Posts Tagged Islamism
A Muslim Brother, Muhammad Morsi, has entered Egypt’s presidential palace and taken his seat in the chair once occupied by Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. This is a stunning development—a slow-motion Islamic revolution that few envisioned back in January 2011, when the crowds filled Tahrir Square.
The experts systematically underestimated the Muslim Brotherhood for a simple reason: they saw the revolution as they wanted it to be, not as it was. The distorted optic of the Tahrir stage seduced and misled them. But it was even more than that: the Muslim Brotherhood itself conducted a campaign of deliberate deception. They claimed they wouldn’t try to dominate the parliament, that they wouldn’t run candidates for every seat—and then they did. They said they wouldn’t run a presidential candidate of their own—and then they did. The credulous believed these reassurances—they seemed so rational and pragmatic. Marc Lynch, an estimable expert on these matters, actually chided the Brotherhood when it defied his analysis of its best interests and nominated a presidential candidate. It was, in his words, a “strategic blunder.”
In fact, it was a strategic master-stroke. From the beginning of the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood has understood that the fluid situation created by the fall of Mubarak won’t last forever, and that now is the time to seize every possible position they can, before alternatives take form. They want power, they crave power, and they won’t let it slip through their fingers by sitting out even a single contest. At the end of the day, all of the arguments for holding back have fallen by the wayside. They’re going for broke.
And have no doubt about the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood seeks to restore Egypt to the glory it once knew, by implementing Islamic social and legal norms. The translation of Islamic ideology into practice is the point of holding political power. The Brotherhood might not be able to effect an exact translation—that would be difficult—but a translation of ideology into practice it will be. This worries secular Egyptians, the international community, and Israel. At this early stage, many will say that such worries are overblown, that the Brotherhood will adapt and compromise. To consolidate power, it might. But at a later stage, many may regret having been so nonchalant.
No one can stop Brotherhood. You say: what about the military chiefs? The military, at times, has appeared to be winning. The revolution got rid of Gamal Mubarak, Husni Mubarak’s son and presumed successor, and that suited the military fine. The parliamentary elections, won by Islamists, demolished the liberals by revealing their weakness. That suited the military fine.
This left standing the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. Everyone assumed that they wouldn’t dare put forth a candidate for the presidency. The new president was to have been a consensus personality above party politics—an ElBaradei or Amr Musa. It was the Brotherhood’s decision to run a presidential candidate that threw the military off-balance, and they have been scrambling ever since. The first Brotherhood candidate, the formidable deputy-guide Khayrat ash-Shater, was disqualified—he would have won a sweeping victory. His replacement, Muhammad Morsi, basically a stand-in, had less appeal, and against him, the unlikely Ahmad Shafik stood a chance. But it gradually became evident that even the stand-in might defeat Shafik, hence the drastic measures by the military chiefs, stripping the presidency of most of its powers even before the first ballot was counted.
The military’s efforts to contain the Muslim Brotherhood, at this late date, can only buy limited time. The parliament has been dissolved, but it will have to be reconstituted, and then what? The rewriting of the constitution can be delayed, but the constitution will have to be written and approved by the legislature, and then what? And if the president isn’t to be the supreme commander of the Egyptian armed forces, then who will be? The simple truth is that Egypt isn’t going to revert to military rule—it’s too late, the polls show that a vast majority of Egyptians want a transition to civilian, constitutional rule. For the military, the question is, what are the terms of this transition? What will guarantee their economic enterprises? What will assure them that they won’t be prosecuted and purged? This is now the core of Egyptian domestic politics: the terms on which the military will exit. And with each passing day, the hand of the Muslim Brotherhood is strengthened in this negotiation, because it grows more legitimate and the generals grow less legitimate. There are those who think that the Muslim Brotherhood can still be outmaneuvered by gerrymandering the system. In the long term, it can’t. Egypt is headed toward populist Islamist rule, and it is just a matter of time before the Brotherhood checkmates its opponents.
So how will the Muslim Brotherhood rule? It is the misfortune of the Muslim Brotherhood that, having waited more than 80 years for power, they have come to it at perhaps the lowest point in the modern history of Egypt. The country teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, the result of decades of bad decisions, corruption, and the absence of the rule of law. The Muslim Brotherhood is in a bind, because it has to deliver. For the masses of people who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, the revolution wasn’t about democracy and freedom. It was about bread and social justice.
