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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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.

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