Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergymen participate in the blessing of an ecumenical chapel at Poland's new national stadium in Warsaw. Photo: Getty Images
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Mehdi Hasan remembers Abdol-Hossein Sardari, the "Muslim Schindler"

The Board of Deputies of British Jews and Faith Matters plan to hold an exhibition this year recognising the contribution by Muslims who saved Jews during the Holocaust. The gesture is overdue.

Have you heard of the “Muslim Schindler” who risked his life to save Iranian Jews in Paris during the Second World War? No? Neither had I, until a few months ago.

Abdol-Hossein Sardari unexpectedly found himself in charge of Iran’s diplomatic mission in Paris during the German occupation of France. A lawyer by training, he used his negotiating skills to try to persuade the Nazis’ experts on racial purity that the 150 or so Iranian Jews living in the city in 1940 were assimilated to non-Jewish – and “Aryan” – Persians through history, culture and intermarriage. At the same time, the dapper diplomat quietly began to issue new-style Iranian passports to Jews, making it easier for them to flee France.

Even though he was stripped of his diplomatic immunity and ordered to return to Tehran after Iran signed a treaty with the Allies in 1941, he stayed on in France to help Jews, and not just Iranian Jews, escape the Holocaust. In his 2011 book In the Lion’s Shadow, Fariborz Mokhtari estimates that there were between 500 and 1,000 blank passports in Sardari’s safe. If each of them was issued to a family of two or even three, “this could have saved over 2,000”.

In April 1978, three years before Sardari’s death, Yad Vashem, the central Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, sent a series of questions to him about his wartime role. He replied: “As you may know, I had the pleasure of being the Iranian consul in Paris during the German occupation of France, and as such it was my duty to save all Iranians, including Iranian Jews.” Sardari the humanitarian did not distinguish between Muslims and Jews.

So what is the connection with Britain? Sardari spent the last few years of his life in a bedsit in Croydon, south London, having lost his pension and properties in the Iranian Revolution. He never sought fame or recognition for his bravery and he died, poor and alone, in 1981.

Depressingly, few Jews and even fewer Muslims are familiar with his name or life story. However, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Faith Matters plan to hold an exhibition this year recognising the contribution by Muslims who saved Jews during the Holocaust – including Sardari.

The gesture is overdue. And to help fight the scourge of anti-Semitism among some British Muslims, organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain and the Islamic Society of Britain should do likewise.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

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How to change your mind: our writers on what they got wrong

Psychology shows us that it can be difficult to admit our errors – so five writers show us how it’s done.

What could I say to change your mind? If that sounds like a trick question it’s because it is. All the evidence suggests that it is extremely difficult to get people to flip that mental switch and reject a firmly held belief. Most of us are set in our ways.

Psychologists are trying to understand the phenomenon, and their work has given us several useful concepts, such as “confirmation bias”, in which we look for and accept evidence that supports our existing views and reject any that contradicts them. (As the joke goes: since learning about confirmation bias, I keep seeing it everywhere.) Human beings also use “motivated reasoning”, interpreting new information in ways that are most sympathetic to their world-view. For instance: did you think that the mass resignation from the shadow cabinet was an unforgivable act of disloyalty at a time of national emergency, or the desperate gamble of a hard-pressed group of people who felt that it was the only way to save the Labour Party?

Finally – and most worrying for those in politics, whose business it is to change minds – there is the backfire effect. When confronted by an opinion, backed up by facts, which contradicts their own, human beings have a tendency to double down and retreat even more strongly into an entrenched belief.

Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, the social scientists who popularised the phrase “backfire effect”, begin one of their papers with a line that is widely attributed to Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” They believe that the biggest obstacle to positive political change is not an uninformed citizenry, but a misinformed one.

Nyhan and Reifler designed experiments in which subjects were shown a news report about the Iraq War. It included a correction stating that UN inspectors had not found weapons of mass destruction, which were a crucial part of George W Bush’s rationale for invasion. “For very liberal subjects, the correction worked as expected, making them more likely to disagree with the statement that Iraq had WMDs compared with controls.” But for right-of-centre participants, “The correction backfired . . . [They] were more likely to believe that Iraq had WMDs than those in the control condition.”

So, what changes people’s minds? Oddly, a weaker argument might help. Asking opponents to flip from a strongly held belief to its opposite is a huge psychological demand. It involves acknowledging that they have been grievously wrong, which might call their entire belief system into doubt. Making a smaller mental leap is less challenging.

For the same reason, it is also easier to convince us to change our minds when the change doesn’t threaten our sense of identity. Take people who are devoutly religious: they are likely to have friends who share their faith, to belong to circles in which faith is important, and perhaps even to have a spouse, parents or children who would be hurt and alienated by a change of heart. In such circumstances, jettisoning a conviction is freighted with emotional trauma.

In political terms, that is also why it is not useful to crow over concessions from the other side. If you argue that ditching welfare cuts would demonstrate the failure of the entire Tory austerity project, the Conservatives will be more reluctant to ditch them. It must be possible to save face while changing your mind.

The scientific method developed to insure us against the unseen bias of our intuition and “common sense”. We should always be alert to the forces that silently shape our opinions. The following five writers have all rethought a fiercely held belief, either as a result of encountering new evidence or as their sense of self evolved. Which of your beliefs don’t stand up to scrutiny? 

Lionel Shriver on Northern Ireland 

Based from 1987 to 1999 in Belfast, I was one of those resident American buttinskies whom unionists so resented that they ­rarely noticed I was on their side. Because I am cynical about human nature, for years my instincts were sound. No, in a world of talks about talks about talks, there would be no political settlement; yes, the IRA would break its latest ceasefire (duh).

The risk of being a smarty-pants is overconfidence. Although I wasn’t presuming that the Troubles would continue till Doomsday, I didn’t see the 1998 Belfast Agreement coming.

Read more. . .

Suzanne Moore on men

Marriage, monogamy – a prison where you build your own walls. Familiarity breeds contempt, but this is the aftermath of romance. If you want to fetishise proximity, domesticity, and storage solutions from Ikea, why not go all the way and be a lesbian? If you want to service someone, have a baby. And if you want to rescue someone, get a dog.

Read more. . .

Julie Burchill on Stalin

Fame and fortune phoned and off I went to London. I was pretending to be a punk, a lesbian and a Jew, but at least I could be true to myself in this way. “I don’t kiss, I’m a Stalinist,” I’d often say. “But you’ve just had sex with me!” “Yes, it would have been bourgeois not to.”

Read more. . .

Tom Holland on Christianity

“We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.

Read more. . .

Margaret Drabble on experimental fiction

I was beginning to write fiction and the experimentalism of the new French novelists seemed to me arid and uninteresting. All I knew of Perec was that he had written a whole novel without using the letter E, an exercise that seemed to me, before I read it, to be deeply pointless: indeed, offensively frivolous. I’m afraid I sometimes made this point in public, when talking about the state of fiction. One should never speak of books one has not read.

Read more. . . 

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war