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This item is available on the Middle East Forum website, at http://www.meforum.org/article/1704

Deciphering Ahmadinejad's Holocaust Revisionism

By George Michael
Middle East Quarterly
Summer 2007

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went beyond previous rhetorical attacks on the United States and Israel when, on December 14, 2005, he suggested that the Holocaust was a myth. Many European officials, among Iran's most lucrative trading partners, were outraged. The German government, for example, condemned his remarks and defended Israel's right to exist.[1] Then, on December 11 and 12, 2006, the Iranian foreign ministry's Institute for Political and International Studies convened a conference promoting Holocaust denial, attended by sixty-seven participants from thirty countries.[2] The fact that a head of state would endorse such a contrarian movement may seem remarkable but, for the Islamic Republic's leadership, it is a deliberate, strategic decision. Not only does the Iranian regime believe that Holocaust denial can propel it into a position of leadership among Islamic countries, but the Iranian regime and Holocaust revisionists have found their relationship to be symbiotic. Each believes a Jewish cabal controls Washington decision-making.[3] Holocaust denial further binds disparate groups who share a critique of Jews and Zionism.

The Roots of Holocaust Denial

Holocaust denial at its roots is a Western phenomenon. In much of the United States and Europe, the Holocaust is viewed as a singularity without comparison and a story whose lessons are of vital importance to both Jews and gentiles alike. While more people perished in Stalin's gulags or Mao's Great Cultural Revolution, the methodical way in which the Holocaust was prosecuted exemplified what Hanna Arendt referred to as the "banality of evil."[4]

The legacy of the Holocaust stigmatized both anti-Semitism and far right political figures and parties. However, in the 1960s, an intellectual atmosphere emerged in which nearly every truth could be challenged. Holocaust revisionism became the extreme right's answer to deconstructionism.[5] For this fringe, Holocaust denial is a necessary step to bring about the revival of the ideologies that led to the extreme nationalism and xenophobia that enabled the Nazi party to set the Holocaust in motion. These early revisionists sought to exculpate the Germans for World War II. They argued that "World Jewry" had declared war on Germany and that Western powers, fearful of Germany's growing military and industrial power, conspired to support Poland, triggering the war.[6] Subsequent Holocaust revisionists suggested the number of Holocaust victims was exaggerated; several argued many Jews had survived and were living either in Europe, Israel, or the United States.[7] Eventually three themes developed among many revisionists: First, they argued there were no gas chambers. Second, they denied six million deaths, and third, they said no Nazi master plan existed.[8] Despite their best efforts, neo-Nazis and revisionists hit a brick wall in the West. Few people outside their own circles were willing to discount history, fact, evidence, and logic. While the impact of Holocaust revisionism in the West has been limited, in recent years, it has found fertile ground in the Middle East.

Historically, anti-Semitism was not as intense in the Middle East as it was in the West. As historian Bernard Lewis observed, Jews under Islam were never free from discrimination but rarely subject to persecution. Their situation was never as bad as in Christendom at its worst and never as good as in Christendom at its best.[9] However, Israel's establishment augmented the vehemence of contemporary Islamic anti-Semitism.

Holocaust denial in the Middle East emerged soon after World War II. In 1955, Lebanese foreign minister Charles Malik dismissed the Jewish Holocaust as Zionist propaganda. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser once said, "[N]o person, not even the most simple one takes seriously the lie of the six million Jews who were killed."[10] In 1983, Mahmoud Abbas, who would later lead the Palestinian Authority, published a book titled The Other Side: The Secret Relationship between Nazism and the Zionist Movement, which claimed that far fewer that six million Jews had died in the Holocaust.[11] More recently, Hamas has dabbled in Holocaust denial.[12] In Saudi Arabia, anti-Semitic themes—including the blood libel accusation, the putative Jewish control of the U.S. media and government, and Holocaust denial—are popular staples in the media and educational system.[13]

However, the Middle East produced no real scholarly exegeses. Revisionist historians associated with extreme right-wing groups in the West developed a far larger corpus of literature. More often than not, Arabic presses simply translated Western works. Of the various right-wing groups that have reached out to the Arabs, Turks, and Iranians, revisionist historians have been best received. One of the first efforts was in 1980 when Ernst Zündel, a German expatriate in Canada, wrote a pamphlet titled, "The West, War, and Islam," in which he suggested the existence of a conspiracy between Zionists and international bankers to rule the world. He recommended Muslims could better undercut the Jewish state by funding Holocaust revisionism rather than purchasing weapons.[14] Zündel sent the pamphlet to the heads of state of several Middle Eastern states.[15]

