Six months after attending a controversial Tehran conference, a
Canadian professor charges the media and his own university with
ignorance and intolerance.
The Explanation We Never Heard
By Shiraz Dossa
Literary Review of Canada
Volume 15, Number 5
June 2007, Pages 3-4
It would be a shocking event in any university. It was doubly so in a
university that takes pride in its "Catholic character." Last
December, St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia,
authorized a small Spanish Inquisition of its own to denounce a St. FX
Muslim professor. It was launched by two Jewish professors and the
Christian chair of the political science department (Michael Steinitz,
Samuel Kalman and Yvon Grenier). My sin: I attended a conference in a
Muslim nation on the Holocaust entitled The Review of the Holocaust:
Global Vision. It took place in Tehran, Iran, in December 2006, and it
was widely - and erroneously - described in the western media as a
I have never denied the Holocaust, only noted its propaganda power.
Yet my university tolerated this assault on me. I was stunned by the
university's illiteracy and bias. I was appalled by President Sean
Riley's attack on my reputation and his spurious comments on the
conference. In his December 13, 2006, statement he insinuated that the
"conference" was bogus and that it revealed a "deplorable
anti-Semitism" that the "St. FX community" found "deeply abhorrent"
and contrary to its "traditions." Riley left little doubt that I was
guilty of sullying my school's reputation. St. FX in effect
sanctioned a crusade against a Muslim Holocaust scholar, who also
happens to be an outspoken critic of Israel's brutality in occupied
What follows is my view of the events of last December, and my
interpretation of the responses to them in the media and at my university.
The anti-intellectual storm at St. FX was driven by two fallacies
pushed by the media and the literati. The first is that Iran's
president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has dismissed the Holocaust as a
"myth" and threatened to "wipe Israel off the map." In fact,
Ahmadinejad has not denied the Holocaust or proposed Israel's
liquidation; he has never done so in any of his speeches on the
subject (all delivered in Farsi/Persian). As an Iran specialist, I
can attest that both accusations are false. U.S. Iran experts such as
Juan Cole and UK journalists such as Jonathan Steele have come to the
As Cole correctly notes, Ahmadinejad was quoting the Ayatollah
Khomeini in the specific speech under discussion: what he said was
that "the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page
of time."2 No state action is envisaged in this lament; it denotes a
spiritual wish, whereas the erroneous translation, "wipe Israel off
the map" suggests a military threat.
There is a huge chasm between the correct and the incorrect
translations. The notion that Iran can "wipe out" U.S.-backed,
nuclear-armed Israel is ludicrous.
What Ahmadinejad has questioned is the mythologizing, the
sacralization, of the Holocaust and the "Zionist regime's" continued
killing of Palestinians and Muslims. He has even raised doubts about
the scale of the Holocaust. His rhetoric has been excessive and
provocative. And he does not really care what we in the West think
about Iran or Muslims; he does not kowtow to western or Israeli
diktat. Such questioning and criticism are not new: Jewish scholars
such as Adi Ophir, Ilan Pappe, Boas Evron, Tom Segev and Uri Davis
have been doing it for two decades. None of this is Holocaust denial.
The second western fallacy is that the event was a Holocaust-denial
conference because of the presence of a few notorious western
Christian deniers/skeptics, a couple of a neo-Nazi stripe. It was
nothing of the sort.
It was a Global South conference convened to devise an
intellectual/political response to western-Israeli intervention in
Muslim affairs. Holocaust deniers/skeptics were a fringe, a marginal
few at the conference. The majority of the papers focused on the use
and abuse of the Holocaust in Arab, Muslim, Israeli and western
politics, a serious and worthy subject for international academic
Out of the 33 conference paper givers, 27 were not Holocaust deniers,
but were university professors and social science researchers from
Iran, Jordan, Algeria, India, Morocco, Bahrain, Tunisia, Malaysia,
Indonesia and Syria. In attendance were five rabbis (anti-Zionist
rabbis, to be sure) who agreed with Rabbi Dovid Weiss of New York that
Israel's occupation policy was "evil" and un-Jewish, and the
Holocaust could never justify it - but who insisted, like me, that the
Holocaust was a reality. None of us knew that a few deniers/skeptics
would be in attendance. This is not at all unusual in the Islamic
world. In southern conferences, one rarely knows who will be appearing
until one gets there.
