The Chronicle Review

Herf's Misuses of History

November 22, 2009

What are the proper uses of history? At what point does the employment of historical parallels and analogies for contemporary political ends become misleading and licentious? Such issues are especially fraught when the historical analogies pertain to Nazism, which in the postwar era has justifiably served as the benchmark of radical evil.

In his impressively researched book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, Jeffrey Herf interprets the World War II alliance between Nazi propagandists and Arab nationalists as the key to understanding contemporary political Islam. Although Herf's narrative concentrates mainly on the 1940s, in both his introduction and concluding chapters he hazards a more far-reaching and controversial claim concerning the marriage of convenience, fueled by mutual geopolitical aims, between Nazism and representatives of the Arab world. Herf contends that this historical alliance helps us grasp the ideological gist of present-day political Islam as incarnated by Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, and the Iran of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Basing his conclusions on these analogies, Herf suggests that the term "Islamo-fascism" best describes the combination of political authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism that suffuses the contemporary Arab world. Elsewhere, in his draft of an American version of the Euston Manifesto, the 2006 British appeal for a muscular liberalism supportive of the Iraq war and critical of Islamist tendencies, Herf claims that radical Islam represents "the third major form of totalitarian ideology, after fascism and Nazism, on the one hand, and Communism, on the other" and that "the key moral and political challenge in foreign affairs in our time stems from radical Islamism and the jihadist terrorism it has unleashed."

In truth, the epithet Islamo-fascism, which Herf employs at several pivotal junctures in his book, is both needlessly inflammatory and historically inaccurate. In fact, the phrase proved to be such a red herring that the Bush administration, which floated it in the summer of 2006 to justify America's expanding military presence in the Middle East, very quickly dropped it like a hot potato for fear of needlessly inculpating the world's more than one billion Muslims.

The main problem with the notion of Islamo-fascism is that it semantically implies an integral relationship between two extremely diverse historical phenomena: fascism, an interwar form of European political rule, and Islam, one of the world's great religions of salvation. Although during the 1940s, under the constraint of political circumstance, these forces did, as Herf shows, temporarily converge, ultimately one wonders whether their differences don't far outweigh their similarities, and thus whether the term itself is something of an egregious historical misnomer.

After all, Hitler's Germany was a modern nation-state that employed highly advanced technological means toward the establishment of European hegemony and the creation of a 1,000-year Reich. Political Islam, conversely, seeks to repel Western influence in the Middle East and to restore the seventh-century caliphate. Nazi Germany was resolutely pagan. Political Islam, whose manifestations vary ethnically and regionally (between Sunnis and Shiites, for example), wishes to subject most aspects of civic life to Shariah, or Islamic law. Islamic fundamentalism is perceived by its adherents as a mechanism of restoring the cultural integrity of the Muslim world following the dislocations that have resulted from the West's repeated and unwanted interventions in the region.

Some of the evidence Herf musters is suggestive and disturbing. It is well known, for instance, that the Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini spent the war years in Berlin pleading with Hitler and his adjutants to forcibly purge the Middle East of Brits and Jews. And as Herf shows, during the early 1950s, President Gamal Abdel Nasser had few scruples about hiring a leading Nazi propagandist, Johann von Leers, to work for the Egyptian information ministry. However, at this point some of the parallels Herf seeks to draw between Nazism and political Islam begin to fray. After all, enlisting the services of ex-Nazis (as the Central Intelligence Agency did repeatedly in the postwar years in its crusade against the Communist menace) hardly makes a regime "fascist." Moreover, as a secular nationalist, Nasser was a resolute foe of political Islam, which he perceived as a hostile, rival credo. It was Nasser, after all, who in 1966 executed the influential Muslim Brotherhood figure Sayyid Qutb.

One of the major problems with Herf's efforts to link Nazism and present-day Islamism concerns which historical threads are meaningful—that is, which ones represent leads worth pursuing—and which ones are basically dead ends. As Herf himself admits, once the Nazis and fascists were roundly defeated by the Allies in 1945, they bore the stigma of "losers" and, from the standpoint of Arab nationalism, were of negligible practical value. In fact, it was at this point that the Baathists in Iraq and Syria began to gaze admiringly at the Stalinist model of political authoritarianism. Stalin was an unmatched despot, but hardly a fascist.

Herf's attempts to link Nazism and contemporary Islamism center on the writings of Qutb. During the early 1950s, the Allies decided against prosecuting Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, for his support of the Nazi dictatorship, since such an action risked seriously alienating Arab public opinion. Thus, Husseini was allowed to return to Egypt, where his anti-Western and anti-Jewish views were enthusiastically received by Qutb, who at the time was undergoing his own political metamorphosis from a secular nationalist to an Islamist. In 1950, Qutb, in part inspired by the Mufti's anti-Semitic wartime diatribes, published his inflammatory tract, "Our Struggle With the Jews." It is well known that Qutb's views have profoundly influenced contemporary Salafists (advocates of Islamic purity) such as Osama bin Laden.

But at this point a paramount interpretive issue arises, one which Herf's analysis, which is inordinately focused on political Islam's intellectual and theoretical origins, entirely sidesteps. How much weight should interpreters accord to ideological considerations as opposed to historical and political circumstances, which in the case at hand are absolutely crucial? Herf's methodological failing is to attempt to explain the rise of political Islam via recourse to ideational influences alone—hence, his excessive reliance on rhetorical pronouncements by Qutb and other proponents of radical Islam. But as the Egyptian journalist Adel Hamuda argued in his 1996 book Sayyid Qutb from the Village to the Gallows: "Religious violence preceded Sayyid Qutb. It would have continued its existence even if Sayyid Qutb had not been born. … It would have looked for another thinker, another justification and another interpreter as its basis."

The problem is that in Herf's account ideas subsist as sovereign notions that autonomously communicate with one another. Thus the doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna influenced Haj Amin al-Husseini, who influenced Sayyid Qutb, whose thought affected Hamas, Osama bin Laden, and so forth. But ideas don't take hold in a social and political vacuum. Herf himself admits as much when he observes: "Many decades and events stand between World War II and contemporary expressions of radical Islam." What's missing in Herf's narrative is a range of historical circumstances and events that represent the necessary preconditions for political Islam's emergence: the 1937 British Peel Commission plan for the partition of Palestine between Arabs and Jews; the Suez crisis in 1956; the profound humiliation of the Arab world following the Six-Day War in 1967; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (the precondition for the Taliban's rise); the active dissemination of Wahhabism (a variant of Islamic fundamentalism) by the Saudis; and the breakdown of the Oslo peace process. If we remove our gaze from the social and political circumstances subtending the rise of political Islam, we condemn ourselves to misunderstanding the formidable cultural and historical intricacies of Middle Eastern politics.

Richard Wolin teaches history and political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is author of The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance With Fascism From Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton University Press, 2004). His new book, The Wind From the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s, will be published by Princeton University Press next year.