For at least the past 30 years, people in the west have been asking urgent questions about Islam. What are the intentions of Muslim nations toward us? Do they really want to wipe us out? Where do their ideas come from, and why are they held with such unbending fanaticism?
"...a long and extremely complex story that Johnson feels has real relevance for the west even today."
Ian Johnson, a prize-winning reporter at the Wall Street Journal, does not pretend to have all the answers to these questions, but in this book he puts them in a rather surprising historical context. It all began when Johnson stumbled upon a Muslim map that prominently featured a picture of a mosque in Munich, Germany along with pictures of more well-known Muslim holy sites. Digging deep into the history of this mosque, he ended up charting the origins, rise and ultimate transformation of the Muslim attitude toward the “infidel” west. It is a long and extremely complex story that Johnson feels has real relevance for the west even today.
There have been at least four key players in this drama: the community of émigré Muslim refugees who either voluntarily or forcefully resettled in the west during World War II, the American CIA, and the governments of France and Germany. Many of the Muslim émigrés who played desperate games to save their own skins were former Nazis whose pasts were overlooked by the west because they were fervent anti-communists. Indeed, the Nazis had courted Moslems to help them fight against the Russians. Others were natives of the Muslim areas of the Soviet Union who naively sought shelter with the Nazis from persecution by their own government. A further complicating factor was the endless ethnic, racial and doctrinal squabbles among the Muslims themselves. Trying to get them all to work together was a task that baffled the smartest minds in Washington, Bonn and Paris, among other places. It also flummoxed those Muslims who tried to bring it about.
Munich became a center for all this intrigue because it was a convenient place for cold war propagandizing aimed at Russia as well as a gathering place for displaced Muslim refugees. The planning and execution of the mosque project actually takes up about three quarters of Johnson’s text. The facility finally opened in 1973 and soon became much more than simply a place of Moslem worship. It became a battlefield in the struggle for dominance between old and new generations of Muslims. Eventually the older generation was sidelined. Its members either quit in disgust or were formally voted out as a newer generation steered the Muslim world toward more aggressive confrontation with the west and a more intolerant religious stance toward the outside world.
The main agent of this change was the militant Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 and still active today. Johnson summarizes its main creed as anti-Semitism, anti-Christian, anti-communist and anti-secularist. He writes that the Brotherhood has never really renounced violence, still finding it justified when used against Israel. The Brotherhood makes no distinction between church and state and hews to a strictly literal interpretation of the Koran. One example, based on a dictum in the Koran: Some activists argued that high school girls not be allowed to take a class trip because the distance involved was longer than a camel could travel in a day.
Johnson himself offers no hard-and-fast assessment of the brotherhood. He comes closest in his back-of-the-book acknowledgements: “The problem has never been Islam; it is the religion’s misuse by opportunists, politicians and misguided idealists.” Of course this has also been a problem for both Christians and Jews, who certainly have their own sharp factional divisions.
This is a densely written book, bristling with unfamiliar names, all of them swirling in a complicated stew of suspicion, intrigue and political maneuvering. It is not easy reading. There are, however, several lessons to be drawn from the confusion. The American assumption that anyone who was certifiably anti-communist should be taken on as a tool of American policy no matter how sinister his past led our country seriously astray in the postwar years and could do so again if we substitute “anti-Islamist” for “anti-communist.” Also, the ultimate objective of the Islamist movement may actually be to dominate the western world, but that is a pie-in-the-Muslim-sky vision that is nowhere near fulfillment today.
Finally, Johnson’s book demonstrates yet again the dangers of intolerant fanaticism in any cause, be it western Christianity, Islam, democracy, dictatorship, or anything else. In this sense, his book is a worthy successor to the classic statement of that idea in Eric Hoffer’s THE TRUE BELIEVER of 1951.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 7, 2011