On January 23, Sheikh Mohammad al-Issa, the chairman of the influential Saudi Arabia-based Muslim World Society, led a group of Islamic clergymen on a visit to Auschwitz. The visit, writes Edy Cohen, suggests a tectonic shift in Muslim attitudes toward the Holocaust, which has often been downplayed or altogether denied. More typical is the reaction of the Lebanese journalists who filed a complaint in court about a prominent Shiite cleric from their country who joined Issa—accusing him of “contact with the Zionist enemy, contempt for the Islamic religion, and inciting war between Muslims.” Cohen explains:
Many if not most Arabs are only able to see the genocide [of European Jews] in terms of the problems it ostensibly caused Arabs, namely the Palestinians’ loss of the “country” they never had. . . . One of the first cases of public Arab denial of the Holocaust was when [Arab countries] put pressure on West Germany over the issue of German reparations to Holocaust survivors and the state of Israel. In a rare show of unity, the Arab states demanded that Bonn not compensate individual Jews or Israel but should instead give the money to the Palestinians. The Arab League even threatened to sever ties with and boycott West Germany, claiming the Jews were responsible for World War II.
The . . . most common theory belongs to the school of Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Authority. In . . . his doctoral dissertation, [he] claimed that the Holocaust was a Jewish conspiracy that began when Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, collaborated with Hitler to kill as many Jews as he could in order to justify the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel.
Sadly, in the absence of proper education, many Arabs believe at least one of these conspiracy theories. In Arab countries, not only do [schools] not teach the truth about the Holocaust, but they encourage suspicion toward all books and histories that deal with the subject. The Muslim delegation’s visit to the death camp was considered impossible just a few years ago. There is no doubt that the new openness in Israel’s relationships with the Gulf States contributed to making this historic event a reality.