The Arabs, the Muslims and the Holocaust

In my recent Ibishblog posting on Paul Berman’s new book “The Flight of the Intellectuals” (Melville House, 2010), there was one crucial topic I deliberately did not directly address and that is important enough to warrant an altogether separate commentary: the vexed question of the relationship between Amin al-Husseini and the Nazis, and more generally and by extension, the Arabs and the Holocaust. On this subject Berman’s book benefits greatly by being read alongside another important recently released volume, Gilbert Achcar’s “The Arabs and the Holocaust” (Henry Holt, 2009). Berman’s case against Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash is almost entirely based on the case against Tariq Ramadan, which is largely based on the case against Hassan al-Banna, which is partly based on the case against Amin al-Husseini. This isn’t a critique so much as it is a rough sketch of the architecture of Berman’s somewhat complicated argument. And, because of this, a book that purports to be about Western liberal intellectuals, but perforce has in practice to be even more about Tariq Ramadan, actually ends up spending so much of its time on Amin al-Husseini, the Nazis and the Holocaust.

Berman struggles a bit with this subject because I think his grasp of the trajectory of 20th century Arab political thought is somewhat skewed. He accords al-Husseini far more significance in Arab political thinking than I think can be justified, and presents al-Husseini’s enthusiastic collaboration with the Nazis after he fled from the British authorities in Palestine as a cause and crucial starting point for what he describes as a “Nazified Islam.” Berman doesn’t exaggerate al-Husseini’s outrageous conduct during World War II, or the foulness and character of his rhetoric, because it’s very difficult to exaggerate them (although some have, by making him a key figure in the Holocaust when he was, at most, a marginal player). There is no doubt that having fled Palestine, he didn’t take up an alliance with the Nazis merely out of necessity as some other anticolonial figures from the British Empire did, but rather showed a level of enthusiasm for Nazi anti-Semitism that is not only appalling but probably crossed the line into outright criminality. And I would certainly agree that the broadcasts that he engaged in for Germany directed towards the Arab world did indeed preach a version of fundamentalist Islam infused with a Nazi version of anti-Semitism.

But these broadcasts hardly introduced such ideas into the Islamist discourse. Had he paid attention to Achcar, Berman wouldn’t have gotten so badly wrong the central role of Rashid Rida, one of the key founders of the Salafist revival movement and publisher of the hugely influential journal al-Manar, who Burman cites as “express[ing ] sympathy for the Zionist settlers” in the 1920s. This is correct, but it misses, rather badly, Rida’s subsequent introduction of the very Nazi-like anti-Semitic ideas that Berman associates most strongly with al-Husseini, and probably in a much more lasting and influential manner. And, Rida was not the only such influential voice. Indeed, Achcar provides a far better, more sophisticated, and much better informed, roadmap to the development of Nazi-like anti-Semitism among Islamists and sympathy among them for the Nazism generally, than Berman’s somewhat ham-handed attempt at this.

Berman lavishes a great deal of attention in the service of his case against Ramadan on al-Husseini’s ghastly broadcasts for the Nazis, but admits “the broadcasts reached a relatively small audience in the Arab world.” Indeed, there is really no reason to think that they had any significant audience or lasting impact at all, although Berman tries, quite unconvincingly, to maintain they did. His weakest argument, repeated more than once, is in trying to link a typically appalling recent statement by Yusuf Qaradawi describing Hitler as, essentially, a scourge of the Jews sent by God (a statement similar in tone to comments about 9/11 and natural disasters frequently made by our own American televangelists) with implicit claims in some of al-Husseini’s broadcasts that Hitler had some sort of divine mission. Apart from the deep anti-Semitism and Islamist context of the two comments, which are separated by over 50 years, the idea that the only way to get to the latter was to either have overheard as a youth, or at least be indirectly influenced by the ideas expressed in, the former is pretty indefensible. The sad fact is that people like Qaradawi have imbibed enough Western-style anti-Semitism, combined with some anti-Jewish Islamic traditions, to come, in our own day and age, to that kind of callous and immoral remark, and no doubt would have even if al-Husseini had never been born.

