250 The Roots of Radical Islam

 To understand radical Islam’s emergence during the last half of the 20th century, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower:  Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (NY:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2006) remains one of best researched, most readable surveys.  He tells how a small cadre of religious zealots—most notably Sayyid Qutb, Ayman  al-Zawahiri, and Osama bin Laden—deliberately upended our world.  And they did so, in part, because the United States routinely failed to understand, withstand, and respond to their assaults.  Amazingly, despite recurrent warnings and violent episodes, almost no one in America took them seriously.  “It was too bizarre, too primitive and exotic.  Up against the confidence that Americans placed in modernity and technology and their own ideals to protect them from the savage pageant of history, the defiant gestures of bin Laden and his followers seemed absurd and even pathetic” (p. 6).  

Wright begins his account portraying Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian school teacher who came to the United States in 1949.  Filled with hatred for the new nation of Israel and shocked by its triumph over Arab armies, he found in America added fuel for the Islamic zeal consuming his soul.  The shame and shock at the establishment of Israel “would shape the Arab intellectual universe more profoundly than any other event in modern history.  ‘I hate those Westerners and despise them!’ Qutb wrote after President Harry Truman endorsed the transfer of a hundred thousand Jewish refugees into Palestine.  ‘All of them, without any exception:  the English, the French, the Dutch, and finally the Americans, who have been trusted by many’” (p. 9).  His hatred, interestingly enough, didn’t deter him from coming to study in America! 

Though generally well-treated by the ordinary folks in Washington D.C. and Greeley, Colorado, where Qutb briefly studied and continued his writing projects, he looked for and found proof of America’s degeneracy in such events such as a church dance, the freedom enjoyed by women, and publications such as the spurious Kinsey Report.  Hostility to America meshed easily with hostility to Israel to form the core of his world view, and when he returned to Egypt he believed :  “Modern values—secularism, rationality, democracy, subjectivity, individualism, mixing of the sexes, tolerance, materialism—had infected Islam through the agency of Western colonialism.  America now stood for all that” and he was persuaded “that Islam and modernity were completely incompatible” (p. 24).  Ultimately  imprisoned by General Abdul Nasser—the first truly native-born Egyptian to rule Egypt in 2500 years—he wrote Milestones, an enormously influential treatise, to recall Muslims to the pristine purity of their 7th century origins.  For radical Muslims, Qutb’s Milestones resembles Hitler’s Mein Kampf or Lenin’s What Is to Be Done.  

The second significant Islamist was Ayman al-Zawahiri, a medical doctor from a prominent family who was reared in an upscale Cairo suburb.  During his student years he absorbed and quickly promoted Qutb’s version of Islam.  He too was distressed by the mere existence of Israel and felt humiliated by Egypt’s collapse in the 1967 war—a decisive “psychological turning point in the history of the modern Middle East.  The speed and decisiveness of the Israeli victory in the Six Day War humiliated many Muslims who had believed until then that God favored their cause.  . . . The profound appeal of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt and elsewhere was born in this shocking debacle” (p. 38).  Fiercely nationalistic, Zawahiri envisioned reestablishing the Muslim Caliphate centered in Egypt and enabling Islam to authentically flourish, dominating planet earth.  He launched an underground movement (al-Jihad) designed to overthrow the secular regime in his country.  Accused of involvement in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, Zawahiri was imprisoned for three years and early emerged as the spokesman for the defendants.  

The third and most infamous protagonist in Wright’s story is “The Founder,” Osama bin Laden, one of the many sons of Mohammed bin Laden, one of Saudi Arabia’s most prosperous businessmen.  He was especially close to King Abdul Aziz and did much of the construction work on the renovation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which can hold a million worshippers.  Though expected to take his place in his father’s extensive business empire, young Osama bin Laden joined the Muslim Brothers while in high school and began to show less interest in making money than establishing Islamic states.  While studying in King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah he turned increasingly religious, taking the Salafist position that declares versions of Islam other than that espoused by Saudi Arabian Wahhabis heretical.  Like Zawahiri he was deeply moved by the writing of Sayyid Qutb and embraced his anti-American agenda.  “Bin Laden would later say that the United States had always been his enemy.  He dated his hatred for America to 1982, ‘when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American Sixth Fleet helped them’” (p. 151).  

