The danger of gestures
25 Apr 07

Last week, Germany, in its capacity as president of the EU, attempted to outlaw Holocaust denial in the EU. In the end, the resolution that emerged was the classic result of hard-fought compromise – that is to say, nobody got what they wanted. States that already had a Holocaust-denial law, such as Germany, Austria and France, did not manage to foist one on countries such as the UK and Ireland, who claimed to be worried about freedom of speech and inquiry. Meanwhile, those countries that did not have laws concerning the Holocaust now find themselves having to pay lip service, as members of the Union, to the watered down proposal – criminalising “trivialisation” of the Holocaust.

Even if the majority of nations in the EU do not sign up to this (and they have every right not to), damage has been done to the EU’s self-image as protector of human rights and free speech, and it is unsurprising who was among the first to point this out.

Step forward the man in the beige anorak.

Speaking to Spanish TV earlier this week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran did not hesitate to pick up on the EU’s stance. Of course, Mr Ahmadinejad has form on this: he is the man who responded to the Mohammed cartoons controversy by sanctioning an exhibition of viciously anti-semitic Holocaust denial cartoons, with the expressed attempt at exposing the west’s “hypocrisy” on the portrayal of taboos.

We can agree or disagree on whether he had a point at the time. Personally, I don’t think he did: In terms of taste and offence there’s a difference, not least of historical distance, between mocking a centuries-dead religious leader and an abysmal event from which many still literally bear the scars.

But when one looks at events in Luxembourg over the past week, and Mr Ahmadinejad’s response, one cannot help but see he has a certain logic on his side when he asks: “Does [the] EU consider questions as a crime? Today, anywhere in the world, one can raise questions about God, prophets, existence and any other issue. Why historical events should not be clarified [sic]?”

We all, of course, can imagine where these questions lead (if you can’t, ask David Irving). But how many of us can bring ourselves to disagree with Mr Ahmadinejad’s words above, however much we may be suspicious of the sentiment? If the EU can allow people to raise questions about one thing, then why not another?

We may write off the resolution as a gesture (though, again, David Irving might have something to tell us about that), but even in the gesture, the damage is done. The EU is seen to be the superpower that protects the sensitivities of Jews, but not those of Muslims.

And Ahmadinejad has been quick to take advantage. At a time when already too many in the Middle East see the EU as in the pocket of Israel, this at best pointless resolution will only serve to drive yet more into the arms of the Iranians, who, after the propaganda victories of the second Lebanon war and the hostage crisis, are more and more managing to portray themselves as the champions of the Middle East’s Muslims.

Originally posted on Comment is Free

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.