Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Muslim Holocaust denial meme, and other problems

Here's a disturbing story on a "moderate" Muslim cleric -- Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, spiritual leader of the Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Queens, New York and the official representative of Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani -- whose moderation includes watered-down Holocaust denial. According to columnist Walter Ruby:

... Al-Sahlani, who I myself interviewed just over a year ago for the New York Jewish Week, was quoted in the January 13 edition of the New York Sun as saying that the Nazi massacre of an estimated 6 million Jews during World War II “has been exaggerated”, adding, “The numbers which have been mentioned are too much.” According to the Sun, Al-Sahlani said during a telephone interview that the killing of innocent Jews during the war was “an injustice” but that the extent of Nazi persecution needed further examination. “The numbers, the reasons, we have to study more,” he said, while expressing support for the proposal of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to hold a conference on the Holocaust in Tehran.


[H]is responses to me only deepened the hole he dug for himself in the original interview. True, Al-Sahlani affirmed, “No matter whether it was 6 million or one Jewish person killed in Holocaust, that is a great crime, because they were killed for no reason except they were Jewish. That is unacceptable according to Islam.” Al-Sahlani explained further that he had only meant to convey to the Sun that as a person with little knowledge of Holocaust history, he has no idea whether six million was a correct approximation of the number of victims. For all he knows, he said, the correct figure might be five million or some other amount. Yet when I asked Al-Sahlani whether he had indeed told the Sun that the figure of six million was “exaggerated” or “too much,” he responded unpersuasively that he does not recall whether he actually used those terms.

What about his endorsement of Ahmadinejad’s call for a Holocaust conference in Tehran? Al-Sahlani affirmed he indeed believes such a conference would be useful “whether it is held in Tehran, Berlin or New York” because “for [non-Jews] who don’t believe in it, [holding a conference] will be helpful and supportive for them to believe in what happened, especially when it is done by the non-Jewish academic people, it will give more value to (the conference).” Al-Sahlani then said, “There are great scholars—specialists in the Holocaust--who do not believe what the other group of people believe…They say the number of victims is less than six million. Some of them say the reason for the Holocaust was (that it was) done by the Zionists.” Al-Sahlani said he could not remember the names of the scholars he cited as believing the six million figure is inflated, but when I brought up British historian David Irving, who was recently jailed in Austria for claiming just that, Al-Sahlani responded, “Yes, I believe that is the person, and probably there are others.”

Does this mean that there Al-Sahlani is a raging Jew-hater? Or that the elusive "moderate Muslim" is a myth? I don't think that either is necessarily true. But it's pretty clear that Holocaust denial or at least Holocaust minimization meme is quite widespread in the Muslim community, to the point where it is picked up even by many who, arguably, are not active haters or extremists. And that's a worrying problem, to say the least.

I don't know the solution. Ruby writes:

Rather than shunning this pious and upright man, who is a source of spiritual inspiration for the nearly 3000 members of the Al-Khoei Islamic Center, would it not be preferable for Jewish and Christian leaders to reach out to Al-Sahlani in the hope that sustained communication will convince him of the moral squalor of belittling the genocide of six million Jews?

Perhaps. I have no doubt that among those Muslims who are infected with the Holocaust denial/minimization meme (and the anti-Semitism virus in general), there are quite a few who are "reachable" and open to the kind of communication -- and education -- that Ruby writes about. We can only hope, for the sake of humanity. But I think the communication needs to be reinforced with sanctions. At some point, it needs to be firmly understood that those who persist in such attitudes, and in wiful ignorance, will be shunned.

There is, however, another issue here. Our insistence that the truth about the Holocaust be respected is admirable; not so the double standard that applies to the ideologically driven denial and minimization of other crimes against humanity -- such as Stalin's Gulag. As I noted in this column in February:

Compared with [Russian] amnesia about state crimes against humanity, the German experience is certainly a good model -- whatever one thinks of Germany's Holocaust denial laws. Sadly, amnesia about the crimes of communism is common in the West as well; historians who have downplayed and minimized those crimes, such as Miami University of Ohio historian Robert W. Thurston, have not been ostracized the way David Irving has been for a long time.

The resurgence of the Stalin cult in Russia shows the danger of such amnesia. Holocaust denial and Gulag denial should be finally seen as the twin evils they are.

If, let's say, a prominent Third World leftist had expressed the view that Stalin's crimes against humanity had been greatly exaggerated, we would not have seen the same concern and outrage over that as we have over Al-Sahlani's comments.

The answer, of course, is not to give Holocaust belittlers a break. It's to be tougher on the Gulag belittlers.


Rainsborough said...

I'm reminded of the classic psychological experiment where the subject is exposed to half a dozen fellow students who've been instructed to assure him that a rod in fact obviously shorter than another is the same length. Many subjects begin to come around to professing/believing that the rod is equal in length.

Humans believe what those with whom they associate believe. Not to do so, at the extreme, is madness. Normally, what others say and believe does function as reliable check on the validity of our own beliefs.

Moderate imans today live in two worlds. One where obvious truths are seen for what they are, and another where they're questioned or denied. If we shun the moderates, all they'll hear is the mistaken messages and they'll come increasingly to subscribe to them.

It may be there comes a point where the sanction of shunning must be resorted to. But it's well recognize the price paid for that resort.

Luke said...


The six million figure is presumably rounded. A more important point, in may judgment, as been the tendency -- actually more than a tendency -- for the various European nationalities to heap all the guilt for the Holocaust, and for the more general phenomenon of European anti-Semitism, of which the Holocaust was the final, horrifice culmination -- on Germany and the German people alone, while refusing the acknowledge their own share of the responsibility. It is a form of scape-goating not unlike that to which the Jews themselves have been subjected in the past.

