The Sacredness of Diversity

By: Ayesha Siddiqua Chaudhry

November 6, 2003

Congregation Habonim, Toronto

"O you who believe! Stand firmly for justice, as witnesses for God, even though it be against your own selves, your parents and kinsfolk."

I am here today….to share my reflections on the Holocaust. I will center my reflections of the Holocaust on a trip I took to Poland this past May with the March of Remembrance and Hope. I first heard of the March of Remembrance and Hope trip to Poland in the Spring of this year. When I first referred to the website for this program, the idea of such a trip attracted and intrigued me….but I was not sure whether I was personally interested in participating in it. This uncertainty was due to a number of reasons….one of which was my own discomfort coming out of my impressions of the complex and uneasy relationship between the Muslim and Jewish peoples. After giving the matter some thought, I decided that I should not only be able but also willing to step out of my frame of reference … to whatever degree possible. It quickly became clear to me that if I really was committed to inter-communal dialogue…as I say I was…where people-in-conflict would make an attempt to confront and recognize the fundamental humanity of the other…then I should be able to at least attempt to see the world from a different frame of reference. In this way, I came to pose my participation in the trip as a test for myself…and once I did this…it became imperative for me to undertake the trip…if for no other reason than…to prove to myself that I was committed to what I verbally claimed.

The trip turned out to be as much thought-provoking as it was emotionally draining. I came face-to-face with the utter fragility and the extraordinary resilience of the human being. I experienced the ease with which human beings are able to demonize and dehumanize other human beings…and then…after going through such horrid and hideous experiences… I witnessed the victims' ability to not only continue to exist…but also to create dynamic communities.

There were many moments during the trip that left me at a loss of words. I attempted to make some sort of sense of all that I saw and heard. Some of these experiences centered around the gas chambers of Auschwitz, ...and the displays of human hair, eye-glasses, suitcases, shoes and children's clothing… in the various concentration camps. One of the most poignant experiences for me was the experience of standing on the Field of Ashes…over the killing grounds of countless individuals…whose lives had been taken unjustly. They were killed for no other reason than for the fact that they belonged to a particular community. Being Jewish was a sufficient crime to deserve persecution… humiliation…and genocide. The realization of this injustice…a personal confrontation with its reality…was tremendous…a very heavy burden to bear. We had a moving ceremony on this sacred site. The two most meaningful moments for me…during this ceremony…were the experience of reciting words from the Qur'an, God's revealed scripture…over these souls…and hearing the recitation of the Kaddish by Holocaust survivors. These were experiences that I will never forget…experiences that leave a mark on one's consciousness and…on one's conscience.

I am going to try and put these experiences within the context of the Qur'an…whose discourses and narratives inform my own moral framework. In the Qur'an…the story mentioned and repeated most often…is that of Prophet Moses…peace be upon him…and his people. The narrative of Pharaoh and the Children of Israel is an archetypal representation of a crime that humanity has suffered from for a long time…the crime of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Pharaoh ordered the killing of every male child born among the Israelites. Morally unjustified killing is abhorrent in itself…since God made human life sacred…but Pharaoh added an…institutional dimension…to the sin of murder. He discriminated against an entire people based on their race…their ethnicity…and their religion. Such demonizing…and dehumanizing…of a group of people is strongly condemned in the Qur'an. Regarding Children of Israel, the Qur'an notes that Pharaoh "resolved to remove them from the face of the earth," as a punishment for which God drowned Pharaoh and all those who were with him. Furthermore, God made Pharaoh and his treatment of the Israelites and….then God's wrath upon Pharaoh as a result for his behavior…a sign for all those who would come after him.

Discrimination…political oppression…and mass killings based on a perception of racial or ethnic or religious superiority… is among of the most horrendous sins. Race, religion, ethnicity and cultures are considered sacred in the Qur'an. Such distinctions are here to stay…and the Qur'an recognizes them as…signs of God. Consequently, human beings have an obligation…to preserve and celebrate…such phenomena…rather than to eradicate them. I will quote two verses from the Qur'an:

And among God signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors; in this there are signs for all those who possess knowledge.

And again:

O humankind! We created you from a single pair, a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one other. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most pious and God-conscious. God is all-knowing, all-aware.

If "languages" stand for cultures…"colors" for race…and "nations and tribes" for ethnicities…then it is clear that the Qur'an recognizes and acknowledges these…differences…and distinctions. These are signs of God…ways of knowing each other…and ways of appreciating the presence of the Divine…and not justifications for oppression. If we restrict our acquaintances…and our good will…and our compassion…to those who are like us…in one way or another…and refuse to constructively engage with those who are different and distinct from us…then we are limiting our understanding and experience of God…since God is manifested and disclosed through God's creations.

