Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Third Reich in Jerusalem

The belief that we live in Enlightened times, that the prevailing cosmovision is scientific and rational, is itself a component of an irrational and violent ideology. We do not live in such a time, and the intelligentsia do not produce work reflecting such commitments. Rather, the great bulk of intellectual production is a labour of fabulation. Histories are aesthetic products, stimulating narratives for those bored with the novel, morality tales for those disenchanted with religion, improving sentiments and axioms for those who don't want to spend their tube journey deflecting anxiety about work with a copy of the Metro. The efficacy of these works as aesthetic productions, dealing in irony, allusion and juxtaposition, and using tragic, romantic or comedic modes of emplotment, is part of their proof, part of their ability to persuade.

So, in the interminable era of the 'war on terror', we have been fed a slurry of literature rehearsing the apocalyptic dramaturgy of Oswald Spengler and his epigones. The key actor, the hero, is the corporative entity known as 'The West'. It is locked in a mortal combat, a fight to the death, with the villain, a relentless and tyrannical opponent, known as 'radical Islam' or 'Islamo-fascism' or 'totalitarianism', tout court. The ideas of 'totalitarianism' constitute the deux ex machina, the animating spirit that subjectivates an otherwise inert substrata of humanity, and sends it rushing, ululating, en masse, toward Jerusalem or New York.

The latest installment of this narrative is provided by the American Eustonite, Jeffrey Herf (criticised by Richard Wolin here, resulting in a debate here). Disinterring, once again, the collusion between Haj Amin al-Husseini, the British-imposed Mufti of Jerusalem, and Adolf Hitler, Herf sets out make the case that 'radical Islam' constitutes the third wave of 'totalitarianism' in the world, following communism and fascism. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Can a gripping narrative be concocted from such hackneyed materials? Not by Herf, it can't. His efforts to add panache and colour to an utterly forlorn parable revolve around the single narrative conceit of 'Hate Radio', in which pro-Nazi broadcasts in Arab countries during WWII, to some extent facilitated by al-Husseini, are 'hate radio with a vengeance'. The sparsity of evidence for the larger case he wants to make is compensated for with tenuous extrapolations and sensational quotations. The denouement involves one particularly bestial broadcast, inciting the massacre of the Jews in the Arab countries, just as the Nazis were embarking on the final solution. Such viciousness, Herf maintains, found a receptive audience. His evidence doesn't permit too much extrapolation - he can refer to 'elements' in the Egyptian officer corps and the Muslim Brothers whom Berlin thought might be willing to act on such ideas. Herf writes:

Two German historians, Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers, recently uncovered evidence that German intelligence agents were reporting back to Berlin that if Rommel succeeded in reaching Cairo and Palestine, the Axis powers could count on support from some elements in the Egyptian officer corps as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. Mallmann and Cüppers also show that an SS division was preparing to fly to Egypt to extend the Final Solution to the Middle East. The British and Australian defeat of Rommel at the Battle of El 'Alamein prevented that from happening.

I assume that Herf is referring to an article by Mallmann and Cüppers in the journal Yad Vashem Studies, vol 36, in which the two historians outline a plan to send a unit under SS-Obsturmbannfuhrer Walter Rauth to conquer Egypt, and then proceed to Palestine where, the authors write, "it undoubtedly would see action directed primarily against the Jewish population there". This 'undoubtedly' is not warranted by any evidence cited, but even if it were, I am not persuaded that this amounts to evidence of a plan to "extend the Final Solution to the Middle East". Nor is it obvious that the "elements" identified by the Nazis would have proven amenable to such a programme.

For, as Herf's case proceeds, the connections become all the more tenuous. He asks: "How was Nazi propaganda received by Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East?" He cites an evaluation from the OSS referring to 'apathy' in the Middle East regarding the trial of Nazis, and 'sympathy' for those who aided the Axis due to their hostility to the imperialists. This isn't particularly compelling as evidence, nor would it be surprising if it contained some truth, given the jackbooted behaviour of the colonial powers. It explains and demonstrates precious little. An interesting question would be, how did Arab public opinion receive the vicious exterminationist broadcast inciting genocide against the Jews, the one that Herf is at pains to quote at length? Did anyone actually carry out this genocide, or attempt to? Herf demonstrates no such conspiracy. Nor does he demonstrate that antisemitic ideas had much popular traction.

