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Hijacking free expression

Nothing disarms an argument as effectively as the charge of harbouring double standards.

india Updated: Feb 24, 2006 01:46 IST

Nothing disarms an argument as effectively as the charge of harbouring double standards. While liberals across the world decry the violent protests against the Danish cartoons using ‘freedom of expression’ as their shield, in the heart of liberal Europe, there’s jubilation over the imprisonment of a Jewish Holocaust-denier. So why is David Irving, a crackpot ‘historian’ whose 1977 book Hitler’s War stated that there was no Nazi genocide against Jews, not being given the same leeway that has been provided to the Danish cartoonists ‘denigrating’ the Prophet Muhammad?

The immediate answer to that is intent. Mr Irving, who has since the publication of his delirious thesis admitted to have ‘got it wrong’, was found guilty of fostering racial hatred and revelling in the role of a lightning rod for neo-Nazis in Europe. By posing as a historian, his intention was to ‘fool’ people (at least sympathisers) into believing that the Holocaust was a massive Jewish conspiracy and provide ammunition to local skinheads. But the real reason for the Austrian courts sentencing him to prison — and for some countries to have a strict law against Holocaust-denial and Nazi glorification — is couched in something more complex: collective guilt. For countries like Austria and Germany, to show that they abhor anti-semitism of any kind is to make amends for the monstrous crimes committed in their name during the Third Reich. That Mr Irving was arrested in Austria and not in Britain — despite Britain being the ‘enemy country’ of Nazi Germany — doesn’t mean that the Viennese are less liberal than Londoners; it just shows that the former (understandably) possess less sang froid about Nazi sympathisers than the latter.

Perhaps, if Mr Irving was ignored — simply as a writer of something incredibly foolish — the issue would not have blown out of proportion. But such matters, left to themselves, can take on a menacing form. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for instance, a rant first published in 1903 Russia describing a ‘Jewish plan’ for global domination has been known for long to be a conspired fake. Yet Hamas, the winner in the recent Palestinian elections, continues to quote the poisonous text in its official manifesto. So, freedom of expression goes far, but only that far before being hijacked in certain cases.