Six decades on since the slaughter of World War II and the Nazi holocaust, the events of the 1930s and 1940s continue to haunt us. By warping our memory of the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust), those who seek to use memory as a bludgeon miss the stark, vital message of the Holocaust and its heroes – those who displayed uncommon moral courage in the face of evil.
Too many Muslim and Arab intellectuals and leaders continue to fail in adequately addressing the Nazi holocaust and its implications for today in meaningful, humanitarian terms. Two recent examples include the Muslim Council of Britain’s daft refusal to participate in Britain’s annual Holocaust Memorial Day and the public indulgence in Holocaust revisionism and labeling of the Nazi holocaust as “myth” by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood chief Muhammad Akef. Deep-seated, knee-jerk anti-Zionism and the continuing occupation of Palestine have unfortunately blinded many Arabs and Muslims to the historical reality and legacy of the Nazi holocaust.
An intelligent and compassionate regard for the victims of the Nazi holocaust – Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, the disabled, and others – on the part of contemporary Muslims is critical for preserving ethical and communal integrity, for a just resolution of the Palestinian question and for the future – if there is to be one – of Western Muslims. Instead, the Holocaust remains a historical blindspot in Arab and Muslim discourse, and as a result it has become a potent political weapon to be exploited at will by those who view Palestinians and Muslims as enemies.
A growing chorus of voices has been trying to smear Muslims – and Arabs in particular – with grand accusations of complicity in the Holocaust and support for the Nazis. These voices serve hawkish interests who wish to justify and legitimize continued war, violence, and yes – even genocide. Identifying Muslims with and as Nazis eases the task of selling continued bloodshed to war-weary publics. Reading the books, op-eds, and blogs of the smearers, one could almost conclude absurdly that the Nazi holocaust was an Arab Muslim and not a European Christian project. As evidence, the smearers usually trot out the pro-German Mufti of Jerusalem Amin Al-Husayni and the Bosnian Muslim SS “Handschar” division.
What these would-be historians, who even include Muslims, don’t like to tell you: the Muslim role in World War II was much bigger and positive than the stories of the Mufti and the Bosnian division. The “Mufti” was actually an appointee of the Jewish administrator of British Palestine who completed one measly year at Al-Azhar and betrayed the Ottoman Sultan to join the British. A marginal figure, he accepted Hitler’s hospitality in the naive hope that Hitler would eject the British from his homeland and grant the Arabs independence. To fool Arabs and Muslims into support for the German cause against their British rulers, the Nazis actually omitted Hitler’s true dark vision for Arabs and Muslims from Arabic versions of Mein Kampf.
The much-vaunted Bosnian “Hanschar” SS division – disbanded after a few months due to mass desertions – was the only SS division ever to mutiny. The Nazis had hoped the Hanschar division would re-kindle the Bosnian-German alliance from World War One, which would have given the Nazis a force to counter Croatian and Serbian nationalism. However, to reduce the discussion of Muslims in the former Yugoslavia during World War II to the Hanschar division is highly simplistic. Bosnian Muslims found themselves trapped between the Nazi-allied Croatian Ustasha and the equally vicious Serbian ultra-nationalist Chetniks. With the conflict killing over one million in Yugoslavia, a few hundred thousand Bosnian Muslims, many of them civilians, perished. When Tito’s Partisans emerged as a unifying alternative, Muslims joined them in large numbers. (For an extensive discussion of Bosnia during World War II, see Enver Redzic’s “Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Second World War”, Frank Cass: London, 2005).
The smearers don’t like to talk about the Palestine Regiment, a British-organized volunteer force of Jews and Arabs that served in North Africa. They hardly mention the fact that hundreds of thousands of Muslim soldiers from Africa, India, the Soviet Union helped to defeat fascism at places like El-Alamein, Monte Cassino, the beaches of Provence, and Stalingrad. Historians and governments have only recently recognized the contribution of these soldiers to the war effort and to liberating Europe. The smearers aren’t currently touting the American authorities’ cruel, forced 1939 return from Miami to Nazi Europe of the Jewish refugee ship SS St. Louis. Or that elites in the Anglo-American sphere widely admired Adolf Hitler throughout the 1930s – George Bush’s hero Winston Churchill first condemned Hitler only five years after he came to power. Or that elements of the Jewish and Zionist leadership collaborated with the Nazis – as documented by Hannah Arendt and other Jewish historians (who called their actions “the darkest chapter of the whole dark story”). Or that today, Israel ironically dangles the specter of Holocaust – in its Nuclear avatar – over the mostly Muslim peoples of the Middle East. The tragic history of World War II and the Holocaust is indeed a complex affair needing full context for understanding.
In their perversion of memory, Holocaust zeroes share another moral ugliness. Both insult the memory of the countless Muslims who risked or gave their lives to rescue Jews threatened with extermination by the Nazis. The stories of the Muslim rescuers of Jews are largely unknown and unpublicized. Only in the past fifteen years have Holocaust researchers brought a few to the public’s attention.
Several Muslims (whose stories of heroism and courage we know) have since been honored by Yad Vashem and other Holocaust memorial groups as Righteous Gentiles. They include: the Bosnian Dervis Korkut, who harbored a young Jewish woman resistance fighter named Mira Papo and saved the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the most valuable Hebrew manuscripts in the world; the Turk Selahattin Ulkumen, whose rescue of fifty Jews from the ovens of Auschwitz led to the death of his wife Mihrinissa soon after she gave birth to their son Mehmet when the Nazis retaliated for his heroism; the Albanian Refik Vesili who – as a 16-year-old – saved eight Jews by hiding them in his family’s mountain home.
Most Holocaust historians would agree that Muslim Europe – Albania, Bosnia, and Turkey – responded courageously and righteously, especially in comparison to Christian Europe. While there were Muslims who collaborated with the Nazis, they were the exception and certainly not the rule. In addition, in North Africa the Sultan of Morocco, the Bey of Tunis, and the Ulema of Algeria all lent support to their beleaguered Jewish countrymen.
Continental Europe’s only independent Muslim country – Albania – was also the only European country to have a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than at the beginning, according to Miles Lerman, a former director of the US National Holocaust Museum. Harvey Sarner, a Jewish American in the Albanian Muslim response, penned the telling book “Rescue in Albania: One Hundred Percent of Jews in Albania Rescued from the Holocaust”.
There were many Bosnian Muslims, especially in Sarajevo, who saved the lives of their Jewish compatriots. Indeed, the Jewish community in Sarajevo owed its very existence historically to the centuries-old Ottoman Muslim policy of providing sanctuary to Jews fleeing European Christian persecution.
Republican Turkey thankfully followed that same Ottoman tradition of rescue and sanctuary. Due to its neutrality during most of World War II, and its unique geographical proximity to both Europe and the Middle East, Turkey and Turkish diplomats living abroad played an important role for European Jews in danger during World War II and the Holocaust, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Muslim-majority Turkey rescued over 15,000 Turkish Jews and over 100,000 European Jews.
Like their Christian counterparts, the Muslim men and women who rescued Jews during the Holocaust are among history’s true heroes, whose stories we should be telling our children and grandchildren. They represent the best of the Abrahamic and Islamic tradition and spirit. May God grant us true moral courage like the rescuers in the face of hardship and adversity. May God – the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful – free us of denying or exploiting the suffering of others.
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