The Islamic Republic of Iran under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently hosted a conference of historical revisionists dubbed as “Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision.”
It was neither global nor visionary. That it coincided with the commemoration of the international Human Rights Day betrayed the sarcastic intent of its organizers.
The conference was yet another attempt by Ahmadinejad to portray himself as a strong challenger to the State of Israel calling for its destruction. He has characterized the Holocaust as a “myth.” He is quoted to have said that, “Israel must be wiped off the map…Anyone who signs a treaty which recognises the entity of Israel means he has signed the surrender of the Muslim world.” (October 2005) Again, in December 2005, he said, “They have fabricated a legend under the name ‘Massacre of the Jews’, and they hold it higher than God himself, religion itself and the prophets themselves.”
Earlier, Iran’s largest daily, Hamshahri, sponsored a widely publicized cartoon contest making a mockery of the Holocaust. This was a rebuttal allegedly to the right-wing Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad while reminiscent of the anti-Semitism once prevalent in Europe.
What went largely unnoticed was the courtly reaction to the cartoons by a paraplegic painter, Hossein Nouri, who painted, amidst flag-burnings and noisy protests, a portrait of the Virgin Mary in front of the Danish Embassy in Tehran; marking the respect Islam accords to the mother of Prophet Jesus.
Tehran ostensibly offered “scientists” from around the world an opportunity to discuss the Holocaust without taboos. This, however, stood in sharp contrast to the increased censorship of the Internet and denial of access to the websites critical of the Iranian government.
Another evidence of duplicity towards free expression came to light when a Palestinian lawyer, and one of the invited speakers, Khaled Kasab Mahameed, was refused entry visa by Iran. Mahameed runs, the Arab world’s first, Institute for Holocaust Research and Education, in Nazareth. He was prevented from telling the audience that “It’s not enough to curse these Holocaust deniers as foolish. We have to convince them the Holocaust did happen.” While hopeful of meeting with the Iranian President, he wanted to convince him that denial or questioning of “such huge, monstrous horror” harmed the Palestinian cause.
The event in Tehran, nevertheless, was attended by some 67 participants from 30 countries including the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and other Holocaust deniers who have undergone prosecution in Germany, France, and Austria for their reluctance to believe whether six million Jews were slaughtered under the Nazi regime before and during the Second World War.
Two Rabbis, and four representatives of the group Jews United Against Zionism, who reject the establishment of Israel on Jewish religious grounds, did make an appearance declaring their opposition to those who denied that Jews were subjected to Nazi persecution, forced labor camps, Gestapo prisons, and ultimately the Shoah. Ironically, the taunting statement went unheeded in Tehran.
It is against this backdrop that the initiative by a small group of Washington-area Muslims to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum came as a positive contribution to human struggle against hate. They called “for remembrance of the victims of the horrific Holocaust and commemoration of the struggles endured by the brave survivors.”
In case the Holocaust deniers did not know, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, established in 1993, maintains an exhaustive record of one of the most well documented crimes in human history. Its collection has more than “37 million pages of archival material, 74,000 historic photographs and images, more than 12,000 artifacts, and almost 1,000 hours of film and video documentation. The overwhelming majority of this material comes from perpetrators and official records, as well as eyewitness testimony not only from victims and survivors but also from liberators, perpetrators and bystanders.”
The Museum’s mission against hate will soon receive a fresh boost as it gains access to millions of documents archived at the International Tracing Service, a division of the International Committee of the Red Cross, in the German town of Bad Arolsen.
While we admire Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie, Shindler’s List, on Oskar Schindler saving the lives of the Polish Jews, new stories of human courage and dignity were narrated when Johanna Neumann, a Holocaust survivor, recounted to the Muslim visitors to the Museum how she and her parents were saved by Albanian Muslims: “They saved us and these were good human beings, and as I said before, the majority of them were Muslims, and we have nothing but the highest respect for these people.” The names of these Muslims from Albania, Njazi and Liza Pilku, are inscribed at the Holocaust museum and Yad Vashem among the “Righteous Among the Nations.”
Yet another brilliant example of moral reciprocity comes from Pervez Musharraf, President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. In September 2005, while addressing the American Jewish Congress, he stated, “Jews suffered their greatest tragedy – the Holocaust – whose commemoration will be on the agenda of this year’s session of the United Nations General Assembly…And, we have witnessed such compassion from the Jewish community. It was Jewish groups in the US who were in the forefront in opposing the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia. I am told that the largest contributor to the Bosnian cause was the Jewish-American businessman and philanthropist – George Soros. More recently, in the backlash against Muslims, including Pakistani immigrants, after 9/11, they received legal and other assistance from several Jewish groups. I wish to acknowledge and appreciate this.”
Looking beyond Tehran, one finds both Palestinians and Jewish voices opposing both anti-Semitism and anti-Palestinian actions. For instance, Israel Shahak, a Holocaust survivor, Amira Hass, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, Ilan Pappé, Uri Davis, and Jeff Halper are but some of the Jewish intellectuals who favor the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.
Similarly, when in 2001 there was an attempt to hold a Holocaust denial conference in Beirut, it was strongly opposed by several leading Arab intellectuals, including Edward Said, Adonis, and the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish. Consequently, the event was cancelled.
More insights into reciprocal human goodness were offered at home after a controversy surrounding the conservative radio host Dennis Prager. Prager was appointed to the Council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in September 2006. Following the election of Keith Ellison to become the first Muslim in the U.S. Congress, Prager demanded in his November 28 column that he “should not be allowed” to “take his oath of office … on the bible of Islam, the Koran.” He compared Ellison’s choice of the Quran to “Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the Nazis’ bible, for his oath.” He wrote that allowing congressional oaths on a Quran “undermines American civilization. “If you are incapable of taking an oath on (the Bible), don’t serve in Congress.”
Prager’s piece prompted protests from across the political spectrum. A large number of Jewish leaders quickly condemned his comments; headed by the former New York Mayor Ed Koch who demanded that Prager quit the Museum Council. “I believe it is the duty of members of the board to spread the message that attacks on people as a result of their religion, ethnicity, race, are all to be condemned wherever we have an opportunity to raise our voices,” he said. Koch said Prager is doing just the opposite by “creating such an attack on a Muslim.”
The victory of moral reciprocity over Tehran’s attempt to belittle human suffering is sterling. From Albanian Muslims protecting Jews during the Holocaust, Jews saving Muslims from genocide in Bosnia, Arab intellectuals fighting Holocaust denial, to the Jewish mayor of New York defending the first Muslim member of the U.S. Congress, it is a triumph for human dignity and a defeat of racism, hate, and bigotry.
The Holocaust-denying regime in Tehran should learn that both “Muslim anti-Semitism” and “Jewish Islamophobia” are just two oxymorons. No purpose is served by minimizing or denying hate-prompted human misery, be it Jewish or Arab.
Compared to the religiously inspired systematic, persistent, and state-sponsored persecution of Jews through history there is little or no equivalent in the Muslim world. On the contrary, Jewish and Muslim history is an enviable narrative on tolerance and harmony that blossomed into the legendary Convivencia in medieval Muslim Spain. Let the spirit of reciprocity in upholding human dignity rekindle the flame of Convivencia.