On February 21, a court in Austria sentenced the British 'historian', David Irving, to three years' imprisonment for denying the Nazi Holocaust against Jews in a speech made to a neo-Nazi meeting as far back as 1989. In the process, the Austrian court scored a damaging self-goal against the West. With Irving's conviction under a law which makes Holocaust-denial a criminal offence in seven European countries, the West stood charged of double-standards. Coexisting with the draconian gag on neo-Nazi propagandists like Irving was the constitutional protection for publications that gratuitously caricatured the Prophet of Islam. Whereas an extremist pamphleteer was jailed for perpetuating a crass and spiteful falsehood, a clutch of impish poseurs were lauded for upholding the democratic right to offend an entire religion.
In the ongoing war involving the Judaeo-Christian world and Islam, this apparent hypocrisy will not go unnoticed. Ten days before the Austrian court sentenced Irving, the fire-breathing Iran president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, complained to a rally in Teheran that 'as far as several aggressive European governments are concerned, and as far as the Great Satan is concerned, it is permissible to harm the honour of the divine prophets, but it is a crime to ask questions about the myth of the Holocaust'. To drive home the point, Ahmadinejad announced a conference to ascertain the veracity of the version of the Holocaust 'that Europe and the Zionists have imposed on the world'. An Iranian publication even announced a competition of cartoons mocking the Holocaust.
The polarization is telling. In countries where the sharia is law, the editors who printed and reprinted the offending cartoons would possibly have faced the death sentence. Unlike modern Christianity or even Hinduism, organized Islam is too laced with theological certitudes to permit artistic licence that questions the fundamentals of faith. However, even in a secular country like India, the editors would have faced criminal prosecution under sections of a penal code which was framed in the mid-19th century. Yet, no offence ' apart from a show of astonishing bad taste ' was deemed to have been committed in Europe. On the contrary, the publications which reprinted the offending cartoons were aggressively applauded by the custodians of Western values. In a letter to Le Monde, 11 French writers feared that 'soon in France, like in Denmark, the liberty to publish will be denied us in the name of respect for this or that God'.
It was not god but European lawmakers who decided that Irving's claim that only '74,000 (Jews) died of natural causes in the work camps and the rest were hidden in reception camps after the War and later taken to Palestine where they live today under new identities' was more than just unalloyed rubbish. It was dubbed a criminal offence because it touched a raw nerve in countries like Austria where a previous generation had served as 'Hitler's willing executioners'.
Every society has its share of nutters, conspiracy theorists and negationists. Some are harmless while others are cleverly disingenuous. In India, the indefatigable P.N. Oak has been trying for decades to demonstrate that the Taj Mahal is a Hindu palace. Romila Thapar has written an entire book to show that the age-old Hindu indignation over the destruction of the Somnath temple in Gujarat is contrived. Others have proffered theories to suggest that the destruction of the Kashi Vishwanath temple by Aurangzeb was retribution for Hindu crimes against women. Still others believe that the Godhra carnage was an act of collective self-immolation by crazy Ram bhakts.
A new wave of cultural relativism has also generated many volumes of corrective history. There are academic historians who equate the Nazi 'final solution' with 'a conscious policy of genocide' pursued by settlers and colonial powers from the 16th to the 19th centuries. It has been asserted, for example, by some Australian historians that 'settler-colonies around the world established during European expansion post-1492 in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina are not only potentially but inherently genocidal'.
At the same time, there are those who maintain that the new wave of aboriginal history has been written on the strength of fabricated evidence and exaggeration. In an address to a symposium in New Zealand earlier this month, the Australian writer, Keith Windschuttle, claimed, 'I could find credible evidence that white settlers had killed a total of 121 Aborigines (in Tasmania), mostly in hot pursuit of Aborigines who had killed or assaulted white settlers. The rest of the population of about 2,000 natives had died from diseases to which their long isolation on their island had given them no immunity' On top of this, venereal disease rendered most of the women infertile'.
Compare this robust defence of the Victorian 'mission' with a passage from The 'Holocaust' is a Typical Zionist Myth by Abdullah Mohammed Sindi, 'a Saudi-American professor of International Relations' who has taught in King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah and the University of California at Irvine: 'there is no proof whatsoever that any live Jew was ever 'gassed' or 'burned' in any 'gas chambers' or 'crematories' in Nazi Germany. Only those people who had died of dangerous infectious diseases such as typhoid were burned or cremated in Nazi Germany in order to avoid epidemics. The number of these infected burned dead is much smaller than the 'six million' legend.'
In the context of west Asia, Sindi is no Irving. He is a respected figure who echoes the bizarre conviction in much of west Asia that the Holocaust is an expedient Zionist/Israeli myth 'to acquire worldwide sympathy for the creation of Israel after World War II'. Indeed, debunking the Holocaust has become a key element in the wave of anti-Semitism that has been unleashed in many west Asian countries with official sanction. Even the film, Schindler's List, was banned in Egypt, a country where the monumental forgery that goes by the name of Protocols of the Elders of Zion is placed next to the Talmud in the Alexandria Library. If Holocaust-denial is a crime in much of Europe, it is an ideological totem in much of the Islamic world. Anti-Semitism has reached such macabre heights that the outlandish theory of 9/11 being a Zionist plot is actually believed by many Muslims.
Judged by the yardstick of cultural relativism, both the institutionalized disavowal of the Third Reich in Europe and the celebration of anti-Semitism in west Asia are equally valid. Since there are no moral absolutes, each set of beliefs could be held to be valid in its own context. Yet, there is a significant difference. The strictures against Holocaust-denial in Europe stem from the acknowledgment that the mass killing of Jews was an offshoot of a culture that had transformed anti-Semitism into common sense. For post-war Germany and Austria, the law became a symbol of ideological exorcism of what used to be called the 'Jewish problem' and a symbol of repentance. It was part of the larger reinvention of the popular mentality and involved Europe turning its back on its own history.
What is happening in the Islamic world is precisely the opposite. Societies troubled by a larger sense of diminution are seeking solace in beliefs and ethical codes that were prescribed some 14 centuries ago. Evolved societies in Egypt, Iran, Syria and even Lebanon have, tragically, been engulfed by regressive currents which could end up pitting them against Western notions of modernity. In the battles to define the limits of absolute freedom, we are witnessing a larger conflict that leaves little scope for neutrality.