The Holocaust and Muslims

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In discussing the Holocaust and the Muslim world, two issues need to be addressed. One is the reaction of Muslims to the Holocaust as it occurred. The second is Muslim attitude toward the Holocaust since the end of World War II and, more pertinently, at present.


Before and during the war, Nazi Germany made a concerted effort to win the hearts and minds of Muslims, relying on modern propaganda techniques that included short-wave radio broadcasts of Radio Berlin in Arabic and Persian. But sympathy for the Nazis across much of the Muslim world was more attributable to strong anti-British feelings among Arabs and Muslims than support for the Nazis' anti-Semitic policies.


Although for the vast majority of Muslims the war in Europe remained a distant conflict, the Nazis managed to recruit some Muslims directly. Two Muslim SS divisions were raised: the Skanderbeg Division from Albania and the Handschar Division from Bosnia. Smaller units from Chechnya to Uzbekistan were incorporated into the German armed forces. But the Nazis soon discovered that these units were militarily ineffective and unmotivated to fight for the Third Reich. The much-vaunted "Hanschar" SS division was disbanded after a few months due to mass desertions and earned the distinction of being the only SS division ever to mutiny.


The Nazis made much propaganda about the meeting between Hitler and Haj Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, which took place on November 21, 1941. In the meeting, the Mufti declared that the Arabs were Germany's natural friends. Hitler promised that as soon as the German armies pushed into the Southern Caucasus, the Arabs would be liberated from the British yoke. The Mufti's part of the deal was to raise support for Germany among the Muslims in the Soviet Union, the Balkans and the Middle East. He conducted radio propaganda through the network of six stations and set up pro-Nazi fifth column networks in the Middle East.


Al-Husseini and the Muslims troops fighting on the side of the Wehrmacht were not representative of Muslim sentiments in the course of World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim soldiers from Africa, India, and the Soviet Union helped to defeat fascism at places like El-Alamein, Monte Cassino, the beaches of Provence, and Stalingrad.


There were also stories of great courage and sacrifice on the part of Muslims who risked their own lives to save the Jews from the Nazis. Muslim Albania was the only country in Europe in which there were more Jews after the war than there had been before the war. Before World War II, there were only 200 Jews in Albania, which had a total population of 800,000. After the war, there were many more Jews after Jewish refugees from some half dozen European countries fled the Nazi persecution and sought shelter in Albania.


These Muslim heroes included the Bosnian Dervis Korkut, who harbored a young Jewish woman resistance fighter named Mira Papo and saved the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the most valuable Hebrew manuscripts in the world; the Turk Selahattin Ulkumen, whose rescue of fifty Jews from the ovens of Auschwitz led to the death of his wife Mihrinissa soon after she gave birth to their son Mehmet when the Nazis retaliated for his heroism; and the Albanian Refik Vesili who - at the age of 16 - saved eight Jews by hiding them in his family's mountain home.


The Germans and their allies only briefly controlled North Africa, home to more than half a million Jews; but during this period of control-June 1940 to May 1943-the Nazis, Vichy French collaborators, and their Italian fascist allies applied many of the precursors to the Final Solution. These included not only laws depriving Jews of property, education, livelihood, residence, and free movement, but also torture, slave labor, deportations, and executions. There were no death camps, but many thousands of Jews were consigned to more than 100 brutal labor camps, many of which were solely for Jews.


Only about 1 percent of Jews in North Africa-between 4,000 and 5,000-perished under Axis control in Arab lands, compared with more than half the Jews of Europe. But had U.S. and British troops not pushed Axis forces from the African continent by May 1943, the Jews of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and perhaps even Egypt and Palestine almost certainly would have met the same fate as the European Jewry.


In all of this, Arabs played a central role. Indeed, Arabs' actions were not too different from those of Europeans. With war waging around them, most were indifferent. A percentage collaborated, including Arab officials in royal courts, Arab guards in labor camps, and those who went house to house pointing out where Jews lived. However, there were also Arabs who tried to help Jews. The sultan of Morocco and the bey of Tunis provided moral support and, at times, practical help to Jewish subjects. There were also remarkable stories of rescue. These include the story of Si Ali Sakkat, who opened his farm to sixty Jewish escapees from an Axis labor camp and hid them until liberation by the Allies. Khaled Abdelwahhab scooped up several families in the middle of the night and took them to his countryside estate to protect one of the women from the predations of a German officer bent on rape.


