British Muslims, Europe and the Holocaust

The Muslim Council of Britain has announced that it is to end its six-year boycott of the national Holocaust Memorial Day and will attend the 2008 memorial in Liverpool. The Council has also pledged to work towards the establishment of a general Genocide Memorial Day as well. The executive committee’s vote was won 18-8. Some like Anas Altikriti and Daud Abdullah, the Council’s deputy secretary general, have spoken publicly against the decision, arguing that while it was a majority vote, it was won on the smallest constitutional quorum of members. Last year the vote to attend was lost 23-14, due in part to a backlash against Ruth Kelly’s stipulating the MCB’s attendance as a precondition for normal relations between the government and the Council. The Guardian reports that some MCB affiliates have threatened to disaffiliate over the dropping of the boycott. It would be surprising if they took the step of isolating themselves by disaffiliating so publicly.

Although Anas Altikriti argues that the MCB have consistently supported the boycott until now, Imam Abduljalil Sajid, who was there when the question about attendance came up prior to the first HMD in 2001, told me that the Central Working Committee voted 80-35 in favour of attending, but the vote was subsequently overruled. I would imagine that the threat to disaffiliate if the original motion had been carried was probably made back then. It should have been stood up to at the time rather than several years on, as has now happened. It is the right decision, to my mind, primarily for moral reasons and not for other considerations. The Holocaust Memorial Day should never have been attached to the just cause of Palestinian self-determination and an equitable two-state solution.

The basic reason is that if any continent should remember the Holocaust in particular it ought to be Europe. Central to achieving this is addressing the powerful current within Zionism that saw (and sees) the Holocaust as a central rationale for the founding of the state of Israel. For me and many other people, this rationale did not provide an adequate moral foundation for driving out and dispossessing the Palestinian people in order to achieve the new Israel. As powerful as this current is, the Holocaust similarly needs disentanglement from the misery of Israeli-Palestinian conflict partly so that its original European context can be made more salient. Such moral considerations are, however, largely immaterial to that most urgent task of finding a fair and equitable solution for both Palestinians and Israelis today, although, given current conditions, a large degree of pessimism about progress on that score sadly remains.

Like all cataclysmic tragedies, the Holocaust subsumes and exhausts all attempts to give it a single personal or political interpretation, including the one offered here. Yet we have to ask if it is right to consider the Holocaust absolutely unique, sui generis or one of a kind, in the sense that no analogies can be drawn from the Nazi genocide, to see its portentous shadow in other acts of premeditated mass murder, systematic discrimination, words of hate or the politics of fear, if the Holocaust is regarded as truly incomparable. It is not unique in the strict sense that all ethnic cleansing, genocide, terrorism and war, all acts of gross inhumanity, engender something of the common quality of human suffering, a commonality that is manifested in our desire to relate to and analogise from one dreadful experience to another. The brute fact of the plan to wipe out the Jewish people everywhere and forever through industrialised mass murder surely troubles our self-image as humans, created, as Muslims believe, sinless at birth, aspiring to know God and be His stewards upon the earth. In this sense the Holocaust is unique, and its magnitude and cold intent cannot be comprehended.

To my mind, Holocaust Memorial Day ought to be primarily addressed to the Europe of the present and future so that she remember and not forget her darkest moment during the blood-stained twentieth century, so that a future Europe includes all those who might be feared and stigmatized for being different. For instance, the recent history of the Balkans showed that this is far from an idle exercise and, partly stemming from this, there is a genuine fear and unease among European Muslims about their future well-being, even in Western Europe.

The particularity of HMD should be honoured for the reason that racial intolerance and hatred is normally manifested within particular historical traditions rather than in a generic, abstract way. Exclusive ethno-nationalism and “civilising” imperialism have defined their projects as pure and superior in comparison with their despised “Others”. This would seem to suggest that instead of a generic genocide day, we need to ponder and remember each of the atrocities against the Amerindians, Armenians, the Vendée, Circassians, Bangladeshis, Aborigines, the Maya, Cambodians, the East Timorese, the Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila, the Iraqi Kurds, the Tibetans, the Tikuna, the Tutsis and many, many others. This is why the analogy with the Holocaust should be drawn to take a stand against all acts that raise the rights of one people over another. In looking forward to our shared future, the lesson of the Holocaust is primarily to forestall the new perpetrators of inhumanity.



Filed under UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics

7 responses to “British Muslims, Europe and the Holocaust

  1. Zainab al-Atta

    There was an interesting artcile by Karima Hamdan, “What’s up with the MCB?” on this:

    Here’s an extract: “By making the Jewish Holocaust somehow “exclusively” painful and the Nazi oppression “exclusively” evil they are not decreasing, but rather increasing, the risk of its recurrence.”

    Zainab al-Atta, UK

  2. Haroon Ravat

    There is however a salient need however for the HMD trust itself to de-politicise. Some of the most vocal demands to strip Interpal of its charity status for example were led by HMD Vice Chair Henry Grunwald and HMD trustee Louise Ellman.

    As muslims we will quite happily break bread with all and sundry – but on a common level of humanity and reciprocity. It is difficult to sit down and share lessons from the holocaust with people who in the same breath work to sever some of the few remaining humanitarian lifelines to our beleaguered brothers and sisters, particularly in Gaza where the hardship is most acute. Its time to take away HMD from the old guard of the board of deputies into a broader, inclusive and politically neutral arena. I believe that there is a vital role for the newly-formed Independent Jewish Voices in achieving this task.