The Iranian Institute of Political and International Studies (IPIS),
an elite school of advanced politics and policy studies that offers MA
and PhD programs, sponsored the Iran conference. It was not sponsored
by the Iranian president Dr. Ahmadinejad; he did not attend or
participate in the conference. It was not a Holocaust-denial
conference by any stretch. That's all false.
President Riley and his supporters at St. FX bought the denial fallacy
that had been concocted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish
Defense League, and peddled by media outlets such as The Globe and
Mail. On December 11, 2006, the Simon Wiesenthal Center sent out a
condemning press release about "Iran's Holocaust Denial Conference" to
news media in the U.S. and Canada.3 It was the Zionists and the
neo-Nazis who, for very different, self-serving reasons, depicted it
as a Holocaust-denial conference and sold it to willing, anti-Iranian
Coincidentally, on December 11, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice officially welcomed Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, Avigdor
Lieberman, to Washington on behalf of the U.S. government. Lieberman
also met Senator Hillary Clinton and ex-President Bill Clinton. The
Americans were not at all troubled by their guest's stance on the
Palestinians. Avigdor Lieberman is committed to ridding Israel of its
Arabs - in effect, to ethnic cleansing. In the Israeli media
(Ha'aretz), he has openly been labelled a racist and a fascist. U.S.
critics have called him the Israeli David Duke.
Canada silently acquiesced in Lieberman's inclusion in the Israeli
cabinet. And in January 2007 Peter MacKay addressed the Herzliya
Conference in Israel affirming Canada's attachment to "freedom and
democracy," "values" that "make Canada and Israel so close." He was
there in his official capacity as Canada's foreign minister. MacKay
refused to meet with the leaders of the new elected Palestinian
government (Hamas). The government of Canada is not concerned that an
anti-Arab ethnic cleanser is Israel's deputy prime minister. Canadians
do hypocrisy rather well.
Consider also, in this connection, an event held at St. FX in
September 2006, just three months before the Tehran conference. St. FX
and the Religious Studies Department hosted a conference on
Catholic-Jewish dialogue. One of the invited speakers was Rabbi
Richard Rubenstein, a "distinguished" academic, according to his
hosts. He did little to advance the Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
Instead, he launched a vicious attack on Islam, its Prophet and
Muslims in the West as a fifth column corroding Christian civilization
from within. The good rabbi declared that "genocide" and the "murder"
of non-Muslims lay at the heart of Islam. Rubenstein seemed to believe
his views would be well received. And apparently they were - by the
largely Catholic-Christian audience.
St. FX chancellor Bishop Raymond Lahey and I were on the response
panel; I condemned Rubenstein's anti-Muslim tirade and his labelling
of Islam as "Islamo-Fascism," which in my view is as offensive, racist
and false as denying the Holocaust. Bishop Lahey, in his comment, said
nothing about Rubenstein's anti-Islamism. This was a St. Francis
Xavier University conference that occurred with the blessing of
university president Riley and university chancellor Bishop Lahey, and
St. FX provided a public platform to an anti-Muslim, anti-Iranian
racist rabbi. My point in making the comparison is that this was still
a scholarly, enlightening conference although tainted by Rubenstein's
hate-speech. So was the Iran conference on the Holocaust, although
tainted by the presence of a few western, Christian Holocaust
So how and why did this attack on my reputation occur?
The Globe and Mail fired the initial shot in its editorial on December
13, 2006. It was followed by a declaration of war on me by its
"pundits" John Ibbitson and Rex Murphy, dilettantes extraordinaire on
the Holocaust and the Middle East. Neither of these journalists has
credibility in either field. Ibbitson hectored me in his usual CNN
mode, got most things wrong and casually libelled me in the process.4
Since 9/11, he hasn't let up on Islam or Muslims. Murphy, in his
column "Eichmann in Tehran," displayed his cerebral deficits and his
ignorance of Islam, Iran and Hannah Arendt with enviable facility.5
Like Ibbitson, Murphy impresses those intellectually just a cut above
the Trailer Park Boys. It is worth noting that these Christian boys
have unlimited latitude in The Globe and Mail to trash Muslims even as
they defend "civilization," Israel and Jews.
