Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World
by Jeffrey Herf
Yale, 352 pp., $30

A Mosque in Munich 

Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West
by Ian Johnson
Houghton Mifflin, 336 pp., 

Although many Americans and Europeans would like to believe that contemporary Islamic fundamentalism is an exclusive subsidiary of the Koran, the sharia, and other things tribal and Islamic, the truth is more Western. Jeffrey Herf’s Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World and Ian Johnson’s A Mosque in Munich are two indispensable books for helping laymen and scholars to understand better how we got to a world where Islamic fundamentalism, a wickedly anti-Semitic movement, is the dominant intellectual force in the Middle East and among devout Muslim elites in the West. They are well-written books​​—​​in the case of Johnson’s, sublimely so​​—​​that distill detailed histories into compelling narratives. 

Professor Herf, an authority on the Third Reich at the University of Maryland, has written the first book-length investigation in English about the influence of Nazi propaganda on the Arabs. Academic literature is rich in looking at the impact of socialism and communism on Muslims; it has been less expansive in examining how the right-wing side of the Western brain left an imprint on Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism.

In part, this is understandable. German National Socialists had a short run. Nazi shortwave Arabic broadcasts started in October 1939 and ended in the winter of 1945. (Fascist Italy broadcast Arabic programs from 1934 to 1943.) But as Herf points out, the Germans tried hard with around-the-clock radio broadcasts that were designed to overcome the Middle East’s high illiteracy rates. As is well known, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who ended up in Berlin during the war, enthusiastically embraced the Nazis’ genocidal cause against the Jews and became one of the primary players in German propaganda and in organizing Muslim SS units for use in Eastern Europe. Husseini became the spear point of Arab Muslim resistance to Jewish settlement in Britain’s Palestine Mandate, the founding father of Palestinian nationalism. Opposition to Jews in Palestine, and later to Israel, became an essential ingredient in the pan-Arab identity and, more important, in modern Islamic fundamentalism. Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mother ship of Sunni fundamentalism, loved Husseini.

Herf excels at showing how the Nazi propaganda masters, utilizing German scholars of Islamic history, chose a strategy underscoring traditional Islamic anti-Jewish attitudes and texts in an effort to create a more lethal modern anti-Semitism. Centuries-old religious antagonism morphed, courtesy of the Germans, into racial hatred.  Herf juxtaposes the views of famous Arabs and Muslim fundamentalists with those propagated tirelessly by the Nazi Arabic broadcasters, and the effect is to produce disturbing questions. Consider the comments of the Saudi King Abdul Aziz al-Saud in 1944, given at a dinner party where Nils Lind, an attaché of the American Legation in Jidda, is one of the honored guests:

And now let me tell you the truth: It is the Jews who have always stirred up the religious differences between us. Where there was no difference the Jews created one. They are a dangerous and hostile race, making trouble wherever they exist. Why do you British and Americans love them and always take their side? .  .  . we Moslems are aware of their machinations and we hate them from the depths of our being. Our hatred of this sinful and evil race is growing day by day until our one ambition is to slay them all.  Where we see them encroaching on us we Moslems will fight them and butcher them until we have driven them from our lands. Allah be praised we have no Jews in our kingdom and never shall we allow one Jew to enter it.

The king’s sentiments are similar to those of Osama bin Laden, the Ayatollah Khomeini, his successor Ali Khamenei, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah and one of the most admired men today in the Arab world, and the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), perhaps the most influential Arab Sunni militant of the 20th century, whose well-read books are everywhere in Muslim bookstores and mosques in Europe. Parroting classical European anti-Semitic themes, Qutb declared that behind “the doctrine of atheistic materialism was a Jew [Karl Marx]; behind the doctrine of animalistic sexuality was a Jew [Sigmund Freud]; and behind the destruction of the family and the shattering of sacred relationships in society .  .  . was a Jew [Emile Durkheim].” 