    Haroon Ravat, Walsall

  3. Anita Bullock

    Good article but I am slightly confused about the point you are making. Are you saying that we should only have HMD in Europe? What about the ceremonies in the United Nations?

    Anita Bullock, UK

  4. Yahya Birt

    Haroon – this is why I think HMD should be refocused on to lessons for European politics and its tolerance for the “other”, given that Europe was where it happened in the first place. The disentanglement from Palestine/Israel in terms of political rationales rather than of moral lessons for the future is a necessary step in that refocusing, as the piece argues.

    An example of this is the repeated invocation of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, who worked with the Nazis, but how representative is he? What about the Albanian Muslims, whose role in saving Jews only really came out in 1991/2 when Albania opened up after the fall of the Berlin wall? Sixty-three Albanians were honoured in all by the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, which had a touring exhibition in their honour this year. According to their traditional code of honour, besa, Albanians, as a whole, refused to hand over lists of Jews either to the Italians or after the German occupation in 1943. Albanians competed to have the besa of protecting Jews from persecution, including the 200 Jewish Albanians and the larger numbers of Jews who came over the border fleeing persecution. Necdet Kent, the Turkish consular-general to Marseilles (1941-44), won the argument with Vichy France that all its Turkish citizens, including its Jewish ones, should be repatriated to Turkey regardless of creed or any other consideration. Confronting the Nazi guards, Kent refused to get off a train heading towards Auschwitz until all the 70 Jewish Turks were released. An Iranian diplomat in Paris during World War Two, Abdol Hossein Sardari, also saved Jews by giving them blank Iranian passports. Selahattin Ulkumen, the Turkish consular-general on the island of Rhodes saved 42 Jewish Turks when the Germans sought to deport all 1,700 Jews from there in 1944. Jews were also saved in Bosnia and Macedonia, but I don’t know if these were the righteous acts of Muslims or not. Robert Satloff’sAmong the Righteous” (pub. US 2006, pub. UK 2007) also recovers the unreported history of the Muslims of North Africa who also saved their Jewish neighbours from the punishment camps for Jews run in the Italian and (Vichy) French colonies (of course some Arabs collaborated with these regimes too). At the beginning of 2007, Satloff put forward the name of Khaled Abdelwahab, a Tunisian farmer who saved Jews, as the first Arab to be honoured among the “Righteous of the Nations” at the Yad Vashem. The case is apparently still under consideration according to a report in Haaretz this week. In all, among the 22,000 named as among those who saved Jews, seventy are Muslims, most of whom are from Turkey and the Balkans. No Arabs have yet been named.

    Anita – The piece is arguing that remembrance days loose their potency and power the further removed they are from their original context. For instance, it is in Germany where the lessons of the Holocaust are most salient, but then there were others who were complicit in betraying Jews to the Nazis around Europe, as well as others who hid them or took them to safety, so the Holocaust has a wider resonance for the whole continent. There is also historical evidence that the Allies failed to act with dispatch in retaking Europe when reports of the camps began to leak out in the early 1940s. This is why Europe is for me the most salient place to remember the Holocaust, if the concern is with avoiding a repetition of the kinds of politics that gave rise to its horrors. I’m not suggesting that the UN or anyone else shouldn’t mark the Holocaust, but merely that nowhere else except in Europe can it have the same resonance. On the other hand, if the Holocaust is being remembered out of grief and mourning for lost family members, communities, even whole nations of diasporic Jews, then that is, of course, entirely different. There is no consideration of geography on that score.

  5. Anita

    Thank you for your response, Yahya. Another point I need some clarification on is something I came across recently about Shaykh Hamza Yusuf telling a Jewish publication that “the story of the “Holocaust” is so well authenticated that if one were to deny it then, one would have to deny the Qur’an itself”

    Is this courageous statement accurate and if it is, then what is your take on it ?

  6. Yahya Birt

    Dear Anita, as the link you sent me is a satirical list of “Top Ten Muslim Idiots” of 2007, perhaps it might be better to look at the original quotations and refer any explanation as to their meaning to Sheikh Hamza or the Zaytuna Institute for clarification?

    Without having seen the original quotes, what I would suspect Sheikh Hamza Yusuf would say is that Muslim scholars set up elaborate systems to check the historical accuracy of reports based on the soundness of the transmission of a report and the veracity and soundness of the transmitters. The Qur’an and some narrations of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) are considered to be mutawatir (or of unimpeachable authenticity, having been mass-transmitted by multiple and reliable persons from one generation to another). In this sense, the mass witnessing of a large historical event like the Holocaust is verifiable in the same way — the transmission of an event from one generation to the next. By all empirical standards precious to Islamic scholarship, the Holocaust is therefore not falsifiable. Of course I would imagine that Sheikh Hamza Yusuf is not saying that an historical event has the same nature as a sacred scripture.

    Kind regards, Yahya

  7. AA

    here is a link to the article by Hamza Yusuf, he says that for Iran to have a conference questioning the historicity of the holocaust undermines the historicity of their own faith

    Ismaeel Hijazi

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