Friday, June 11, 2010

Grasping the past (6): Islamofascism

I have not read any of Paul Berman’s books but I have read some of his articles, which I have found enlightening. A recent interview with him traverses a range of issues that few liberal intellectuals are willing to consider as bluntly as him.

In particular, Berman is more than happy to explore the connections between fascism (specifically Nazism) and Islamism, which are deep. The jihadi push has long struck me as the Islamic equivalent of European fascism: a modernising revolt against modernity.

A central figure in the links between Nazism and Islamic militancy is Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, an active Nazi collaborator, including in the Holocaust. His significance to the Nazis was directly connected to his connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. As Berman says:
But Nazi awe of the Mufti also had plenty to do with the support graced by al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood, as it went through its growth spurt. While other war criminals were facing trials after the war, the Mufti, who had called for eradication of the Jews, received a hero’s welcome in Eqypt. This was thanks to al-Banna.
Al-Husayni (or al-Husseini) used violence as a weapon both against Jews and fellow Palestinians:
A Palestinian Arab revolt got up against the Zionist movement, with various wings. The most militant of the wings was led by the Palestinian leader, the Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, whose doctrine was Islamist, and Arabist. The Mufti supervised the assassination of quite a few of his rivals among the Palestinian Arabs. So he had just a dreadful effect on Palestinian political culture. And he himself was very attracted from the start to the Nazis. He approached them in 1933 or so. The Nazis began supplying aid to him. By the time an armed revolt had gotten started in 1936 it became one of the proxy wars that was going to lead to World War II.
Nazi propaganda was targeted at the Arab Middle East:
The Germans had a vast short-wave radio propaganda system going on throughout the Arab world and no one has ever found the tapes of those broadcasts. And no one has ever found a German transcript. But Herf had the brilliant idea of checking around to see what might be available in the State Department archives. And there he found it.
This Nazi propaganda fed a series of ideas into the Arab world which still resonate:
The most important of the ideas is that the Jews are a demonic and supernatural force. The goal of the Zionist project in this picture was to destroy the Arab world and replace it with a giant Zionist state.
Al-Husayni wanted Jews not merely resisted, but slaughtered:
Yes, the Mufti calls on the Arabs and Muslims to rise up and massacre the Jews. …
Indeed, at times, he was keener on the exterminationist aims of the Holocaust than the Nazis themselves:
There were a number of times when the Nazis were willing to allow some groups of Jews to leave Europe and escape to Palestine and a large number of children. The Nazis had wanted to do this as a kind of phony propaganda effort to show that they were nice (and anyway expected the Jews to be exterminated in Palestine by the Arabs, or by themselves when they eventually got there). And the Mufti agitated against this. The Mufti was calling successfully for the Nazis to show no clemency and instead send these Jews to Poland, which is to say to be murdered.
Al-Husayni was very much the Nazis kind of guy but, unlike other prominent Nazi supporters in the West after the Nazi defeat, he found the Muslim world welcoming.