Holocaust revisionism has also become increasingly popular in Arab print media. Writing in the Jordanian newspaper, Al-Arab al-Yawm, Mahmoud al-Khatib averred that the "entire Jewish state [was] built on the great Holocaust lie" and that Hitler had killed not six million but only 300,000 Jews because "they betrayed Germany."[16] An editorial in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Akhbar said that Jews fabricated the Holocaust in order to "blackmail the Germans for money as well as to achieve world support."[17] More recently, a narrator on Lebanon's popular New TV announced that "never has there been an issue subject to as many contradictions, lies, and exaggerations regarding the number of victims as the issue of the Jewish Holocaust."[18]

As European countries enacted hate laws limiting Holocaust denial, many Holocaust deniers sought safe haven in the Middle East. Few Arab states have hate speech or liable laws, except where they bear on interpretations of the Qur'an. In November 2000, Jürgen Graf, director of the Swiss revisionist organization Verité et Justice (Truth and justice), fled to Iran to escape a Swiss hate speech conviction.

The Middle East has become a venue of choice to present revisionist theories. In March 2001, the Newport Beach, California-based Institute for Historical Review and Verité et Justice planned a conference in Beirut featuring long-time revisionists Roger Garaudy and Robert Faurisson. Only intense pressure from the U.S. State Department caused the Lebanese government to reconsider its role as host. The organizers simply moved the conference to Amman, Jordan. The Jordanian Writers' Association was happy to sponsor it.[19] While Graf's motives may have been purely anti-Semitic, his Jordanian hosts may have appreciated the geopolitical implications. As Graf explained, "Those countries which are authentically anti-Zionist … should make the breakthrough of Holocaust revisionism their foremost priority. A tank costs millions of dollars, yet one soldier can destroy it with a single missile. The revisionists can provide anti-Zionist freedom fighters with a weapon not even a thousand missiles can destroy."[20]

David Duke, the white supremacist from Louisiana, has been at the forefront of right-wing extremist outreach to the Islamic world. In the fall of 2002, he presented two lectures in Bahrain on "The Global Struggle against Zionism" and the "Israeli Involvement in September 11." That same year, he appeared on an Al-Jazeera satellite network talk show and, in November 2005, he held a news conference in Damascus, Syria, pledging to do his best to convey to the world the "real peace-loving Syrian" positions.[21] According to Duke, during his visit to Syria, he met with a high-profile Syrian journalist, Nidal Kabalan, who gave a copy of Duke's book, Jewish Supremacism: My Awakening to the Jewish Question, to Ahmadinejad, suggesting this may have been the genesis for Ahmadinejad's subsequent Holocaust denial.[22]

Iran: New Center of Holocaust Denial

Anti-Semitism has long been a problem in Iran. European merchants brought blood libel to Iran in the sixteenth century. During the nineteenth century, the Iranian clergy instigated several pogroms. In the early twentieth century, Reza Shah (r. 1925-41) embraced racist theories.[23] After all, the name Iran literally means "land of the Aryans." His sympathy for Nazi Germany led British and Soviet officials to force his abdication during World War II. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who in 1979 would lead the Islamic Revolution, long tinged his writings with anti-Semitism.[24]

Holocaust denial was an outgrowth of Iranian anti-Semitism, propelled by the Islamic Republic's antipathy toward Israel. Long before Ahmadinejad shocked the West with his blunt rhetoric, Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamenei suggested the Holocaust to be an exaggeration.[25] ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an Iranian figure often labeled a pragmatist by Western journalists, voiced morale support for Holocaust revisionists in the West, suggesting the West persecuted one prominent denier for "the doubt he cast on Zionist propaganda."[26] However, it was during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, whose rhetorical calls for a dialogue of civilizations won European and U.N. plaudits, that the Islamic Republic became a sanctuary for revisionists. Tehran granted asylum not only to Graf but also to Wolfgang Fröhlick, an Austrian engineer who argued in court under oath that Zyklon-B could not be used to kill humans.[27] Indeed, it was under Khatami that Iranian policy shifted from anti-Zionism to unabashed anti-Semitism.[28]

