Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ahmadinejad as a Holocaust denier and the Holocaust as a religion

I think Western readers could benefit from some context or background about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements regarding the Holocaust that are easy to miss but very important.

The idea that Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust has its origin in an argument he made in a speech in 2005 or 2006 (somebody ask and I'll look up the exact date of the speech and add the unsympathetically translated quote). I’ll paraphrase what he said at the time as “They’ve created this story of the Holocaust and elevated it above the story of God. They put people in jail for denying that story but not for denying God.”

Juan Cole and others put the word “myth” where I first put the word “story”. I’ll just say that no matter which word, the argument of the sentence is in neither case that the story of the Holocaust is factually false. The argument is slightly more subtle and much more clever.

The argument is that the West condescends on Iranians and on Muslims with the claim that Muslims have faith where Westerners have rationality. But then, by this argument, it turns out that the West – even non-observers, agnostics and atheists – does have a religion. That religion is the Holocaust.

Even if there was no such thing as Palestine or Israel this would be a tremendously powerful argument for a Muslim audience. Muslims in interacting with the West are often put on the defensive regarding faith. Ahmadinejad says wait, people are free to deny God in Europe, but they are not free to deny the Holocaust. So instead of a comparison between rationality and faith, between progress and blind backwardness, we have a comparison between two different sacrosanct narratives, and in this contest Muslims have a good hand that if you must believe in something it is better to believe in God, in the Koran, than in the Holocaust.

I want to add some things that Ahmadinejad could have said but didn’t. There is a wide variation in estimates of the amount of Native Americans killed by the European conquest of the American continents. But nowhere in the world will you go to jail if you assert that the number is zero. There is wide variation in estimates of the number of Africans killed during the trip from Africa to be slaves in the Western Hemisphere. Nowhere in the world will you go to jail if you say the number was zero. There is wide variation in the amount of natives of Tasmania who were killed when European colonists killed every single native-born man, woman and child on the island. Nowhere in the world will you go to jail for saying the number is zero. There is wide variation of the number of Palestinians killed or the number displaced to create Israel. There is a wide variation in estimates of the number of people the United States killed in Afghanistan this year. There is nowhere in the world that you’ll go to jail for claiming the number is zero.

People have been imprisoned for insinuating that the number may have been anything other than 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. The Holocaust for the West is a sacrosanct narrative in a way that many other atrocities and massacres, before and since, are not. Westerners usually can not fully appreciate the power, before a Muslim audience conditioned by Western accusations of backwardness, of Ahmadinejad’s observation that the West is hypocritical in its accusations. This would be true even if there was no Palestine.

But there is a Palestine.

The narrative of the Holocaust, that Ahmadinejad argued is treated with the reverence that Muslims apply to the Koran itself, is used to justify the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians. For a somewhat defensive Muslim audience, that takes a powerful argument for Ahmadinejad and makes it sublime.

The West doesn’t believe in God, in the commandments of the holy books to love and treat each other equally. It believes in the Holocaust, and that the Holocaust justifies expelling hundreds of thousands of innocent people from their land, it justifies propping up colonial dictatorships over scores of millions of Muslims. The Holocaust justifies sanctions aimed at denying technological, scientific, industrial and economic progress for scores of millions of Muslims and it justifies directly killing, right now, hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the region, occupying nations and creating conditions of chaos and destruction today.

This is not an argument Ahmadinejad feels a need to back down from. If the West is going to present the Holocaust as a religion, he sincerely believes, along with essentially every Muslim, that he has a better religion. A religion that is more consistent with the West’s own declared values.

I want to give you that context so that you can understand what happens when a Western reporter asks Ahmadinejad if he denies the Holocaust.

Imagine a truly well meaning devout US Christian, someone like, Rick Warren, in a Muslim country asked by a somewhat hostile interviewer whether or not he denies Muhammad.

What does that question mean? The interviewer can get indignant – "it is a simple question. Do you or do you not deny Muhammad?" Of course, it is not a simple question. The word "Muhammad" specific meanings beyond the name itself to a person raised in the Muslim faith that Rick Warren would have no way of being familiar with.

“I do not say and have never have said that there was no Muhammad. Historians, scientists, religious scholars should be free to determine who he was and the truth of what he taught and his impact. I will say that these historians should be free of any threat of punishment for reaching the wrong conclusion and I’ll insist that the truth of Muhammad does not diminish my right as a Christian to believe in Jesus Christ and even further that the story of Muhammad does not justify the killing of Christians or their oppression anywhere in the world.”

