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Ghitis: When the imams went to Auschwitz

Muslim religious leaders from across the globe pray

Muslim religious leaders from across the globe pray in front of so-called death wall at the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of an anti-genocide programme. (May 22, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

We pay a great deal of attention to the actions of Muslim radicals, and when an extremist does something terrible, we always hear the complaints of those who want to hear more loudly from Muslim moderates. So, it's important that everyone - Muslims, Jews, Christians and people who hold other beliefs - hear about an event that unfolded a few weeks ago at Auschwitz.

It happened on the grounds of that Nazi concentration and death camp on Polish soil, site of the catastrophe that befell the Jewish people during the Holocaust, the Shoah in World War II. In that exact place where a million Jews died, a group of Muslim clerics from eight countries knelt, touched their foreheads to the ground, and prayed.

The imams came from the U.S., India, Indonesia, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. They toured the camp, listened to Holocaust survivors, Polish rescuers, and others. They saw the gas chambers used to kill, the ovens used to turn the dead to ashes, the display of shoes from thousands of children taken to their deaths.

Mohamed Magid, originally from Sudan and now president of the Islamic Society of North America, reflected, "This is the building, the bricks ... how many cries and screams they have heard." Imam Ahmet Muharrem Atlig, from Turkey, made a point that highlights one of the reasons why everyone should care about the Holocaust. "It's not just about Jews," he said, "this is about all human beings because the human race suffered here." Auschwitz stands as a warning to humanity, and it is good when all of humanity takes notice. The Holocaust teaches us how the inconceivable can happen when hatreds are given free rein.

But the Holocaust, the Shoah, is also about the Jewish people. It is still a painfully inflamed memory in a history that is marked from wounds across the centuries. But it is perhaps most shocking because it is so recent; because it occurred in our modern world, in the most "civilized" part of the world.

Precisely because it shows, and shows the Jews, just how badly everything can turn out, anywhere, when hatred grows, efforts to deny the Holocaust are particularly troubling.

That's why it's so significant that after the visit ended, the Muslim leaders issued a landmark statement. "We bear witness," they said, "to the absolute horror and tragedy of the Holocaust, where millions upon millions of human souls perished, more than half of whom were people of the Jewish faith." And they added, "it is unacceptable to deny this historical reality and (we) declare such denials or any justification of this tragedy as against the Islamic code of ethics." Some of the imams acknowledged that many people in their communities don't grasp the magnitude of what took place to the Jewish people during World War II. Some, they say, believe something happened, but think the Jews were a smaller part of the tragedy than the historical records prove.

That is not a problem only among Muslims. In parts of Europe - I have seen it happen in the Netherlands - there has been a tendency to move away from acknowledging the central focus of Nazi Germany on exterminating the Jews.

Then there is the much more malicious Holocaust denial. Denial and deliberate minimization have become a hallmark of anti-Jewish rhetoric. From so-called "scholars" to the likes of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others, including many Muslim extremists, the questions are painted deceptively as an effort to further historical research. But the truth is that no historical event has been more thoroughly documented than the Holocaust, the killing of six million Jews as part of Nazi Germany's plan to exterminate all Jews in Europe, with cooperation from many other Europeans.

At Auschwitz, 1.1 million people were killed. One million of them Jews.

The other 100,000 dead includes Soviet prisoners of war, Roma, Homosexuals, Poles, and others. All should be mourned, each a tragedy.

The imams' visit, which was organized by the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom and the Center for Interreligious Understanding, was an important step in removing a source of friction, mistrust and resentment between Muslims and Jews, between Muslims and non-Muslims. And their full statement acknowledging the tragedy, rejecting its denial, deserves full attention. Muslim moderates have spoken, and they have spoken strongly, clearly and emphatically.

Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald.


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