My university joined the assault on me forthwith. Chancellor Lahey
assured The Globe and Mail's readers, in his letter to the editor on
December 14, 2006, that the conference and my attendance were
"contrary" to the "[promotion of] truth" and indeed "œworthy of
contempt." It is significant that Riley and Lahey have no scholarly
expertise on Islam, Iran or the Holocaust either. I believe they
wanted to assure the white, mainstream Canadian community, including
Canadian Jews, that "Catholic" St. FX was on their side, and this
desire far outweighed their obligation to defend academic freedom.
Since I was in Iran as a Holocaust expert, and not representing St. FX
or Catholics, I found this a bizarre response. Are Riley and Lahey at
the helm of a university committed to the academic freedom of
its entire faculty, which includes Muslims? Or is St. FX's hyped
"inclusiveness" only for Christians and Jews? I have been a St. FX
professor for 18 years, a full professor since 1996.
Was it an accident that I was swarmed "by petition" by Jewish and
Christian professors, with the blessing of St. FX's Catholic leaders?
The petition oddly defended my "academic freedom to espouse any views
that he pleases," but then negated my right to do so by being
"profoundly embarrassed by his participation in the Holocaust-denial
conference held in Tehran." It garnered a fair number of signatures
from current and retired professors - about 24 percent of the total
faculty at St. FX. But surely these righteous folks are not racist?
Surely this could not happen at St. FX, a Catholic institution with
its Coady International Institute tradition of decency? It is crucial
to stress that many townspeople were incensed by St. FX's behaviour,
among them Miles Tompkins, a direct descendant of Coady's founder,
J.J. Tompkins, and of Moses Coady. In a letter to the local paper,
The Casket, on March 21, he chastised St. FX's conduct and also noted
that my "political science department's response was an embarrassment
to the University."
Was this then an un-Christian lapse, an un-Catholic aberration? It
would seem not. We tend to forget that Catholic anti-Semitism has
always had two strands, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish. The anti-Jewish
strand has been dominant in western culture for several centuries. In
the post-Holocaust period, however, the anti-Muslim strand, which
survived the Crusades, got a new lease on life and quickly superseded
anti-Jewish anti-Semitism for obvious reasons. As a result, Muslims
now bear the brunt of western anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is de
rigueur in the liberal Christian West, in support of our war on the
"Axis of Evil," including Iran. The anti-Iranian, anti-Muslim current
at St. FX is not accidental; it is the distilled voice of Canadian
Islamophobia in these times.
Universities are places of discontent; they provoke disputes, they
offer critiques of conventional and, often, false views. A university
that tailors its teaching and research to the prejudices of its alumni
or corporate backers is a travesty. Academic freedom is not
conditional on the approval of the university or of university
colleagues. Nor is the reputation of the university as an institution
tied to the scholarly focus of its faculty or to the controversial
subjects that faculty may pursue in their field of expertise.
Iran's elites have protected Jews since Cyrus ruled West Asia.
Anti-Semitism is a Euro-American problem, not an Islamic one. Iranian
opposition to Israel and its wars on Muslims/Palestinians is ethical
and political; it has absolutely nothing to do with hating Jews qua
Jews. It is a great pity that Sean Riley and Bishop Lahey ignored St.
FX's motto, an injunction to first ascertain Quaecumque Sunt Vera,
Whatsoever Things Are True, and instead tolerated the assault by St.
FX's ignorant crusaders on the reputation of their Muslim colleague.
I would be remiss if I failed to note that two St. FX officials
behaved honourably, with the kind of Catholic decency that befits our
university, throughout the course of this episode of academic
McCarthyism. Academic Vice-President Dr. Mary McGillivray and the Dean
of Arts, Dr. Steven Baldner, tackled the controversy with integrity
and respect for the liberal values that St. FX symbolizes. As well,
the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) strongly
supported my academic freedom. In his letter to The Globe and Mail on
December 14, 2006 (which the paper did not print), Executive Director
Jim Turk stated that "academic freedom is to protect the right of
academic staff to speak the truth as they see it without repression
from their institution, the state, religious authorities, special
interest groups or anyone else."
