The recent 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz was a necessary memorial, a public recommitment to perpetual memory of the most appalling crime against humanity in history. Sickening revulsion at the facts of the Holocaust mingled with incomprehension that such evil is humanly possible on such a scale. And that is what makes me wonder whether we are remembering the right lesson. A suspicion confirmed in the sadism and brutality of the murder of the Jordanian pilot Muath al Kasasbeh.
The anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was accompanied by numerous documentaries on television. As usual I avoided them all. Not because I do not want to know but because I encountered the facts and unforgettable images in a far more harrowing way in my early teens. When I was young the maturity rather than pandering to the supposed sensitivities of audiences was assumed and respected. Documentaries were more graphic and thorough. Or maybe I was at an age when everything new is an indelible experience and all experience is emotional and personal. That sense of being part of, party to the horror has never left me. I avoid further encounters because the trauma I felt is ever present and mere mention is sufficient rekindling. I cannot conceive of being human without being personally engaged, affronted and scarred by knowing such evil existed and is the legacy of all humanity.
The truth of Auschwitz is undeniable. It was the most concentrated centre of the killing pogrom designed to rid Nazi territory of ‘undesirables’: Jews by the millions, homosexuals, gypsies, mental defectives and political dissidents. Auschwitz is forever the byword for the final murderous solution operated on an industrial scale to resolve the ‘problem’ of difference and put an end to plurality.
Beyond any human compassion or mercy the logic of purity by extermination was Nazi state policy. It became a routine programme of injustice, sadism, brutality and murder on a vast scale carried out by ordinary citizens, embraced or ignored by ordinary citizens and connived with by governments and ordinary citizens in occupied countries. How? How was it possible to recruit so many to serve such horror? And this is the nub of my concern.
We have to remember the horror of the crimes committed in the Holocaust but should we not equally remember and learn from the ease with which evil became banal routine that engulfed an entire society? Have we learnt how to avert and prevent group hatred being turned to indiscriminate slaughter?
Nazism is not the only ideology that has preached the idea of purity. Purity is easy to manipulate, pollute or pervert as a dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is an alluring self-definition and seductive exclusionary principle as rationale for communal, ethnic, racial, social, political or especially religious divisiveness. Down the millennia such ideas have emerged in all corners of the globe and been justified and propagandised time and again as the root of hatred.
Difference is on the one hand the glory of humanity. On the other hand it is the greatest weakness and flaw in human understanding. Discerning difference is seldom celebrated as the creativity of human consciousness, understanding and expression. It is most easily deemed an evil, a perversion of what is normal and right and therefore an inherent threat to social order.
Those invested with the slur of difference for whatever reason become a source of fear. In society after society there exist outgroups who have repeatedly proved easy to defame, demonise and blame for the ills of the nation as circumstances dictate. The language of demonisation always demeans the dignity of its victims. The slurs, libels, phantasms of fear manufactured to stigmatise an outgroup are a latent legacy of history. They are ever ripe and ready be recycled into rampant hatreds that dehumanise neighbours and fellow citizens. Nowhere and at no time has this syndrome of dehumanisation found such abhorrent manifestation as in the bureaucratic procedures that served and maintained the death camp of Auschwitz.
The publication and broadcasting of dehumanising racial slurs that manufacture enemies within were the levers that made the depravity of the Holocaust possible. It normalised hatred as common currency among ordinary people and licenced its institution as legal indignity and denial of respect and rights for particular groups in a society wracked by economic disorder in the trauma aftermath of war and defeat. This familiar syndrome of human folly was manipulated into monstrous inhumanity as the rest of the world stood by unmoved. This is what we must remember. This is the lesson we must learn. We must never forget the suffering of the victims but we must always remember the how easily down through history ordinary people have been convinced to become the agents of evil.
How many times since the end of World War II have cycles of hatred emerged? How many times in how many places has demonization of difference become the spur to conflict and indiscriminate slaughter? Have we heeded the telltale signs that precede and permit atrocities? Has the moral conscience of humanity really been seared to action? Do populations rise up in revulsion at the manipulation of difference to engineer antipathy and hatred? Do we see clearly that Bosnia and Rwanda and unmarked mass graves around the globe are different in scale but arise from the same process, the same generation of hatred that resulted in the Holocaust?
Maniacal perverse ideas of religious purity led to the depraved murder of Muath al Kasasbeh. The language of this and other such atrocities has been among us from the beginning of Muslim civilization. The glib denunciation of people as kufr, unbeliever, is the language of demonization, the spur to hatred. Time and again Muslim societies have cursed by such manipulation for we human and therefore easy prey to the evil of ordinary people.
Only dehumanising victims in the name of a cause, however spurious, produces such depravity as the atrocities routinely committed by the daesh. Muslims have to remember how such evil is distilled and where it can lead. We must be roused to decisive action to root out this evil that has arisen that is of us and within us. Only determined resistance by word, thought and deed will end the horror. Lest we forget such victories have been won before in our history. We must remember to succeed once more.
Merryl Wyn Davies is co-director of the Muslim Institute and co-author with Ziauddin Sardar of "Why Do People Hate America?"