Present-day attitudes


While in the West, the Holocaust has achieved the status of a political moral landmark, very little reliable information has been available within the Muslim world about this important event in human history. This lack of information has meant that many Muslims have unformed views on the Holocaust.


In Muslim countries, political discourse on the Holocaust has been largely dominated by those who portray the Holocaust as a central rationale for the creation of Israel and seek to minimise or deny it within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  They ignore the fact that the advent of modern Jewish nationalism predates the Holocaust by more than half a century. The Holocaust did not ‘create' Israel, and its establishment was not motivated by any feelings of guilt of the world's nations at the time, as minutes of the United Nations General Assembly discussions that led to the creation of Israel show.


There are Muslim intellectuals, some of them outspoken supporters of the Palestinians, who have argued that Muslims cannot remain indifferent to the Nazi bid to annihilate an entire people everywhere and forever through industrialised mass murder for the sole reason of their religion. As one British Muslim politician wrote in response to calls by some to boycott the Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain, "We should be part of [the Holocaust Memorial Day] because our refusal merely gives succour to those who peddle prejudice and lies about the Holocaust. And we should be part of it because it is right to remember the millions of our fellow human beings who died at the hands of a racist and supremacist ideology."


Muslims and Holocaust Denial


A longtime phenomenon in the West, Holocaust denial now regularly occurs throughout the Middle East-in speeches and pronouncements by public figures, in TV programs on state-run television stations, in articles and columns by journalists, and in the resolutions of professional organizations. The main tenet of Holocaust denial-that Jews invented the Holocaust story in an attempt to advance their own interests-appears to be an increasingly accepted belief for many people in Arab and Muslim states.


Western Holocaust deniers have been aggressively targeting Middle Eastern audiences, while across the Muslim world, many governments do not condemn, and some even sponsor, such propaganda.


Holocaust denial has its roots in Europe and the United States, and it stretches back to the years immediately following World War II.  The Arab and Muslim perception of the Holocaust has never been monolithic, and has often been influenced by the vicissitudes of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  In some cases, Holocaust denial is actively sponsored by national governments, such as Iran and Syria. In other Middle Eastern countries, however, denying or minimizing the extent of the killing of Jews during World War II has been adopted by opposition parties and dissident factions that oppose attempts at normalizing relations with Israel or the United States.


Although Holocaust denial first surfaced in the Arab world in the 1970s, it was not until the 1990s that Holocaust denial became prevalent in popular media throughout the Middle East. This is true even in Egypt and Jordan, which have signed peace agreements with Israel.


Western Holocaust deniers have turned to Muslim countries for help when facing prosecution in various countries for illegal activities. Wolfgang Fröhlich and Jürgen Graf have sought refuge in Iran, and Roger Garaudy was hailed as a hero throughout the Middle East when he faced persecution by the French government for inciting racial hatred.


One of the most important signs of the growing ties between Western Holocaust deniers and the Arab world came to light in December 2000, when the Institute for Historical Review announced that its fourteenth revisionist conference would take place in Beirut, Lebanon, in early April 2001. Many Arab intellectuals were outraged and openly protested. The conference was eventually banned by the Lebanese government.


Holocaust denial in the Muslim world assumed new dimensions in 2005 after Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made it a staple part of his public speeches. In December 2006, the Iranian Foreign Ministry held an international Holocaust-denial conference, whose guests included some well-known racists such as former Ku Klux Klan head David Duke and French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson.


The recent rise of Holocaust-denial in the Muslim world could be attributed to increasing state sponsorship, the spread of radical Islam, and the aggravation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The assumptions that Holocaust denial is founded upon (notably the myth of a world Jewish conspiracy) make it a political weapon of choice for those who wish to increase their own influence at the expense of regional stability and peace prospects.