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DECODING DOUBLE TALK
In "Veiled Truths" (July/August 2010), Marc Lynch's suggestion that clever U.S. diplomats ought to play rival factions of the Islamist movement against one another has a ring of common sense, which I applaud, even if the idea is not exactly novel. But I worry that Lynch's one intelligent remark may lull readers into supposing that his other comments are equally sensible -- for example, his judgment that Hamas is a "moderate" movement, useful as "a firewall against radicalization." But mostly, I worry that this one comment may lull readers into believing anything that Lynch writes about me or my book The Flight of the Intellectuals.
Lynch's complaints about me are large and various, and they rise to a climactic sentence: "Nor is he concerned that expressing extreme anti-Islamic views and embracing only those Muslims who reject Islam might help al Qaeda by antagonizing those hewing to the Muslim mainstream and perhaps convincing them that [Osama] bin Laden is right after all." If you disentangle the complexities of the gerunds and clauses in the sentence, you will see that Lynch has accused me of being an anti-Muslim extremist whose writings are fodder for terrorism. Here, I conclude, is a less than positive review. And yet what dreadful thing have I done?
It has lately been argued that the United States should "engage" with Islamists. I agree. Therefore, I have engaged with the Swiss philosopher Tariq Ramadan. I have done this by taking him seriously as a thinker, by reading his work closely, by examining his philosophical assumptions, and by arguing with him at length. This is not an incitement to terrorism. This is a way to clarify ideas and reduce misunderstandings. To be sure, my study of Ramadan's work has not aroused in me feelings of admiration. But I have laid out in full the reasons for my poor opinion, as critics, unlike diplomats, should always do.
Lynch has immersed himself in Ramadan's world of intra-Islamist debate. But I fear that in doing so, he has succumbed to a common syndrome of academic regional specialists: he has ended up adopting several of the intellectual assumptions that ought to be his topic of study. He denounces me as an unreasonable extremist because he cannot imagine how a reasonable person could read Ramadan in a different light than he does. And he fails to notice that by taking some of the Islamists' assumptions as factual reality, he has lost the ability to make elementary judgments. His depiction of Hamas as a moderate and helpful organization can serve as one example, and I will point to another.
The name of Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Islamic scholar and al Jazeera televangelist, pops up repeatedly in my book because it pops up still more frequently in Ramadan's major books on Islamic philosophy. Lynch judges my description of Qaradawi to be drawn "so crudely that few Muslims would recognize him in the caricature." Lynch would prefer Qaradawi to be described as "an icon to mainstream nonviolent Islamists and an object of outrage among Salafi jihadists" -- which makes Qaradawi sound admirable, or at least minimally acceptable, even if, as Lynch acknowledges, Qaradawi "often takes issue with U.S. foreign policy and is certainly hostile toward Israel."
From reading Lynch, however, or from reading Ramadan (who has always treated Qaradawi as a revered mentor, even when respectfully disagreeing with him), one would never guess that Qaradawi is a genocidal anti-Semite. In Qaradawi's televised opinion, Allah inflicted Hitler on the Jews "to put them in their place." And Qaradawi has called for a renewal of Hitler's efforts: "Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one."
Lynch observes that I describe Qaradawi as "monstrous," with the quotation marks signifying Lynch's wry opinion that I have rendered Qaradawi cartoonishly. He scoffs at my insistence on noticing a Nazi influence in Qaradawi's thinking. But Lynch is able to scoff only because, like Ramadan himself, he hides behind euphemisms -- in this case, his phrase "hostile toward Israel," when what he really means is "Hitlerian."
These television speeches by Qaradawi were translated and posted online by the Middle East Media Research Institute in January 2009. A few months later, Ramadan published the most recent of his serious philosophical books, Radical Reform -- and in this book, exactly as in the past, Ramadan repeatedly cites Qaradawi in a spirit of deference and reverence. My impulse is to be horrified. Lynch's response is to say that if someone in this debate is an extremist, it is I. Who is right? I will only observe that Lynch should not expect people with reactions like mine to pipe down anytime soon.
Lynch complains that I rely on translations, but this is not true in regard to Ramadan, whom I have read in his own language of French. Lynch writes that "Ramadan has criticized bin Laden and condemned terrorism." But Ramadan, in his untranslated book Jihâd, violence, guerre et paix en Islam, specifically limits his criticism to bin Laden's opinions, not addressing his actions -- given that, in Ramadan's view, there is no "definitive proof" of bin Laden's role in 9/11. And Ramadan explains that Palestinian terrorists have "no recourse" but terrorism -- which, to my eyes, undoes his condemnation.