The Brotherhood has a so-called “Renaissance” plan for the overhaul of the Egyptian economy. I won’t pretend to judge its feasibility. Could modernization of tax collection double or triple tax revenues? Can Egypt double the number of arriving tourists, even while contemplating limits on alcohol and bikinis? Can a renovation of the Suez Canal raise transit revenues from $6 billion a year to $100 billion? Can Egypt’s economy surpass the economies of Turkey and Malaysia within seven years? These are all claims made at various times by the economic thinkers of the Muslim Brotherhood, who trumpet Egypt’s supposed potential for self-sufficiency.
If you think this is pie in the sky, then it isn’t difficult to imagine the “Plan B” of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is to find ways to raise the rent Egypt collects from the West and rich Arabs for its geopolitical position. Call it a shakedown, call it a bailout, it doesn’t matter. The message Egypt is sending is that it’s too big to fail, and that the world, and especially the United States, owes it. The deputy guide, Khayrat ash-Shater, put it directly: “We strongly advise the Americans and the Europeans to support Egypt during this critical period as compensation for the many years they supported a brutal dictatorship.” Egypt, which is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, is thus owed compensation.
A key part of this narrative is that Mubarak sold peace with Israel on the cheap. In Egypt it is believed that the $1.3 billion that Egypt receives a year in military aid, and hundreds of millions more in economic aid, are just a portion of what Egypt’s adherence to peace is worth. To get more, the plan of the Muslim Brotherhood is to persuade Washington that it can’t take Egypt for granted. The strategy will be to stimulate crises that will be amenable to resolution by the transfer of resources. No one can predict what those crises will look like. It’s hard to imagine that some of them won’t involve Israel.
So the question the United States faces will be this: is Egypt indeed too big to fail? Is the United States now not only going to talk the Muslim Brotherhood—which it is already doing—but actively work to help it succeed? The question comes at a time when the United States has become frugal. And there is no superpower rivalry that Egypt can exploit. When John Foster Dulles informed Nasser in 1956 that the United States wouldn’t finance his great dam at Aswan, Nasser went to Moscow. Today there aren’t any alternatives to the United States.
That being the case, the only way for Egypt to get the attention of Washington is to threaten to spin out of American orbit and into the opposing sphere of radical Islam. At no point will it be indisputable that the United States has “lost Egypt.” But at every point, Egypt’s loss will seem imminent. In that respect, the Muslim Brotherhood has already made its mark on history: from this day forward, Egypt can’t ever be taken for granted again.
For future reference, Marc Lynch stands by his analysis:
— Marc Lynch (@abuaardvark) June 24, 2012
— Marc Lynch (@abuaardvark) June 29, 2012
Posted by Martin Kramer in on October 11, 2010
Martin Kramer, The Salience of Islamic Antisemitism, Institute of Jewish Affairs Report (London), no. 2, October 1995.
In the Institute of Jewish Affair’s Anti-Semitism World Report for 1992, it was determined that “Jewish security throughout the world is perhaps affected most seriously of all by Islamic fundamentalist groups.” Yet at the same time, the report admitted that “this is an area about which there is more speculation than hard evidence.” Since then, the bombing of the AMIA building in Argentina in July 1994 has lifted any lingering doubt as to where the most serious threat to Jewish security lies. Hard evidence is rapidly replacing speculation. It is evidence we can no longer ignore or deny.
Taking a hard look at hard evidence and assessing it soberly means breaking the long habit of emphasizing only the tolerance of Islam—a tolerance which drew so many Jewish scholars to study it in the first place. Islam today is not what it was, and nostalgia is not a very practical sentiment. Today there is Islamic antisemitism—a belief among many Muslims that Jews everywhere, in league with Israel, are behind a sinister plot to destroy Islam. Some of these Muslims believe the battleground is anywhere on the globe where Jews are organized to assist and aid in this plot. As I wrote last year in my Commentary article, “The Jihad Against the Jews,” this antisemitism seems to me so widespread and potentially violent that it could eclipse all other forms of antisemitism over the next decade.
It is not my intention here to repeat my article in Commentary. Nor is it possible, in this short space, to cover the entire panorama of antisemitism in the Islamic world, or even pursue any single case in depth. What I want to do is offer my own answers to three questions which I think should command our special attention, and which relate to the overall salience of Islamic antisemitism. What are the origins of this antisemitism? How widespread is it now? Is it likely to grow in the future?