   When Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979, radical Muslims rallied to defend Islam, so both Zawahiri and bin Laden made their way to the fields of conflict.  Much much of their activity, however,  took place in nearby Pakistan, where bin Laden proved especially useful in fundraising.  Here they and their followers engaged in endless discussions regarding jihadist strategies and sought to train young warriors to give their lives to the cause.  The Afghans fought and won the war against Russia, whereas the Arabs recruited by Zawahiri and bin Laden mainly looked for opportunities to die as martyrs for Islam.   Thus forged amidst the Afghan War, the ideology and methodology of Al Qaeda were basically in place by 1988.  In particular, Islamic rationalizations for suicide missions and terrorist attacks on innocent civilians coalesced within the principle of takfi—a license for true believers “to kill practically anyone and everyone who stood in their way; indeed, they saw it as a divine duty” (p. 125).    

As the war in Afghanistan wound down, bin Laden returned to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he enjoyed a celebrity status for his “divine mission” in Afghanistan.  In his native land the Wahhabi version of Islam had gained strength:  theaters were closed, music (“the flute of the devil” bin Laden said) virtually disappeared, and women’s activities were seriously circumscribed.  But for radicals like bin Laden even this was not sufficient and his activities increasingly irritated King Fahd and the princes ruling the Kingdom.  When, for example, Iraq conquered Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, bin Laden objected to allowing American troops to defend the kingdom.  He and his jihadists, he declared, could (with Allah’s aid) repel any invasion of Arabian peninsula’s sacred soil.  But King Fahd,  trusting in tanks rather than jihadists, invited the Americans to establish bases and successfully overturn Saddam Hussein’s conquests.  

At odds with Saudi rulers (who ultimately revoked his citizenship), bin Laden then moved to Sudan, where he bought land near Khartoum and tried to both farm and launch various business enterprises.  His very presence added considerably to Sudan’s financial status and he seemed momentarily content.  But he soon fell in with a radical Imam (Abu Hajer) who encouraged him to attack the United States, “the last remaining superpower” threatening Islam.  He and al-Qaeda would henceforth target American troops and murder innocents—concentrating “not on fighting armies but on killing civilians” (p. 175).  By this time he had come to despise the United States as “weak and cowardly,” urging his followers to remember Vietnam and Lebanon.  When a few of their soldiers die, he said,  Americans retreat!  “For all its wealth and resources, America lacks convictions.  It cannot stand against warriors of faith who do not fear death” (p. 187).   President Bill Clinton’s cowardly withdrawal from Somalia in 1993 had further confirmed bin Laden’s growing contempt for the USA.    

Amidst deteriorating conditions, bin Laden left Sudan in 1996 financially ruined, his family scattered, and his organization broken.  “He held America responsible for the crushing reversal that had led him to this state” (p. 223).  On August 23, 1996, in his “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the land of the Two Holy Places,” he said:  “You are not unaware of the injustice, repression, and aggression that have befallen Muslims through the alliance of Jews, Christians, and their agents, so much so that Muslims’ blood has become the cheapest blood and their money and wealth are plundered by the enemies” (p. 234).  Barred from returning to Saudi Arabia, he settled in Afghanistan, now controlled by Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Taliban.  Joined by a group of Egyptians following Zawahiri, he began training terrorists such as Mohammed Atta to take down America.  In  1998, Zawahiri drafted a document calling on “all of the different mujahideen groups that had gathered in Afghanistan” to launch  “a global Islamic jihad against America” (p. 259).  

This fatwa, signed by bin Laden as well as Zawahiri, declared that the killing of “Americans and their allies—civilian and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it’” (p. 260).  Soon thereafter the jihadists orchestrated the nearly simultaneous bombings of American embassies in Kenya (killing 213 and injuring thousands of people) and Tanzania (killing 11 and wounding 85).  Two years later the USS Cole was nearly sunk by a suicide attack in Aden, Yemen’s deep water port, killing 17 sailors.  To bin Laden:  “The destroyer represented the capital of the West, and the small boat represented Mohammed.”  

But other than haphazardly launching a few missiles and issuing threats, Bill Clinton and his administration did nothing.  In the waning days of his presidency he tried “to burnish his legacy by securing a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. (p. 331).   Within a year, however, culminating the jihadist offensive, came September 11, 2001 and with the collapsing New York towers the world woke up to al-Qaeda, bin Laden, and the threat posed by radical Islam!  

