If anyone doubted that Holocaust denial was a central policy of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he has put those doubts to rest. Take his response to the crisis that erupted in France following the October 16 beheading of Samuel Paty, a middle-school teacher who had shown his students cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad. Khamenei waded in with his favorite reaction to any query on freedom of speech. In a letter addressed to the youth of France, Khamenei asked: “Why is it a crime to doubt the Holocaust? Why are people who write about this thrown into jails, but insulting the Prophet is allowed?”
Khamenei knows what he is doing. The poisonous brand of Islamism that he attempts to sell domestically and abroad relies on anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. This is why Holocaust denial has been not an aberration but a constant in his long political career.
This recent round of Holocaust denial sent Khamenei’s most loyal penmen into a frenzy. Chief among them is is the 72-year-old Hossein Shariatmadari, an ex-interrogator who has been the publisher of Tehran’s Kayhan newspaper since 1993. Like many other media positions, the head of Kayhan is appointed by Khamenei himself and he, in fact, carries the additional title of “representative of the Supreme Leader in the Kayhan Institute.”
On October 31, Shariatmadari wrote an editorial enthusiastically defending Khamenei’s message, singling out the leader’s denial of the Holocaust for praise.
“The Holocaust is a big historical lie,” Shariatmadari wrote. “There are a lot of undeniable documents that prove this Zionist myth is untrue. The most obvious proof of this is the West’s worry, mixed with fear, about any research done on the Holocaust.”
Shariatmadari went on to claim that “dozens of distinguished European historians and hundreds of famed historical experts have shown irrefutable documents that prove, with an entirely scientific method, that the story of the massacre of six million Jews, crematoria, gas chambers and all the Zionist claims are absolute lies; a story constructed with goals that are not only political but criminal.”
The “Distinguished Historians” With the “Evidence”
He went on to discuss in details three of these “distinguished” historians: the British-born French academic Robert Faurisson, who is perhaps most infamous for denying the authenticity of Anne Frank’s diaries; Thies Christophersen, a German guard at Auschwitz who became a Nazi activist after the war and whose famous 1973 book Auschwitzlüge (Auschwitz Lie) coined the phrase that many others went on to use, including academics researching Holocaust denial; and of course, Tehran’s favorite Holocaust denier, the French philosopher Roger Garaudy, who was once a notable French senator and a theoretician of the French Communist Party before he converted to Islam in the 1990s and began engaging in Holocaust denial.
These notorious men are no strangers to Iran’s rulers. Garaudy met Khamenei when he visited Iran in 1998 and was praised not only by him but by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s pro-Tehran militia Hezbollah. Faurisson, whose first major political activity in the 1960s was association with far-right defenders of France’s colonial presence in Algeria, spoke at the Holocaust denial confab organized in Tehran in December 2006 and returned in 2012 to accept an award of courage from then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Christophersen has also seen himself praised by Revolutionary Guards-linked media, especially as part of their eulogies for his better-known associate and translator Ernst Zündel (among those who’ve written in support of Zundel are Hassan Karbalaei, a journalist and university professor who has held top positions in the Guards-linked Fars and Tasnim news agencies.)
Shariatmadari goes into detail and recounts the widely-refuted arguments of these Holocaust deniers. He claims that “anti-Zionist sentiments in Europe” have led to people “protesting the existence of Zionist Jews in sensitive centers of policy and decision-making.” He claims that the Gilets Jaunes street movement in France “aims to cut off the hand of Zionists” from the country; that the German parliament has more than 100 Jewish MPs “who are mostly not of German descent” (in reality, the German parliament has had very few Jewish members in recent years, sometimes as low as zero); and that Britain’s Labour Party former leader Jeremy Corbyn was kicked out of the party because he “protested the Zionist regime” (Corbyn, whose suspension has already been lifted, was disciplined due to his comments on the antisemitism inquiry in the party.)
“The real Holocaust was done by the Jews”
Shariatmadari is not a simple columnist. The lines of argument he puts up in Kayhan are judiciously picked up by organs of the regime, which help disseminate them. His attempt to use Holocaust denial and antisemitism as a wedge issue in European politics, for instance, is part of a broader effort by Iran that uses the media it sponsors in a dozen languages to push the same line. The English-language Press TV has repeatedly interfered in internal British politics, running commentary in support of Corbyn and against the current Labour Party leader Keir Starmer.
But as if the old and usual Holocaust denial wasn’t enough for Shariatmadari, when he linked the Holocaust to the Quran it took it up a notch. On November 14, he published an editorial entitled “Holocaust of the People of the Ditch.” In the article, Shariatmadari uses a very tendentious reading of a Quranic tale to link it to the persecution of Christians by a Yemenite Jewish king in the sixth century… and claims that this was “the real Holocaust” since the Jewish king in question allegedly thew people into a fire. “Jews of the time [6th century], who were the ancestors of today’s Zionists, committed a real Holocaust,” Shariatmadari wrote.
