We are all aware that British historian David Irving has been jailed in Austria for denying the Holocaust. His imprisonment (which aptly incorporates a Kosher menu) for exercising the right to denial and free speech has sparked a debate in Austria about the country’s Holocaust denial law, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment.
My thoughts on this issue are very similar to that of the cartoon affair, in that freedom of speech is an important right that must be exercised appropriately. On one hand, I think that it is the job of a historian to argue such points based upon the evidence, which Irving said did not exist. On the other hand, since denial of the Holocaust is offensive to Jewish sentiments, it should be restrained, particularly in a country which has laws to this effect. However, I do not read any ‘freedom of speech’ arguments by the Austrian government in Irving’s favour, and I do not hear many ‘freedom of expression’ justifications, as with the cartoons dispute. It appears that Austria did not have a problem with its newspapers publishing the anti-Islamic cartoons, therefore constituting a clear double standard. Due to this existence of this evident hypocrisy and grey areas regarding ‘freedom of speech’, it is necessary that Muslims be given the same legal safeguards as Jews against offence. If combating anti-Semitism is the intention behind the conviction, then is it not fair to say that Islamophobia should receive equal attention? In the EU both anti-Semitism and xenophobia are considered dangerous phenomenon’s that must be observed and combated, but it is clear that such attention is not extended to address offensivities towards Muslims. Will Austria now support Muslims in pursuing prosecutions of the publishers of the notorious Danish cartoons in many European countries, including Austria? I think not.
Maybe it is the case in Europe that only the sentiments of Jews (and in part, Christians and Atheists) are protected. Previously, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was denounced by Europe for calling the Holocaust a myth, which was deemed unacceptable in terms of freedom of speech. Then Europe considered the Jyllands-Posten cartoons as ‘freedom of expression’, but denounced Iran for its Holocaust cartoon competition. Racist Nick Griffin was allowed to transgress ‘freedom of speech’, while extremist Abu Hamza was convicted for doing the same. Now David Irving’s been unnecessarily convicted for challenging the conventional wisdom on the Holocaust, which evidences stupidity but is still in fact the historian’s task in investigating this piece of history. Taking into account the pros and cons of these issues, Europe can no longer be considered to be the home of free speech.
The fact is that while Irving is branded a racist and anti-Semite, he is guilty in this particular instance only of denying truth. His Holocaust denial has been compared to be similar to a man shouting fire in a crowded theatre, but the fact is that he did not even do this. To imply this issue is about public safety would be merely to side-step calling the Austrian government hypocrites, due to it ignoring Irving’s right to free speech in light of the cartoon affair. If the Austrians were worried about public safety then they should have banned those blasphemous cartoons and made apologies at the first opportunity. Irvings comments were many years old and in all this time I have not heard them to be the cause of any incidents affecting public safety. Nevertheless, I suspect the Austrian government would rather be considered hypocritical if imprisoning Irving allows a further distancing from the “achievements” of its most notorious son, Adolf Hitler.
The truth that Irving weakly denied is that the Holocaust occurred. That’s if what I learnt in history, reading the Diary of Anne Frank and watching Schindler’s List is correct. Irving’s denial may be offensive, but is in an entirely different vein to blasphemy, slander and abuse. If he had denied the existence of Santa or the Devil, denied that Islam exists as a religion of peace, or denied the existence of dossiers stating there was no need to invade Iraq, would he be considered as transgressing ‘freedom of speech’ or not? It is correct to condemn a person for transgressing the bounds of free speech to attack and offend others, but such an argument cannot be used against one that denies something occurred. If Irving had preached his works to me regarding this taboo subject I would have simply asked him to prove it. Apparently this has already been done as during the trial he retracted his statements that the Holocaust did not occur.
Following on from the David Irving case which has been considered too lenient, an Israeli lawyer is seeking a German prosecution of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust. Although Ahmadinejad did not deny the Holocaust in German, a law passed in 2005 permits the filing of international cases of this nature in German courts. This is further evidence of the European condition that the slandering of Muslims is permitted under the precept of ‘freedom of speech’ while offending Jews is considered a criminal act that transcends international boundaries and transgresses ‘freedom of speech’. As I have said, Europe can no longer be considered to be the home of free speech.
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