1. Jonathan Steele, "If Iran Is Ready to Talk, The US Must Do So
Unconditionally," The Guardian, June 2, 2006, and "Lost in
Translation," The Guardian, June 14, 2006.
2. Juan Cole, "Hitchens the Hacker; And, Hitchens the Orientalist"
And, "We Don't Want Your Stinking War!",-- "Informed Consent," May 3,
3. Simon Wiesenthal Center, "Holocaust Survivors in Three Cities
Across North America Join Together to Confront Iran's Conference of
Holocaust Deniers and Revisionists," News Release, December 11, 2006.
4. John Ibbitson, "Even a Scholar's Academic Freedom Has Its Limits in
Canada," Globe and Mail, December 14, 2006, page A7.
5. Rex Murphy, "Eichmann in Tehran: Horror Revisited," Globe and Mail,
December 16, 2006, page A31.
6. Canadian Association of University Teachers, "Statement on the
Controversy over Professor Shiraz Dossa," News Release, December 14,
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shiraz Dossa teaches political theory and comparative politics (Iran,
Lebanon, Israel, India) at St. Francis Xavier University. In his book
The Public Realm and the Public Self: The Political Theory of Hannah
Arendt (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989) and in his articles,
his focus has been the Holocaust and its legacy, Auschwitz and
Christian conscience, Zionism and Palestinians, and Islam and the West.
Literary Review of Canada
June 2007 Issue
When Shiraz Dossa, a professor of political science at St. Francis
Xavier University in Nova Scotia, got in touch with us back in April,
we felt some shock, followed by acute curiosity. This gentleman had
been the brief centre of feverish media attention last December, when
he surfaced in Tehran as the only Canadian attending what was being
called a "Holocaust-denial conference", supposedly organized at the
behest of Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself and including among its
attendees a number of notorious Holocaust deniers or sceptics, such as
Four months later, Professor Dossa wanted to tell his version of the
story, including the real purpose of the conference (not Holocaust
denial), who organized it (not Dr. Ahmadinejad), who attended, and
what he thought and felt about the all-out attack on him back home in
Canada, particularly from The Globe and Mail and from his own
university, St. FX. At the LRC we read his manuscript, which seemed to
us a serious exploration of the right of academic freedom in Canada
and who gets to exercise that right. After rigorous fact-checking that
went on for a number of weeks, we agreed that the essay was ready for
Academic freedom, like all freedom of speech issues, calls on
thoughtful citizens to broaden their horizons. It's never individuals
who are voicing mainstream or non-controversial thoughts - ideas we
can all agree with - who find themselves on the wrong side of academic
freedom debates. It is always individuals who are raising
uncomfortable ideas that the majority would rather not hear who end up
excoriated or denigrated in the media and who are left twisting in the
wind by the institutions within which they work. Reading Shiraz
Dossa's essay gives us all the opportunity to confront some important
and controversial ideas that go to the heart of our identity as a
We hope you agree.
ACADEMIC CONTROVERSY: Professor who attended Holocaust conference
blasts critics as Islamophobes
A Canadian political scientist excoriated for attending what was
widely labelled a Holocaust-denial conference in Tehran has retaliated
with a blistering published attack on his university president and his
colleagues for being illiterate Islamophobes.
Writing in the influential Literary Review of Canada, Shiraz Dossa, a
tenured professor at Nova Scotia's St. Francis Xavier University, said
that his academic integrity and academic freedom were grossly impugned
by the university administration, an assault on his reputation that he
said has yet to be remedied.
He accused the president and chancellor of authorizing a "small
Spanish Inquisition" to denounce him - a campaign he said was
initiated by two Jewish professors and the Christian chair of the
political science department.
Prof. Dossa also wrote that the attack on his reputation was launched
by The Globe and Mail's editorial board and by columnists John
Ibbitson and Rex Murphy, whom he described as being "intellectually
just a cut above the Trailer Park Boys" and ignorant of the Middle East.