In August 2003, the Iranian government invited Frederick Töben, a retired German school teacher living in Australia, to speak before the International Conference on the Palestinian Intifada held in Tehran in which he impugned the Holocaust by contending that Auschwitz concentration camp was physically too small for the mass killing of Jews.[29] Ahmadinejad called the Holocaust a myth in December 2005,[30] a move applauded by Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.[31]

In March 2006, Töben returned to Iran to participate in the "Holocaust: Myth and Reality" conference at Isfahan University where he again argued that Auschwitz was too small to enable mass killings of Jews.[32] According to the official Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting radio, the supreme leader's representatives in Isfahan organized the conference. Alireza Soltanshahi, representing Ahmadinejad, addressed the assembled students and faculty.[33] Ahmadinejad, himself, sponsored and opened an August 2006 exhibition of cartoons denigrating the Holocaust.[34]

Ahmadinejad has become a hero to the extreme right. Kevin Alfred Strom, founder of the white supremacist National Vanguard, expressed solidarity with the Iranian president, especially in his fight against common Jewish and Zionist enemies. He urged Ahmadinejad to use alternative media and advocated for cooperation between the Iranian government and neo-Nazis to reach out to antiwar Americans and break the grip of the "mainstream media monopoly."[35] Right-wing extremists often cast themselves as "alternative media voices." When addressing audiences in Muslim countries, they downplay racist themes and emphasize anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism.[36] This was apparent in interviews the official Mehr News Agency conducted with visiting Holocaust revisionists.[37]

Ahmadinejad appears to have listened. He has made Holocaust denial a central tenet of his administration. Following his September 19, 2006 U.N. General Assembly speech, he granted press availability to representatives of the alternative media, including Michael Collins Piper, a journalist for the extreme right newspaper American Free Press and author of Final Judgment, a book postulating that the Mossad killed President John F. Kennedy.[38] After the conference, a personal friend of Piper, Iranian filmmaker Nader Talebzadeh, introduced him to Ahmadinejad, who actually invited Piper to be his personal guest in Iran.[39] Following his press conference, Ahmadinejad spent half of a 90-minute meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations trying to debunk the Holocaust.[40]

The Tehran Holocaust Conference

Foreign Ministry sponsorship of the "Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision" conference in Tehran was therefore a culmination of a longer process. Leading officials including Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki attended.[41] The conference provided a venue for the who's who of Holocaust denial and revisionism.[42] Duke gave the keynote address. Other prominent participants included Jan Bernhoff, a computer science professor in Sweden; Mattias Chang, a lawyer and an author of conspiracy books from Malaysia; Robert Faurisson, a former literature professor in France and a long-time Holocaust denier; Wolfgang Fröhlich, a Holocaust denier from Austria; Jürgen Graf, a Holocaust denier from Switzerland; Mohammed Hegazi, a pro-Palestinian activist who resides in Australia; George Kadar, originally from Hungary, who now resides in the United States and writes for the far right newspaper, American Free Press; Richard Krege, a Holocaust denier from Australia; Patrick McNally, a Holocaust denier and conspiracy theorist who currently resides in Japan; Michael Collins Piper, a writer for American Free Press; Michele Renouf, an Australian socialite and supporter of Holocaust revisionism; Bradley Smith, an American Holocaust denier who currently resides in Mexico; Georges Thiel, a Holocaust denier from France; Serge Thion, a French sociologist and critic of the politicization of the Holocaust; and Frederick Töben. At the conference, participants agreed to establish a world foundation for Holocaust studies and unanimously appointed Mohammad ‘Ali Ramin as its secretary general.[43] An advisor to President Ahmadinejad, Ramin once lived in Germany and is an ardent defender of Holocaust denial.

