I have recently criticized the Muslims who deny other people the right to question Islamic history and tradition, let alone react violently to them. In my article on The Misguided and Counterproductive Attempts to Silence Those who Question Islamic Tradition and History, I stressed that provided that someone’s point of view is not demonstrably intended to harm others, then they should have the right to express that view. I discussed a number of issues I have with those Muslims who try to prevent others from having a different reading and understanding of history or holding different views about what did and did not happen.
Different people take different concepts, individuals, objects, and historical events, to be sacred. Everybody has the right to choose what they believe in and deem to be sacred. This right, by definition, gives every individual the right to disagree with others, because what an individual believes in can contradict what another individual considers to be the truth. For instance, the person who chooses to believe in the Qur’an has to reject the concept of divinity of Jesus Christ, which some books of the New Testament promote. Similarly, a Christian who believes the New Testament’s message that Jesus is the savior of all people will have to reject the message of the Qur’an that Muhammad is the last Prophet whom God sent to all creation. Because many, although not all, aspects of the messages of the Qur’an and New Testament are irreconcilable, the believer in any one of the two books has to reject the contradictory messages in the other.
So what we have here is the rejection of different individuals of the tenets of faith of each other, not because they would like to be offensive to each other, but simply as a result of the right of each of them to adopt whatever beliefs they think are true. Those who present such differences as attempts to offend others fail to understand the basic human rights to freedom of belief and freedom of speech or, worse, claim for themselves these rights but deny others the same rights. The latter is a clear case of double standards.
Almost everybody in the West, where human rights are generally promoted and protected more than in other parts of the world, would find all of this common sense. Understandably, Western politicians, thinkers, and people in general express outrage when Muslims react violently to those who reject the Islamic version of history and try to silence them. Everybody has the right to believe whatever they think about history, regardless of how sacred or sensitive that history is for someone else. But some Western countries have managed to develop an astonishing and unique exemption to this human right — a clear case of “double standards.”
The exemption I am talking about here is the mass murder of millions of Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II, i.e. the Holocaust. The overwhelming majority of historians consider the historicity of the Holocaust beyond any doubt, due to the extensive evidence, and see any scholarly attempt to deny it as a form of pseudo-history. Yet, like any part of history, the Holocaust has those who deny it, including a very small minority of historians. The main claims of the Holocaust deniers is that Nazi Germany had no official plan to exterminate the Jews, no gas chambers were used to kill Jews, and the number of victims was substantially lower than the generally accepted 5-6 millions, by an order of magnitude. The Holocaust deniers do not support the persecution or killing of Jews, but they simply do not believe in the history that is accepted by most people.
What interests us here is the fact that, unlike any other historical event, denying the historicity of the Holocaust has been declared illegal in Canada and Israel and 15 countries in Europe: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, and Switzerland. This is unique because there is no other historical event or claim the denying of which is considered illegal and can put people in jail, as it has done to some.
The criminalization of the denial of the Holocaust is usually justified on the basis of the scale of this instance of human genocide. There is no question that the Holocaust was a terrible crime against humanity. But even being the largest case of genocide should not make denying the Holocaust a crime, nor its scale should make criminalize denying it when denying other instances of genocide is perfectly legal. Human history, past and modern, is littered with ethnic, religious, and political atrocities. The Rwandan genocide in 1994 led to the slaughter of 800,000 people. The scale of this bloodshed becomes even starker when we note that there was a period of just over three months during which the average daily number of victims was around 50,000! This, by any measure, was a horrific crime against humanity. No sensible person would deny the occurrence of the Rwandan genocide, but still denying it is no crime, and should remain so.
Some Holocaust deniers might be driven by anti-Semitism, but this does not mean that Holocaust denial should be labelled as a form of anti-Semitism. Like any form of racism, anti-Semitism is abhorrent, but accusing someone of anti-Semitism just because they deny aspects of the Holocaust as history is wrong and is probably a disingenuous attempt to silence that person. Similarly, no one should be accused of Islamophobia just because they do not accept the historicity of the massacres against Muslims in the Bosnian war.
Some argue that making the Holocaust denial illegal would help in ensuring that such genocides would not happen again. This is absurd. Denying the Holocaust is not illegal in the UK, but no sensible person would suggest that people in the UK have less resentment and objection to human genocide than people in, say, Hungary and Portugal, where Holocaust denial is a crime. Human genocide is the most extreme form of violent racism. Helping humanity in general avoid the practice of genocide requires combating all forms of racism and promoting basic human rights, including the right to life and security of person, not giving a special legal status to the history of one specific genocide.
In fact, criminalizing the denial of a particular instance of genocide can only send the wrong message, because it creates a two-tier system of genocide whereby one such crime is seen as more abhorrent than the rest, when all instance of genocide must be equally rejected. The discriminatory nature of this can be seen in Israel where denying the Holocaust has been illegal since 1986, yet some military acts by the Jewish state against Palestinian and Lebanese civilians are nothing short of genocide.
This special status given to the Holocaust over other instances of genocide is reminiscent of the special treatment given to the victims of the terrorist attacks in the USA in 11/September/2001. The 3,000 who were killed in those atrocities are innocent victims, but so are the victims of all such crimes. Yet any cursory reading of what has been said about the victims of 11/September/2011 and how victims of similar atrocities in Iraq, Palestine, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and many other countries are discussed by the same politicians shows clear discrimination. One illustration of this fact is the insistence of politicians and others that the world “changed” after 11/September/2001, as if there has never been before unjustified attacks that resulted in thousands of innocent civilian casualties, as if there has never been a Palestine, a Vietnam, a Korea, a Lebanon, an Algeria, and many other countries. Let me stress again that I have full respect to all innocent victims of the Holocaust and 11/September/2011, but I have the same level of respect to all other innocent victims.
The criminalization of the Holocaust denial in countries that sternly defend the individual’s right to faith and expression is a powerful illustration of hypocrisy and double standards.
I am completely in favour of the right of any person to question any aspect of history, religion, and belief. Unless such an attempt is clearly intended to be offensive and cause harm, the individual must have the right to believe what they like and express that belief. The existence of God, the historicity of Abraham, the divinity of Jesus, the virginal conception of Mary, the prophethood of Muhammad, and just about every sacred belief has been questioned by numerous people. There should be no law stopping someone from questioning something that is for another an established or even sacred fact. The Holocaust is no exception and has no superior status to any of these beliefs.