James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of
University Teachers, likened the treatment of Prof. Dossa to the 1950s
McCarthy period in the United States when academics and others were
subjected to intense pressure not to attend events that were unpopular.
This is the first time Prof. Dossa has spoken out since the storm
erupted over his attendance at the Tehran conference in mid-December.
His two-page essay appears in the issue of the LRC that will be posted
today on its website, http://www.reviewcanada.ca. Although the monthly
publication's circulation is small, it is widely read in the academic,
journalistic, political and public-service communities.
In an interview, Prof. Dossa said he wrote the essay because he wanted
to set the record straight and because he still hasn't received an
apology from either St. FX president Sean Riley or chancellor Raymond
Lahey, the Roman Catholic bishop of Antigonish where the university is
located. He also said he has refused to speak to his department chair,
Prof. Yvon Grenier, since December.
He wrote that the university administration uncritically accepted the
Holocaust-denial label "concocted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center [a
Zionist Jewish supremacist organization] and the [U.S. terrorist]
Jewish Defence League and peddled by media outlets such as The Globe
Prof. Dossa, a Muslim, teaches political theory and comparative
politics at St. FX. His focus as a scholar has been on the Holocaust
and its aftermath. He abruptly dismisses any suggestion that he is a
Holocaust denier. Rather, he said, his interest has been in what use
of the Holocaust has been made to promote Zionism - the right of Jews
to a national homeland - and to support the Israeli occupation of
In both his essay and in a telephone conversation, he makes a
compelling case for why he attended the two-day Tehran conference,
titled "The Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision."
It was a conference for scholars in the global South, said Prof.
Dossa, who wanted to examine the Holocaust and its significance
unrestrained by the lenses through which it is viewed by the West, and
"to devise an intellectual [and] political response to Western-Israeli
intervention in Muslim affairs."
The global South generally refers to the nations of Africa, Central
and Latin America and most of Asia.
He wrote in the LRC: "I was appalled by president Sean Riley's attack
on my reputation and his spurious comments on the conference. In his
Dec, 13, 2006, statement, he insinuated that the conference was bogus
and that it revealed a 'deplorable anti-Semitism' that the 'St. FX
community' found 'deeply abhorrent' and contrary to its 'traditions.'
Riley left little doubt that I was guilty of sullying my school's
"Riley and Lahey have no scholastic expertise on Islam, Iran or the
Holocaust. ... I believe they wanted to assure the white, mainstream
Canadian community, including Canadian Jews, that 'Catholic' St. FX
was on their side and that this desire far outweighed their obligation
to defend academic freedom.
"Are Riley and Lahey at the helm of a university committed to the
academic freedom of its entire faculty, which includes Muslims? Or is
St. FX's hyped 'inclusiveness' only for Christians and Jews?"
The conference became controversial the moment it was announced by
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Prof. Dossa readily
concedes that the President's rhetoric about the Holocaust -
particularly his questioning of its scale - "has been excessive and
The conference was organized by the Iranian Foreign Ministry's
Institute of Political and International Studies, which is respected
internationally and has run United Nations conferences in the past.
More than 1,200 people attended.
There were 44 speakers and 33 papers presented - five of which were
given by notorious Western Holocaust deniers.
The other presenters were scholars examining the Holocaust from a
global South perspective.
Prof. Dossa said the presenters, himself included, were invited, but
he said he had no idea in advance that Holocaust deniers were on the
list. He said that, until his arrival in Tehran, he did not see an
agenda, something he said is not uncommon for global South conferences.
He described the presentations by the Holocaust deniers as absurd. At
the session Prof. Dossa attended where one of the Holocaust deniers
spoke, the presentation was torn to shreds afterward by the largely
He said he would not have attended a conference entirely of Holocaust
deniers because it would have held no scholarly or intellectual
interest for him. But a conference with five Holocaust deniers was of
academic interest for him to see what kind of reception they'd be given.
James Turk of CAUT said: "In this case, there was an aggressive
attempt based on very little information to denigrate Prof. Dossa and
to vilify him."
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