Here’s a disturbing story on a “moderate” Muslim cleric — Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, spiritual leader of the Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Queens, New York and the official representative of Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani — whose moderation includes watered-down Holocaust denial. According to Beliefnet.org columnist Walter Ruby:
… Al-Sahlani, who I myself interviewed just over a year ago for the New York Jewish Week, was quoted in the January 13 edition of the New York Sun as saying that the Nazi massacre of an estimated 6 million Jews during World War II “has been exaggerated”, adding, “The numbers which have been mentioned are too much.” According to the Sun, Al-Sahlani said during a telephone interview that the killing of innocent Jews during the war was “an injustice” but that the extent of Nazi persecution needed further examination. “The numbers, the reasons, we have to study more,” he said, while expressing support for the proposal of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to hold a conference on the Holocaust in Tehran.
[H]is responses to me only deepened the hole he dug for himself in the original interview. True, Al-Sahlani affirmed, “No matter whether it was 6 million or one Jewish person killed in Holocaust, that is a great crime, because they were killed for no reason except they were Jewish. That is unacceptable according to Islam.” Al-Sahlani explained further that he had only meant to convey to the Sun that as a person with little knowledge of Holocaust history, he has no idea whether six million was a correct approximation of the number of victims. For all he knows, he said, the correct figure might be five million or some other amount. Yet when I asked Al-Sahlani whether he had indeed told the Sun that the figure of six million was “exaggerated” or “too much,” he responded unpersuasively that he does not recall whether he actually used those terms.
What about his endorsement of Ahmadinejad’s call for a Holocaust conference in Tehran? Al-Sahlani affirmed he indeed believes such a conference would be useful “whether it is held in Tehran, Berlin or New York” because “for [non-Jews] who don’t believe in it, [holding a conference] will be helpful and supportive for them to believe in what happened, especially when it is done by the non-Jewish academic people, it will give more value to (the conference).” Al-Sahlani then said, “There are great scholars—specialists in the Holocaust–who do not believe what the other group of people believe…They say the number of victims is less than six million. Some of them say the reason for the Holocaust was (that it was) done by the Zionists.” Al-Sahlani said he could not remember the names of the scholars he cited as believing the six million figure is inflated, but when I brought up British historian David Irving, who was recently jailed in Austria for claiming just that, Al-Sahlani responded, “Yes, I believe that is the person, and probably there are others.”
Does this mean that there Al-Sahlani is a raging Jew-hater? Or that the elusive “moderate Muslim” is a myth? I don’t think that either is necessarily true. But it’s pretty clear that Holocaust denial or at least Holocaust minimization meme is quite widespread in the Muslim community, to the point where it is picked up even by many who, arguably, are not active haters or extremists. And that’s a worrying problem, to say the least.
I don’t know the solution. Ruby writes:
Rather than shunning this pious and upright man, who is a source of spiritual inspiration for the nearly 3000 members of the Al-Khoei Islamic Center, would it not be preferable for Jewish and Christian leaders to reach out to Al-Sahlani in the hope that sustained communication will convince him of the moral squalor of belittling the genocide of six million Jews?
Perhaps. I have no doubt that among those Muslims who are infected with the Holocaust denial/minimization meme (and the anti-Semitism virus in general), there are quite a few who are “reachable” and open to the kind of communication — and education — that Ruby writes about. We can only hope, for the sake of humanity. But I think the communication needs to be reinforced with sanctions. At some point, it needs to be firmly understood that those who persist in such attitudes, and in wiful ignorance, will be shunned.
There is, however, another issue here. Our insistence that the truth about the Holocaust be respected is admirable; not so the double standard that applies to the ideologically driven denial and minimization of other crimes against humanity — such as Stalin’s Gulag. As I noted in this column in February:
Compared with [Russian] amnesia about state crimes against humanity, the German experience is certainly a good model — whatever one thinks of Germany’s Holocaust denial laws. Sadly, amnesia about the crimes of communism is common in the West as well; historians who have downplayed and minimized those crimes, such as Miami University of Ohio historian Robert W. Thurston, have not been ostracized the way David Irving has been for a long time.
The resurgence of the Stalin cult in Russia shows the danger of such amnesia. Holocaust denial and Gulag denial should be finally seen as the twin evils they are.
If, let’s say, a prominent Third World leftist had expressed the view that Stalin’s crimes against humanity had been greatly exaggerated, we would not have seen the same concern and outrage over that as we have over Al-Sahlani’s comments.
The answer, of course, is not to give Holocaust belittlers a break. It’s to be tougher on the Gulag belittlers.