Who were ‘the People of the Ditch’?
Shariatmadari bases his claim on a short section of the Quran, chapter 85, entitled Al-Buruj (Galaxies), which he then links to a 6th-century historical episode. To begin with, this connection is not solid. The highly abstract and poetic chapter makes no mention of Jews, Yemen or any time and place of the story it narrates. It simply speaks of a group of people who threw a group of believers in God in a ditch and set them on fire. Over the years, there have been dozens of interpretations of this chapter, usually linking them to one of the many episodes in which monotheists were persecuted by a ruler. A story narrated by the Prophet Mohammad, and included in the authoritative compendium of prophetic sayings Sahih al-Bukhari, speaks of a boy who left his practice of magic after meeting a monotheist monk. He was then tortured by the king and burnt in a ditch along with those who had followed him. This could clearly be a reference to “People of the Ditch.”
Another interpretation links it to a story attributed to to Ali — the Prophet’s cousin, son-in-law and close associate. The story is of an Iranian King of Zoroastrian religion who wanted to permit incestuous marriages and threw those of his people who opposed this into a burning ditch. Recent textual analysis, as recounted by the Brill Encyclopedia, sees the chapter as a possible allusion to a biblical story of men burning in a furnace in the Book of Daniel — an allusion already suggested by the medieval exegetist al-Tabari more than 1,000 years ago.
But the one interpretation that Iran’s pro-regime media has highlighted in recent years links the story of the People of the Ditch to Dhu Nuwas, a Jewish 6th-century king of the Himyarite kingdom in southern Arabia (today’s Yemen) who is known for having persecuted Christians. The story of Dhu Nuwas’s anti-Christian actions was long used in Christian martyr narratives, sometimes to fan modern antisemitic feelings. In recent years, pro-regime outlets in Iran — such as the Young Journalists Club (YJC) run by the state broadcaster, and the Tebyan Cultural Institute linked to a powerful state propaganda body — have retold this Quranic story as an anti-Jewish tale.
Shariatmadari’s is the most high-profile recent attempt to use this Quranic tale and bizarrely link it to the Holocaust. He claims that Dhu Nuwas killed 20,000 Christians in a single event and notes this as a “despicable crime, the Holocaust of Jews against Christians.” He also reveals that Farajollah Salahshoor, a state-backed filmmaker known for his high-budget historical series on the lives of the Prophets Joseph and Job, planned to make a film about the People of the Ditch as part of his filmmaking project on the life of the Prophet Moses. The Moses project has now passed on to another regime-favored filmmaker, Ebrahim Hatamikia, a man who is much more talented and who was also close to the slain commander of Iran’s operations abroad, Ghasem Soleimani, and who has made films about Iran’s intervention in Syria. Shariatmadari calls upon Hatamikia to include his anti-Jewish narration of this Quranic story into his series about Moses, who Jews see as their most important prophet.
He seems to forget that Iran already made an expensive film around this crooked reading of the People of the Ditch just a few years ago. In 2016, the Revolutionary Guards-linked Owj Arts and Media Organization revealed a state-of-the-art, expensively-made CGI film called Return (with the alternative Persian title of Fehreste Moqadas or the Holy List), which was explicitly promoted around an anti-Jewish narrative. The state broadcaster’s YJC celebrated it as a cinematic achievement that “narrates the story of the first Holocaust in history, committed by the criminal ancestors of the People of Zion against monotheists and Christians.” The same narrative was used by the filmmaker who claimed his film presented “the first true Holocaust to occur in the history of mankind.” The film won the best animation award at the top cinema event of Iran, the Fajr Film Festival. Sony, which had been approached for distribution, obviously refused to work on it when the content became clear. According to the filmmaker, Sony’s decision was due to “the Holocaust question.” The film was also pulled from Lebanese cinemas after just a few days, a move that was covered by Iran’s state media, which bizarrely called it an “anti-Zionist animation.”
Abusing Islam’s holy texts to foster antisemitism is an insidious enterprise, practiced not only by Iran but by its allies in Yemen, the Houthis, whose banner includes the words “Curse the Jews”, and Palestine’s Hamas, whose founding charter attempted to draw antisemitic inferences from the Quran. While much of the world makes advances on educating people about the Holocaust to prevent such atrocities in future, Iran actively spends millions of dollars to promote Holocaust denial and antisemitism.
In his editorial, Shariatmadari asks “committed filmmakers” to not only make movies about the People of Ditch but also works that show “the Holocaust claimed by Zionists is a fabricated legend and a big historical lie.”
While Iran finds itself in dire economic straits, the resources of the Iranian people are spent on heeding the calls by the likes of Shariatmadari.