What Are the Origins of Islamic Antisemitism?
The question poses many of the same analytical dilemmas posed by antisemitism elsewhere. How much of it is the legacy of religious prejudice? How much is the product of modern theories of nation and race? How much is root in contemporary society, economics and politics? As any historian will tell you, it is extremely difficult to establish intellectual origins. We can only look at contemporary ideas and try to draw lines to earlier ideas, knowing that none of these lines is straight.
The two most common answers—which do draw straight lines—locate the source of this antisemitism either in the essence of Islam, or in the creation of Israel. Let me begin with the first: the idea that Islamic prejudice against the Jews goes back fourteen centuries, that Islamic theology is ipso facto antisemitic. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, relates the Qur’an, some Jews engaged in treachery against him. This is recorded in the Qur’an as God’s word. Speaking to Jewish audiences, I am often asked by those who have read certain passages of the Qur’an whether Jew-hatred is not endemic to Islam. Is it possible for any Muslim who goes back to these sources to read them as anything other than an indictment of Jewish treachery? There is a view that Islam in its very essence is antisemitic, and that the roots of the antisemitism we see today are authentically Islamic.
This answer touches on some truths, yet it misses many others. One is that the Islamic tradition did not hold up those Jews who practiced treachery against Muhammad as archetypes—as the embodiment of Jews in all times and places. This makes for a striking contrast with a certain Christian concept of the eternal Jew, who forever bears the mark of the betrayer of Jesus. The Qur’an also includes certain verses which attest to the Prophet’s amicable relations with some Jews, and while religious supremacism always coloured the traditional Islamic view of the Jews, it also coloured the Islamic view of Christians and all other non-Muslims. In the Islamic tradition, the Jews are regarded as members of a legitimate community of believers in God, “people of the Book,” legally entitled to sufferance. The overall record of Islamic civilization’s tolerance of Jews is not a bad one, especially when compared with the record of Christendom in most periods.
Does that mean that today’s Islamic antisemitism has no grounding of Islam? No; there is no doubt whatsoever that the Islamic tradition provides sources on which Islamic antisemitism now feeds. Here is the mentor of Hizbullah in Lebanon, Ayatollah Fadlallah, pointing to the Qur’an as just such a source: “In the vocabulary of the Qur’an,” he says, “Islamists have much of what they need to awaken the consciousness of Muslims, relying on the literal text of the Qur’an, because the Qur’an speaks about the Jews in a negative way, concerning both their historical conduct and future schemes.”
Today’s Muslim antisemites make very effective use of the Qur’an and Tradition of the Prophet. But it is also a selective and distorting use. For Muslims to arrive at the idea of an eternal Jew in Islam, for them to portray the Jews as “enemies of God,” some additional influence must be at work.
Perhaps it is the creation and policies of Israel? Here we come to the second straight line, sometimes drawn from Israel to anti-Zionism, which may become blurred at the edges into antisemitism. Akbar Ahmed has put it this way:
The loss of land for the Palestinians and the loss of the holy places in Jerusalem are viewed with a sense of injustice and anger among Muslims. In the rhetoric of confrontation, many themselves blur the distinctions between anti-Judaism, antisemitism, and anti-Zionism. Such Muslims thus make the mistake they accuse others of making about them—seeing all Jews as homogenous, monolithic and threatening.
This is obviously true as far as it goes. There is a sense of injustice and loss which runs deep, and in which Israel today occupies a prime place. There is little doubt that in some contexts, Muslims really mean to condemn the Israelis for their polices when they condemn the Jews for their perfidy.
But what Akbar Ahmed calls a rhetorical mistake is really much more than that. It has become a conscious and deliberate ideological affirmation, even a tenet of belief. The approach of a growing number of Islamists has been to see Israel as a symptom of some larger conspiracy against them—either Western, or Jewish, or a sinister combination of the two. Many Islamists today do not look at Israel or its policies as their irritant. They look beyond, either to America, symbol today of the power of the West, or to the Jews, dispersed throughout the West, where they exercise a malignant influence. These are deemed be the real forces driving history.
