Historic Holocaust Awareness Awakening in Saudi Arabia, of All Places
York Daily News
the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, is International
Holocaust Remembrance Day. The UN resolution that established the commemoration
urges all countries "to develop educational programs to instill the memory
of the tragedy in future generations to prevent genocide from occurring
again." To its credit, Saudi Arabia has taken an important first step
toward fulfilling that charge.
Arabia? Land of religious purity, whose king (Faisal) once celebrated the
Protocols of the Elders of Zion as historical fact, whose UN representative (Jamil
Baroody, 1976) once denounced Anne Frank's diary as a forgery and claimed the
murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis was fiction? The country that not only
counted among its countrymen 15 of 19 perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks but
whose religious hierarchy exported bigotry and intolerance to mosques and
madrasas around the world for decades, fueling the hate on which Al Qaeda, ISIS,
Hamas and all Islamist extremist movements thrived?
that Saudi Arabia. Here's the background.
early December, I led a delegation of lay leaders of the foreign policy think
tank I direct on a visit to Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Among the high-ranking
officials we met during our three-day visit was Dr. Mohammed Al Issa,
secretary-general of the Muslim World League.
is the organization that has long been cited as the key facilitator of Saudi
Arabia's global effort to export a radical, hate-filled, anti-West, anti-Semitic
version of Islam. Just last year, a prominent British research institute labeled
Saudi Arabia the main source of Islamic extremism in the United Kingdom and
cited the MWL as a critical linchpin in that project.
practice, the change inside MWL appears to have begun with the August 2016
appointment of Al Issa, a former Saudi justice minister. Taking his lead from
Muhammad bin Salman, the current crown prince who has vowed to cleanse his
country of extremism and return it to "moderate Islam," Al Issa seems
to have a specific mandate to transform the MWL from an organization synonymous
with extremism to one that preaches tolerance.
no less important, he has promised to remake the MWL into an organization
focused solely on religion, taking it completely out of politics—except for
the politics of countering extremism, that is.
was skeptical. In Saudi Arabia, where the royal family counts protection of the
holy sites of Mecca and Medina as main sources of legitimacy and public
expression of non-Muslim prayer is prohibited, religion and politics are
in our December meeting, Al Issa struck an impressive note. Not only did he
underscore a decidedly un-Saudi commitment to religious outreach, speaking
fondly of his recent visit to a Paris synagogue, he also refused to take the
bait when asked about President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's
capital. If I expected any Saudi official to bang the table, sermonize about the
Muslim connection to Al Quds and decry the President's decision to recognize the
sovereignty of the Jewish state anywhere in the city, it would have been the
secretary-general of the Muslim World League. Instead, he politely declined
comment, saying only that the League is committed to peace and is not a
I returned home, I wrote Al Issa, thanked him for our meeting and invited him to
Washington to address my institute's annual conference in May. But I added one
more request: Should he come to our nation's capital, I wrote, I urged him to
tour the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and meet with its director, Sara
more than 15 years, one of my personal passions has been to engage Arabs and
Muslims in a discussion of the Holocaust. This is based on my belief that
tearing down the walls of Holocaust denial so widespread in Arab and Muslim
culture is a critical element in the broader fight against the hatred at the
heart of Islamist extremism. I have been privileged to work with the U.S.
Holocaust Memorial Museum in an ambitious effort to legitimize discussion of the
Holocaust in Arab and Muslim countries and to help prevent future genocide by
spreading the lessons of the Holocaust.
have had some impressive success, especially in Morocco (where the king's
brother recently endorsed Holocaust education as an important tool in the battle
against extremism) and in Tunisia (where civil society is holding a Holocaust
Remembrance Day ceremony this week).
in my wildest dreams did I think Saudi Arabia would merit inclusion on that list
of "progressive" countries. But Al Issa surprised me. I soon received
a reply welcoming my invitation and agreeing to visit the Museum. While he
wouldn't be the first Muslim notable to visit the Museum, the secretary-general
of the Muslim World League would be the highest-ranking Muslim religious
official—an important step in the process of legitimizing Muslim discussion of
few days later, I had another "why not?" idea. With January 27
approaching, I wrote Al Issa asking whether he would send a letter to Bloomfield
on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day that she could make
public. The letter, I suggested, might reflect his and the MWL's approach toward
the Holocaust and the broader battle for tolerance and moderation.
most, I expected a brief, sterile note. After all, Saudi officials don't have
much of a guidebook for how to write letters commemorating the Holocaust. But
again, Al Issa surprised me. He wrote a lengthy missive, all 623 words of which
have been posted, with the Holocaust Museum's permission, on the Washington
Institute's website here.
In it, he labeled the Holocaust "an incident that shook humanity to the
core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by
any fair-minded or peace-loving person."
will quote at length: "This Human tragedy perpetrated by evil Nazism won't
be forgotten by history, or meet the approval of anyone, except criminal Nazis
or their genre. True Islam is against these crimes. It classifies them in the
highest degree of penal sanctions and among the worst human atrocities ever.
would ask, who is in his right mind would accept, sympathize or even diminish
the extent of this brutal crime. However, our solace is that the memory of
history is fair and vivid; and a justice, free of any other inclinations, would
mourn this crime on behalf of all humanity. The victims have sacrificed their
innocent lives to pen a memorable reminder of freedom and determination, an
example of the extent of Nazi hate which has sunk the world into wars and
Holocaust denial, Al Issa had particularly harsh words:
is indeed impartial no matter how hard forgers tried to tamper with or
manipulate it. Hence, we consider any denial of the Holocaust or minimizing its
effect, a crime to distort history, and an insult to the dignity of those
innocent souls who have perished. It is also an affront to us all, since we
share the same human soul and spiritual bonds."
unlike many Muslim interlocutors with whom I have discussed these issues over
the years, Al Issa did not try to deflect potential criticism of engaging on the
Holocaust by wrapping himself in the false equivalence of Israel's
"genocide" of Palestinians. To the contrary, he stayed away from the
issue altogether and instead affirmed the apolitical policy enunciated in our
Riyadh meeting: "The Muslim World League is entirely independent of any
political aims, tendencies or otherwise. It does, however, express its opinion
with utter neutrality; an impartiality that doesn't carry any political tone at
in all, it is a remarkable document—remarkable for its authorship, content,
breadth and message. I assume there are many reasons—some sacred, some less
so—why the head of the Muslim World League took pen to paper to denounce
Holocaust denial. As my teenage son likes to say, this is not my first rodeo.
But action matters so much more than motive. And having been written, Al Issa's
words cannot easily be undone. Thanks to him, this International Holocaust
Remembrance Day will be recalled as the one in which Saudi Arabia—defender of
Islam's two holiest sites—took a giant step toward joining the world in its
recognition of the enormity of the Holocaust. Is more to be done? Absolutely.
But let's give credit where credit is due.