The Corner

The Things You Can’t Say

I meant to post something on this the other day. This Marty Peretz post reminded me to.

Here’s Paul Berman in the Journal:

In our present Age of the Zipped Lip, you are supposed to avoid making any of the following inconvenient observations about the history and doctrines of the Islamist movement:

You are not supposed to observe that Islamism is a modern, instead of an ancient, political tendency, which arose in a spirit of fraternal harmony with the fascists of Europe in the 1930s and ’40s.

You are not supposed to point out that Nazi inspirations have visibly taken root among present-day Islamists, notably in regard to the demonic nature of Jewish conspiracies and the virtues of genocide.

And you are not supposed to mention that, by inducing a variety of journalists and intellectuals to maintain a discreet and respectful silence on these awkward matters, the Islamist preachers and ideologues have succeeded in imposing on the rest of us their own categories of analysis.

Or so I have argued in my recent book, “The Flight of the Intellectuals.” But am I right? I glance with pleasure at some harsh reviews, convinced that here, in the worst of them, is my best confirmation.

No one disputes that the Nazis collaborated with several Islamist leaders. Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, orated over Radio Berlin to the Middle East. The mufti’s strongest supporter in the region was Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Banna, too, spoke well of Hitler. But there is no consensus on how to interpret those old alliances and their legacy today.

It is remarkable how such an enormously significant historical fact — the Nazi-Islamist connection — could be ignored for so long and, now that the historical spadework has been done, continue to be ignored now that the truth is known. Here’s an excerpt from Daniel Pipes’ recent review in Commentary (sub req’d):

The impact of National Socialism in the Middle East used to appear brief and superficial. Unlike with Communism, whose local parties and outside influence through the Soviet bloc lasted over many decades, the Nazis lasted only about six years, 1939-45, and they had little regional presence beyond Rommel’s armies in North Africa and a fleeting pro-Nazi regime in Iraq.

But two powerful, important books have recently set the record straight. Matthias Küntzel’s Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11 (English edition, 2007; originally published in Germany in 2003) shows the continuing influence of Nazi ideas on Islamists. Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World by Jeffrey Herf focuses on an earlier time, the 1930s-40s, and the major effort by Hitler and his minions to transmit their ideas to the Middle East.

 A specialist in modern German history at the University of Maryland, Herf brings a new corpus of information to light: summary accounts of Nazi shortwave radio broadcasts in the Arabic language that were generated over three years by the U.S. embassy in Cairo. This cache reveals fully, for the first time, what Berlin told the Arabs (and to a lesser extent, the Iranians). As page after page of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World establishes in mind-numbing but necessary detail, the Germans above all pursued two themes: stopping Zionism and promoting Islamism. Each deserves close consideration.

And his conclusion:

Ideas the Nazis helped spread in the Middle East have had an enduring twofold legacy. First, as in Europe, they built on existing prejudice against Jews to transform that prejudice into something far more paranoid, aggressive, and murderous. One U.S. intelligence report from 1944 estimated that anti–Jewish materials constituted fully half of German propaganda directed to the Middle East. The Nazis saw virtually all developments in the region through the Jewish prism and exported this obsession.

The fruits of this effort are seen not only in decades of furious Muslim anti-Zionism, personified by Arafat and Ahmadinejad, but also in the persecution of ancient Jewish communities in countries like Egypt and Iraq, which have now shriveled to near-extinction, plus the employment of Nazis such as Johann van Leers and Aloïs Brunner in important government positions. Thus did the Nazi legacy oppress Jewry in the Middle East post-1945.

Second, Islamism took on a Nazi quality. As someone who has criticized the use of the term Islamofascism on the grounds that it gratuitously conflates two distinct phenomena, I have to report that Herf’s evidence now leads me to acknowledge deep fascist influences on Islamism. This includes the Islamist hatred of democracy and liberalism and its contempt for multiple political parties, preference for unity over division, cult of youth and militarism, authoritarian moralism, cultural repression, and illiberal economics.

Beyond specifics, that influence extends to what Herf calls an “ability to introduce a radical message in ways that resonated with, yet deepened and radicalized, already existing sentiments.” Although a scholar of Europe by training, Herf’s detective work in the U.S. archives has opened a new vista on the Arab–Israeli conflict and Islamism, as well as made a landmark contribution more broadly to an understanding of the modern Middle East.

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