Instead, what he does is show that Hassan al-Banna of the Muslim Brothers celebrated al-Husseini as a "hero" who "challenged an empire and fought Zionism" through his alliance with the Nazis. Now, al-Banna was both an antisemite and and anti-Zionist. His analysis, in common with many variants of Islamism, was that Western imperialism had destroyed and dislocated Islamic forms of sociability, and that this was being driven by a disintegrative Jewish minority. This has to be registered. But in Herf's polemic, anti-Zionism is uncomplicatedly conflated with antisemitism. Obviously, the two are related, but Herf wants to assert a unidirectional causality: Islamists were anti-Zionist because they were antisemitic - not the other way around, and not because Zionism was itself a colonizing movement that posed a grave menace not just to Palestinians but to other Arab countries in their struggle against colonialism.

As Herf indicates in his debate with Wolin, he considers the 'totalitarian' ideas of 'radical Islam' to be responsible for the majority of problems in the Middle East, denying that it is in any sense a response to external aggression. Here, he relies on a red herring, pointing out that Western interventions since 1945 cannot have substantially caused the rise of Islamism, whose key doctrines were in place before that point. As if 'Western interventions' did not include the construction of the Suez canal, the subsequent colonization of Egypt, the scramble for Africa, the Mandates, etc etc. Might it not be of some interest that Mawdudi and al-Banna, two key figures in the founding of modern Islamism, operated in two countries (India and Egypt) which experienced a particularly savage form of colonial domination from quite early on? Does the doctrine of Islamic restoration espoused by Mawdudi have anything to do with the seige mentality created by British rule and its impact on traditional forms of life? Does his success in attracting post-Partition migrants to the Jamaat-e-Islami have anything to do with a cynical 'divide and quit' policy pursued by the British? If one wants to discuss and anatomise the ideas of these movements, it is not possible to do so without discussing the colonial labyrinth in which they fermented, not to mention the post-colonial systems of domination in which they expanded.

But that is not the kind of history that Herf is interested in. He wants to establish a precarious genealogy of ideas, no matter how tenuous and slender the interconnecting branches are. Thus, he notes that Qutb, an intellectual source for that brand of salafism purveyed by 'Al Qaeda', was an antisemite who claimed that Hitler had been sent by Allah to punish the Jews. This stands as one, utterly frail, limb connecting the Third Reich to the 9/11 attacks. He then recites the antisemitism of the Hamas 'charter', having also previously reminded readers of Ahmadinejad's Holocaust-denial, noting that these are forms of antisemitism which originate in Europe. This is, of course, true, but it does not establish a direct channel from the Third Reich to the Islamic Republic of Iran, or the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Yet this is how, through a series of metonymic substitutions, we get from Nazi broadcasts and al-Husseini to Qutb and Banna, to the Islamic revolution in Iran, to Hamas and, ultimately, to Al Qaeda - an extremely diverse range of groups, movements and individuals, who appear to share nothing more than that they have espoused antisemitism and that they want to establish some form of Islamic polity. This isn't so much a narrative as a montage of fragments, quotes, anecdotes, particles of forensic evidence, and extravagant claims.

In fact, this kind of allusion and juxtaposition is central to the case. As Wolin points out, the vectors of 'totalitarian' influence allegedly extend not just through 'radical Islamists', but also through the "Arab radicals" referred to in the original article. Thus, it is pointed out that Nasser recruited a former Nazi to work for his information ministry. This is, Wolin adds, not much of a case for anything given that the CIA recruited many, many Nazis for its global counterrevolutionary programmes. It isn't even particularly germane to the case. A secular anticolonial nationalist who tortured his Islamist opponents, Nasser can neither be considered a promulgator of Nazism or of any variant of 'political Islam'. But, as with previous incarnations of 'antitotalitarian' history, notably that vulgar treatise by Paul Berman written to justify the Iraq war, the point about 'totalitarianism' is that 'Arab radicals', 'Islamists', communists and fascists are all fungible. Or rather, in the puree of 'totalitarianism', they are indistinguishable. Thus, Berman had no scruple about describing Ba'athism as a variant of 'Muslim' or 'Islamic' 'totalitarianism'. Only through such pedestrian narrative devices is it possible to assert that there is at this time a movement against 'the West' that is comparable in its ideas, its coherency, scope and threat, to the Third Reich.