Earlier this month, the Jeff Seidel Student Center was involved with a student mission to Poland. We visited concentration camps and other sites relating to the Shoah (Holocaust) and the Jewish People. While my goal was to help guide these students through an unimaginable period, I myself learned a great deal. Not so much on the topic of the Shoah, but about one Turkish Muslim group’s commitment to fighting intolerance and anti-Semitism in the Muslim world.

In many Islamic countries, standing up against social and political intolerance is taboo. When Yazidis are are slaughtered in Iraq, the Arab states are reluctant to intervene. In similar fashion, historical events that require commemoration and understanding are denied empathy in many of the same countries. In Iran, the Supreme Leader Khamenei calls for the destruction of the State of Israel and names the Shoah a “Zionist conspiracy.” While many in the West would define this as oppression from the authoritarian governments that rule the Middle East, this is said in hypocrisy. The region today has been greatly influenced by European imperialism and the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided up the region.

The Republic of Turkey, since its founding in 1923, has been an harbinger of stability in the Middle East. Though in recent years, that stability has been challenged. The Middle East in general is an ever-changing region and Turkey is no exception. The Republic of Turkey today has varying instability on and within their borders due to the Syrian Civil War and the rise of Daesh (ISIS). Even though Daesh (ISIS) is dying down and the Turkish people have mostly regained a sense of normalcy, Turkey points to the importance of tackling the ideological roots of extremism.

When planning the Poland trip, I reached out to a Turkish doctor that I had recently met in Jerusalem, Dr. Cihat Gundogdu. I was interested to have him join us, as well as his colleague Mehmet Yildirim, both of which were eager to accompany us our journey into another time. Both Cihat and Mehmet had previous experience in Holocaust studies, though they were also interested in visiting the sites and paying their respects to the victims. Cihat and Mehmet had explained to us, that as Muslims, they have a responsibility to speak out against prejudice and injustice against non-Muslims as well. They had also spoken about their faith and how historically in the Islamic world some have had a past of intolerance and anti-Semitism, emphasizing the importance of proper education. Though, they had informed us that their religion, just like how many Muslims say Daesh (ISIS) has “high-jacked” Islam, many have embraced ideals of intolerance.

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Jeff Seidel Student Center’s Student Mission to Poland at a hotel that before 1939 was the prestigious Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva

Prior to the student mission, Cihat and Mehmet, whom belong to The Movement for the Culture of Peace and Reconciliation, had intentions of bringing home some footage for a documentary disputing Holocaust denial in the Muslim world as well as have the opportunity to interact with the Jewish students. While in Poland, our Turkish friends were able to socialize with the Jewish students and quickly become our brothers. Interacting with everyone, Cihat and Mehmet could feel the collective Jewish pain, Cihat writing a Facebook post on the atrocities committed by Dr. Joseph Mengele: “Auschwitz I, Block Nr 10, where horrible experiments were done by Dr Mengele. He was notorious for the selection of victims to be killed in the gas chambers and for performing deadly human experiments on prisoners.” Though, even in non-serious moments, our Turkish friends spurred spontaneous joy and laughter as well with some of the students. One can see the connection between the students and Cihat and Mehmet, singing “ani ma’min (I believe)” in between two gas chambers at Auschwitz was just one scene of our closeness as a group.

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Meeting Congressmen Michael McCaul and Dutch Ruppersberger and their staff at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp

The Movement for the Culture of Peace and Reconciliation is headed by leader Turkish Muslim Adnan Oktar. Oktar has gained international recognition for his extensive record in helping to raise mass awareness concerning the real underlying causes of social and political conflicts. He has done his educational campaign through TV programs, books, documentaries, articles, conferences, magazines, websites, etc. Oktar has also been active in forming relationships with politicians, religious leaders and activists worldwide to spread their message of coexistence and brotherhood. According to Mehmet, he became involved with the movement through his own curiosity. “First I saw a video from Mr. Oktar on Youtube. Then I had to read his book, I was just so fascinated.” While Mehmet’s attraction to the movement grew stronger, his interest became his cause, Mehmet now voluntarily works for the movement’s TV network: A9 TV. Adnan Oktar’s group hosts an annual “Traditional Ramadan Dinner” in Istanbul, where they will be hosting representatives from the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. As their invite states: “The purpose of the visit is to reach a better understanding among our societies, to improve relations between Israel and Turkey, as well as between Jews and the Islamic world.”

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At Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp

The education trip across time periods was an emotional rollercoaster and eye-opening for many of the students, but none more than for Cihat and Mehmet. For the Jewish students, there is nothing like witnessing the sites of the Shoah (Holocaust), though the history was familiar from years of exposure. For our Turkish friends, with much background knowledge, could feel the collective pain that we all felt. I want to thank our friends, Dr. Cihat Gundogdu and Mehmet Yildirim, for their efforts for peace as well as for accompanying us on our Poland trip. I will also be attending the next Iftar Dinner in a few weeks, engaging in the dialogue between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders. I look forward to seeing the documentary A9 TV produces and what this Turkish Muslim group will do next to expel anti-Semitism and other forms of injustice.