The Magazine

Fatal Intersection

The marriage of Islamic fundamentalism and European anti-Semitism.

Jan 17, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 17 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World
by Jeffrey Herf
Yale, 352 pp., $30

Fatal Intersection

Police raid at the Munich mosque, 2005

Johannes Simon / AFP / Getty Images / Newscom

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].” 

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