Indeed, we all have a common humanity…yet we have different histories…and different identities. And according to the Qur'an it is not only OK to have these differences…it is actually a cause for celebration…since God did not make us all alike in every way but made us different…and therefore interesting and each other. At the same time…because of our common humanity…because of the similarities in our experiences…we are not entirely strangers to each other.

I am unable to completely free myself from the limitations that come from my being grounded in a particular historical and cultural tradition…but this is not necessarily an impediment. This could be a means for a greater acknowledgement and recognition of the Other. I may be an outsider…an Other…to the Jewish community…but this does not necessarily make me insensitive to the pain and suffering of Jewish people. It follows then, that as I pause to consider the experience of Holocaust and its effects on the Jewish people…I cannot help but relate that to moments of suffering and trauma that have come upon my own people…whether such moments happened in the past…or are taking place right now…even as I speak…for this is the only way through which I can empathize with an other.

As I ponder over the suffering of the Jewish people, I am reminded of a saying that Islamic tradition attributes to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him…he said: "The same will happen to my community as happened to the Children of Israel, just as one shoe resembles the other." Despite our differences…I see how we can be united in our suffering. As I mourn over the oppression…humiliation…and genocide of millions of European Jews during the Second World War…I cannot help but wonder if we have really learned our lessons from that experience…if we are ready and eager to stop wherever we see similar tendencies developing…or we are as complacent as we were sixty years ago.

There are a number of Muslim thinkers who compare the position of Muslims in the West today with that of the Jewish community in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. They argue that Muslims are the "New Jews" of the West as they have come to represent the "alien, Oriental intrusion" into the West that the Jews represented to the Christian West a century ago. Jewish people know very well how it feels to be looked at with suspicion and distrust…to be considered legitimate targets for defamation on one pretext or another. Many Muslims in the West today find resonance in such comparisons…especially with the current climate in the United States.

Human experiences are hardly unique…despite obvious differences in historical circumstances. The experience of discrimination and alienation causes the same sort of pain…irrespective of the identity of the victim. This became fully clear to me in my interaction with a Holocaust survivor who is here with us today…Nate Leipciger. I remember when Nate Leipciger related his experience of Auschwitz in the bunker where he had stayed during WWII. I remember sharing his pain as he spoke of his sister and mother being gassed on Yom Kippur and the condition of the men who prayed and cried and stood silently, utterly helpless, in the bunker. He spoke to us of those who lost faith in the camps…of those who came to believe more fervently…and of those for whom faith was hardly an issue. Later…one night…well past midnight…I remember him telling a captive audience the story of how difficult it was to create a new life once the war was over…and the hurdles he faced in the process of re-establishing himself on another continent. I was able to empathize with him because his experience was by no means unfamiliar or strange to what many Muslims have faced…or are facing.

There were moments during the trip when I felt hopeful and inspired…but there were also moments when I felt hopeless and dejected. I thank God for both because each taught me something valuable. More than anything else…I think the trip to Poland…with the March of Remembrance and Hope…forced us all to transcend our religious…political…and cultural boundaries in order to bear witness to the common humanity we all share…the common humanity that speaks in the language of life and death…hope and despair…joy and pain...acceptance and alienation. These are emotions and experiences that we all feel…despite the different colors of our skins…the countries of our birth…and the names of our ancestors. This common humanity is what should unite us when injustice is inflicted upon any one of us…on the basis of these differences. This is not to eradicate the differences…but to transcend them when there is a need to embrace a higher ideal.

Before ending, I would like to thank Eli Rubenstein as well as all of you for inviting me to your synagogue tonight to speak at this very important occasion. I am grateful for this opportunity, and indeed… honored to be here. I would also like to pay a tribute to everyone who participated in the March of Remembrance and Hope, for it was because of the supportive and caring atmosphere that their presence created… that made the reflections that I have shared with you today, possible.

I would like to end with a quote from the Qur'an…that is a call to action in the pursuit of justice. It reads:

O you who Believe, stand firmly for God, bearing witness to the truth in all equity; and do not let the animosity of anyone lead you into the sin of deviating from justice. Be just: this is closest to piety.


Bart Bonikowski
Trisha Lynn Cowie
Thierry Kagubarispch
A. Siddiqua Chaudhry




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