It is possible that left-wing anti-Semitism, which the Soviet Union pumped out vigorously in the early 1950s, also could have had a profound impact on Muslim thought, given the enormous penetration of Marxist ideas in the Middle East, even among clerics. But Herf’s argument​​—​​that “one chapter of [Islamism’s] history was written in Nazi-dominated Europe and in particular in wartime Berlin”​​—​​seems more persuasive than seeing thick Communist roots underneath modern Muslim anti-Semitism. The Nazis, unlike Communists who must damn religion and false prophets, easily wove the Koran and the Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad [the Hadith] into Arab anti-Semitism. As Herf writes: 

The diffusion of Nazi ideology and in particular of radical anti-Semitism struck a nerve because it expressed ideas that connected to the indigenous traditions being selectively received and accentuated by Arab and Islamist ideologues.

Now, what Herf cannot show, because he’s not an Arabist, Persianist, or Turkologist, is the extent to which these anti-Semitic views have been mainstreamed into Muslim societies. He has used a wide array of translated documents, but he’s well aware that further research is blocked by his lack of Islamic languages. Alas, an enormous body of infected literature awaits scholarly assessment in Arabic and Persian, and increasingly in Turkish. Anti-Semitism has become so common in Arabic and Persian that one almost doesn’t notice it or, out of good manners, one ignores it, believing it an echo of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.

Herf’s work can elicit dismissive hisses and silence from Arabist scholars and diplomats who are concerned about wounding the Palestinian national cause, or just making Muslims appear in a bad light. The wisdom of Vatican II​​—​​that it’s healthy and essential to turn a spotlight on systemic problems​​—​​isn’t seen as applicable with Muslims since they are not similarly guilty of the ghastly crimes that flowed from Christian Europe’s embrace of “Christ-killer” demonology. But European-style anti-Semitism is sinking deeper into Muslim communities.  Muslim charges against the Jews now have a historical depth and religious/racial dimension that seem unlikely to be cured by a Palestinian flag rising over East Jerusalem. It might even make the hatred worse.

Like Herf, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal reporter Ian Johnson knows German well. And he uses it, sleuthing out the truth behind the construction of the first mosque in Munich. Johnson’s curiosity about the Islamic Center of Munich began in 2003 in an Islamist bookstore in London where he espied a global map that displayed the center’s mosque, which was founded in 1958, as one of the most important mosques in the world. “That seemed odd,” Johnson tells us.

I had been writing on religion in Europe .  .  . for half a dozen years, and had lived in Germany even longer. I had heard of the mosque as the headquarters of one of Germany’s smaller Islamic organizations. .   .   . Munich was no center of Islam .   .   . [yet] it was immortalized in someone’s pantheon.

Johnson thus began a five-year voyage, which took him to prewar Berlin and one Gerhard von Mende, a promising, linguistically talented scholar of Central Asia who embraced the Nazi regime. Von Mende and others in the Ostministerium (Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories) developed a plan to turn the Muslims of the Soviet Union against Stalin. The plan failed, but as Johnson reveals, a cadre of pro-Nazi, anti-Soviet Central Asian Muslims survived to be aimed by the West Germans and Americans, with von Mende still guiding the effort, against the Soviet Union. A somewhat tense competition developed between the West Germans and the Americans for Muslim radio broadcasters and covert-action agents, which eventually became a competition between German-supported/alcohol-friendly Central Asians (they meet in Bavarian beer halls) and American-supported devout Arabs connected to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The construction and control of the Munich mosque became center stage in this tug-of-war between two different types of anti-Soviet Muslim activists, who also launched themselves, with covert aid and varying degrees of failure, in a global propaganda campaign against the Soviets. In the end, and with CIA support (my favorite character in the story is a womanizing, nudist-loving, energetic covert-action officer), the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe won the battle. Johnson compiles much evidence to suggest that Said Ramadan, the founder of the World Muslim League (now a major Saudi Wahhabi missionary organization) and the Islamic Center in Geneva (the intellectual headquarters for the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe), was a CIA covert-action agent. The son-in-law of Hassan al-Banna and father of Tariq Ramadan, the chic “moderate” European Islamist gadfly, Said Ramadan was a dedicated anti-Communist; he was also a virulent anti-Zionist and anti-Semite, a jet-setting intellectual who established a beachhead for Islamic militancy in Europe.

