Monday, January 09, 2006

History as a weapon


IN almost any bookshop in the Arab world, you can buy a translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, with no acknowledgment whatever that it is a malicious anti-Jewish forgery. And in any school in Japan, you can find a history textbook that portrays the country's bloody history of imperial expansion in Asia between 1890 and 1945 as a series of unfortunate but basically well-intentioned misunderstandings with the neighbours. Those who want to shape the future often start by trying to reshape the past.

In Japan, at least, there is still resistance in high places to the rewriting of history. Emperor Akihito, in a speech to mark his 72nd birthday last month, urged his people to remember that "there were rarely peaceful times for Japan" between 1927 and 1945, and that they should strive to properly understand their country's history when dealing with the rest of the world.
In other words -- blunt, explicit words of the kind that no Japanese emperor would ever use -- Japanese people should bear in mind that their country tried to conquer all of Asia within living memory, causing the deaths of some tens of millions of innocent men, women and children, most notably in China.

This experience, the emperor might have added, has left a lingering resentment and a good deal of nervousness among Japan's neighbours, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's regular visits to the Yasukuni war shrine where Japan's soldiers and military leaders of those times are venerated do not help at all. But he didn't say all that, because it would be utterly un-Japanese to speak so frankly.

Akihito's words were an unprecedented rebuke to the conservative politicians who have been trying to revive Japanese nationalism and remilitarize the country. His motive was almost certainly to stop Japan's drift (encouraged by Washington) into a military confrontation with its giant neighbour, China -- but on the very day of his speech Japan's foreign minister, Taro Aso, warned yet again that Chinese military power was becoming "a considerable threat." If today's Japanese were fully aware of the horrors that other Asians experienced at their country's hands in the past, as Germans are aware of what other Europeans suffered at the hands of the Nazis, they would be much less vulnerable to the scare tactics that are now being used on them, and more open to genuine reconciliation with their neighbours.

But the scare-mongers in power don't want that, so Japanese school history books are getting vaguer and vaguer about exactly what happened under the banner of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

The Arab deniers of the Holocaust are different in one major respect: They are falsifying someone else's history, not their own. They are a fairly recent phenomenon, for the Muslims of the Middle East traditionally treated the Jews who lived amongst them with tolerance and respect -- far better, in fact, than the Christians who subjected the European Jews to centuries of pogroms and expulsions and then failed to save them from Hitler's Final Solution. But then the land of Palestine became a bone of contention between the Arabs who lived there and the Zionist Jews.

Now Jews are demonized in Arab popular culture as the sinister force behind almost everything bad that happens, and part of that process is denying them the moral status of victims even in the past. That is why Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, wrote a lengthy diatribe on the party's website last week complaining that Muslims who denied "the myth of the Holocaust" were being unfairly condemned.

To Akef, as to many other people in the Arab world today, the Holocaust cannot be true because to acknowledge that it happened would add a level of moral ambiguity to a struggle that they prefer to view in simple black and white.

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidates won 19 per cent of the vote running as independents in Egypt's recent parliamentary elections, ought to be evolving into a modern "Muslim Democratic" party like the governing Justice and Development Party in Turkey. Moderate, sensible Islamic parties are probably the Arab world's best hope of evolving fully democratic systems without a bloodbath, since the old secular political parties are utterly discredited in Egypt and most other Arab countries. But instead, the Islamic parties in these countries are foundering in a morass of paranoid political fantasies. The dispute over Palestine is a quarrel between the recent and the former possessors of the same land, one of ten thousand comparable struggles that fill the history of the human race. Most Jews and many Christians favour the Zionist claim, almost all Muslims support the Arab claim, and the rest of us just accept that this sort of dispute tends to get settled by force -- and that this one already has been. Israel cannot maintain its preferred borders by force in the face of Palestinian numbers, and no combination of Arab forces can destroy a nuclear-armed Israel without triggering the simultaneous destruction of the Arab world.

By opting for this impotent obsession with a worldwide Jewish plot that governs the course of history, the Islamist parties do not hurt Israel at all. They simply postpone the day when competent, democratic Arab states can deal realistically with the unwelcome but permanent reality of having Israel in their midst.