In The Flight of the Intellectuals, my discussion of controversies over the phrase "Islamic fascism" derives from yet another untranslated book: Sortir de la malédiction (To Escape the Curse), by Abdelwahab Meddeb, a prize-winning French Tunisian author. My discussion of this topic concludes with commentary on a novel by the Francophone Algerian writer Boualem Sansal called The German Mujahid, which pertinently asks why people shrink from noticing the obvious links between the Nazi past and the Islamist present. Lynch appears to think that Francophone writers such as Meddeb and Sansal count for nothing in the world of modern ideas -- not to mention the Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun or scholars such as the Syrian German political theorist Bassam Tibi (just to cite some writers whose work directly influenced my book).
But what makes Lynch so sure? Ramadan's single most interesting thought is his prediction that European Islam will someday prove to be the center and not just a marginal element of worldwide Islam. When that day comes, however, the truly influential thinkers and writers will turn out to be the very people whom Lynch dismisses as inconsequential -- the European (and North American) liberals from Muslim backgrounds, freethinkers and pious believers alike. These people, the anti-Islamists, are right now composing brilliant and lasting works of literature and philosophy -- but their achievements will never be recognized by Islamism's apologists in Western universities.
PAUL BERMAN is a writer in residence at New York University. His most recent book is The Flight of the Intellectuals.
THE NAZIS' ARABIAN NIGHTS
Marc Lynch writes that Paul Berman's "obsession with Nazism is distracting, and his dissection of [Tariq] Ramadan approaches the pathological." This sentence -- which dismisses concern about Nazism and makes an ad hominem attack on an accomplished public intellectual -- reflects badly on Lynch and this magazine. Lynch's essay also presents more substantive issues, which merit a fuller reply.
Lynch refers to "Berman's ludicrous efforts to construct an intellectual and organizational genealogy linking Nazi Germany and contemporary Islamism." I share in this supposedly ludicrous endeavor: since 9/11, I have argued that the rhetoric and ideology of contemporary Islamism draws in part on the history of Arab and Islamist collaboration with Nazi Germany. Contemporary Islamism draws on paranoid and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that resemble those used to justify mass murder in the 1940s. And in their hatred of Western modernity and democracy, as well as in their suppression of women, Islamists do recall the Nazi and fascist ideologues of the previous century.
These are not new arguments, nor am I alone in making them. The link between Nazism and Islamism was first explored during World War II, in reports issued by the U.S. State Department, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and various military intelligence agencies. Mapping this intellectual lineage subsequently became a common theme in postwar scholarship. Classic works include Manfred Halpren's 1963 The Politics and Social Change in the Middle East and North Africa, which argued that "neo-Islamic movements are essentially fascist movements," and Lukasz Hirszowicz's 1966 The Third Reich and the Arab East, which revealed the enthusiasm with which Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, regarded Nazi Germany. In recent years, German, Israeli, and U.S. scholars, some of whom have used Arabic and Iranian texts, have made additional contributions. Clear echoes of the kinds of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that were at the heart of Nazi ideology can be found in a range of Islamist statements, such as the 1988 Hamas charter, proclamations by al Qaeda, speeches by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and recent declarations by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In writing Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, which documents the Third Reich's conscious propaganda campaign aimed at the Middle East and North Africa, I drew on several thousand pages of translations of Nazi Germany's Arabic-language radio broadcasts to the region. The translated collection of these texts, called "Axis Broadcasts in Arabic," was produced by a team assembled by Alexander Kirk, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1941 to 1944, and later overseen by Pinkney Tuck, Kirk's successor in Cairo. The files of the U.S. embassy in Egypt were placed in the U.S. National Archives in Maryland and were declassified in 1977. For 30 years, scholars and experts on the Middle East managed to avoid making any mention of these crucial documents; it was only in 2007, when I came across the translations in the course of my research for Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, that they entered the scholarly debate. If there is anything "ludicrous" about documenting the extent of Arab and Islamist collaboration with Nazi Germany, it is that scholars who study the history and politics of the modern Middle East managed for so long to avoid confronting such crucial evidence.
