It was not so long ago that Muslims the world over were given a
lesson in liberalism as understood in the West. The Salman Rushdie affair had demonstrated
that no matter how much hatred and misconceptions an author's writings conjured, his
freedom of expression was to be regarded as more sacred than even religion.
However, as with almost every other rule, there are always "exceptions". On Feb 27, 1998 a Paris court fined a French Muslim philosopher Roger Garaudy 120,000 francs ($20,000) for racist defamation and for questioning the Nazi Holocaust of Jews in his book "The Founding Myths of Israeli Politics." Chief Judge Jen-Yves Montfort said the 1995 book "outspokenly and systematically disputed" the Holocaust.
Thus it would seem that someone like Rushdie should be allowed to play up stereotypes of Muslim-hate in a haphazard manner under the pretext of surrealism and be rewarded with literary prizes, whereas someone like Garaudy is to be punished for being likewise outspoken but systematic and scholarly in his critique of the current historical underpinnings of the Nazi Holocaust of Jews.
In his defense, Garaudy argued that he was only calling for a historical and scientific review of Nazi crimes. One of the most important being, as based upon his assessment of the historical evidence of the holocaust, that as genocidal as Hitler's intent had been, there were serious doubts as to whether Hitler's extermination of Jews amounted to more than pogroms or massacres.
For Garaudy, the 6 million figure was too large, a figure which Garaudy claims to be the result of history being written by the "victor." This "myth" of the extermination of six million Jews, as Garaudy argues further, had become a dogma justifying Israel's repression of Palestinians.
"I imagine, I am being tried for a book I did not write," said Garaudy answering the judge's questions. "I wrote about myths related to the genesis of Zionist politics. I did not write about the Jewish religion." ("Why Try Garaudy?" El-Shaab Online, Jan 16, 1998)
Yet, lawyers representing several Jewish organizations including the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA) insisted that the book went beyond argument and stressed the "provocative language" with which Garaudy wrote his book; that his book had an inherent "hatred" of the Jewish race.
Although the French Court had cleared Garaudy of the charge of inciting racial hatred, he was found liable for racist defamation, for arguing, among other things, that the Western media is largely controlled by the Zionist lobby, a conception which exists not only among the common peoples of the Middle East and the Third World in general, but also among intellectuals like Garaudy.
The problem that seems most evident with this particular verdict is not so much whether or not such and other similar conceptions can be substantiated but the equation between Zionism and Jews. On the whole, Garaudy's "Founding Myths" is not about Judaism or Jews as such. It is a scholarly critique of Zionism, be it political, labour or cultural Zionism. It may not be perfect, but it certainly does not deserve to be condemned under any sort of punitive laws simply for causing the ire of Zionist Jews and their cohorts.
Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that Judaism is the only "Great World Religion" which many perceive to be heavily race-based. Furthermore, the perceived exclusiveness of Judaism has made it difficult for many to distinguish a critique of the political pursuits of the people of that faith as justified by their religion or otherwise from purely racist or bigoted remarks. Hence the existence of the French Gayssot law.
In fact, Jew-hate is so synonymous with "anti-Semitism" that French legislators seemed to have overlooked the fact that both Arabs and Jews are Semites and "Abraham" is the patriarch whereby, under the Semitic religions, God is One for all Semites and non-Semites alike. Yet, today, anything which touches upon the sensitivities of Jews seems necessarily anti-Semitic even though it may originate from a person who is an ardent believer of one of the religions of the Semitic people.
Therefore, in France, it would seem that anyone who speaks against Zionism would be easily accused of "anti-Semitism" as popularly understood; all because Zionism supposedly represents all of the Jews in existence who are effectively a race in their own right and not just followers of Judaism.
Thus the plaintiffs' lawyers had argued that Garaudy went beyond criticism of Zionism when he said that Israel commits all kinds of crimes using the "myth of the ethnic cleansing of six million Jews during World War II." And with the Court finding in favour of the plaintiffs, it would seem, with no stretch of the imagination, that any sort of criticisms against the State of Israel is necessarily racist in its connotations. After all, the argument, when taken to its fullest extent, is such that Israel is the epitome of the Jewish "race".
Never mind that Israel remains unpunished for ignoring the umpteen UN Security Council resolutions or that it remains unpunished for the atrocities committed against the Palestinian and Lebanese people, especially the massacre of defenseless Semitic men, women and children in a UN refugee camp in Qana. Never mind that Israel has the largest nuclear arms cache in the Middle East and has threatened to use it against neighbouring Semitic states. Never mind that it has resorted to terrorism by sending Mosad assassins to eliminate Hamas' Khaled Mishal who is also a Semite.
Another aspect of the Gayssot law which will be considered befuddling for years to come is the obsession with protecting the Jewish community against anti-Semitism to the extent that one cannot even question the evidence regarding the Nazi Holocaust. As one of the founding fathers of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, had said to the effect that there is nothing which cannot be questioned: only when truth is found will there be silence.
Unless the evidence against the Nazi's were flawed, there would be no need for a law which prohibits the questioning of such evidence. They should be strong enough to stand on their own. If they are not, then such laws are repressive of the fundamental rights of a human being since they would simply be denying liberty to the seekers of truth. And, if so, the Gayssot law merely protects that which liberalism vehemently rejects, that is dogma.
In a comment to Reuters, the umbrella group for French Jewish institutions called the CRIF said that it "noted" the sentence against Garaudy but "bitterely regrets the silence of enlightened Moslem leaders and intellectuals." Perhaps they had chosen to listen to only whom they please. Two years ago, when the Garaudy was first put on trial under the 1990 Gayssot law, Muslim intellectuals were already responding along the lines of the liberal quest for truth.
The argument was such that what the Zionist scholars and journalists in France should have done was to refute Garaudy's arguments through dispassionate intellectual discourse. "That is what intellectual freedom means. Surely, in the arena of ideas, you have as much right as anyone else to explore and even explode what you think are some of the myths surrounding Zionism and Israel," said Prof. Chandra Muzaffar, currently the Director for the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue, University of Malaya.
"It is sad that instead of respecting the quest for truth, instead of showing tolerance for another point of view, the Zionist intelligentsia and their supporters in France have gone on to smear Garaudy and vilify him. The mainstream media in France has made Garaudy look like some anti- Semitic fanatic," added Chandra.
Worse still, these people have sought refuge under a law which is altogether superfluous in its essence in order to suppress freedom in the land of liberte. A result of the cowards' resolve, perhaps?
Ahmad Faiz bin Abdul Rahman
3 March 1998.
[Currently, he is a Researcher with the Institute of Islamic Understanding, Malaysia (IKIM) and a Pro-temp Committee Member of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).]