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.