If ever one is tempted to doubt, as I sometimes am, that ideas matter - I am speaking of ideas without technological applications - one has only to consider the havoc wreaked in recent years by violent Islamists. The pattern and manner of their actions could in no way be explained by economic or narrowly political factors. Recruiting young men and women (even children sometimes) as suicide bombers could only happen in an environment where all notions of decency and love of life had been replaced by poisonous myths, resentment, hatred, a cult of death and whatever else constitutes the ideology of violent Islamism.
I have in recent weeks been posting on this general topic as I educate myself on some of the main figures and groups involved. Paul Berman's book The flight of the intellectuals (Melville House, 2010) has been my main source. Berman has a sharp turn of phrase - for example, he refers to Yusuf al-Qaradawi as "the theologian of the human bomb" - but, more importantly, he has been scrupulous - as far as I can tell - in his presentation of (mainly) other people's research.
Two things struck me particularly: one was the influence of Romanticism on the Islamist cult of death; the second was the closeness of Islamism to extreme Western political ideologies, left and right.
The writings of Hassan al-Banna - founder of the Muslim Brotherhood - seem to have been as much concerned with overturning the Western cultural and political establishment as with religious preoccupations. Though his focus remained on early Islamic ideas and history, he was keen to incorporate modern notions into his ideology and was particularly impressed by the extreme right-wing movements which were flourishing in Europe in the 1920s. The Muslim Brotherhood started in Egypt as a very small, seemingly insignificant group. Al-Banna had great plans for it, however.
A few years later, he wrote of the potential power of small groups with charismatic leaders, citing the example of the Prophet Mohammed. He cited other examples also, though just two from the modern era. One was Ibn Saud, founder of modern Saudi Arabia; the other was Adolf Hitler!
"... And who would have believed that that German workingman, Hitler, would ever obtain such immense influence and as successful a realization of his aims as he has?" (Cited Berman, p. 31)
In 1936, in Palestine, the 'Arab Revolt' against the British and the Zionists broke out. "The most violent and intransigent of the Palestinian leaders was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Al-Banna revered the mufti. He pledged support. He launched a solidarity campaign..." (Berman p. 31)
Membership of the Muslim Brotherhood increased rapidly during this period and reached about two hundred thousand by 1938. Berman's description brings out elements which are suggestive of fascism:
"It was a religious movement, pious and observant. It was intellectually vigorous. It was educationally active. The Brotherhood was athletics-oriented (the Boy Scouts were a direct influence). And welfare-oriented. The Brotherhood was also paramilitary, if only covertly, with an exterior appearance of law-abiding cautiousness. The Brotherhood cultivated the principles of discipline, obedience and adulation of its own Supreme Guide, who turned out to be Hassan al-Banna himself. Each new member swore an oath of loyalty to al-Banna. And the Brotherhood was a revolutionary movement on the grandest of scales." (Berman, pp. 31-32) It sought to subsume local nationalisms into a broader idea of Islamic unity.
One of the most fascinating - and shocking - features of Berman's book is the elaboration of the intimate links between the Nazis and key figures in the Islamic world, most notably Amin al-Husseini, al-Banna's "hero and inspiration" and his greatest ally outside of Egypt.
"Haj Amin al-Husseini, [...] when his time of desperate troubles came, would look to al-Banna, the most powerful of his own comrades for help, and would receive it too. And so began a three-way dance - between the Grand Mufti and the Nazi leaders, on one hand, and between the Grand Mufti and al-Banna, on the other." (Berman p. 67)
Rather than attempting to detail the dealings the Grand Mufti (who saw the Nazis as natural allies) had with Hitler and Himmler, I will quote a passage from a book by Matthias Küntzel whose "angry tone" seemed to Berman "well struck":
"The Mufti only ever criticized the Nazi policy when he feared that Jews might escape the Holocaust. He was on friendly terms with Heinrich Himmler, whom he admired. Their friendship was, however, strained when in 1943 Himmler wanted (as a propaganda stunt and in return for the release of twenty thousand German prisoners) to permit five thousand Jewish children to emigrate - and therefore to survive. The Mufti, who, according to a German government official, 'would prefer all of them (the Jews) to be killed,' fought tirelessly against this plan. With success! The children were dispatched to the gas chambers. The mufti showed special interest in reacting to decisions by the governments of Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to allow some thousands of Jewish children accompanied by responsible adults to leave for Palestine. It would be 'appropriate and more expedient,' he wrote promptly to the Bulgarian Foreign Minister, 'to prevent the Jews from emigrating from your country and send them somewhere they will be under strict control, for example to Poland.' Another success! Already issued emigration permits were withdrawn and the salvation of the Jewish children prevented." (Cited Berman, pp. 94-95.)
This was the man Hassan al-Banna welcomed as a hero into Egypt after the war: " ... this hero who challenged an empire and fought Zionism, with the help of Hitler and Germany. Germany and Hitler are gone, but Amin al-Husseini will continue the struggle." (From a 1946 address by al-Banna to the Arab League, cited Berman, p. 106.)
Such attitudes are still alive and well within the Islamist movement as anyone who follows current affairs will know well. What is surprising to me is that such notions are held, not just by the uneducated, but also by supposedly learned figures within the Muslim world.
In the 1980s, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi wrote a book expounding al-Banna's ideas (including the notion of a massive jihad and world domination). Al-Qaradawi has been portrayed by Tariq Ramadan as the greatest of scholarly authorities on al-Banna's thought. But these three sentences, from a transcript of one of al-Qaradawi's television sermons (broadcast by Al Jazeera in 2009), suggest that something is profoundly wrong, not just with the scholarly judgement and moral perspective of the speaker, but with the politico-religious thought-world which the speaker and many of his listeners inhabit:
"Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them - even though they exaggerated the issue - he managed to put them in their place." (Cited Berman, p. 78)
The Islamist ideology is simply crass and credulous, morally bankrupt, intellectually null and void. It represents a tragic betrayal of all that is beautiful, all that is subtle and all that is fine in the cultural and intellectual traditions of the Islamic world.