When this logic is taken to its most extreme Islamist conclusion, it will attribute almost any misfortune to the secret machinations of the Jews everywhere. They become the secret force behind Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the fall of the Muslim-owned Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Wherever they may be, the Jews are linked together in a sinister plot, not merely to maintain the state of Israel, but to undermine and eradicate Islam. Rashid al-Ghannushi, the Tunisian Islamist who now lives in London, has spoken of “a Jewish-American plan encompassing the entire region, which would cleanse it of all resistance and open it to Jewish hegemony from Marrakesh to Kazakhstan.” Note that Ghannushi did not speak of an Israeli-American plan. In this view, the state of Israel is simply one arm of a wider Jewish conspiracy.
Listen to Ayatollah Fadlallah, the oracle of Hizbullah in Lebanon, who puts it even better. There is, he says, “a world Jewish movement working to deprive Islam of its positions of actual power—spiritually, on the question of Jerusalem; geographically, on the question of Palestine; politically, by bringing pressures to block Islam’s movement at more than one place; and economically, in an effort to control Islam’s economic potential and resources, in production and consumption.”
The motive of the Jews, says Fadlallah, is that they “want to be a world superpower.” Israel is intended to be “the nucleus for spreading their economic and cultural domination.” Behind this effort there is no people or community of belief, but what Fadlallah darkly calls “a group.” He points out that this is “not merely a group that established a state at the expense of a people. It is a group which wants to establish Jewish culture at the expense of Islamic culture.” At stake here, then, is not Palestinian land or even Jerusalem, but Islamic culture itself. Here is a view of Muslim and Jew locked in a total confrontation which will continue until one side completely subjugates the other.
It would appear, therefore, that for Muslims to portray the Jew as the eternal Jew, for Muslims to portray the Jew as the arch conspirator, there must be more at work than Islamic tradition and Israeli policy. If these themes seem distressingly familiar, it is quite likely because they are borrowings from the canon of Western religious and racial antisemitism. The antisemitism we see today in the Islamic world owes a crucial debt to the antisemitism of the West. Like so much else in Islamist thought, it is derivative of Western ideological excess. How did it reach Muslims? I think it is highly relevant that many Islamist thinkers of the present generation have spent time in the West, collecting advanced degrees at the universities of London and Paris. There they seem to have absorbed the antisemitism of the extreme Left and Right, which they now retail as a comprehensive indictment of the Jews extending far beyond anti-Zionism.
In this indictment, which purports to be the authentic voice of Islam, all manner of themes and sources jostle one another. Verses from the Qur’an mingle with quotations from the Protocols. The role of the Jews in Arabia of the seventh century is compared with the alleged international power of the Jews in the late twentieth. In this collapsing of sources and history, another distinction—between anti-Zionism and antisemitism—is deliberately lost.
Islamism, then, like the foreign ideologies whose forms it mimics, requires the existence of a conspiracy. The existence of this conspiracy is necessary if Muslims are to find some external reason for Muslim weakness and dependence. In the foreign ideologies Islamism mimics—which are also antisemitic—Jews fill the role of conspirator, sapping societies of their vitality. Islamism looks at the tradition of Islam and the policies of Israel through this ideological prism—and sees a world Jewish conspiracy. Without this ideological prism, there can be no Islamic antisemitism. Islam is not inherently antisemitic. But Islamism is, and anyone viewing the world through its prism will inevitably see conspiring Jews.
The AMIA bombing is the disturbing evidence that we are no longer dealing here with a rhetorical flourish or ideological daydreaming. I believe that this bombing was meant to deter the State of Israel from taking certain actions in Lebanon. But only someone persuaded of the existence of a world Jewish conspiracy against Islam could consider achieving this purpose by killing Argentine Jews at random.
On the question of origins, then, Islamic antisemitism is not simply a continuation of tradition or a response to injustice. Like other antisemitism, it has its origins in the anti-rational ideologies of modern Europe, which have now infected the Islamic world. If this is so, then neither a break with tradition, nor a diminishing of the injustice, will stop it. It exists above all because it is needed to complete an irrational logic.
How Widespread is Islamic Antisemitism?
Let me quote a brief passage I read not long ago by the French scholar Olivier Roy, who has written an important book on political Islam and did his earlier work on its development in Afghanistan. He writes of what he calls the evolution of the Afghan’s image of the Jew: “Before the war in Afghanistan, the Pakhtun tribes boasted of being descended from a lost tribe of Israel; during the war, many traditionalist mullahs could be heard extolling the virtues of the Torah (in opposition, of course, to the atheist commmunists), but today many Afghan neofundamentalists harp on the Zionist plot.”
