Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani doesn’t seem like the kind of Muslim leader to deny the Holocaust.

Spiritual leader of the Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Queens, New York and the official representative of Iraq’s leading Shia religious authority, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in the United States, the Iraqi-born Al-Sahlani supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power and still supports the presence of U.S. troops in his homeland. A soft-spoken man in his mid-50’s with a well-trimmed grey beard and turban who evinces a cordial but serious manner, Al-Sahlani, who has been in the U.S. since the late 1970’s, unequivocally condemns suicide bombing, supports the democratization of Iraq and rejects the installation in Iraq of a theocratic regime such as that of next-door Iran.

I was therefore surprised to read recently that Al-Sahlani, who I myself interviewed just over a year ago for the New York Jewish Week, was quoted in the January 13 edition of the New York Sun as saying that the Nazi massacre of an estimated 6 million Jews during World War II “has been exaggerated”, adding, “The numbers which have been mentioned are too much.” According to the Sun, Al-Sahlani said during a telephone interview that the killing of innocent Jews during the war was “an injustice” but that the extent of Nazi persecution needed further examination. “The numbers, the reasons, we have to study more,” he said, while expressing support for the proposal of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to hold a conference on the Holocaust in Tehran.

The Sun is a stridently conservative newspaper that enthusiastically supports U.S.-spearheaded regime change in countries throughout the Middle East, so seizing the chance to paint a prominent American Muslim leader as a Holocaust denier certainly fits the paper’s editorial profile. I myself have been involved in recent months in efforts to stimulate dialogue between Jews and Muslims in New York, and saw Al-Sahlani as a potential ally in that important task. So I went to see Al-Sahlani last week predisposed to believe that he might have been treated unfairly by the Sun, or, at least, deserved a chance to set the record straight.

Yet his responses to me only deepened the hole he dug for himself in the original interview. True, Al-Sahlani affirmed, “No matter whether it was 6 million or one Jewish person killed in Holocaust, that is a great crime, because they were killed for no reason except they were Jewish. That is unacceptable according to Islam.” Al-Sahlani explained further that he had only meant to convey to the Sun that as a person with little knowledge of Holocaust history, he has no idea whether six million was a correct approximation of the number of victims. For all he knows, he said, the correct figure might be five million or some other amount. Yet when I asked Al-Sahlani whether he had indeed told the Sun that the figure of six million was “exaggerated” or “too much,” he responded unpersuasively that he does not recall whether he actually used those terms.

What about his endorsement of Ahmadinejad’s call for a Holocaust conference in Tehran? Al-Sahlani affirmed he indeed believes such a conference would be useful “whether it is held in Tehran, Berlin or New York” because “for [non-Jews] who don’t believe in it, [holding a conference] will be helpful and supportive for them to believe in what happened, especially when it is done by the non-Jewish academic people, it will give more value to (the conference).” Al-Sahlani then said, “There are great scholars—specialists in the Holocaust---who do not believe what the other group of people believe…They say the number of victims is less than six million. Some of them say the reason for the Holocaust was (that it was) done by the Zionists.” Al-Sahlani said he could not remember the names of the scholars he cited as believing the six million figure is inflated, but when I brought up British historian David Irving, who was recently jailed in Austria for claiming just that, Al-Sahlani responded, “Yes, I believe that is the person, and probably there are others.”

Al-Sahlani said that unlike Ahmadinejad, who has called repeatedly for the destruction of Israel, he himself believes that, “We have now to accept the fact Israelis live there and have a government, so that whether or not we accept the history, it is a reality.” Yet he vigorously condemns Zionism, which he calls “a movement among part of the Jewish people that occupied the land of others and is therefore unacceptable to many Arabs and Muslims.” When I responded that attachment to the Land of Israel is not only an expression of Zionism, but a basic component of Judaism itself, Al-Sahlani responded, “We cannot deny the land of Palestine is a holy land for Jews, as well as Muslims and Christians….[Yet] the reality is that before 1914, that land belonged to Muslim Arabs…and the door was open for Jews or Christians to visit the Holy Land….[Today], we shouldn’t deny the right of Jews to visit that land and to worship God there, because they have a history there…but it doesn’t mean they have right to occupy the land.”

What is one to make of Al-Sahlani’s comments? Clearly, as he readily acknowledged, he has little knowledge of the basics of Holocaust scholarship; otherwise he would not have cited the thoroughly discredited David Irving. Indeed, is it fair to expect an Iraqi-born Shia cleric to be knowledgeable about the Holocaust? I myself know little about Shia history, doctrine and culture. Still, if Al-Sahlani admits to knowing next to nothing on the subject of the Holocaust, why does he offer opinions to the media affirming openness to the teachings of charlatans like Irving? Why does he lend credibility to the libel that Zionists are somehow to blame for Hitler’s genocidal anti-Semitism?

I am saddened that publication of this article may further deepen Al-Sahlani’s isolation from the American religious and political mainstream. Rather than shunning this pious and upright man, who is a source of spiritual inspiration for the nearly 3000 members of the Al-Khoei Islamic Center, would it not be preferable for Jewish and Christian leaders to reach out to Al-Sahlani in the hope that sustained communication will convince him of the moral squalor of belittling the genocide of six million Jews?

Al-Sahlani undoubtedly understands that Jewish and Christian religious leaders can be important allies in speaking out on behalf of the constitutional rights of hard-pressed American Muslims in the post-9/11 situation.

I know of some, like Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the New York-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation, who have condemned needless provocations against deeply held Islamic beliefs, such as the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed published last year in a Danish newspaper, and subsequently in journals across Europe. Yet surely neither Al-Sahlani nor any other Muslim leader should expect success in cross-denominational alliance building as long as they make statements which leave the impression that the Holocaust may have been a less horrendous crime than it is purported to be, and that perhaps the Jews themselves were partly to blame for what happened. My interview with Al-Sahlani made clear that this important cleric has a considerable distance to go before assimilating that lesson.

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