"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Danish Cartoons and Holocaust: What the World Isn’t Discussing

Monday, March 23, 2009

Danish Cartoons and Holocaust: What the World Isn’t Discussing

This first appeared on September 10, 2006 in the Weekly Trust.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

On February 20, the Associated Press flashed a news story about a 67-year-old British professor of history called David Irving who was sentenced to prison in Austria for denying the Holocaust!

He didn’t kill anybody. He merely used his “freedom of speech” to call into question the veracity of the Holocaust. And now he is in prison for that. Curiously, there has been no mass outrage from the patron saints of freedom of speech in the West, not even from Britain, his home country.

And this is happening at the same time that the sacrilegious cartoons against Islam in a Danish newspaper are provoking debates about “freedom of speech” in the West. The apparent contradiction in protesting the right to free speech where the “Other” is concerned and muzzling it where “Jews” are concerned seems to be lost on Europe and America.

Well, I have an experiential encounter with the word “Holocaust” that never fails to amuse me when I look back in retrospect, which I will like to share with my readers.

Sometime ago, when I was a second-year undergraduate student at the Bayero University, Kano, I nearly got expelled from school for using the word “holocaust” in an editorial commentary I wrote for the Parakeet, a publication of the Bayero (University) Literary Society, of which I was editor.

There was a bloody clash between liberal and conservative students in the school over the right of female students to visit male hostels. In B.U.K parlance, it was a clash of “comrades” and “Ustazia”—loose terms to differentiate between chartered libertines and cultural preservationists.

Well, after the clash, the school authority, which had been uneasy with the radical student union government at the time, rusticated most of the vocal student union leaders and banned all student union activities. I was a representative (well, we called ourselves “senators”) of my faculty at the Students’ Representative Assembly. And I was only just beginning to savor the excitement of student politics when this high-handed ban was imposed by the authorities. That was unacceptable to me—and to a lot of students as well.

When we had our literary meeting during this period, I suggested that since our publication was coming out at that period, we write a strongly-worded editorial condemning the rustication of student union leaders and the banning of student union activities since there was no evidence that there was any link between student union activities and the clash.

Nobody opposed me. So I wrote a strong denunciation of the actions of the school authority, with all the intellectual energy and verbal exuberance of a second-year university student. But the sentence that appeared to rile the university administration the most was in the last paragraph of the editorial.

After a long, verbose attack on the administration for its action, and after proffering a long list of suggestions to the senate committee handling the crisis on ways to contain the tension on campus, I wrote: “Any solution short of these, in our considered opinion, would be counterproductive and, what is more, an appealing invitation to chaos, unrest and, Allah forbid, bloodshed and carnage. The Senate should toe the line of least resistance by effortlessly averting an impending holocaust NOW!”

Holocaust? The university was outraged—and understandably so, with the benefit of hindsight.

I would have been expelled outright along with other student union leaders in the executive branch for inflaming passions through my editorial, I was told. But I was given the benefit to appear before the University’s senate committee to defend myself because many of the professors in the committee didn’t believe that an undergraduate student wrote the editorial. They were convinced that it was ghost-written by one of the radical professors in the university—and I was quite close to not a few of them.

But they were completely wrong. No so-called radical professor had any input into what I wrote. When I appeared before the committee to defend myself, I had the good fortune of being able to convince them that I was the author of the article. They said my spoken English had the stylistic imprints of the editorial. But then, they asked me, “What is Holocaust? What do you understand by it?”

At that time, I didn’t know anything about the historic Holocaust other than its metaphoric extension as “an act of great destruction and loss of life.” I didn’t know it was associated with Jews, had never read of gas chambers in Austria, nor did I have any intimate knowledge of Nazi Germany. I was just an innocent, ebullient sophomore (the American word for a second-year university student) who wanted to call attention to himself through linguistic mystification.

The committee members were at once amused and disarmed by my innocence—and ignorance. And I was forgiven. Of course, I was asked to write and circulate a written apology widely—and hope that my editorial would not cause a “holocaust” before the end of the semester!

What has this little anecdote got to do with anything? Well, my encounter with the university senate committee members provoked my curiosity about the historic Holocaust, whose allegorical shadow I ignorantly used to make my case for the need for authorities in my alma mater to avert student unrest. Each time the word holocaust is mentioned, I never fail to experience a giddy throwback to my verbal misadventure at Bayero University, Kano.