If, in the highlands of Afghanistan, the Pakhtuns are having second thoughts about their descent, I think this speaks volumes about the extent of antisemitism in Muslim lands, and particularly its dissemination by Islamists. The existence of a Jewish conspiracy against Islam is integral to the Islamist ideology, not tangential. Everywhere that ideology is preached, everywhere it is embraced, the conspiracy of the Jews is included in the package, which is to say that we should hardly be surprised when it surfaces even in the most unlikely places in Asia and Africa.
But more importantly, it now exists in the West itself, among Muslim immigrants and visitors who arrive in ever greater numbers to Britain, France, the US, Argentina, and Australia—precisely the centres of the Jewish Disapora. Today virtually every trend in Islamic thought and activism is represented in the West, including the most militant forms of Islamism. The UK provides an interesting example. It is home to several organizations inspired by the Islamic Republic of Iran; to the Palestinian Hamas, which publishes its flagship magazine in London; and to the Hizb al-Tahrir or “Liberation Party,” clandestine in the Middle East but highly visible on British campuses. This is the kind of volatile mix one would be hard-pressed to find in any single Middle Eastern country, and the mix of antisemitic materials disseminated by these groups is just as varied.
It is still very difficult to measure the significance of these groups and their materials. It may be impossible to predict how and when threats might become deeds. The work of analysis has to be done in every instance on the local level, by long-time watchers of the local Islamist scene. My point is that there is no place in the West without an Islamist scene, and no Islamist scene in the West that does not deserve close watching.
Is Islamic Antisemitism Likely to Grow in the Future?
I do not have a complete answer, but let me offer some insights that might contribute to an answer.
As the Arab-Israeli peace process evolves, the Islamic world is becoming immersed in an unprecedented debate on the Jews, and on whether Muslims can or should ever live in peace with them. The outcome of this debate is impossible to predict. In the course of it we will overhear words which will encourage us, and words which will alarm us; the Islamists in particular will say more and more to alarm us, because their very world view is at stake.
The Islamists now argue that any peace with Israel will subject the Muslim world to complete Jewish domination. Even were Israel to permit the creation of a Palestinian state, even were it to make concessions on Jerusalem, it would still exist as a tool of cultural leverage against Islam. Any “normalization” provisions of any peace agreement will mean a massive influx of Jews into Islamic countries—as diplomats, journalists, businessmen, and tourists. Their objective, say the Islamists, will be to dominate and corrupt the Islamic world. Here is Ibrahim Ghawsha, the Hamas spokesmen:
God forbid, if by means of signing the peace accords the Arabs and Israelis reach a compromise and they implement their plan for autonomy, Arab economies will collapse because they will not be able to compete with the Israelis’ modern industries. Thus, Israel will dominate the region like Japan dominates southeast Asia, and the Arabs will all become employees of the Jews.
This scenario of the Jew as boss of Islam is just the beginning. We can expect that if the peace process makes further progress, Islamists will paint darker and darker scenarios, where the theme of Jewish domination replaces that of Israeli usurpation.
But at the same time, we will hear other voices which will encourage us. Over the past month, Islamists have been battling against a fatwa, a legal edict, by the Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Abd al-Aziz Bin Baz. The fatwa permits negotiation of peace with Israel, and permits Muslims to visit Jerusalem even now. There is no space here to go into the intricacies of this debate, and Bin Baz’s own circumlocutions, but at one point he did say this:
The Prophet made absolute peace with the Jews of Medina when he went there an an immigrant. That did not entail any love for them or amiability with them. But the Prophet dealt with them, buying from them, talking to them, calling them to God and Islam. When he died, his shield was mortgaged to a Jew, for he had mortgaged it to buy food for his family.
We have here an explicit endorsement of normal relations with Jews, of a kind no Muslim cleric would have made a few years ago.
So the Islamic debate is underway, and on the whole, we must welcome the fact that it is taking place at all. But I would estimate that as it intensifies, Islamists will be pushed to new extremes—certainly rhetorical and, for all we know, operational as well. AMIA, I believe, will prove to be a rare event. I am not as certain it will prove to be unique.
