hide from it. She understands the risks involved in her outspokenness, but she regards her work as her “calling.”

Developing a World Perspective

Where did this unlikely path begin? The daughter of Pakistani Muslims, a mostly secular banker and a more devout mother, Dr. Afridi developed her multicultural perspective from having lived in Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, England, and Switzerland – all before she arrived in the U.S. in 1984. She is fluent in Swiss German, Urdu, French, Arabic, and English. 

As a child growing up in Switzerland, she experienced racism because of her color, religion and nationality. The kids on the school bus, mostly Caucasian Americans from well-to-do families, pointed out not very kindly that, unlike them, she was “brown.” She graduated early from the school of hard knocks, she acknowledges, but like an Army brat, she took her licks and moved on. She completed her last two years of high school in Scarsdale, New York where suddenly she went from being brown to being Pakistani and Muslim, a “sore thumb” among the primarily Jewish students. Her introduction to and fascination with interfaith dialogue may have been sparked during those years. She recalls being roughed up by members of her own soccer team – who would trip her intentionally – and hearing insults hurled against her parents. “People would call on the phone, use foul language, and tell us to move out of the neighborhood.”

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 In class – Courtesy of Dr. Afridi

In class – Courtesy of Dr. Afridi

After high school, her religious studies at Syracuse University led her to a Jewish professor specializing in Holocaust literature. At his urging, she made a visit to Israel for five weeks. Not yet sure of her final path, she was accepted for a doctoral program in Islam and religious studies at the University of South Africa, going on to become a visiting professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. From 2003 to 2005 she conducted interviews of Holocaust survivors, perhaps another first, a Muslim interviewing Jewish survivors.

In 2007, while still a doctoral student, Dr. Afridi was invited to Germany to deliver an official paper on anti-Semitism in Egyptian literature. Her talk was entitled “Judaism through Muslim Eyes and Islam through Jewish Eyes.” Afterwards, with her husband and newborn baby daughter Ruya in tow, she felt irresistibly drawn to visit Dachau, the infamous Germany concentration death camp where it is estimated that 230,000 people were processed and 32,000 killed. Most of the inmates were Jews, but they also included Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, French, Yugoslavs, Czechs, Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Italians, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists, and gypsies.

In an article she published in The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles in October, 2007, after her trip to Dachau, Dr. Afridi wrote:

But why did I want to visit Dachau? For whose memory? Perhaps I wanted to be a witness, a Muslim witness, who could testify against the outrage of Holocaust denial in the Islamic world and point out the deep danger in ignoring history and the memory of narrative…

Her baby daughter, who rarely cried, began to shriek. 

Mehnaz and her daughter Ruya – Photo: Scott Dennis

Mehnaz and her daughter Ruya – Photo: Scott Dennis

The camp was bare, with white pebbles in the square and an empty space that spoke of the horror that lay in the lives of the prisoners, and the terrifying howls of my baby echoed throughout time.

As she approached the camp, she found herself saying an Islamic prayer for the dead in the courtyard…

“and I felt a sense of responsibility to the victims. At that moment, I felt as if I were a witness giving testimony to all Muslims. As someone who has witnessed numerous Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites, I found myself standing alone in the courtyard of Dachau, watching my daughter's eyes become blinded by the white stones of the camp … telling her that this very act of remembering and sharing the atrocities with others is the only assurance that this will never happen again to anyone. My baby daughter squinted at me through her wet lashes as I held her in silence.”

Several years ago Dr. Afridi stepped forward on Capitol Hill in D.C. to become a public witness for the Shoah (in Hebrew, the word for Holocaust). Perhaps in so doing she invited serious consequences, but she feels God is always protecting her. She is determined to break the silence, to squarely confront Holocaust denial so that Muslims and Jews might engage in meaningful dialogue where every subject is admissible and on the table. Today she also serves on multiple nonprofit boards including the Arava Institute in Israel (that prepares Israelis and Palestinians for leadership in ecological arenas); Markaz Cultural Center in Los Angeles (that draws many of its members from the Mediterranean area of the world); the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University in Florida; the Wise Woman’s Initiative in New York, founded by Daisy Khan; and the Committee on Ethics, Religions and the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Her forthcoming book, “Shoah Thru Muslim Eyes,” is guaranteed to raise eyebrows and will probably provoke new controversy, but Dr. Afridi’s objective remains inviolable: to see a real reconciliation come about between Muslims and Jews, and to encourage us to deconstruct the false images we hold about one another.

“I learned (in Dachau) that memory and narrative intersect in various ways, but the only way to respect one another ' s memory and narrative is to witness and to speak against silence, so that indeed the new life in my arms, in millions of arms like mine, can carry more lives in the future.”