Several years after, I am still asking myself why the word Holocaust provokes such deep passions. Why are the people who call themselves Jews (in my over one year stay in the United States, I have not been able to tell a Jew from other white Americans) today so incredibly thin-skinned about the Holocaust?

Why should the prophet of a religion who is revered by billions of people across all the races of the world be caricatured in the most irreverent manner in the press at the same time that a professor is sent to prison for merely denying the historical accuracy of a comparatively recent event? And why is the world not crying out loud against this onslaught on academic freedom?

Professor Irving is the author of nearly 30 books, including Hitler's War. In 1992, a judge in Germany also fined him the equivalent of N840,000 for saying that Nazi gas chambers at Auschwitz were a figment of the imagination designed to swing popular sentiments in favor of Jews.

He is reported to have also written in his books that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust has been grossly exaggerated (Americans would say “sexed up”), and that, in fact, there is "not one shred of evidence" that the Nazis carried out their "Final Solution" to exterminate the Jewish population as is often cracked up in popular accounts. He argued that deaths at concentration camps were traceable to diseases such as typhus fever rather than mass murders.

I am not concerned about the accuracy or otherwise of the professor’s assertions. (In fact, if he is indeed the right-wing intellectual that the media say he is, he is probably also an Afrophobic white supremacist). My worry is the odiousness of the double standards that are so nakedly evident in the protection of “free speech” in the West.

For instance, in 2000, this same Professor Irving had occasion to sue American Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt for libel in a British court. But the merit of his case was not even considered. The presiding judge in the case, a certain Charles Gray, was reported to have written that Irving was "an active Holocaust denier ... anti-Semitic and racist." And that charge justified the summary dismissal of his case.

In November last year, while giving a guest lecture to university students in Austria, Irving was arrested and charged for what he said back in 1989 under an Austrian law that states: "Whoever denies, grossly plays down, approves or tries to excuse the national socialist genocide or other national socialist crimes against humanity in a print publication, in broadcast or other media" shall be prosecuted.

Note that this professor is a British, not an Austrian, citizen. So it means anybody who denies, ridicules, or downplays the Holocaust in any part of the world (such as Iran’s president recently) is liable to be prosecuted if he finds himself in Austria or Germany.

There may be more European countries with this kind of law. In fact, emerging facts indicate that the Danish newspaper that originated the cartoons, which have provoked mass revulsion in the Muslim world, actually turned down publishing cartoons that were considered “anti-Semitic”—that convenient phrase usually invoked to blackmail everybody into standing in uncomprehending awe before “Jews.”

However, there are no laws to protect other groups on the cultural fringes of mainstream Europe from the perpetually impudent strictures and xenophobia of their press. Freedom of speech is protected only where “other people” are at the receiving end. The hypocrisy of it riles deeply.

But the truth is that freedom has never been absolute anywhere in the world, not even in America, which prides itself on being the leader of “the civilized world.” Here, the media are, for instance, forbidden from publishing or broadcasting pictures of American soldiers killed in Iraq.

Similarly, two journalists were jailed last year for refusing to disclose their sources. While on this topic with one of my colleagues, I was also told of a Black American historian by the name of George G. M. James who wrote a persuasive book titled, Stolen Legacy: How Greek History is Stolen African History. Shortly after the publication of his book, he didn’t even have the “dignity” of being imprisoned like Professor Irving. He was found murdered in the state of Arkansas; his tongue cut out, and his body dumped carelessly by the road side.

In all this, the American legal maxim that states, “One man’s right to swing his arms stops where another man’s right to defend his nose begins,” appears singularly appropriate.

But this holds true as much for others as it does for Muslim demonstrations condemning the cartoons, especially in Nigeria. One man’s right to demonstrate against the caricature of his way of life stops where another man’s right to preserve his life begins. Nothing justifies the mindless murders of innocent Christians in Maiduguri because of an offending cartoon in far-flung Denmark.

The reprisals in Onitsha are just as condemnable. The debate about what constitutes freedom will continue to be a delicate and emotionally-charged one.
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