The history of this collaboration was not always viewed as a distraction. In the years during and after World War II, some U.S. diplomats and military officers were interested in -- and worried about -- this relationship and its aftereffects. In a report from June 1945, analysts at the OSS ruefully noted that "in the Near East the popular attitude toward the trial of war criminals is one of apathy. As a result of the general Near Eastern feeling of hostility to the imperialism of certain of the Allied powers . . . there is a tendency to sympathize with rather than condemn those who have aided the Axis." CIA officials were sufficiently worried that they continued to follow the activities of Husseini and other Arab and Islamist collaborators with the Nazi regime into the 1950s. Yet as the anti-Hitler coalition gave way to the altered fronts and affiliations of the Cold War -- and to realist arguments about access to Middle Eastern oil -- interest in the Arab and Islamist collaboration with Nazism faded into the background.
Since Lynch is unable to deny that Husseini collaborated with the Nazi regime, he repeats the common apologia, describing the collaboration as a matter of calculation rather than belief -- as if this would somehow be less objectionable. In fact, by the 1930s, Husseini was already a collaborator of the heart as well as the head. He played a central role in propagating a distinctively anti-Semitic reading of the Koran and its commentaries. Rather than couch his alliance "in Islamic terms in an effort to win over mass support," as Lynch writes, Husseini won a significant following precisely because -- in contrast to more moderate Arab and Palestinian leaders -- he connected his opposition to Zionist politics to the ancient hatred of the Jews that emerged from his distorted reading of Islamic texts. It was this conception of Islam that made him appealing to Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and other high-ranking Nazi officials. In their view, Husseini offered a point of entry for Nazi Germany into a popular current of Islamist sentiment. Yet for Lynch, this is all a "cartoonish tale."
Lynch dates the Islamic intellectual Sayyid Qutb's radicalization to the Egyptian government's repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, which gained full force after the group's failed assassination attempt on Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. But Qutb wrote the essay "Our Struggle With the Jews" -- one of the crucial links between Nazi and Islamist ideology -- in the early 1950s, several years before Nasser began his crackdown. This viciously anti-Semitic text, which was published again by the Saudi government in 1970, repeats many themes from the Nazi radio broadcasts and from Husseini's ideology -- namely, that Jews have always been the "enemy" of Islam and sought its destruction and that therefore they deserved the punishments inflicted by Allah and carried out by Hitler. Over the years, Qutb's essay has become a canonical text for Islamists. In 1987, Ronald Nettler, a British historian of Islam, published an English translation of the essay in a book called Past Trials and Present Tribulations: A Muslim Fundamentalist's View of the Jews. Somehow, this text has also escaped Lynch's notice.
Islamism has always been a hybrid ideology. Its origins can be found in the politics of the Middle East and North Africa from the 1930s to the 1950s. However, one of the key chapters of that period was also written in Nazi-era Berlin. Although Islamism has various forms of expression, groups such as al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the current regime in Tehran -- which engage in terrorism and espouse radical anti-Semitism -- are inspired by its core themes. Berman's The Flight of the Intellectuals raises a deeply disturbing question: Why do many intellectuals who think of themselves as liberals find it so hard to speak more plainly about Islamism, its past ties to Nazism and fascism, and its connections to terrorism today? Lynch's attack on Berman -- and his dismissal of the large and growing body of evidence on Nazism's influence on Islamism in the mid-twentieth century -- calls into doubt his own claims to expertise.
JEFFREY HERF is Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the author of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World.
Paul Berman is correct to point to European Islam as a fundamental arena for the development of new ideas and models for how Muslims can live as citizens and believers. He and I share many concerns about trends within the Muslim communities of Europe and the Middle East, even if we disagree about how to understand and counter them. Those disagreements matter. Berman errs in framing the struggle within these communities as one between Islamists and "liberals from Muslim backgrounds," which is one, but not the primary, line of contestation today. Understanding the challenge of how Muslims in Europe and throughout the world will decide to participate in politics and society requires a sense of the ongoing struggle among Salafists, Islamists, and a vast middle ground of politically motivated but non-Islamist Muslims. Berman's call to embrace figures widely viewed as hostile by most Muslims and his demonization of those seen as mainstream feeds the most dangerous narratives of a war between the West and Islam; whatever his intentions, Berman is likely to empower the violent extremists whom we both hope to marginalize and defeat.
Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential Qatar-based Islamist, exemplifies both our disagreement and its stakes. Indeed, Qaradawi has voiced extremely hostile views of Israel, and such rhetoric has made him an intensely controversial figure in Europe and the Arab world. But his views, particularly during the bloody years after the outbreak of the al Aqsa intifada, in 2000, are unfortunately well within the Arab mainstream. To understand why so many Arabs and Muslims do not view Qaradawi as an extremist requires exactly the kind of immersion in intra-Muslim debates that Berman denigrates. Most Muslims judge Qaradawi not by his views on Israel but rather by his influential redefinition of the "Islamic awakening," his doctrinal arguments against juridical extremism, his fatwas in support of democracy, and his antipathy to al Qaeda and to Salafi jihadism. Knowing all this does not excuse Qaradawi's views on Israel, but it does explain why reducing him to those views will strike most Muslims -- and academic specialists -- as an unacceptable caricature and why Tariq Ramadan's admiration for him is not the smoking gun that Berman claims.
Jeffrey Herf takes exception to my depiction of Berman's account of the Nazi influence on the Islamic world as "ludicrous." He protests that his recent book, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, offers substantial evidence in support of Berman's claims. It does not. Through an analysis of newly studied U.S. embassy documents, Herf's book does offer fascinating details on the content of German propaganda broadcasts to the Middle East. But few students of propaganda and strategic communications would be so bold as to assume that a message sent is a message received. In order to prove that this propaganda decisively shaped the evolution of political Islam or attitudes in the Middle East today, one would have to look closely at the evolution of ideas and trends within contemporary Islamism.
This is where Herf, like Berman, falls short. It is not sufficient to search in U.S. government archives or to rely on an English translation of an essay by Sayyid Qutb to discover the ideas and influences of contemporary Islamism. It would be better to learn Arabic and read Qutb's work in the original and become immersed in the vast ocean of commentaries and debates that have consumed Islamist political thought over many decades. Similarly, it would be useful to travel to the region and talk to Islamists, ask about their influences and their priorities, observe their political behavior and interactions, and read their published and unpublished documents. One could even read the mountains of scholarship written about contemporary Islamists in English. But Herf writes about Islamism in the Arab world while citing no documents or literature in Arabic and while footnoting virtually none of the enormous secondary literature on the subject. This will not do.
Were there Nazi influences on the Middle East in the 1940s? Of course. The Germans, like the Allies, realized the strategic significance of the region and sought to mobilize support where they could. Arabs perceived a common threat posed by the United Kingdom and France -- along with expanding Jewish immigration to Palestine -- and some sought assistance from Berlin. As the conflict over Palestine escalated, many Arabs and Muslims became attracted to European ideas -- including, sadly, anti-Semitic ones -- which took root in new ground. But as The Arabs and the Holocaust, a recent book by Gilbert Achcar, a Lebanese academic, makes clear, the argument for a decisive Nazi influence on contemporary Islamism remains thin. The suggestion that the rhetoric of the World War II era in some way validates the inflammatory concept of "Islamic fascism" simply does not hold up.
Ultimately, the historiographic debate is not the point. No matter what lay in the hearts of Haj Amin al-Husseini or Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood -- or in the hearts of the millions of Arabs and Muslims who have mobilized around the issues those two men raised -- those days are long past. Those arguments have little relevance to the more urgent question of how to best grapple with today's multifaceted and rapidly evolving Islam. It is not surprising that few Islamists or Muslims -- or academics, for that matter -- feel the need to return to the Nazi era to understand today's problems.
The attempt to draw a straight line from Hitler to today's Islamists leads directly to the kind of overgeneralization found in Herf's response, in which al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iranian regime are conflated despite the vast differences in their origins, ideologies, methods, beliefs, and memberships. In arguing that Islamists resemble the Nazis in their hatred of democracy, Herf is seemingly unaware that Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood routinely participate in elections and that Islamists -- including Qaradawi -- have developed elaborate theoretical justifications in favor of democratic participation.
That sort of misreading of Islamism has very serious costs: it misinforms publics, misguides policymakers into making potentially tragic mistakes, alienates Muslims who must be integrated into Western societies, and empowers the extremists opposed to such peaceful coexistence. Preventing such unnecessary tragedies should be a top priority for scholars and policymakers alike.