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In Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (New Haven:  Yale University Press, c. 2009), Professor Jeffrey Herf “documents and interprets Nazi Germany’s propaganda efforts aimed at Arabs and Muslims in the middle East and North Africa” (p. 1).  From 1939 to 1945 a steady stream of anti-Semitic, anti-Allies propaganda reached millions of Muslims via shortwave radio.  These broadcasts both “attributed enormous power and enormous evil to the Jews” (p. 2) and promised that an Axis victory would free “the countries of the Middle East from the English yoke and thus realize their right to self-determination” (p. 3).  In time, of course, the Allies won WWII and little came of the Nazi endeavor to establish a foothold in the Islamic world.  But the broadcasts’ rhetoric, it can be argued, helped shape the mindset of today’s radical Muslims, for the same anti-Semitic, anti-Western message routinely circulates throughout their world.

Central to the story is Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who resided in Berlin during WWII and was “the most important public face and voice of Nazi Germany’s Arabic-language propaganda” (p. 8).  He and his family were influential and he “led opposition to the Balfour Declaration and to Jewish immigration to Palestine” (p. 8).  In Berlin, he met and associated with Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and other important Nazis.  He assured Hitler that “the Fuhrer was ‘admired by the entire Arab world.’  He thanked him for the sympathy he had shown to the Arab and especially the Palestinian cause” (p. 76).  Hitler responded by assuring Husseini that Arabs would be liberated from English domination, Jews in North Africa and the Middle East would be destroyed, and “the Mufti would be the most authoritative spokesman of the Arab world” (p. 78).  “Husseini was a key figure in finding common ideological ground between National Socialism, on the one hand, and the doctrines of Arab nationalism and militant Islam, on the other” (p. 8).  Following the war he mysteriously “escaped” and found shelter in Cairo, where he was protected and lauded for the remainder of his life, ever promoting an anti-Jewish, anti-American agenda.  

From one perspective, this book is a chronological record of what was said by the Nazi propaganda machine.  Chapter by chapter, Herf describes the shifting nature of the broadcasts, reflecting the course of WWII.  As the war began, the Nazis sought to enlist Arab support in the Middle East, where England especially controlled considerable territory.  Thus similarities between Islam and National Socialism were stressed.  As General Rommel seemed on the verge of victory in North Africa, the broadcasts promised both the extermination of the Jews (primarily in Palestine) and freedom from British rule.  When the Allies began to turn back the German advance, the broadcasts shifted to emphasize the potential harm Muslims would suffer should the British and American and Soviet armies succeed.   As the Third Reich collapsed, the broadcasts shifted to emphasize conspiracies afoot in Islamic lands, blaming Jews and their supporters (especially America) for various evils.

From another perspective, however, there was a constancy to the broadcasts:  hostility to Jews and their allies.  “Radical anti-Semitism was a central component throughout the broadcasts” (p. 11).  No labels were too vicious, no rumors too unfounded, no accusations too malicious for assertion on the radio!  Arabs in North Africa and the Middle East were urged to kill Jews, following the Nazi example, aiming at the “final solution.”  They were reminded that the prophet Mohammed expelled the Jews from Arab lands and then urged to follow his example.  A broadcast in 1942 was titled “Kill the Jews before They Kill You.”  Egyptians were urged to do their duty “to annihilate the Jews and to destroy their property’” (p. 125).  Husseini always made it clear that “his hatred of the Jews was ineradicably bound to his Muslim faith and to his reading of the Koran” (p. 154).  He charged that “‘they lived like a sponge among peoples, sucked their blood, seized their property, undermined their morals yet still demand the rights of local inhabitants’” (p. 185).  Still more, he cried out:  “‘Arabs!  Rise as one and fight for your sacred rights.  Kill the Jews wherever you find them.  This pleases God, history and religion.  This serves your honor.  God is with you’” (p. 213).  

As was evident in the Grand Mufti’s messages, the Koran was the great authority invoked to appeal to Arab listeners.  Neither Hitler’s Mein Kampf nor The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were much discussed, nor were the speeches of Hitler or Himmler invoked.  Rather, texts from the Koran were continually cited to justify Nazi propaganda.  “Nazism thus stood with the ‘faithful’ and ‘noble’ Muslims against traitors who deviated from the path laid down in the Koran” (p. 197).  Himmler even urged his German scholarss to link the Shi’ite hope for the coming of the Twelfth Imam to Hitler, suggesting that “‘the Koran predicts and assigns to the Fuhrer the mission of completing the Prophet’s work’” (p. 199).  Hitler could be portrayed, Himmler said, “‘as Jesus (Isa) who the Koran predicts will return and, as a knight . . . defeats giants and the king of the Jews who appear at the end of the world’” (p. 199).  