Al-Husseini’s main role in Germany was to whip up Arab support for the Germans and the Italians, especially in the form of recruits. As Achcar notes, “the meager results say a great deal about both the Arab’s support for Nazism and the mufti’s influence. In May 1942, when a German victory still seemed very possible, the Wehrmacht’s Arab unit counted a mere 130 men.” Achcar says that in total during the war “6,300 soldiers from Arab countries served in various German military organizations.” Contrast this to the many hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Muslims who served on the Allied side during the same war, not to mention the Arab concentration camp victims and others (I’ll return to this theme at the end of this post). As Achcar points out, al-Husseini’s “appeals to the Arabs of the Middle East or North Africa produced no tangible effects” during the war itself. At the same time, Achcar has no difficulty identifying al-Husseini as an enthusiastic supporter of Nazism and, in his letter addressed to the Nazi-dominated Hungarian government in 1943 suggesting that Jews be sent to Poland instead of Palestine, as probably criminally complicit in the Holocaust. Achcar notes that while al-Husseini may or may not have known at the time about the systematic genocide against the Jews, he certainly knew about the concentration camps in Poland, and “it is probable that he would have made the same request even if he had known that the Nazis were carrying out their Final Solution.” So, Achcar’s book can hardly be seen as any kind of whitewash of the “Mufti,” and he has already been criticized by some Arab ultra-leftists known for their sympathy with Islamist movements as having “really overstated his case” against al-Husseini. Needless to say, he hasn’t.

The bottom line is that, in my view, Berman is misreading the influence that al-Husseini had on the Arab politics of his day, and, above all, on Arab politics subsequent to 1948, and therefore misreading his role in promoting anti-Semitism among Islamists. Al-Husseini was certainly the most prominent Palestinian leader of his generation, largely because, for complex reasons, he was promoted far beyond his qualifications or abilities by the British, who saw him as a useful ally until the Palestinian uprising in 1936. But he was hardly unchallenged, and throughout the 1930s significant rival factions vied with him and his allies for power and influence. And, it’s significant to note that until he fled the prospect of British arrest in 1937, al-Husseini and the mandatory authorities relied on each other more than they clashed. During the Second World War he remained a popular figure among some Palestinians, in spite of the fact that his flight was also regarded by many as an act of cowardice. But it’s clearly an exaggeration to say, as Berman does, that he returned to the region after the war “in glory.” Received with a combination of respect and skepticism would probably be a more accurate way of putting it. Tellingly, when it came time to make decisions, he was unceremoniously shoved aside by the Arab League in all the diplomacy on the question of partition and in the build up to the 1948 war, and his various demands repeatedly rejected. In a last-minute maneuver led by Egypt, the Arab League tried to restore his authority in order to offset the influence of Jordan, but the entire project failed completely. And there is no question that following the defeat in 1948 and the Palestinian Nakba, al-Husseini was an utterly discredited figure with not only virtually no political influence remaining but also generally bearing a large part of the blame for the catastrophe.

Achcar quotes one of al-Husseini’s biographers, the former Israeli military governor of the occupied territories, Zvi Elpeleg, as pointing out “the memory of Haj Amin disappeared from the Palestinian public consciousness almost without a trace. [Upon his death] No days of mourning were set aside in his memory. His name was not commemorated in the refugee camps, and no streets were named after him. No memorials were built in his memory, and no books written solely his deeds…” Achcar points out that even Hamas maintains an “embarrassed silence” about Amin al-Husseini, while glorifying Abdul Qadir al-Husseini and Izzedin Al-Qassam. He also notes that “at a time of writing, there is only one article about Amin al-Husseini on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s website — a short biography,” and that “he does not feature any more prominently in the publications of the Palestinian Hamas.” Even more interestingly, Achcar says that “a Google search conducted in October 2008 turned up 10 times more results for ‘Amin al-Husseini’ on English sites than on Arabic pages.” Personally, I never even heard of this man until I permanently relocated to the United States at age 17, in spite of being raised in Beirut in the 1960s and 70s in an atmosphere saturated with the Palestinian national narrative.

Berman describes the initial Arab reaction to the Holocaust as “the belief that, whatever may have happened in Europe, the Arab world had no reason to give the matter any thought.” And, he says, “It was not so much a question of Holocaust denial, nor of Holocaust justification, nor of Holocaust belittlement, but Holocaust avoidance.” These passages suggest a serious lack of understanding on Berman’s part about the way cultures function. The Holocaust, for all its horror, was an entirely Western phenomenon, and, in effect, the byproduct of a massive internecine Western civil conflict that spilled over into, and drew in, parts of the colonized world. The phenomenon Berman is describing is not only not unique to the Arab world, it is, frankly, the virtually universal nonwestern reaction to the Holocaust. The same could be said of India, China, Indochina, or much of Africa for that matter, all societies in which there wasn’t and continues not to be any great amount of thought given to the matter. And, given the experiences of much of the colonial world at the hands of the European empires, which on multiple occasions involved the infliction of genocide and mass killings to be counted in the hundreds of thousands at least, there is an additional reason for the lack of great interest in the Holocaust. Right or wrong, from a colonial perspective German behavior didn’t necessarily look all that different from what Europeans had generally been perceived as doing, except that it was being done in Europe and to other Europeans. It might be argued that the Arab world was different, because of the conflict with Israel, and in fact interest in the Holocaust has grown in the Arab world in both healthy and, unfortunately more commonly, unhealthy ways, much more than it has in other postcolonial societies. The power of the Holocaust to shock, uniquely, in the West, derives greatly from the fact that it was so thoroughly Western in all its aspects, including its victims, and so modern, including its reliance on an industrial machinery and hyper-bureaucratized administration of death, not to mention the cultural and scientific sophistication of the society which produced it.

