Review: A Mosque in Munich

 

My review of Ian Johnson's recent book A Mosque in Munich is out in The National's Review. I enjoyed the book's multi-tiered history, notably its starting point among Central Asian Muslims who joined Nazi Germany to fight against the Soviet Union and the background of some of the characters who would later dominate the Munich Islamic Center who were closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. These include Said Ramadan, father of Tariq, and the famous MB financier Youssef Nada (who we learn has an amusing obsession with processed cheese, which he exported from Europe to Libya in the 1970s with the winning argument that it was less messy than oily canned tuna and thus idea to help students keep their textbooks clean.)

For these reasons alone it's worth a read, which is why it's disappointing that Johnson's view of Islamism is rather skewed and appears chiefly informed by right-wing sources, which cause him to over-emphasize the "Islamofascist" view of things. Here's the last part of my review:

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.