As Johnson points out, the major Muslim organizations within Europe are all much more militant than ordinary Muslim denizens. (A similar situation exists here.) Most of them were born through the missionary activity of the Muslim Brotherhood, combined with cash coming from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Present at the creation of this now-extensive network of like-minded Muslims was Said Ramadan and the struggle to build the Munich mosque. Johnson could not get the CIA, or retired officers, to confirm Ramadan’s salaried relationship with the agency, but he compiles a convincing circumstantial case. It boggles the mind (and should excite some Hollywood screenwriter) to imagine that a heavy-drinking, sex-obsessed CIA nudist, who didn’t know anything about Islam, or particularly care for the company of Muslims, enlisted the services of one of the most celebrated Islamists of the last century.

Johnson overplays a bit the centripetal importance of the Munich mosque: Islamic fundamentalism has been the dominant intellectual force in the Middle East since the 1960s. Said Ramadan and his kind were not strategic geniuses, bringing militancy to a religious community that would have known only moderation if not for American aid. They were just the edge of a coming storm: an intellectual revolution among Muslims who were having difficulty absorbing modernity. Trouble in the Muslim heartlands would soon spill over into the Arab expatriate populations living in an unfriendly, culturally seductive and shocking, and prosperous Europe. The militant beachhead in Europe became a place of refuge for fundamentalists hounded by security services back home.

Always alert to irony, Johnson is wry in his parallels: A know-nothing CIA nudist pushed Ramadan to center stage in the 1950s; after 9/11, Republican and Democratic administrations actually reached out to American and European Muslim associations inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and funded by Saudi cash to spread a message of interfaith fraternity. Johnson hits upon the biggest ironic twist since September 11, 2001. 

In some ways, the 9/11 attacks were the best thing that happened to the Brotherhood. Yes, there was a crackdown (in Europe and America), and for a while the Brotherhood suffered. But the attacks caused most Westerners to judge Islamists by one criterion: Was this person a terrorist? If so, then the full weight of government power was brought to bear; if not, then the person was okay. Such people weren’t blowing things up, and they were not only tolerated but valued. Far from problematic, their extremist, undemocratic views were a sign of credibility. They could talk to the Muslim Street. They became one of democracy’s most highly valued commodities: a dialogue partner. 

Ian Johnson understands that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could be viewed as a reform movement at home, given the despotism of President Mubarak. But “what seems moderate in Egypt can be radical in Paris or Munich.” He doesn’t mince words about the dangers posed by the Brotherhood and its many offshoots in the West: “Although the Brotherhood says it supports terrorism only in certain cases​​—​​usually against Israel​​—​​it does more than target Jews. It creates a mental preconditioning for terrorism.”

Johnson takes aim at the European Council for Fatwa and Research, which is probably the most influential body involved in shaping Islamic religious opinion in Europe. This outfit is enormously deferential to the views of Mahdi Akef, the former head of the Egyptian Brotherhood and a Holocaust denier, and Youssef Qaradawi, the most influential television preacher in the Muslim world. Qaradawi, who is constantly on the Al Jazeera satellite channel, is a big fan of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, the stoning of homosexuals, and the physical intimidation of Muslims who don’t hold holy what he does. In Qatar, I once witnessed the late Richard Holbrooke attempt to debate Qaradawi, who has railed against al Qaeda. Holbrooke simply gave up in stuttering disgust as the two men lived in different moral universes. As Holbrooke discovered with Qaradawi, and as the CIA didn’t discover years earlier with Said Ramadan, making common cause with such men is perilous.

President Obama appears determined to reach out to Muslims, to ally America with the anti-al Qaeda faithful against the holy warriors. But in doing so he would do well to remember the mistakes of the past. Obama boldly asserted in Cairo that he knows “what Islam is” and “what it isn’t.” Having spent five years investigating well-intentioned Americans similarly committed to engagement, Ian Johnson might politely answer: “Perhaps not.”

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. His book The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East is forthcoming from Hoover Press.