Influential American academic Noam Chomsky asked what he called a “simple question” in a recent interview with the journalist Ezra Klein for the New York Times: “Is the situation of the Uyghurs, a million people who’ve been through education camps, is that worse than the situation of, say, two million and twice that many people in Gaza? I mean, are the Uyghur[s] having their power plants destroyed, their sewage plants destroyed, subjected to regular bombing? Is it not happening to them? Not to my knowledge.”
In that particular segment, he summarised the political worldview of many progressives and other figures in what has been known as the “New Left”.
Chomsky acknowledges that “there’s enough evidence to show that there’s very severe repression” of the Uyghurs by the Chinese government, and that, “We should protest it.” He steps into entirely different territory, however, when he reasoned about what is happening in Xinxiang: “It has one crucial difference from Gaza. Namely, in the Uyghur case, there’s not a lot that we can do about it, unfortunately. In the Gaza case, we can do everything about it since we were responsible for it, we can stop it tomorrow.” Great propaganda for the Palestinians and their cause; not so great for the Uyghurs suffering at the hands of the Chinese government.
Despite such a reasonable and fair comparison in the context of the perceived threat posed by Beijing, it effectively gives varying degrees of importance to crimes against humanity, atrocities and genocides. According to such logic, the internment of Uyghurs in “re-education camps” and the torture that takes place therein, along with the well-documented sexual abuse and forced sterilisation of Uyghur women at the hands of the Chinese authorities, does not matter as much as the military occupation and apartheid suffered by Palestinians at the hands of Israel.
Delving deeper, we find that this is not the first time that Chomsky has played down crimes against humanity; for decades he has figured in war crimes revisionism concerning the Serbian genocide of the Bosnians in the 1990s. Notably, he wrote the forward for a book – The Politics of Genocide – which claimed that Serb forces “incontestably had not killed any but ‘Bosnian Muslim men of military age’”; Australian journalist John Pilger wrote an endorsement of the book.
Both Chomsky and Pilger then actively dismissed criticism of their stances, fighting tooth and nail against the classification of the slaughter and mass rape of Bosnians as a genocide. They have never turned back on their views.
A figure such as Chomsky, however, is in fact a mild example of this phenomenon, for at least he did not wholly deny the killings of the Bosnians or the current persecution of the Uyghurs; he merely disputed their significance.
There is a growing class of academics and intellectuals in the West and beyond, though, who are indeed wholly denying that such atrocities take place at all. It is the greatest irony that they are some of the most prominent opponents of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.
Britain’s Professor David Miller has been at the centre of a fierce campaign against him by the pro-Israel lobby for allegedly propagating race hate. Putting those accusations to one side, however, Miller has long been known as a key and vocal figure in support of the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad and in the dismissal of atrocities committed against Assad’s opponents.Miller serves as a member of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, a group of academics and activists whose aim is to discredit the fact-finding mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which found Assad guilty of likely conducting numerous chemical attacks against his own people.
That group and its affiliates also insist that the Syrian Civil Defence organisation known as the White Helmets are paid by Western intelligence agencies to carry out the chemical attacks and frame the Assad regime. Such theories have been debunked and are based on flimsy and uncertain evidence.
What we are witnessing is a growing and sustained trend for intellectuals, academics, journalists and even politicians in the West – mainly on the left – to traffic misinformation not merely about political views but also the denial of crimes against humanity, whether classed as genocide or not.
Amongst their tendencies is to hold Russia in high regard and beyond reproach; blatantly ignore and even deny atrocities committed by regimes such as Assad’s; and to see any and all who disagree as Western-backed terrorists or agents of US imperialism.
It is one thing for journalists and activists to peddle conspiracy theories based on faulty research and intentional misinformation, but it is something entirely different when done by recognised intellectuals and academics whose own status inevitably gives them credibility in the eyes of the public. The effects of this have already been seen, with such views moving from the fringes of the dark web and partisan politics to the mainstream.
That was the clear message when the Swedish Academy announced in October 2019 that the Nobel Prize for Literature would be awarded to Peter Handke, a prominent genocide denier known for his praise and admiration of the former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic who was responsible for at least 66 counts of genocide and war crimes. Handke even visited Milosevic in prison and attended his funeral in 2006, stating famously, “I am here for Yugoslavia, for Serbia, for Slobodan Milosevic.”
Genocide denial has never been a sign of academic integrity, but it reeks of intellectual dishonesty that many of the figures involved openly support the Palestinian cause and rightly criticise Israeli occupation and oppression. That they are apparently unable to apply the same formula to the oppression of the Bosnians, Syrians and now the Uyghurs, is a mystery.
Moreover, it may also backfire on them strategically, as they are winning no hearts and minds among those being oppressed by the likes of the Chinese Communist Party or Assad. Their war crimes revisionism could push the Syrian and Uyghur Diasporas – as well as factions among the Syrian opposition – to turn to Israel and its lobby in the West for support. That would be disastrous for the people of occupied Palestine.
This has already happened with many Kurdish factions, which have increasingly voiced support or sympathy for Israel over the past few years. While the Kurds felt isolated by the international community, Israel gave its support to them, at least superficially.
While the genocide deniers dominate and drag down the Palestinian cause, a vacuum is being left behind in terms of support for other oppressed peoples. That vacuum could be filled by the pro-Israel lobby. Is that what genocide deniers want?
Note: This page was updated at 12:25 BST on May 1, 2021. An earlier version of this page incorrectly made claims against journalist Ali Abunimah which was subsequently found to be false. We apologise for the error.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.