I'd like to suggest that the above response while reasonable to me or to a Westerner might be perceived as an evasive answer to a Muslim. To a Muslim that answer could be uncomfortably and even dangerously close to "Muhammad denial". Ahmadinejad dozens of times has given equivalent answers about the Holocaust. But is it reasonable for a Muslim questioner to expect Rick Warren to recite the Koran’s treatment of Muhammad in response to that question?


Lysander said...

Very interesting point, but having listened to Ahmadinejad, he clearly is not prepared to say straight out the holocaust was a historical fact. I think that is a mistake, he can admit it and still make all the points you stated.

For example, he could say, "Yes I know the holocaust happened but why do Europeans, claiming to be champions of free speech, put people in jail for questioning it? Since their arguments must be very weak you should have no trouble refuting them in open debate."

Or he could say, "Yes the holocaust is a historical fact, but it was a crime that happened in Europe, by Europeans, against Europeans. How did Iran, the Palestinians and the whole Muslim world end up with the blame for it? How could Angela Merkel, Chancellor of the country most responsible for the holocaust, dare to lecture us about it?"

Or, "Yes the Holocaust happened, but so did the destruction of Native Americans, deliberate starvation in India, and the Ukraine, Japanese crimes against China, etc. Why has the holocaust been elevated above them all?"

Or, "It was a terrible crime that happened a long time ago, and I think Europe should move on. However, if you choose to obsess about it, please do so without involving us."

Those would all be powerful arguments in the Muslim world. And they might actually be persuasive to some in the west. And he would be able to dodge the charge of denier. This is important, because there are many people in the west, highly critical of Israel and sympathetic to the Palestinians who would be deeply offended by holocaust denial, or even the suggestion of it. Ahmadinejad does not have to talk about it in the hallowed terms used in the west. But he should be clear that he believes it did happen.

Just a thought.

Arnold Evans said...

What does it mean to say the Holocaust is a historical fact? Does it mean that 6 million Jews were killed, and not 5.9 million or 6.1 million?

Does it mean that at least one Jewish person was killed?

What specifically is Ahmadinejad, an Iranian from a culture with no direct involvement in these events, expected to be clear that he believes about the Holocaust?

He has said, I'm pretty sure more than once, that many innocent people were killed in WWII, including Jews, though he objects to the elevation of Jewish deaths above others, for example over the civilians of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

It is a trivial statement that at least some Jewish people were killed in WWII. And that they were civilians killed for being Jewish. And that this killing of Jewish civilians was a terrible crime.

But once you get to non-trivial statements - what is the exact number - who in the Nazi regime bore what responsibility - now you're talking about issues for experts to discuss that Ahmadinejad cannot be expected to have a direct opinion on. On the non-trivial questions about the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad's standard answer: "I'll agree with whatever scholars come up with as long as they are free to study in a non-compulsory environment" strikes me as reasonable.

His additions, that this crime was not committed by the Palestinians, that Palestinians should not, today, be oppressed in the name of that event and that the narrative is used in a way that is harmful and contrary to the interests of justice are also reasonable.

If all one has to do to dodge the charge of denier is not deny, than Ahmadinejad, if looked at reasonably, should have dodged that term. He's never made any assertion in either a trivial or non-trivial sense that no crime was committed against Jews by Germans.

But my point in this post is that in the West, the charge of Holocaust denier is broader, as we see with the reaction to Ahmadinejad, than actually denying those events.

Arnold Evans said...

I'll also leave these here:

Ahmadinejad acknowledges the Holocaust in letter to Merkel

Full Text of Pres. Ahmadinejad's Letter to German Chancellor

It seems to me that "Holocaust denier" is a deliberate mischaracterization of Ahmadinejad's position and arguments.

At least to some degree a deliberate and agenda-driven mischaracterization.

lidia said...

Arnold, thank you. You are really a keen observer and dissector.

I hate the Holocaust industry, while my Jewish relatives died fighting Hitler I would never put their death above the death of non-Jews.

Landon said...

I endorse what Arnold Evans has written. It is my belief that it is necessary and appropriate to have an even more robust and open debate about the holocaust. My views are far more radical than Arnold expresses -- principled, fact-based, but striking to the heart of the matter, along the lines of Dr. Irving. It's up to Mr. Evans whether his blog is a place for that debate.

I disagree almost categorically with the statements and implications of Lysander's comment.