My analysis of al-Husayni is that he was a member of the Palestinian landlord class whose social control, based on debt bondage, was being disrupted both by the rising wages created by Jews increasing the capital levels in Mandatory Palestine faster than they increased the labour force and by other migrants from the rest of the Middle East drawn by the rising economic opportunities. Religion and Jew-hatred (which also allowed incorporating Christians, who were particularly prone to Arab nationalism since that did not exclude them or give them second-class status) provided a way to shore up the position the landlord class, which was not able to compete in providing expanding opportunities via modernisation. So al-Husayni used modern political methods to fight against the implications of modernity: a modernising revolt against modernity with an aesthetic, rhetoric and reality of violence in classic fascist style.
Al-Husayni was also part of wider currents of opinion:
The Nazis respected him, he was a genuine war criminal who was able to convince them to take a harder line. And one of the real reasons for the Mufti’s power and influence among Nazis was the support and fealty he was getting from the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hassan al-Banna. So there were close connections and an ideological development.
The ideas continue to resonate. Including in figures who Tariq Ramadan treats reverentially:
Because once you’ve read these Nazi propaganda things and the Mufti’s speeches from the nineteen forties and then you turn and look at Sayyid Qutb from the nineteen fifties and sixties and then you turn and look at Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi from our own moment, you recognize that Qaradawi is repeating almost word for word the Mufti’s Islamic Nazi propaganda from the nineteen forties calling for extermination of the Jews, interpreting Hitler as sent to do God’s work, which was a major theme of Nazi propaganda. And then you look at Ramadan’s writings; you realize that if Ramadan has a single great hero, it is Sheik Qaradawi. It’s in one book after another. Now his relationship to Qaradawi is a little complicated. And in recent years he’s gotten into quarrels with Qaradawi, although not over these issues. He’s remained to the present absolutely reverential.
Given this ideology of slaughter and martyrdom by killing, the implications continue to lead to death and destruction:
Qaradawi thinks the Palestinians should go kill themselves in the course of murdering as many Jews as possible. Let me emphasize here that if these people have committed a really terrible crime, it’s above all against the Palestinians. People don’t talk about this. These are the kinds of ideas and the kinds of leadership that have done so much damage to the Palestinian people, who have legitimate grievances, legitimate rights, whose human rights must be respected, who need a state, who stand in need of actually everything.
In many ways, the Palestinians are very much the central victims al-Husayni’s actions and ideas, with a deeply corrupted political culture:
First of all, the Mufti has victimized the Palestinians by murdering all their best people. But the whole political project that comes out of him and out of al-Banna has victimized the Palestinians by instructing the Palestinians that they are in a supernatural struggle against demonic enemies. If you think that you are in a struggle with human beings and recognize that while you have needs other people also have needs, then you’re in a political situation. And the natural thing to do when you’re in a political situation is to strike a compromise. But this has not been the line that has come out of the Mufti and al-Banna. The line has been that it’s a religious struggle of Islam trying to prevent satanic Jews from exterminating Islam and that the only way to deal with it is to exterminate the supernaturally evil Jews. So the struggle is a religious and supernatural struggle. It becomes impossible to compromise, and becomes possible to think one’s own suicide might be an appropriate response because we’re in the realm of the eternal and the supernatural. So it prevents people from being able to make compromises and leads them to think that murder and suicide are principles that must never be yielded. The Hamas charter is the perfect example. It begins with a little quotation from the Koran, a quotation from al-Banna calling for the elimination or obliteration of Israel (it’s translated in different ways) then it goes on to cite the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is a fundamentally Nazi document, then in Article 7 it draws a quotation from one of the scriptural traditions which would seem to call for extermination of the Jews. …
But I don’t think that the Israelis have created the Palestinian political culture. The rise of these Islamist ideas among the Palestinians owes to the power of the ideas themselves, to the leaders who have promoted them, and to the support that other people around the world have given to these ideas.
Given the reality of various oppressions in the Islamic world--of women, of non-Muslims--the anger of the refugees and apostates is something Berman understands and provides a revealing comparison to:
When you go around and look at one dissident intellectual after another who has come from a background dominated by Islamism, quite a few of them have an angry tone. And they don’t sound very moderate. They sound furious and they sound frightened and I think this is to their merit, because they are expressing their actual reality. What I wonder about is why others don’t sympathize with this, with this anger. And it was the same kind of thing that was said about the Soviet dissidents. They would escape from the Soviet Union and they would not say, “Oh, it’s necessary to have some reforms introduced into the Soviet Union.” Rather, they would say, “Communism is really bad and ought to be overthrown.”
There is far more to the dynamics of Muslim politics and Islamic radicalism than the (relatively brief) experience of European colonial rule. It is a sign of the deeply condescending and patronising attitude of many Western progressivists to Arabs (and Muslims generally) that explicit Nazi connections which would lead to the virulent denunciations of fellow Westerners (or of non-Western allies of the West) are passed over in embarrassed silence, ignored or belittled. For the denouncing fellow Westerners and Western allies feeds progressivist status games while denouncing Arabs or Muslims on the same grounds undermines them.

Instead, we are left with a Middle East, and a Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is imagined, caricatured and framed according to such Western status games, rather than upsetting realities. Veteran journalist Helen Thomas’s recent outburst calling for Israeli Jews to “go back to Germany and Poland” is a case in point. As I pointed out here, Israeli Jews are not even close to being just “European migrants”: and even those who were had grave problems in simply "returning" (via). Many Israeli Jews are of Middle Eastern origin. But Israel accepts Middle Eastern Jews as citizens, while the Arabs prefer to leave Palestinians as stateless sticks to beat Israel with: hence third, fourth, even fifth generation Palestinian “refugees”. So Jewish refugees are invisible to the progressivist conscience while Palestinians are endlessly worthy victims. Just as nine activists killed while attacking Israeli commandos are a global cause célèbre yet Chinese riot police can kill 140 Uighurs and it is completely non-newsworthy.

