The real challenge in the Middle East is ideology

Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.

Asked at the 2007 Munich Security Conference whether he endorsed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust, Iranian official Ali Larijani (pictured here answering questions at that conference's press session) answered that it was an “open question” as to whether the Nazi slaughter of the Jews had taken place. Larijani's statement indicates that the real challenge in the Middle East is ideology, writes JNS.org columnist Ben Cohen. Credit: Sebastian Zwez.

Roger Garaudy, the French self-styled philosopher who died on June 13 aged 98, was an exceptional individual. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Garaudy began his political life as a communist and then converted to Islam, changing his first name from “Roger” to “Ragaa.” Along the way, he authored a noxious screed entitled, “The Founding Myths of Israeli Politics,” in which he denied the Nazi Holocaust. For his pains, he was fined a hefty sum by a French court for violating that country’s laws against Holocaust denial and handed a suspended prison sentence. Following the atrocities of September 11, 2001, Garaudy actively promoted the conspiracy theory that the attacks on New York and Washington, DC were the work of the U.S. government. 

Garaudy’s great contribution was thus to embrace, in a single lifetime, the principle expressions of totalitarianism in the 20th century: communist, fascist and Islamist. No sensible person, one would imagine, could mourn the death of such a man, nor find any intellectual sustenance in the writings of a conspiracy theorist. 

Actually, Garaudy had plenty of admirers. The late, unlamented Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, described him as “Europe’s greatest philosopher since Plato and Aristotle.” Not be outdone, Abdul Halim-Khaddam, the former Syrian vice president and a loyal servant of the Assad dynasty until he fell out with Bashar al Assad in 2005, praised him as the “greatest contemporary western philosopher.” Arab conservatives, too, found much to appreciate: In 1986, Garaudy was awarded Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal Prize for Services to Islam.

Click photo to download. Caption: Roger Garaudy. Credit: Dzlinker.

Shortly after Garaudy died, the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE) lauded his “...humane example; we ask Allah, the Almighty, to receive him with His Bountiful Mercy, and to accept him among the righteous.” Their attraction to this peddler of lies is not hard to understand, given that FIOE once claimed that Israel was selling vodka on the Russian market in bottles labeled with a picture of the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. FIOE is also a European affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, the party that embraced anti-Semitism at its inception and is now, through the person of Mohamed Morsi, in control of the Egyptian Presidency. 

In Iran, the mullahs awarded Garaudy celebrity status. During the 1990s, he visited Tehran, where he was received with full honors by then President Mohammed Khatami. This event took place, it should be noted, several years before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became Iran's President; Khatami was widely feted in the West as a moderate alternative to the hardliners around the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. And once Ahmadinejad became President, he quickly organized an international parley of Holocaust deniers in Tehran in 2006. Unable to attend because of illness, Garaudy sent the conference a videotaped message.

Garaudy’s legacy was on full display in Tehran again last week, when Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi delivered a speech to an audience of high-ranking diplomats at a UN-sponsored conference on drug trafficking. Did Rahimi address concerns about Iran’s role in the transportation of heroin from Afghanistan to the West? No. Instead, he warned shocked delegates that the narcotics trade was run by Jews, acting on the instructions supposedly contained in the Talmud. Rahimi’s line—“the book teaches them how to destroy non-Jews, so as to protect an embryo in the womb of a Jewish mother”—could have been written by Garaudy.

Of course, this was not the first time that a senior Iranian official uttered such contemptible remarks before an apparently civilized, sophisticated audience. In 2007, Ali Larijani, at the time Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, addressed the Munich Security Conference, a major annual event that brings together leading politicians, military personnel and policy analysts. Asked whether he endorsed Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust, Larijani answered that it was an “open question” as to whether the Nazi slaughter of the Jews had taken place.

For all the huffing and puffing that enraged Westerners engage in after being subjected to speeches like these, one might think that they would learn from their mistakes. If you ask Iran to host an international gathering, or if you invite a representative of the Iranian regime to a prestigious event, then speeches promoting Holocaust denial and other conspiracy theories will follow as surely as night does day. 

But Western policymakers don’t learn from their mistakes for one good reason. They are in denial about the true nature of a political culture in which denial of the Holocaust has become a sacred dogma. In the eyes of too many Western diplomats, the competing forces on the world stage are all rational actors; if some of these actors make outrageous statements, it is because they themselves have been insulted. By focusing on tangible results—creating a Palestinian state, for example, or offering assurances that Iran’s nuclear program will not be targeted by a military strike—their hope is that these flights of ideological lunacy will be reined in.

What this demonstrates is the enormous gulf between the West and the prevailing systems of belief in the Islamic world. In our culture, someone like Garaudy is a figure to be avoided, or mocked, or both. However, for Arab and Muslim leaders, a European intellectual who tells them the things they are predisposed to believe is manna from heaven. Why should they take German or French diplomats at face value when there are people like Garaudy claiming that everything they say is a pack of lies dictated by a Jewish conspiracy?

Until Western leaders grasp that the true challenge posed by the Middle East lies not in tangible elements, like Israeli settlements or water policies, but rather intangible ones in the form of beliefs like those outlined above, there will be no chance of progress. We in the West learned a long time ago that ideas matter. It is high time to apply that insight to the Middle East. Should we arrive at a juncture when conspiracy-mongers like Roger Garaudy are treated with the same contempt as they are in the West, the much-heralded Arab Spring will truly have sprung.

Click photo to download. Caption: Ben Cohen.

Click photo to download. Caption: Ben Cohen.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

Posted on July 1, 2012 and filed under Opinion, World.