How Nazism shaped Islamist views

Today’s Jew-hatred in the Middle East has a sinister European colouring


By Jeffrey Herf, February 25, 2010
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Political Islam is partly the product of a cultural fusion between European and Islamist traditions of Jew-hatred. Nazism's Arabic-language propaganda aimed at the Middle East during the Second World War indicates that a crucial chapter in the history of that fusion took place in Berlin during the war.

It was then and there that the highest-ranking officials of the Nazi regime, including Hitler and officials in the Foreign Ministry and the SS, had a meeting of hearts and minds with pro-Nazi Arab and Muslim exiles such as Haj Amin el-Husseini (the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem) and Rashid Ali Kilani, the former head of a short-lived Iraqi regime. Throughout the Second World War, their collaboration led to thousands of hours of short-wave Arabic-language radio broadcasts to the Middle East.

In the spring of 1942, officials in the American Embassy in Cairo began to send verbatim, English-language translations of the broadcasts back to the State Department in Washington. As only small fragments of the broadcasts remain in the German government archives and in the files of British intelligence, the Cairo Embassy files in the United States National Archives outside Washington, DC, are the most complete record in any language of these important documents. There remains much work to be done by scholars who read Arabic and Farsi to trace the continuities and discontinuities between past and present. Nevertheless, it is clear Islamism of recent decades echo some themes of wartime broadcasts.

In their Arabic-language broadcasts, the Nazis stated that Zionists had started the Second World War in order to establish a Jewish state and dominate the Arab world. In its propaganda aimed at Germans at home, the Nazi regime publicly asserted that it was "exterminating" the Jews of Europe. In the Arabic-language broadcasts to the Middle East, Arabic language announcers called on listeners to take matters into their own hands and "kill the Jews" in the Middle East themselves. Rather than translations of speeches by Hitler or Goebbels, it was a fundamentalist reading of the Koran that was crucial for justifying Jew-hatred with Muslim listeners. Husseini and others asserted that Jews had been the enemies of Islam from its inception. They presented Zionist goals in Palestine as only the latest of the Jews' efforts to destroy Islam.

In the years following the war, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hassan al-Banna and, its leading ideologue of the 1950s, Sayyid Qutb, offered evidence that the messages from Berlin had found a welcome reception among Muslim extremists. In June 1946, when Husseini returned to Cairo, Al-Banna said that Husseini would "continue the struggle" that Hitler and Germany had waged against Zionism.

In his important essay of the early 1950s, Our Struggle with the Jews, Qutb described the Jews as implacable enemies of Islam. He further claimed that Allah had sent Hitler to earth to "punish" the Jews for their evil deeds. During the war, Nazi Orientalists working for Himmler's SS wrote Arabic-language propaganda that presented Hitler as a figure sent by Allah to punish the Jews.

In echoing these assertions, Qutb, whose rage was intensified by the establishment of the state of Israel, sought to justify the Holocaust. For the Islamists, Israel's creation proved that Nazism's conspiracy theory about vast Jewish power had been proven correct. After 1945, the ideological poison unleashed by the Nazi regime did not die. Rather it mutated, changed its cultural context and merged with a distinctly different cultural tradition. The history of the seven decades of that mutation and evolution remains to be written. When it is, the chapter on wartime Berlin will be an important one.

Jeffrey Herf's 'Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World' is published by Yale University Press. He is a professor of modern European and German history at the University of Maryland at College Park.

    Last updated: 3:35pm, June 3 2010

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