Hostility to the Jews was conjoined with hostility to the Allies (preeminently England and America) in the broadcasts.  Despite the fact that the British restricted Jewish Immigration to Palestine and the Americans equivocated regarding the establishment of a Jewish state, both nations were accused of actively promoting such activities.  Egyptians particularly were portrayed as victims of British oppression and urged to drive out the foreigners.  As American troops increasingly played a role in the war, the broadcasts besmirched the USA and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in particular.  He was declared to be not only a tool in the hands of conniving Jews (such as Hans Morgenthau and Bernard Baruch) but to be a Jew himself!  In one of his broadcasts Husseini “stated that the ‘wicked American intentions toward the Arabs are now clearer, and there remain no doubts that they are endeavoring to establish a Jewish empire in the Arab world.  More than 400,000,000 Arabs oppose this criminal American movement’” (p. 213).  

Though Herf focuses almost exclusively on the historical details, it takes little imagination to apply his insights to current affairs.  Virtually the same rhetoric employed by the Nazis is evident throughout Islamic lands.  The link is quite clear in the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded by Hassan al-Banna (a graduate of the most prestigious Islamic university, Al-Azhar in Cairo), who had “‘made a careful study of the Nazi and Fascist organizations’” (p. 225).  “The Brotherhood wanted to establish a government based on pure Koranic principles and sought to counter reliance on Western culture, which it regarded as having brought about an ‘abasement of morals, conduct and character, for having increased the complexity of society and for having exposed the people to poverty and misery’” (p. 225).  

Picking up on Muslim Brotherhood themes following WWII, Sayyid Qutb furthered the fanatical message of radical Islam, writing Our Struggle with the Jews.  “The title itself,” notes Professor Herf, “evokes disconcerting comparisons to Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle).  Most important, in its views of the Jews and in its conspiratorial mode of analysis the book displayed a striking continuity with the themes of Nazism’s wartime broadcasts, with the important difference that it was far more embedded in the Koran and Islamic commentaries” (p. 255).  Qutb asserted that the Koran “‘spoke much about the Jews and elucidated their evil psychology’” (p. 257).  This alone authorized “war against the Jews in Israel” (p. 258).  Qutb probably “listened to Nazi broadcasts and traveled in the pro-Axis intellectual milieu of the radical Islamists in and around Al Azhar University.” Thus, Herf reasons:  “Just as the Nazis had threatened the Jews with ‘punishment’ for alleged past misdeeds, so Qutb offered a religious justification for yet another attempt to ‘mete out the worst kind of punishment’ to the Jews then in Israel.  In terms that his audience understood, Our Struggle with the Jews was a call to massacre the Jews living in Israel” (p. 259).  Executed in Egypt in 1966, Qutb “became both a martyr and an ideological inspiration for such radical Islamist groups as Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas” (p. 255).  His influence clearly permeates the thought and action of radical Muslim terrorists, including Osama bin Laden.  The vitriol regarding Jews, the anger at America, the dishonest renditions of history, the constant complaints of victimization—nothing much has changed in more than half-a-century!  

Professor Herf draws upon previously untapped documentary sources, especially a cache of materials—transcriptions of the broadcasts made in Cairo by an American ambassador and sent to Washington—that provide extensive evidence for his case.  A professor of history at the University of Maryland, he has written extensively about the Third Reich’s animosity towards the Jews.  His books include:  Reactionary Modernism:  Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich; The Jewish Enemy:  Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust; and Divided Memory:  The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys.  He writes as a scholar for scholars, an historian for historians, meticulously footnoting every assertion.  Above all he wants to fully, conclusively document his argument.  Consequently, as he demonstrates the recurrent message, year after year, there is an unavoidable redundancy to the presentation that taxes the reader’s patience.  But his treatise provides important evidence that enables us to understand important aspects of Islam, then and now—from Mohammed onwards, Muslims have distrusted and detested Jews and anyone else disinclined to submit to Allah.  This, rightly understood, is part and parcel of Islam, which means “surrender to God’s will” as manifest in the Prophet’s followers.