The Role of Elites in Holocaust Denial


(NY Times) – Why do misperceptions become widespread? More often than not, they have been spread by elites seeking political advantage. Many of the most significant myths and false claims in American politics were popularized or promoted by elites likeSarah Palin and Michael Moore, for instance. The same logic often applies internationally.

Consider the prevalence of Holocaust denial, which a large multicountry pollreleased last week by the Anti-Defamation League found to be highest in the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Among those respondents in the region who reported having heard of the Holocaust, 63 percent either said it was a myth or that the number of Jews who died had been greatly exaggerated.

Given the salience of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict across much of the Muslim world, this relationship is unsurprising. However, the countries in which Holocaust denial was most commonly observed were not the most religious countries in the region. In fact, there was no relationship between religious piety — as measured by the proportion of Muslims in each country who reported praying five times per day in a 2007 Pew Global Attitudes study — and levels of Holocaust denial in the predominantly Muslim countries polled by both studies.

By contrast, Holocaust denial is much more common in countries where more Muslim respondents reported a continuing struggle in their country between modernizers and Islamic fundamentalists — a striking result given that the Pew data predates the events of the Arab Spring and the messy aftermath. The most significant exception to this relationship is Morocco, where struggle over the role of the Muslim faith in political life has seemingly intensified in recent years.

Though a causal link cannot be definitively established from country-level survey data, this logic is consistent with an American Political Science Review article by the political scientists Lisa Blaydes and Drew Linzer, who found that anti-Americanism among Muslim respondents to the Pew poll was strongly associated with internal conflict among religious elites.

“When the struggle for political control between these two groups escalates,” they write, “elites of both types have incentives to ramp up anti-American appeals to boost mass support.” Conflict over the role of religion in society can lead elites to scapegoat external enemies like Jews in an effort to attract popular support. These attacks can extend to Holocaust denial, which is used to deny the suffering of Jewish people and undermine their claims to a state in Israel.

Of course, elites are not the only source of misperceptions about the existence or severity of the Holocaust, but their role in the phenomenon is hard to deny.