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?