Tuesday, September 13, 2005

KEEP HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY

I drafted this blog entry on my laptop yesterday while sitting in front of the TV and unable to tear myself away from the final afternoon of the Ashes.

I had been at the Oval 20 years ago when England last won the Ashes at home. This has been the most fantastic test series – one of the Australian commentators described it as one of the best of all time. And after some stunning close finishes and fiercely fought matches a magnificent century from Pietersen was bringing England within sight of regaining the trophy. It has been an emotionally charged occasion: as Richie Benaud was saying farewell in the commentary box on his last afternoon at the end of many years as a test cricket commentator, Kevin Pietersen’s innings was finally concluded by an unplayable delivery from McGrath. As Pietersen left the field, Shane Warne shook his hand, and we saw one of the greatest bowlers of all time - finishing his test career with yet another ten-wicket haul and as the leading wicket taker of the series - shake hands with the new batsman who in his debut test series has been the leading run scorer and almost certainly helped delivered a historic victory. This was the past shaking hands with the future.

Which brings me to a point about the past and the future – for as the saying goes, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

When Holocaust Memorial Day was introduced, I was responsible for organising the first commemoration in St Albans as chairman of the relevant committee. It was not practical to put together a local commemorative service which would have done the event justice, so instead we organised an exhibition using material provided from the lead government department, DCMS. That material was thoroughly inclusive. Although it justifiably gave particular attention to the murder by the Nazis of six million Jews and a similar number of other victims including Gypsies and mental patients, Holocaust memorial day also commemorated many other acts of genocide including some against Muslims such as the massacre of Bosnians at Srebrenica.

There were a few people who expressed to me privately a minority view that Britain is already obsessed by the history of the World War Two era, and this was yet another repetition of a story which is very well known. However the majority, and especially all my Jewish friends, were very strongly in favour of setting aside a day to remember the terrible crimes which humans have committed against one another and giving it a name which commemorates what they rightly regard as the single most ghastly episode of mass murder in history.

I agree, and was deeply disappointed when certain Muslim leaders who ought to have known better boycotted Holocaust Memorial Day earlier this year on the inaccurate grounds that the event is supposedly not inclusive.

Anyone who read the material which DCMS put out knows that this is simply not true – Muslims in Bosnia and elsewhere were mentioned along with Armenians, Rwandans, Latin and Native Americans – you name a group of victims of racial mass murder or ethnic cleansing in the past few centuries, and they were included. This also appears to have escaped several committees of Muslims set up to advise the government who have advised that the event should be renamed Genocide Memorial Day and suggested that the present name gives the impression that “Western lives have more value than non-western lives.”

Apart from the fact that the Jewish race originated in the Middle East, and it is therefore odd to describe them as Westerners, there is nothing in the way the event has been organised which would give a reasonable person that impression. All the Holocaust Memorial Day material which I have seen bent over backwards to avoid creating the impression that some lives are more valuable than others.

We need to improve relations with the Muslim community, and that imposes a responsibility on both sides. Non-Muslims must do their best to respect the faith and reasonable concerns of those who follow Islam, but Muslims must also respect the beliefs of others, and both sides must work to dispel damaging stereotypes and prejudices. Both sides must also pay the other the challenging compliment of not being afraid to criticise those who they think are in the wrong, which is what I am doing now.

Any Muslim leader who appears to downplay the significance of the Holocaust is failing to rise to that challenge. I do not believe that most modern British Muslims are anti-semitic. I suspect that those who boycotted Holocaust Memorial Day or suggested that the name be changed are guilty of foolishness and insensitivity rather than racism. But one of the most damaging stereotypes against Muslims is that they are particularly prone to prejudice against Jewish people. Every time a Muslim leader reinforces that image, he (I use the male gender deliberately because it is always a man) damages the reputation of Islam and lets down his own community.

1 comment:

Patrick Copeland said...

Just thought it was funny that your URL is chris4copeland because my brother's name is Chris Copeland.