Posted by Martin Kramer in on October 10, 2010
This is Martin Kramer’s review of William L. Cleveland, Islam Against the West: Shakib Arslan and the Campaign for Islamic Nationalism, published in Middle Eastern Studies, October 1987, pp. 529-33.
Shakib Arslan, the “Prince of Eloquence,” was a master of self-promotion. As a publicist and self-publicist, Arslan kept his name in print between the world wars by producing a journalistic and literary corpus of formidable proportions: he wrote twenty books and two thousand articles. His polemical periodical, La Nation arabe, had an avid readership in Europe, among sympathizers and critics alike.
It is all the more striking, then, that Arslan should have eluded thorough study in the West, which he made his battleground for Islamic independence. William Cleveland, the author of the first Western biography of Arslan,1 points to one explanation for this neglect: the Islamic unity championed by Arslan was defeated by secular nationalism. His efforts were spent in vain, earning him posthumous obscurity. To this one must add the unwillingness of Arslan’s family to permit access to his voluminous papers. Even Arslan’s Arab biographers, who were competent but never critical, failed to win their full cooperation. Neither did Cleveland, who was told in 1974 by Mayy Junbalat née Arslan that her father’s papers had been sent off to Morocco, where they languish in government custody. To write a subject’s life without his papers is an enterprise fraught with dangers. Yet Cleveland has met the documentary challenge with such resourcefulness that one doubts whether a radically different truth could ever emerge from Arslan’s own papers. Their concealment has now become all the more pointless.
Shakib Arslan was a man of one vocation and many careers. Born in 1869 to a powerful Druze family in the Lebanese Shuf, he might have anticipated a long career as chief of a clan, defending the interests and honor of his kin and folk, and rallying them to arms whenever persuasion failed. This is precisely the role of Arslan’s grandson, Walid Junbalat, who today guides the small Druze community of Lebanon in and out of confrontations with various militias, states, and world powers. Arslan did try his hand at chieftainship, mostly out of a sense of noblesse oblige. But his education, eloquence, and literary ability cultivated within him a sense of mission too ambitious to ever find satisfaction in the service of his sect. Arslan was touched at a precocious age by Afghani and Abduh, and drank from the literary fountains of Istanbul and Cairo while still a youth. In this heady world of ideas, he learned the dimensions of Islam’s crisis, and fixed upon the Ottoman Empire as the last bulwark against the subjugation of Islamdom to an insatiable West. As the nineteenth century closed, Arslan chose as his vocation the defense of all Islam, becoming a fiercely patriotic Ottoman and a cosmopolitan pan-Islamist.
Cleveland adroitly sets the scene for that most fateful of Arslan’s choices: his support for the Ottoman Empire’s entry into a world war that would destroy it and send Arslan into permanent exile. Few Arabs rendered as many services to the Ottoman war party and its German ally as Arslan. His belligerent ardor was matched only by his contempt for those who plotted with the British to foment Arab revolt. A romantic intellectual without a dash of military judgement, Arslan adored the reckless Enver, whom he continued to serve after final defeat, during Enver’s ill-fated exile in Berlin and Moscow.
Enver’s demise cut Arslan adrift. In the prime of his own life, Arslan saw his empire divided, his military idols smashed, his homeland occupied by a foreign power. In his determined defense of Islam, he would have to draw up a new personal order of battle. While others continued the struggle on native soil, Arslan chose to pamphleteer on colonialism’s doorstep, in Switzerland between the two world wars.
Agitprop in Geneva
It is here that Cleveland’s sources become rich and his narrative vivid. Arslan took it upon himself to represent the Arabs before the League of Nations, and especially before the League’s Permanent Mandates Commission. He held his formal brief from the fractious Syro-Palestinian Congress, but actually answered to no one in his campaign against the French and British mandates. He soon became a tremendous nuisance. Arslan bombarded the Mandates Commission with petitions, attended meetings of assorted oppressed peoples, hosted known agitators in his home, and published his views in any journal which would print them. Police and intelligence files bearing his name grew thick with reports of his doings and his intercepted mail. Cleveland makes thorough use of this material, particularly the files of the Swiss, who were compelled by French pressure to keep close a close watch on Arslan’s activities. With Arslan’s publication of La Nation arabe, beginning in 1930, his views found a regular and influential outlet, adding still more to his fame and notoriety.