Why is it important? Well, the primary reason in terms of contemporary politics, is that it permits most Europeans to ignore their responsibility for the Israili-Palestinian conflict. If that seems farfetched, it only shows the depth of their denial.

For, after all, it was European anti-Semitism that drove European Jewry out of Europe, which started all the trouble in the first place. And it was European statesmen acting, first through the League of Nations, and later through the United Nations, who solved their "Jewish problem" by giving someone else's land away.

If A pushed B into C, forcing a fight between B and C, who is responsible for the damages to C?

And yet how many times do we hear Europeans and European-Americans claim that the Palestinians are being victimized by the Israeli's? That is scapegoating too.

The truth is, of course, that if we were in the position of European Jewry in Israel, we would be acting just as they are at best!

We have placed Israel in an impossible situation, and yet we stand around wringing our hands, or blaming Israel, or showing "sympathy" for the Palestinian people -- anything but accepting our (our meaning Western European) responsibility for it all.

What would acknowledging this responsibility solve? A couple of things. First, it would address the sense of grievance and humiliation the Palestinians, and the Arab world in general, feel as a result of this history. Just to acknowledge that a wrong was done to them, and to recognize that it is we -- not Israel -- who did it, would be a marvelous development on the road to peace.

But there is something else: by acknowledging our responsibility, the larger Western-European community would be in a position to start compensating the Palestinians for all they have lost. There are 300 million affluent citizens in the European Community alone; it would be well within their means to promise, as part of an overall settlement, to aid and invest in the new Palestinian state to an extent sufficient to establish a Western standard of living there for all its citizens, or for any Palestinain refugee anywhere (and their descendants).

I know that if I were an ordinary Palestinian man in the street, I wouldn't settle for anything less. It is only human.

One last point: of all the nations of Europe, only Germany has fully faced up to their responsibility in this area. Ironically, therefore, only Germany has the moral standing to hector her neighbors to step up to the plate. I wish they would get started.

Excuse the rant, but I just had to get this off my chest.

mythago said...

It is a form of scape-goating not unlike that to which the Jews themselves have been subjected in the past.

It's not scapegoating. The scapegoating you refer to is unfairly blaming a group--if Germany were a scapegoat, it would have been a minor player in the Holocaust. Which is not to say, of course, that other countries have any moral standing to say "but we were such good upstanding people during the war!"

Gulag-deniers need to have a copy of Koba the Dread stapled to their foreheads.

Anonymous said...

I find that most people I've ever talked to about this subject are pretty aware of Stalin's crimes, but that somehow Mao gets a pass.

W.B. Reeves said...

Gulag-deniers need to have a copy of Koba the Dread stapled to their foreheads.

I want to deal at length with Cathy's point about the Gulags and historical denial but work won't wait. One point however. I doubt that "Koba the Dread", fixated as it is on Stalin, is the best reference here. For my money, Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelgo is still the best work outlining the dimensions and impact of the Gulag system, despite what I think are some glaring errors in his moral and political perspective. One can't expect scholarly detachment from someone who did over a "tenner" in that system.

One observation. The Gulag system, the purges and the revolution that birthed them is a far more complex phenomenon than the Nazi program of extermination. There is nothing new about muderous violence practiced on ethnic and religious minorities. The Nazis targeted Jews, Slavs, Gypsies and others. The scale and methods employed in their massacres were unprecendented but the basis of their bloodlust was not.

The millions consumed by the Gulag are'nt subject to simple categorization, unless we accept such empty bureaucratic definitions as "enemy of the state" or "counter revolutionary", which I don't. Comprehending the Gulag, its developement, purpose and actual social, political and economic function is a far larger order.

Synova said...

I think that the biggest problem with the holocaust denial laws is that the numbers *are* too big... too big to comprehend. It doesn't seem possible. And the laws suppress discussion because the charges that aren't made ("it wasn't so bad") don't get answered.

I don't think that the gulag or the horrors of Mao's revolution or even the genocide in Cambodia get denied so much as they just get ignored.

Lori Heine said...

Communist sympathizers on the American Left have soft-pedaled Red atrocities for decades.

Very few Germans would deny that Germany owns most of the guilt for the Holocaust. They're going to keep on getting flogged for it until Doomsday.

What really matters is not how often the guilty parties (or rather, their descendants) say "I'm sorry," but whether the atrocities stop or are -- in one form or another -- continued.

The problem with radical Islam is not that it denies the Holocaust, but that it continues to fan the fires of hatred against Jews. We can do nothing to bring back those who have already died, but we can and must protect those who are alive today. If "never forget" means anything, it must mean that.

If "moderate" Muslims buy into the idea that the number of Holocaust dead has been exaggerated, how does this bode for the future? What possible intentions might lie behind softpedaling the Holocaust -- even in the most seemingly-innocuous of ways?

Revenant said...

The answer, of course, is not to give Holocaust belittlers a break. It's to be tougher on the Gulag belittlers.

Belittling of the Holocaust is pretty ubiquitous, though. That's more or less why Godwin's Law exists. Is there any significant difference between a "Holocaust downplayer" and a protester with a "Bush = Hitler" sign? Is it surprising that a culture which had no real stake in the outcome of World War II fails to see the significance of the Holocaust when so many in the west think it is fine to invoke death camps and jackboots at the drop of a hat?

Icepick said...

You might find this symptomatic.

Anonymous said...

Look if you know shyak Al-sahlani you would know that his a fair man and not one to prejudice against others... he said “The numbers, the reasons, we have to study more,” which is fare enough, history is never going to be recorded 100% we only have to look at current events and see how they are reported by different sources and how there figures are mismatched so what about event that toke place decades ago..

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