‘Islamofascism’ is not a silly term, it has a lot of clear history behind it and is, in fact, very revealing about the jihadi impulse: one which is Jew-hating, glorifies violence, maintains an aesthetic of violent heroism, is based on veteran-mystique, abhors liberalism in all its forms and uses the techniques of modernity in a revolt against the patterns and consequences of modernity.

To ignore all that in the name of progressivist status games is not “reality based politics”. It is the very opposite of that. Good on Paul Berman that he is prepared to look at reality directly and convey to the rest of us what he sees there.


  1. I have read two interviews of Berman - Michael J Totten's and the Guernica interview you cite. I take away pretty much the same view as you express here. I am thinking of downloading his Flight of the Intellectuals onto my Kindle which Totten recommends as being worth it for just the material about the relationship between the Nazis and Islamism in the 30s and 40s.

    Shortly after 9/11 I found myself thinking that that the Muslim world seemed to be going through much the same refusal of modernism as the West did in the first half of 20th century. I thought of it as a wave that had passed through Western Culture and is now passing through Muslim culture a half century later. Thus the term Islamofascism always seemed to me to characterize an important aspect of what was going on and I have never accepted the arguments against it. I think you extend the understanding of both Nazism and Islamofascism when you describe them as "a modernising revolt against modernity". Yes, the Nazis were modernizers using the latest technology to unleash the most primitive and destructive layers of barbarism from within German culture. And so are the Islamofascists who unleash their own peculiar barbarism with the same self righteous excess.

    But all this was largely a metaphoric connection. Oh I knew about the Mufti of Jerusalem and his Nazi connections and anti Semitic broadcasts, but I didn't know about the transcripts of the broadcasts and their direct verbal connection to contemporary Muslim rhetoric. Just as I didn't know that Arafat had been trained by the Nazis or that the Muslim Brotherhood had become mainstream directly from Nazi sponsorship. So Berman makes us realize that the connection is material, not just metaphoric. Nazism was not defeated in 1945 - it lives on today in the Muslim world.

  2. Given that view of Islamofascism the course of my own thinking moved on to that other murderous totalitarianism of the 20th century - communism. Marx and even Marxist Leninists were trying to improve the world and were not digging intentionally into the darker regions of their psyches to get back in touch with the primitive energies. On the contrary they were out to wipe all that away and create a 'new man.' But they too fell into the maw of the unconscious and perpetrated great barbarities all justified by the belief that it was entirely justified to murder their way to human progress. How does a principled attempt at progress end up producing disastrous regression? My thought is that communism was also "a modernising revolt against modernity" because it's real appeal was to the instincts the human race developed during its hunter gatherer phase. In that phase the ideals of communism - things like equality and common property were the norm. And, of course that is the phase in which mankind has spend most of its evolutionary history. That is a period of perhaps 100,000 years during which our instincts developed - not in the last 5000 years of agricultural life. For example we still need to be taught that stealing is wrong. In understanding the transition from hunter gatherer to agriculture the story of Cain and Able is instructive as are all those Western movies pitting the communal open range cattlemen against the propertarian, fence building, sheep men.:-) So I think both the initial and the persistent appeal of communism is in part explained by this appeal to the instincts - an attempt to recreate a Utopian paradise of equals where the state withers away. It failed utterly because the peoples of the 20th century were well evolved beyond the days when nature enforced equality and prevented the accumulation of property. Instead the enforcers were members of The Party who were always more equal than others. I grew up suspecting that communism was probably right even though that was not my family's view. They were FDR Democrats so leftist idea were acceptable, but they had lived through the depression when it looked like American Democracy would fall to either communism or fascism. I certainly had an inner debate going until I read Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon which made me realize that all the negative things I had heard about communism were actually true. I was about 14.

  3. I've ordered Understanding Postmodernism from Amazon and can't wait to get it! Everyone US & UK was out of stock but Amazon came good first. My instinct tells me that pomo is a cul de sac in Western thought that nonetheless has some value. In my experience it always seems that it is being used in the dishonest service of the leftist agenda with only a few exceptions. Richard Landes of is a notable exception.

  4. Thanks for you very thoughtful comments, which I agree with. The communism is essentially primitivist in its perspectives is a longstanding critique of it.

    (I dip into Auguean Stables from time to time.)