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CFR Papers: Veiled Truths (3)

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The Rise of Political Islam in the West / Part 3 from 4

By Marc Lynch

Desert Foxes

Many of the valuable debates that The Flight of the Intellectuals could have sparked are drowned out by Berman’s ludicrous efforts to construct an intellectual and organizational genealogy linking Nazi Germany and contemporary Islamism. His insistence on the usefulness of the concept of “Islamic fascism” — despite the fact that virtually all Muslims consider it a profound insult to their faith and identity — is one of the surest clues to his indifference to Muslim reality in favor of intellectual gamesmanship.

In a lengthy chapter drawn almost entirely from the recent book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, by the like-minded historian Jeffrey Herf, Berman highlights what he calls the mutual admiration among Banna; Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem; and Nazi leaders such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. Arabs had virtually nothing to do with the Holocaust, of course, but Berman attempts to create a trail of implication by devoting long passages to Husseini’s connections to the Nazis and Banna’s support for Husseini. In the 1930s, Husseini saw Nazi Germany as the most convenient ally in a war against the British mandate and the surging Zionist immigrant community; he then couched this alliance in Islamic terms in an effort to win over mass support. But such history is less titillating to Berman than is the idea that “the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem might have been onto something, and the mufti’s case for an Islamic-Nazi alliance stood on reasonably solid theological ground.” Berman goes on to cite Mark Cohen, a professor at Princeton University and historian of Jews in the Muslim world, who posits (but ultimately rejects) the idea that “the mufti was engaged in a fundamentally perverse and unnatural effort to twist Islam in a new direction.” Berman dances to the brink and then backs away, leaving readers confident of where he hopes they will end up without actually saying where that is.

Berman’s cartoonish tale misses far more significant historical developments that shaped today’s Islamism. In the 1950s, the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, combined with the rise of Sayyid Qutb, the radical Islamic intellectual imprisoned and later executed by the Nasser regime, created a schism that was pivotal to the evolution of modern Islamism. Whereas Banna contested seats in the legislature and maintained an organized armed wing, much as did other political parties at the time, Qutb’s generation had to choose between fleeing Egypt or suffering the torture of its prisons. Banna hoped to work within the architecture of the state — he was a proto-Ramadan, truly, in this sense — but doing so was impossible for Qutb. To Qutb, contemporary society was populated by hypocrites and apostates who had substituted the rule of man for the rule of God. The Muslim Brotherhood eventually rejected Qutb’s views, and by the 1970s, it had turned to enthusiastic participation in the public realm across the Arab world. Qutb’s acolytes, meanwhile, retreated toward violence. Yet Berman simply dismisses this split. In response to the fact that Banna and Qutb never even knew each other, Berman concludes that they “knew” each other in the metaphysical sense. This is indefensible and cause enough to dismiss the entire enterprise.

Berman’s invocation of the Nazis is, of course, meant to validate the controversial concept of Islamic fascism. He demands that Ramadan denounce the roles played in World War II by people such as his grandfather and the grand mufti, and he takes Ramadan’s dismissal of such demands as evidence of something darker. But Ramadan’s exasperation with this line of questioning is easy to understand: the role Husseini played in World War II may be of burning concern to Berman, but it holds little relevance for Ramadan’s own thinking or beliefs. It is a pity that the truly important questions posed by nonviolent Islamist movements in liberal societies are lost amid the heat and noise of the polemics.


Written by Theophyle

August 14, 2010 at 8:28 am

Posted in CFR Papers, Islamism

Tagged with ,

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