Iranian president makes pitch to radicals

Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitic remarks signal aim to assert nation as the leader of militant Islam


When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the Holocaust a "myth" this week, he wasn't only embracing one of the key tenets of modern anti-Semitism.

Experts say his harsh rhetoric was also an effort to signal that Iran, not al-Qaida, is the leading force behind militant Islam. And by appealing to Muslims worldwide, he aimed to bolster his regime at home and win support from Arab nations against the West.

Although Iranian clerics and politicians have previously questioned the existence of Nazi death camps, the experts noted, Ahmadinejad is the country's first chief of state to do so publicly. His statement Wednesday was the most explicitly anti-Semitic, experts said.

"If somebody in their country questions God, nobody says anything," Ahmadinejad said in a speech broadcast on state television. "But if somebody denies the myth of the massacre of Jews, the Zionist loudspeakers and the governments in the pay of Zionism will start to scream."

His remarks were "unacceptable" to anyone with hopes for peace in the Middle East, said Sanam Vakil, a scholar of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

But the remarks also were unsurprising, given Ahmadinejad's political aims and the increasing embrace by militant Islam of European-style anti-Semitism.

"This is no aberration," Vakil said. "He is definitely trying to make a statement."

State-run news media in many Islamic nations regularly broadcast insults and slanders against Jews. The Frenchman Roger Garaudy, a former communist and convert to Islam, has been lauded throughout the Middle East for his books attacking what he considers the "myths" of the Jewish state, including the Holocaust. Hitler's Mein Kampf is a best-seller in Turkey.

Efforts to rewrite the history of the Nazis' treatment of the Jews are not harmless, members of the American Jewish community warn.

"Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism are completely linked," said Amy Berkowitz Caplan, director of the Holocaust Awareness Institute at the University of Denver. "Where there is a rise in anti-Semitism, there is a rise in Holocaust denial. ... We often hear about this, and we write this off. The reality is, if we continue doing that, it shows we've learned nothing from the Holocaust."

This week in The Guardian in London, columnist Jonathan Freedland said rejecting the Holocaust is more than just historical blindness.

"It is a stance that seeks to deny Jews their history, their suffering, almost their very being," he wrote. "Like denying that African-Americans were ever slaves, it is a move made by those who wish only harm."

Marius Deeb, who teaches courses on Islam and politics at Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, said Muslims who reject co-existence with Israel have increasingly embraced "racists, neo-Nazis" or whoever criticizes the Jewish state, regardless of their other views.

"There is a tremendous, powerful anti-Semitism" in the Muslim world, he said. "And this is an expression of it, unfortunately."

It might be tempting, experts said, to dismiss the Iranian leader as simply ill-informed. As mayor of Tehran, Ahmadinejad ran for president on a platform of economic reform and political populism.

But Vakil and Deeb said Ahmadinejad probably hopes his comments will prop up public support for his government.

From Iranian hard-liners' perspective, "Making statements like this is good, because it makes the West critical of Iran," Deeb said. "Then they can say, `You see what happens? They are always attacking us.' It mobilizes people. It generates support, particularly for the radicals."

The Bush administration and many other Western governments suspect that Iran, despite its denials, is trying to build nuclear weapons.

Ahmadinejad, Vakil said, has worked hard since his election in June to bridge the historic divide between Persian-speaking, predominantly Shiite Iran and the nation's Arabic-speaking, Sunni neighbors to the west and south.

His aim, she said, appears to be to enlist the support of the Arab states in Iran's resistance to International Atomic Energy Agency controls. That means burnishing his credentials as militantly anti-Israel.

"He is trying to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians, more Arab than the Arabs, to break down the separation between Persians and Arabs," she said. "People have very much underestimated Ahmadinejad."

In a 1998 article titled "Muslim Anti-Semitism," Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis noted that until the 20th century, European-style vilification of Jewry was "essentially alien to Islamic traditions, culture and modes of thought."

But in the 1930s, Hitler became a hero to many Arabs and Persians struggling against French and English colonial domination. After the creation of Israel in 1948, anti-Zionism among some Muslims was increasingly tinged with hatred of a whole people and of their faith.

Iranians blamed the United States -- and its ally, Israel -- for a 1953 CIA-backed coup that toppled Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and cemented Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's grip on power.

Deeb and Vakil said that the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq has, perhaps paradoxically, emboldened anti-U.S. Iranian politicians. Iran rid itself of a feared enemy, Saddam Hussein, and expanded its influence in southern Iraq, much of which is controlled by Shiite militias.

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