x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Politics and prayer

From Nazis and CIA agents to the Muslim Brotherhood, Ian Johnson's A Mosque in Munich unlocks a little known chapter of history, writes Issandr El Amrani, but its views are simplistic.

Police officers leave the Islamic Centre in Munich, in April 2005, after searching for evidence of terrorist activity.
Police officers leave the Islamic Centre in Munich, in April 2005, after searching for evidence of terrorist activity.

From Nazis and CIA agents to the Muslim Brotherhood, Ian Johnson's A Mosque in Munichunlocks a little known chapter of history, writes Issandr El Amrani, but its views are simplistic. After the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, they did not renounce Russia's more recent imperial acquisitions. They worked to retain as much as possible of the old Russian Empire and later began to carry out policies in the new Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus to systematically undermine and persecute Muslim inhabitants and their cultural practices. This entailed the closure of mosques (between 1917 and the 1970s, the number of mosques in the Central Asian republics and Azerbaijan went from 250,000 to 500), the persecution of religious elites, the confiscation of awqaf (religious endowments), as well as a campaign to force women to take off the veil.

These policies naturally engendered resistance, and from the 1920s a trickle of dissidents from the Muslim-majority Soviet republics settled in Germany, where they found centres of academic interest in their region as well as some degree of political support. Eventually, they would be drafted by the Nazis - and later, the CIA - to combat communism and destabilise Soviet rule by appealing to nationalist and Muslim sentiment.

The original architect of this strategy was Gerhard von Mende, an academic who developed a passion for "Turkic peoples," a term that covered modern-day Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Tatars. Von Mende played a central role in the Nazis' Ostministerium (Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories), bringing together émigré political activists and POWs from the Soviet Union captured during Operation Barbarossa, the devastating invasion by the Nazis. In the terrible conditions of German camps, many of them in Bavaria, these prisoners were offered a deal: help the Nazis defeat the Soviets, and the Nazis would help them "liberate Turkestan."

Once they accepted this deal - and considering their treatment at the hands of the Soviets, it is hard to blame them - conditions immediately improved in the camps. They were trained to use German weapons and given "history lessons" by educated émigrés who told them that their Russian-dominated nation could once again rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the Soviet empire. They were told they would be an army of national liberation, albeit in German Wehrmacht uniforms, differentiated from the other soldiers in Hitler's army by an arm patch "with a stitched outline of the famous Chah-I-Zindeh mosque in Samarkand and the phrase Biz Alla Bilen - 'God be with us.'" Von Mende and others pushed for them to play a prominent role on the Eastern Front, with their theories of Soviet Muslims being a natural ally of Germany gaining the approval the Führer himself, particularly as his territorial ambition did not reach that part of the world. "I consider only the Mahommedans to be safe," Adolf Hitler told senior officers in 1942.

Von Mende and émigrés championed by the Nazis are part of a cast of fascinating characters that Ian Johnson tracks in A Mosque in Munich, covering seven decades in the history of the eponymous mosque, from its beginning as a community centre for Central Asian Muslim refugees in Germany in the 1940s into a CIA-backed nerve centre for the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe from the 1960s onwards. It provides insight into personalities such as Said Ramadan, a brilliant and charismatic Egyptian Muslim Brother who sought to spread the group's ideas when forced into exile by the Nasser regime, who is today best-known as the father of the Swiss Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan, as well as lesser characters from the CIA and the international Islamist current for whom the outskirts of Munich became an unlikely Cold War battleground.

The transformation from Nazi-backed community to a Muslim Brotherhood outpost, however, was less a natural progression than the book's subtitle might suggest. Instead, interests of various groups converged and diverged according to geostrategic context and, especially, the strengths and foibles of individual personalities. These include CIA agents and advisers to US president Dwight Eisenhower who viewed anti-Soviet Central Asian refugees in Bavaria as a useful tool to use in Radio Liberty, a programme run by the American Committee for the Liberation from Bolshevism, better known as AmComLib. This programme was run from a US-controlled airfield just outside Munich. For nearly two decades the CIA - through AmComLib - would alternately compete and collaborate with a small refugees' affairs bureau tied to West German intelligence, with von Mende at its head, for control and influence of this Muslim community.

Von Mende had lost that battle by the 1960s, overwhelmed by America's deeper pockets and rising awareness of the Nazi Holocaust (he had been an enthusiastic academic backer of anti-Semitic theories in the 1930s). Likewise, the Central Asian refugees had lost their battle for control of the mosque to Muslim Brothers such as Ramadan, whom the CIA had embraced as Egypt drifted towards the Soviet Union after 1956. This established the mosque, as Johnson puts it, as "beachhead for the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe." It is telling, for instance, that Mahdi Akef - until last year the General Guide of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, and one of the movement's most transformative figures in decades - spent much of the 1980s as the mosque's imam. From Munich, Akef tells Johnson in one of the exaggerations he is known for, "we run Islam in the world".

As interesting as this all is, a major flaw of A Mosque in Munich lies in its superficial treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism in general. The ideological convergence between the Nazis and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is overstated, notably in their hostility to Jews. It is true that Nazi anti-Semitism found a willing audience among the Brothers and that Germany in the 1930s and 1940s played an important role in disseminating European anti-Semitism in Egypt. But the Brothers were not the only group that lent a willing ear; one of their rivals at the time was the Misr al-Fatah (Young Egypt) group, which like fascist sympathisers in Europe and the Americas found much to admire in Hitler's movement. The Brothers' anti-Semitism certainly existed, but it was hardly the group's top ideological priority, alongside anti-colonialism, as Johnson suggests: surely their project for a Muslim renewal came before that.

There is a similar lack of nuance in Johnson's understanding of Islamism - which he defines early on as "not the ancient religion of Islam but a highly politicised and violent system of ideas that creates the milieu for terrorism." Just as Central Asian refugees' nationalism embraced Islam as a cultural marker of identity, groups like the Muslim Brothers have been marked as much by nationalism as much as theology. Furthermore, they have not been intellectually static, having for instance abandoned founder Hassan al-Banna's rejection of partisan life and embraced electoral, rather than vanguard, politics. To paint the Brotherhood merely as a precursor of al Qa'eda, an argument usually made by those with an ideological axe to grind, is profoundly misleading, no matter how unpleasant some of its views may be.

One argument that runs through much of the book is a warning against Western engagement of Islamists, an idea popularised in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks as a way to recruit "moderate" Islamists against the nihilism of salafist jihadist groups like al Qa'eda. The Brothers have actually needed no such encouragement to have a public tiff with al Qa'eda's Ayman Zawahri, who hates the Brothers as much he does the "Crusaders". But if Johnson makes a good point in cautioning against paying undue attention to the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe - where it is after all a vanguard group that is not necessarily representative of the European Muslim experience - he often does so for the wrong reason. A more compelling reason for governments and spies to steer clear of the manipulation of religious groups is that, as the West has learned at a great cost, it can so often backfire.

Issandr El Amrani is a writer and analyst based in Cairo. He blogs at www.arabist.net