Rewriting history appeals to Arabs in denial

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The Independent Online
ACROSS the Middle East, Arabs are rallying to the cause of French Holocaust-denier Roger Garaudy. It is a depressing sight; and it is an ugly one. People who condemn Israel's attempts to deny that 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes by Israeli forces in 1948 are offering support to an ageing philosopher who denies the fact that 6m Jews were murdered in Hitler's extermination programme during the Second World War.

Garaudy, whose book Les Mythes fondateurs de la politique israelienne (The Founding Myths of Israeli Policy) has landed him in the French courts, was treated as a guest of honour when he visited Arab states last year. Trade unions invited him to lecture and Farouk al-Sharaa, Syria's Foreign Minister, awarded him an audience in Damascus.

But Arab reaction to the charges against him in France has outdone even this reception. In Cairo, the Arab Lawyers' Union has decided to send a five-strong delegation to Paris to see how they can support the 84-year- old ex-Communist-turned-Muslim. In the United Arab Emirates - a good friend of the West, whose ruler, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, is one of Europe's top racehorse owners - the Sheikh's wife has offered Mr Garaudy more than pounds 31,000, the maximum penalty he might have to pay, as well as possible imprisonment.

In Qatar, the Women's Youth Organisation has sent messages of support, and in Syria, the country's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ahmed Kaftaro, has expressed his "total support" to the writer, saying he is "a free thinker who does not compromise his principles". The Iranian Islamic Commission of the Rights of Man has decided any court appearance by Garaudy will be "a trial of liberty of expression and thought". Incredibly, Egyptian scholars have compared him to Alfred Dreyfus, the French-Jewish army officer wrongly convicted for German espionage in 1894.

The lie that 6m Jews did not die at Nazi hands between 1939 and 1945 has gained widespread credence in the Arab world in the past five years. An Arabic edition of Hitler's Mein Kampf is sold freely in many Middle East countries, the books printed in Beirut and Damascus. In the Emirates, daily paper Al-Khaleej published a letter from Garaudy thanking readers for their support and urging them to remember "the struggle against Zionism which, by its aggressive colonial policy and its desire for permanent control over Jerusalem, holds the detonator of a new world war."

Yet, as the Arabs are constantly reminded by the Israelis, their own Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Hussaini, fled to Berlin during the Second World War, implored Hitler to prevent the Jews of Europe from reaching Palestine and even raised a Bosnian Muslim legion to fight alongside the Wehrmacht in Russia. Haj Amin's life - and a recent biography by Israeli historian Zvi Elpeleg has shown it to be more complex than official Israeli spokesmen would suggest - has lain like a grenade in all Middle East discourse since the Arab-Israeli conflict began. When Israel's former prime minister Menachem Begin ordered the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he told President Reagan he felt as though he were trapping Hitler - in this case Yasser Arafat - in Berlin (for which read Beirut).

The Holocaust denial gripping Arab groups has been partly provoked by the Israeli government's near-suicidal decision to destroy the Middle East peace process by building more Jewish settlements on Palestinian land and declaring Jerusalem the "eternal" capital of Israel. Amid the feelings of betrayal in the Arab world, Garaudy is in danger of being elevated to a cult figure.

In Damascus, Ali Akla Arsane, secretary general of the Arab Writers' Union, has called on the French to "put an end to Zionist [sic] control of the press and decision-making centres". What is not mentioned here is the very evident control of the Arab press - and of "decision-making centres" - by Arab dictators.