LONDON — Gathered in a Tehran auditorium yesterday were some of the world's most notorious figures: Holocaust deniers, neo-Nazis, leaders of the Ku Klux Klan. And among them, somewhat incongruously, was a soft-spoken political science professor from Nova Scotia.
The presence of Shiraz Dossa of St. Francis Xavier University at a Holocaust conference organized by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has raised eyebrows in Canada. Mr. Ahmadinejad has called for an end to Israel's existence, and the conference is widely seen as a provocative exercise in anti-Semitism.
In an exclusive interview from his hotel in Tehran yesterday, Dr. Dossa said that he had gladly accepted the invitation from Iran's Islamist government to attend the conference, and that he had welcomed the opportunity to criticize the Western world and its policies. But, although he is no supporter of Israel, he said he was horrified to discover that he was sharing the stage with overt anti-Semites and supporters of Adolf Hitler.
"I have nothing to do with Holocaust denial, not at all," he said, defending the paper he read. "It's a paper about the war on terrorism, and how the Holocaust plays into it. Other people have their own points of view, but that [Holocaust denial] is not my point of view."
The two-day conference, which has been condemned by most Western governments, including Canada's, featured speeches by a variety of well-known defenders of Hitler and self-styled scholars who have attempted to prove the Nazi Holocaust, in which some six million Jews were mechanically slaughtered, was a fabrication. Yesterday afternoon, Mr. Ahmadinejad concluded the conference by delivering a speech in which he said that Israel's days were numbered.
Dr. Dossa, the lone Canadian at the event, describes himself as an anti-imperialist and an admirer of left-wing U.S. scholar Noam Chomsky. He said he was surprised that Canadians were alarmed by his presence at the conference.
"I was invited because of my expertise as a scholar in the German-Jewish area, as well as my studies in the Holocaust," he said, noting he had published an academic book on the ideas of German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, whose best-known works dealt with the Holocaust. "There was no pressure at all to say anything, and people there had different views."
While a copy of his paper could not be obtained last night, Dr. Dossa described it as an essay on the abuse of the imagery of the Holocaust.
"My essential point is that the Jewish loss -- which is, of course, a reality, and anyone who denies it is a lunatic -- the focus here is on how the Holocaust is a political construct, distinct from the Jewish loss at the hands of the Nazis. And that political construct has been used to justify certain policies by people, some of whom are Zionists. And now that whole issue plays into the war on terrorism, which is essentially a war on Islam."
When it was discovered yesterday that Dr. Dossa was among the speakers at the conference, his presence there was condemned by Canadian Jewish leaders.
"Although we don't know what the professor said at the conference, attending and giving credibility to such an event shocks the conscience of right-thinking Canadians," said Ed Morgan, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. "This conference was nothing more than a vicious public attempt to whitewash the proven facts . . . "
Dr. Dossa said he was alarmed to find that Holocaust deniers played such a visible role in the event.
"I did not know exactly who was coming to the conference, and frankly, I think these people are hacks and lunatics," he said. "I frankly wouldn't even shake hands with most of them."
But he said he supported Iran's motives for holding the conference.
"I understand where the Iranian government is coming from. Because I am well aware that for at least the last four or five years, there has been a steady stream of invective directed at Iran by Israel. People like [Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert have threatened Iran repeatedly with a nuclear holocaust if they did not fall into line. And there has been a steady stream of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment -- so I can see why Iran is nervous.
"My stand is that Iran is trying to embarrass the West and say, 'Look, we are practising what you preach. We are allowing freedom of discussion of just about any issue, including the Holocaust.' And I agree with that."
Yesterday, the university distanced itself from Dr. Dossa's decision to attend the conference. "Dr. Dossa is attending this conference as an individual," spokesman Allan Gates said. "Dr. Dossa's views and opinions are his own. He does not speak for the university."
Dr. Dossa, a Canadian citizen who was born in Uganda and came to Canada in the 1970s, has Iranian roots on one side of his family. He said he accepted the invitation from Iran, which paid his expenses, as an opportunity to visit his ancestral land, and that he will travel the next week with his young daughter.
He also said he had expressed alarm at the extremists in an interview with Iranian TV, which broadcast the entire two-day event live.
"I said publicly -- and the organizers were a bit disappointed with me and with my comments -- that I didn't know what was going to be said and I didn't know who would be turning up, and I would not be taking part in a debate with people whose starting position I did not agree with or consider worthy of debate."
With a report from Caroline Alphonso in Toronto