British Muslims, Europe and the Holocaust

British Muslims, Europe and the Holocaust

by Yahya Birt

The Muslim Council of Britain has announced that it is to end its six-year boycott of the national Holocaust Memorial Day and will attend the 2008 memorial in Liverpool. The Council has also pledged to work towards the establishment of a general Genocide Memorial Day as well. The executive committee’s vote was won 18-8. Some like Anas Altikriti and Daud Abdullah, the Council’s deputy secretary general, have spoken publicly against the decision, arguing that while it was a majority vote, it was won on the smallest constitutional quorum of members. Last year the vote to attend was lost 23-14, due in part to a backlash against Ruth Kelly’s stipulating the MCB’s attendance as a precondition for normal relations between the government and the Council. The Guardian reports that some MCB affiliates have threatened to disaffiliate over the dropping of the boycott. It would be surprising if they took the step of isolating themselves by disaffiliating so publicly.

Although Anas Altikriti argues that the MCB have consistently supported the boycott until now, Imam Abduljalil Sajid, who was there when the question about attendance came up prior to the first HMD in 2001, told me that the Central Working Committee voted 80-35 in favour of attending, but the vote was subsequently overruled. I would imagine that the threat to disaffiliate if the original motion had been carried was probably made back then. It should have been stood up to at the time rather than several years on, as has now happened. It is the right decision, to my mind, primarily for moral reasons and not for other considerations. The Holocaust Memorial Day should never have been attached to the just cause of Palestinian self-determination and an equitable two-state solution.

The basic reason is that if any continent should remember the Holocaust in particular it ought to be Europe. Central to achieving this is addressing the powerful current within Zionism that saw (and sees) the Holocaust as a central rationale for the founding of the state of Israel. For me and many other people, this rationale did not provide an adequate moral foundation for driving out and dispossessing the Palestinian people in order to achieve the new Israel. As powerful as this current is, the Holocaust similarly needs disentanglement from the misery of Israeli-Palestinian conflict partly so that its original European context can be made more salient. Such moral considerations are, however, largely immaterial to that most urgent task of finding a fair and equitable solution for both Palestinians and Israelis today, although, given current conditions, a large degree of pessimism about progress on that score sadly remains.

Like all cataclysmic tragedies, the Holocaust subsumes and exhausts all attempts to give it a single personal or political interpretation, including the one offered here. Yet we have to ask if it is right to consider the Holocaust absolutely unique, sui generis or one of a kind, in the sense that no analogies can be drawn from the Nazi genocide, to see its portentous shadow in other acts of premeditated mass murder, systematic discrimination, words of hate or the politics of fear, if the Holocaust is regarded as truly incomparable. It is not unique in the strict sense that all ethnic cleansing, genocide, terrorism and war, all acts of gross inhumanity, engender something of the common quality of human suffering, a commonality that is manifested in our desire to relate to and analogise from one dreadful experience to another. The brute fact of the plan to wipe out the Jewish people everywhere and forever through industrialised mass murder surely troubles our self-image as humans, created, as Muslims believe, sinless at birth, aspiring to know God and be His stewards upon the earth. In this sense the Holocaust is unique, and its magnitude and cold intent cannot be comprehended.

To my mind, Holocaust Memorial Day ought to be primarily addressed to the Europe of the present and future so that she remember and not forget her darkest moment during the blood-stained twentieth century, so that a future Europe includes all those who might be feared and stigmatized for being different. For instance, the recent history of the Balkans showed that this is far from an idle exercise and, partly stemming from this, there is a genuine fear and unease among European Muslims about their future well-being, even in Western Europe.

The particularity of HMD should be honoured for the reason that racial intolerance and hatred is normally manifested within particular historical traditions rather than in a generic, abstract way. Exclusive ethno-nationalism and “civilising” imperialism have defined their projects as pure and superior in comparison with their despised “Others”. This would seem to suggest that instead of a generic genocide day, we need to ponder and remember each of the atrocities against the Amerindians, Armenians, the Vendée, Circassians, Bangladeshis, Aborigines, the Maya, Cambodians, the East Timorese, the Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila, the Iraqi Kurds, the Tibetans, the Tikuna, the Tutsis and many, many others. This is why the analogy with the Holocaust should be drawn to take a stand against all acts that raise the rights of one people over another. In looking forward to our shared future, the lesson of the Holocaust is primarily to forestall the new perpetrators of inhumanity.

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