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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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.

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