As with the Jordanian conference before, anti-Zionism combined with Holocaust revisionism. Former Iranian interior minister ‘Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour conceded that the Nazis "committed horrendous crimes during World War II" but added that "the Zionists' narration of the massacre of the six million Jews at Nazi death camps is far from reality."[44]

Right-wing extremists who participated in the conference expressed satisfaction.[45] By working with Muslims, they hope to dilute the stigma of racism. Rather than characterize themselves as "white supremacist," they now speak of "white separatism," placing themselves within the third-world vocabulary of self-determination and liberation. While associating with a Middle Eastern despot, especially in the aftermath of 9-11, might not seem expedient, neo-Nazi groups may consider that they have little to lose since they are already marginal. That any head of state would embrace them enhances their stature. So, too, did media attention. CNN's Wolf Blitzer granted Duke a platform to discuss his participation in the conference.[46]

The Tehran conference may have provided a boost of adrenalin to neo-Nazis. Erich Gliebe, chairman of the National Alliance, the most prominent U.S. neo-Nazi organization, lauded Ahmadinejad and lamented that Western leaders did not have his "guts." Days after the Tehran conference concluded, he announced that his organization would hold a similar conference at its Hillsboro, West Virginia headquarters.[47] Several revisionists who attended the Tehran conference participated.[48]

In an effort to further isolate Iran, nearly forty European and North American research institutes announced that they had suspended contacts with the Iranian Institute for Political and International Studies—a leading Iranian think-tank that helped organize the conference. Francois Heisbourg, head of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, organized the boycott.[49]

Strategic Implications of Holocaust Denial

Although other Middle East figures have dismissed the Nazi Holocaust, Ahmadinejad has changed the discourse with his stridency. His gambit may serve him well amid the increasing polarization between Islamic countries and the United States. His confrontation has elevated him to a central player on the international scene. By championing Holocaust revisionism, Ahmadinejad has demonstrated his bona fides to the Islamic world and tapped into the reservoir of resentment against Israel that transcends sectarian differences. By radicalizing the Middle East, Ahmadinejad seeks to prevent a rapprochement between Israel and conservative Arab states that have a security interest in containing an ascendant Iran. In doing so, Ahmadinejad could conceivably draw support from Sunni radicals that have been traditionally hostile to the Shi‘a.[50]

Domestically, some Iranians fear that Ahmadinejad's provocative rhetoric is isolating their country. However, Khamenei stands by the Iranian president. On March 22, 2007, for example, the supreme leader railed against the "global Zionist conspiracy," rhetoric borrowed directly from The National Vanguard.[51] Some moderates and reformers have urged the Islamic cleric-led regime to rein in the president for fear that his controversial comments may lead to a propaganda campaign against Iran.[52] However, whether for ideological or practical reasons, the Iranian leadership has decided that its natural allies are not liberal Western democracies but rather the right-wing fringe of Western extremism.

George Michael is assistant professor of political science and administration of justice at the University of Virginia's College at Wise. He is the author of The Enemy of My Enemy: The Alarming Convergence of Militant Islam and the Extreme Right (University Press of Kansas, 2006) and Willis Carto and the American Far Right (University Press of Florida, forthcoming, 2008).

