Mehnaz Afridi knows some people may view her as a bit of an enigma. As a Muslim woman teaching about the Holocaust at a Catholic college, the Syracuse alumna walks a path that has sometimes invited controversy and criticism.
She welcomes both.
Profiled recently by The New York Times, the religion scholar speaks candidly about the challenges of perception versus the reality as a Muslim woman speaking about this dark period in Jewish history.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Mehnaz was raised with a broad global view as her family moved from Switzerland to London and Dubai to New York. Her interest in the study of religion combined with her passion for art, history, psychology, politics, and philosophy eventually lead her to Syracuse University where she earned her undergraduate degree in English and religion in the College of Arts and Sciences. She quickly followed that with a master’s degree in religion at Syracuse before eventually earning a Ph.D. at the University of South Africa.
“The Syracuse religion department was a special place where the interdisciplinary model encouraged us to think through a variety of disciplinary tools and gave us the skill to think through philosophy and religion in a way that was exceptionally unique as a student,” says Afridi, who credits the department for shaping her thinking in critical theory, philosophy, nineteenth century Germany, the Holocaust, and feminism.
Currently, Afridi is an assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York, where her instruction and research focuses on the Holocaust, interreligious identity, diaspora and transnational studies, and post-genocide identity.
She is also the director of the college’s Holocaust Genocide and Interfaith Education Center, a center dedicated to eradicating human suffering, prejudice, and racism through art, education, and interfaith events. It’s impactful work that Afridi believes is especially important for future generations.
“My work as a Muslim woman and director of the Holocaust Genocide and Interfaith Education Center is always about eradicating prejudice and racism. I believe that Islam and Judaism are peaceful and co-existing religions and I am inspired by both, especially during turbulent times,” explains Afridi, who’s appointment as director of the center in 2011 initially created some intense debate within the Jewish community. “My inspiration comes from the belief and evidence that great people have made great changes in the world and we still need to continue the path of peaceful co-existence.”
Reflecting her interfaith research, Afridi will see her latest book, “Shoah through Muslim Eyes; the Holocaust History Literature Ethics and Philosophy” (Academic Studies Press) published later this year. In the volume, Afridi explores the differences and commonalities between entrenched Jewish and Muslim beliefs, in order to create understanding and between the two communities that struggle with islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
Afridi says that her time here at Syracuse University and in the S.U. Study Abroad program was critical to the development of the skills needed to engage these difficult global issues.
“Many countries in the world don’t have a liberal arts curriculum and that is why we see the deep misunderstanding of history and culture,” says Afridi. “Without the liberal arts, I would have an impoverished soul.”