Sunday, December 17, 2006

The trouble with denying the Holocaust

As a leader of a predominantly Shiite country, President Ahamadinejad understands the utility of politicizing grief. For over thirteen centuries Shiism has found sustenance in mournful rituals commemorating the death of its Imams. In the mind of a Shiite politician, the Holocaust story is a familiar emotional device for amplifying and channeling political power. However, this interpretation of the Holocaust as an instrument of manipulation is behind the times. In the modern world, the Holocaust lesson serves civilization by helping prevent atrocities that would occur otherwise.

Unfortunately the prevention is not complete. In 1994 Hutus in Rwanda massacred a million Tutsis (and moderate Hutus) in a matter of three months. In the 1990’s Bosnian Serbs attempted to cleanse Bosnia of its non-Serb population; mass graves are still being found. In the mid seventies the Khmer Rouge systematically killed off millions in the ideological cleansing of Cambodia. Our generation does not need to take the word of historians for these events; we witnessed the rising body count daily in the news. Even as I write, the killings in Darfur continue. Genocide it seems is more the historical rule than the exception. Ask any Iranian. Persian culture still displays the scars of the Mongol decimation of Iran’s population eight centuries ago.

Despite our instinct for creating civilizations, the human conscience is a fragile organ of cognition. Our sense of right and wrong is easily overwhelmed by anger, jealousy, greed, or suspicion. This is not all bad news; the unusually rapid evolution of the human brain seems to have been the result of competition against other members of our own species. The down side however--though few of us can face the thought--is that human societies are prone to murdering each other.

The continual refreshing of the horrors of the Holocaust has been the most successful strategy in controlling outbreaks of genocidal behavior in the West. Minorities living in the United States or Europe enjoy the benefits of multiculturalism--arts, music, fashion, food, architecture, cinema, festivals, religion—without worrying about the hazards of being in the minority.

After 9-11, some radio talk show hosts provoked their American listeners by asking “can Muslims be good Americans?” Five million Americans with Muslim backgrounds could have found themselves in concentration camps, or worse. There was no American Bosnia because Holocaust awareness has strengthened the infrastructure of tolerance in America. What kept American Muslims safe during the dangerous times right after 9-11 was Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Judgment at Nuremberg and a host of other movies, television shows, books and novels about the Holocaust. For years such works have relentlessly shamed and marginalized anyone who would think of putting people in concentration camps.

President Ahmadinejad says European laws against denying the Holocaust are a curtailment of the freedom of speech. He believes these laws are a testament to Jewish power in the West. Here I offer a parallel explanation: these curtailments are a testament to the nearness of another Holocaust in Europe. What European leaders fear more than Jewish power is another Hitler. In the United States we are reminded of the closeness of this peril whenever a Mel Gibson delivers an anti-Semitic rant, or a Michael Richards goes into racist rage, or a policeman brutally tasers an Iranian-American student.

President Ahmadinejad says that guilt created by the Holocaust manipulates Western powers into supporting Israel's harsh behavior towards the Palestinians. Be that as it may, acknowledging the Holocaust has a positive function for civilization which we must not give up even as we condemn its abuses.


Anonymous said...

The painful memories of the Holocaust are a matter that people in the West must never forget for as you point out, in the West, virulent xenophobia, concentration camps and genocide are never too far in the offing. One only needs to observe the vigor with which Constitutional protections have been stripped of their teeth in the United States since September 11th, 2000, to appreciate how quickly the political climate and with it the status and safety of minorities can deteriorate. I would argue that Americans of Middle Eastern descent have already seen the first act of many more to come, in an all too familiar and frightful a tragedy. If as Iranian Americans we have forgotten what an Arab or Mongol invasion feels like then we can at least have a refresher course from the Jews who have left us with the most stark and vivid samples of their experience in the Holocaust.

I would also like to point out that anti-Semitism is predominantly a Western phenomenon. In the East it is understood that Jews are an Eastern people and belong to and in the East. It is however a sad fact that Israel is a creation of Western colonialism and as such she applies Western values toward the region it is embedded in. Israeli treatment of Palestinians parallels closely the treatment of Jews by Europeans in WWII. Bombarding civilians in Lebanon has its original counterparts in European history. Arrogance from the seat of overwhelming military power also has the stench of European Colonialism. It seems obvious that the world would be much more safe and livable for everyone including Israelites if Israel would simply attempt to alter its status from that of a proxy to that of a nation committed to the Middle East as a benevolent power. A people who have suffered know a great deal about enacting justice.

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