[1] The Washington Post, Dec. 15, 2005.
[2] Islamic Republic News Agency (Tehran, IRNA), Dec. 5, 2006.
[3] See, for example, Bernard Wasserstein, "Anti-Semitism and Anti-Americanism," Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 28, 2001; Juan Cole, "Pentagon/Israel Spying Case Expands: Fomenting a War on Iran," Informed Comment, Aug. 29, 2004; David Duke, Jewish Supremacism: My Awakening to the Jewish Question (Mandeville, La.: Free Speech Press, 2003).
[4] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: The Viking Press, 1963), p. 231.
[5] Leonard Weinberg, "The American Radical Right in Comparative Perspective," in Peter H. Merkl and Leonard Weinberg, eds., The Revival of Right-Wing Extremism in the Nineties (London: Frank Cass, 1997), p. 237.
[6] Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 40.
[7] Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (New York: The Free Press, 1993), pp. 51-2; Jerry Bornstein, The Neo-Nazis: The Threat of the Hitler Cult (New York: Julian Messner, 1986), p. 45.
[8] Shermer and Grobman, Denying History, p. 40.
[9] Bernard Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice (New York: WW. Norton, 1986), p. 121.
[10] Quoted in Walter Laqueur, The Changing Face of Antisemitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 140-1.
[11] Michelle L. Picheny, "A Fertile Ground: The Expansion of Holocaust Denial into the Arab World," Boston College Third World Law Journal, 1 (2003): 331-58.
[12] Reuven Paz, "Palestinian Holocaust Denial," Peace Watch, no. 255, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Washington, D.C., Apr. 21, 2000.
[13] "Demonizing Jews: Anti-Semitism in the Saudi Media," Anti-Defamation League (ADL), New York, accessed Mar. 12, 2007.
[14] Ernst Zündel, "The West, War, and Islam," Radio Islam, accessed Mar. 23, 2007.
[15] Holocaust Denial in the Middle East: The Latest Anti-Israel, Anti-Semitic Propaganda Theme (New York: Anti-Defamation League, 2001), p. 5.
[16] Ibid., p. 13.
[17] Ibid., p. 15.
[18] "Lebanon's New TV: ‘Contradictions, Lies, and Exaggerations in Number Killed in ‘Jewish Holocaust,'" Special Dispatch Series, no. 1194, Middle East Research Institute, June 29, 2006.
[19] "ADL Comments on Holocaust Denial Conference Held in Jordan," ADL news release, May 15, 2001.
[20] Jürgen Graf, "Holocaust Revisionism and Its Political Consequences," Jan. 2001, accessed Mar. 23, 2007.
[21] "David Duke in Damascus to Express Solidarity with Syria," ArabicNews.com, Nov. 22, 2005.
[22] "Duke on Irving and Holocaust Conference," audio link on David Duke's website, Dec. 20, 2006, accessed Mar. 23, 2007; David Duke, "Iranian Leader Breaks New Ground in Spiegel Interview," David Duke's website, June 1, 2006, accessed Mar. 23, 2007.
[23] Ali Ansari, Modern Iran since 1921 (London: Longman, 2003), p. 72.
[24] Patrick Clawson and Michael Rubin, Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (New York: Palgrave, 2005), pp. 26, 63, 72, 130.
[25] The Jerusalem Post, Apr. 25, 2001.
[26] Holocaust Denial in the Middle East, p. 8; Abraham Foxman, Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), pp. 223-4.
[27] Foxman, Never Again?, pp. 222-3.
[28] Babak Ganji, Iran and Israel: Asymmetric Warfare and Regional Strategy (London: Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, 2006), p. 3.
[29] "Revisionist Fredrick Töben Speaks at Iran's Intifada Conference," National Vanguard (Sacramento), Sept. 9, 2003.
[30] The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2005.
[31] Al-Jazeera television (Doha), Dec. 15, 2005; Agence France-Presse, Dec. 22, 2005.
[32] See "The Iranian Holocaust Conference: Toben Explains the Fairy Tale of Auschwitz," accessed Mar. 30, 2007.
[33] Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting News (IRIB), Mar. 7, 2006.
[34] Al-Jazeera, Sept. 3, 2006.
[35] "American Dissident Voices: Kevin Alfred Strom, ‘In the Cause of Peace and Freedom,'" National Vanguard, June 25, 2006.
[36] The Asia Times, Nov. 30, 2004.
[37] "Iran Promotes Holocaust Denial," ADL news release, Feb. 14, 2006.
[38] Michael Collins Piper, Final Judgment: The Missing Link in the JFK Assassination Conspiracy (Washington: Center for Historical Review, 2000).
[39] American Free Press (Washington, D.C.), Oct. 2, 9, 2006.
[40] "How Jew-Friendly Persia Became Anti-Semitic Iran," Moment Magazine, Dec. 14, 2006.
[41] CBS News, Jan. 15, 2006.
[42] "Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision 10-12 December 2006" program, Adelaide Institute website, accessed Mar. 23, 2007; Fars News Agency (Tehran), Dec. 11, 2006.
[43] IRIB News, Dec. 15, 2006.
[44] IRNA, Dec. 12, 2006. Mohtashamipour now serves as the secretary-general of the International Congress to Support the Palestinian Intifada.
[45] See for example, Michael Collins Piper, "What Really Happened in Iran," American Free Press, Jan. 1, 8, 2007.
[46] David Duke interview with Wolf Blitzer, The Situation Room, CNN, Dec. 13, 2006.
[47] "American Dissident Voices: Erich Gliebe, "," The National Alliance, July 1, 2006.
[48] Willis Carto, "Holocaust Hoopla," American Free Press, Dec. 25, 2006.
[49] Times Colonist (Victoria, B.C.), Dec. 16, 2006; The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2006.
[50] Ganji, Iran and Israel, pp. 23-5.
[51] Fars News Agency, Mar. 22, 2007.
[52] Associated Press, Dec. 14, 2005; Ganji, Iran and Israel, p. 8.


This item is available on the Middle East Forum website, at http://www.meforum.org/article/1704



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