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Forgotten history: Muslims who sheltered Jews

I Am Your Protector

The Independent on Feb. 3 reports on a very encouraging project organized by a group calling itself I Am Your Protector—"a community of people who speak up and stand up for each other across religion, race, gender and beliefs"—to highlight the often forgotten stories of Muslims who helped Jews during the Holocaust. With interfaith ceremonies in several European and American cities on Holocaust Memorial Day, Jan. 27, IAYP celebrated the lives of such figures as Abdol Hossein Sardari, the "Iranian Schindler" who as a diplomat helped Persian Jews escape from wartime France by issuing passports and letters of transit. He was able to convince Nazi and Vichy authorities that Jugutis (Persian Muslims descended from Jews) should not be considered "racial" Jews—and was then able to secure travel documents for actual Jews under cover of being Jugutis. A similar personage is Selahattin Ulkumen, a Turkish diplomat in Nazi-occupied Greece, who interceded with the Germans to allow Jews of Turkish origin escape to neutral Turkey. 

Also commemorated is Noor Inayat Khan, the "Spy Princess" of royal Indian lineage who served as a British secret agent in Nazi-occupied Paris, operating a clandestine radio transmitter to coordinate with the Resistance before being captured by the Gestapo and put to death at the Dachau concentration camp. She has finally been getting some due; BBCreported in 2012 that a statue was raised in her honor in London.  She was also the subject of a 2014 PBS docudrama, "Enemy of the Reich." (As we have noted, she was also heir to a long line of Sufi teachers and musicians; her brother Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan led the International Sufi Movement in America until his death in 2004. The tradition is now being carried on by his son and Noor Inayat's nephew, Pir Zia Inayat Khan.)

Also honored by IAYP is Kaddour Benghabrit, founder of the Muslim Institute at the Great Mosque of Paris, who helped Jewish children survive by hiding them and forging papers identifying them as Muslims to save them from deportation to the death camps.

Another honoree is Si Ali Sakkat, a Tunisian aristocrat, former mayor of Tunis and descendent of Prophet Mohammed, who in 1943 protected 60 Jews who had escaped from a Nazi forced labor camp by hiding them on his estate. There was an episode on Si Ali Sakkat in the PBS series "Among the Righteous." Another Tunisian landowner, Khaled Abdul Wahab, is remembered for saving two Jewish families by sheltering them in stables on his farm. (The I Survived website and a 2011 New York Times commentary by one of the survivors he sheltered note the controversy around the decision by Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial museum, not to include Abdul Wahab on its "Righteous Among the Nations" list because it is unclear that he actually "risked his life" to save Jews.)

IAYP's Dani Laurence told Al Arabiya English: "The way Muslims are often portrayed in the media, public discourses, can lead to fear and hatred. I Am Your Protector highlights Muslim Protectors. In parallel we want to highlight non-Muslims who protect Muslims, for example churches and synagogues who take a stand and take action to counter hatred and Islamophobia."

IAYP's website also notes such events as Istanbul's first public menorah-lighting since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923 this past Hanukkah. We're glad to hear of it, although we're not too crazy about the favorable portrayal of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as "respect[ing] religious freedom." IAYP should be aware of Erdogan's embrace of "moderate" (sic) political Islam and cynical connivance with very immoderate jihadism in Syria. We fear Istanbul's Jews could be exploited for propaganda purposes by Erdogan's political machine.

IAYP also notes a Jewish Voice for Peace Hanukkah vigil against Islamophobia in Syracuse, NY. This recalls the inspiring "Chanukah-in-a-Mosque" affair held in New York City that month.

Our small caveats aside, IAYP is providing a vitally needed corrective both to Bibi Netanyahu's abject revisionsim that would cast the Nazi Holocaust as a Muslim-initiated enterprise (propaganda that lubricates a growing fascistic tilt in Israeli politics) and the growing if paradoxical Islamist embrace of classical European anti-Semitism.