But, given Achcar’s book, and many others, it’s clear that Arabs have not always simply avoided, or merely denied, the Holocaust, but have had a very complex relationship to it as a narrative and is a historical fact. I don’t usually indulge in personal reminiscences on the Ibishblog, but I think it’s worth noting that when I was growing up in Beirut I heard the Holocaust deployed politically in three ways in order to bolster Palestinian and pro-Palestinian arguments. First, of course, was that whatever the Jews had suffered in Europe, it was not the fault of the Arabs and the Palestinians and that they therefore should not have to pay the price for the sins of others. The second argument, a corollary to the first, was that the Palestinians were the final victims of Hitler, since, so the argument went, if not for the Holocaust, the creation of Israel and the Nakba would not have taken place. Finally, and this was less common but nonetheless to be encountered on a regular basis, that “the Jews were doing to us what the Nazis had done to them,” or something to communicate the idea that Nazi-style cruelty, which had been inflicted on Jews, was now being inflicted by Jews. None of these are edifying or historically accurate claims, but neither are they anything remotely resembling Holocaust denial or reflective of traditional or modern European anti-Semitic paranoia. I did hear about the so called “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” I think first when I was 11 or 12, but only as a fatuous and ugly forgery, not as anything to be taken seriously except as an example of Europeans behaving badly. Suffice it to say that the Islamist and Nazi-influenced rhetoric Berman is describing was alien to anything I heard in Beirut in the 60s and 70s. If it was out there with any degree of cultural force, I was sheltered from it, and that’s a minor miracle because of the amount of political discourse I was subjected to on an hourly basis given the environment in both my city and my home.

As I noted in my earlier commentary on his book, Berman writes as if the Palestinian national movement, and sometimes even Arab political culture generally, were and have been historically entirely defined by Islamism: “al-Banna’s alliance with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem played a major role in the rise of Islamist movement in Egypt and other places, including Palestine, and the ideas al-Banna shared with the Mufti played an even larger role in condemning the Islamist movement to its endless and hugely self-destructive war against the Jewish state — the war that has brought so much devastation upon, most of all, the Palestinian Arabs.” The only part of this sentence that could possibly be defended comes before the first comma, since it’s clear that al-Banna did use Amin al-Husseini and the Palestinian cause to gin up popular support for his movement in Egypt during the 30s and 40s. It probably wasn’t decisive, but I’m sure it wasn’t irrelevant either, to the fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood at the time. However, attributing the rise of the Islamist movement generally to anything seriously connected to this alliance seems completely ahistorical and totally wrong to me. To take one of the two examples Berman cites directly, the Islamist movement in Palestine was very marginal and not explicitly political until the founding of Hamas in 1987, and this was a direct outgrowth of the first intifada and, let us not forget, the enthusiasm of the Israelis for encouraging the development of an Islamist rival to the secular nationalist PLO. This early Israeli enthusiasm for Hamas was prompted, of course, by the fact that the “endless and hugely self-destructive war against the Jewish state” historically was not waged by “the Islamist movement” at all, but by Arab states, none of which were Islamist in any sense whatsoever, and by the PLO and the mainstream Palestinian national movement which also has not been an Islamist one.

Berman asks, “Will someone argue that in my presentation of these developments in the Middle East, I am making too much of the Nazi contribution?” Yes, indeed I will, and I think the passage cited above is a good example of that. There is no doubt whatsoever that much of the present Islamist movement is infected with a very virulent form of anti-Semitic paranoia, largely imported from the West and that was promoted by many forces, including the Nazis, but which has a complex and overdetermined political and cultural history. It is at very best a reductive caricature to imagine that at the center of this wretched turn of events were laughable and totally ineffective Nazi propaganda efforts, particularly radio broadcasts that very few people listened to and no one appears to have heeded, and that certainly produced none of their intended effects, made by a man who was partly discredited at the time and completely discredited within three years after the end of the war, and has been almost entirely forgotten by Arab political culture except as an embarrassment and the author of a gigantic defeat. There have been plenty of other very significant, and indeed much more powerful, sources of these terrible ideas, not least of them anti-Semitic Western Christian missionaries in late 19th and early 20th centuries. One might observe, very plausibly, that it really doesn’t matter what the trajectory of the growth of the Islamist movement and the development of its anti-Semitic strain that combines certain Muslim traditions and anti-Israel fanaticism with modern European anti-Semitic political paranoia might be, but the fact remains that it exists and it is a huge problem. But I do think it’s important to understand what phenomena really combined produced this effect and not to get sucked into false leads and incorrect analyses that will only complicate the process of developing the necessary correctives. History matters.

I think Berman basically falls into the trap described by Achcar as “a historical grand narrative that lead straight from the mufti to Osama bin Laden” (or at least to Qaradawi and, by extension, to Ramadan), a grand narrative that in the past “came to a halt with Arafat as in a 1993 book by Benjamin Netanyahu.” Berman cites and sometimes quotes approvingly from a number of books that reflect some version or other of this narrative, mostly German, that Achcar savages as insufficiently informed, “fantasy-based narratives pasted together out of secondary sources” reflecting “flagrantly anti-Arab prejudice.” In some cases this is hyperbole, in others not.

That said, Achcar’s book also suffers from some extremely significant flaws, and his own dubious grand narratives. While he is appropriately tough on the Islamist movement, he soft-pedals the angry anti-Semitic views of some Arab nationalists. Achcar’s most significant intervention in contemporary politics is his book’s uncompromising anti-Zionism. The whole point of his book is to draw a connection between them, but I don’t think the two themes — a serious and largely fair-minded historical account of Arab reactions to the Holocaust on the one hand and a fairly strong political polemic against Zionism on the other hand — sit very well together. It raises suspicions that the first is deployed in order to strengthen the hand of the second, and that this may have been the main point all along. Or perhaps the second is being deployed to defend the credibility, at least for Arab audiences, of the first. Either way, the main point of the book about the complex history of the cultural and political reception of the Holocaust in the Arab world is undermined by the anti-Zionist polemic. I don’t think either Berman or Achcar set out to write anti-Palestinian or anti-Israeli books intentionally, and if read with sensitivity both books are capable of avoiding giving that impression. However, both of them also contain enough material for a biased reader to get very much of the wrong impression.

One final point: the ongoing and endless debate about Amin al-Husseini and the Holocaust, as well as some widespread and crude propaganda, has given many people in the West the impression that during the Second World War, the Arabs and the Muslims in general sided with the Nazis and that this was based largely on anti-Semitism. Berman says as much: “Everyone understood during the war that, if a good many Arabs and Muslims condemned the Axis and even fought on the side of the Allies, an even larger number, in some regions an overwhelming number, cheered the Axis on, actively or passively.” Personally, I’ve never seen a shred of evidence that can be mobilized to seriously suggest that during the war the larger number of Arabs or Muslims cheered the Axis on, and the main evidence, the number of Arabs and Muslims that fought in the war, and on which side, militates most powerfully against such a claim (as does much of the public discourse in the Arab press at the time, in spite of British and French colonialism in the region). Berman acknowledges the reality, although it doesn’t seem to have really sunk into his analysis, that “vastly more Arab soldiers fought on the Allied side, in the British and Free French armies.” And, he notes, “some forty thousand African and North African soldiers in the Free French armed forces are said to have died in the liberation of Europe in 1944 and ’45 alone — a huge statistic if you give it any thought.”

I noted above that the best estimate I’ve seen holds about 6,000 Arabs to have been involved in the German war effort during the entire conflict. Achcar points out that 9,000 Palestinians alone enlisted in the British army during the war, which already dwarfs the first figure. At least half a million Indian Muslims enlisted in the British military during the conflict. The majority of the French army in North Africa in 1939 and ’40 were Arabs. In the French defeat of June 1940 approximately 5,400 Arab soldiers were killed fighting on the Allied side, and an estimated 90,000 Muslims, 60,000 Algerians, 18,000 Moroccans and 12,000 Tunisians were captured by the Germans. It has been estimated that 233,000 North African Muslims were serving in the Free French Army in 1944. It has also been estimated that something like 52% of all soldiers of the Free French Army killed during the last year of the war were Muslims, mostly from North Africa. So, as a matter of fact, the Arabs and the Muslims were heavily involved in the Second World War, but on the Allied and not on the Nazi side. Someone desperately needs to do a thorough but accessible book on this totally unappreciated fact aimed at Western societies that are being systematically given the opposite impression. There is one further noteworthy fact: in all the territories of the “Third Reich,” it was in Albania alone, which just so happens to have been the only Muslim-majority country in Europe to come under direct German occupation, that not one Jew was handed over (the same, it must be said, doesn’t apply to Muslim-majority enclaves in parts of Yugoslavia such as Bosnia or Kosovo, sadly, not to mention Catholic Croatia). As a consequence, Albania was the only country in continental Europe to emerge from the war with a larger Jewish population than it had had at its start. This, at least, has been documented in the excellent book “Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II” by Norman H. Gershman (Syracuse University Press, 2008).