Cleveland argues convincingly against the claim of Arslan’s Arab biographers that Arslan embraced Arab nationalism during this period, and narrowed the aim of his campaign to Arab independence. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence for a deepening of Arslan’s interest and involvement in the wider struggle of all Muslims against foreign rule. Arslan never made the full passage to Arabism, but formulated an all-embracing Islamic nationalism, which included but transcended the Arab cause. La Nation arabe was misleadingly titled, for it carried dozens of articles on subjects remote from Arab concerns then and now.
It must remain an open question whether this unwillingness to give some focus to his struggle enhanced or diminished its effect. Arslan came to exercise a vast influence in North Africa, and tirelessly sought support in the wider Muslim world for the defense of Islam’s western flank. This campaign reached its apex with his famous agitation against the Berber dahir, and much of Arslan’s later reputation he owed to his success in exciting the Arab East over this dire threat to Islam in Morocco. On the other hand, he sank nearly as much effort into the cause of the Balkan Muslim minorities, whose plight (at the time) failed to fire the imagination of wider Islam. But for Cleveland, this Islamic nationalism is important as evidence for the underlying continuity in Arslan’s values and beliefs, which made him a man of unvarying principle and integrity. He was no precursor, but he did reformulate the familiar message of Islamic solidarity in a rich language that many Muslims found inspiring.
Still, Arslan did not attempt to reformulate Islam itself, a point which Cleveland rightly underlines. Why this hesitation, in a man whose outspoken opinion knew no other limits? Cleveland suggests that Arslan lacked an interest in theology. But to this one must add Arslan’s own awareness that his very standing as a believer was not beyond question.
It is not clear whether Arslan remained in any sense a Druze, having declared quite early that he regarded himself a Muslim like all Muslims. Even so, he was schooled in a climate of religious relativism, and was deeply influenced by radical reformers and freethinkers. Cleveland makes allowance for these influences in describing how Arslan presented Islam to others, but is too wary of his evidence to ask whether Arslan genuinely believed in Islam as religious logic. Did Arslan need the crutch of personal belief? In a chapter on Arslan’s view of tradition, Cleveland seems poised to answer, but he chooses not to leap into the void, and one is left to draw the conclusion that Arslan was satisfied with his claim that modernity and belief could be reconciled.
But if evidence for religious doubt ever does come to light, as it did when Afghani and his papers became the object of critical scrutiny by scholars, the careful reader of this biography will not be surprised. Cleveland has warned us that Arslan preferred to leave the defense of Islam as a theological system to others. When Arslan wrote of Islam, he meant to evoke a sense of group solidarity which could inspire mass resistance to foreign encroachment. Religion was useful since it strengthened that solidarity, and infused it with power. This is a position which has been reconciled as often with agnosticism as with belief, and it is interesting that Cleveland offers no comment on the degree of Arslan’s personal piety. From this account, it would seem that political integrity, not religious piety, was Arslan’s strong card.
Philosopher and Kings
Yet how did he maintain this integrity when faced with the need to raise funds for his work? Subsidies kept Arslan afloat during these years, and he became indebted to many patrons. All of them had political aspirations, regarded him as a good investment, and expected a return on their money. Cleveland is quite right in determining that Arslan could not be bought by such subsidies. But Arslan became expert in misleading his patrons to believe that he could.
Consider Arslan’s relationship with the ex-Khedive Abbas Hilmi II, one of Arslan’s most important patrons between 1922 and 1931. There can be no doubt that Abbas wanted to use Arslan to build support for his bid for the throne of an independent Syria. Arslan knew it. But Cleveland maintains that it was Abbas who deceived Arslan, by concealing his true ambitions for close to a decade. Here Cleveland has relied upon Arslan’s own published apologia, which, like all of Arslan’s accounts of his ties to patrons, smacks of self-justification. No added credibility in lent to this account by its appearance in Arslan’s letters to Rashid Rida (released years ago for publication not by Arslan’s family but by Rida’s heirs). Truth in these letters is twisted by the fact that Arslan dreaded Rida’s moral judgment even more than public ridicule. Theirs was not simply the intimate friendship described by Cleveland, but a relationship infused with moral and religious tension, and worthy of deep analysis.
For an accurate impression of Arslan’s relationship with Abbas, one must turn elsewhere, to file 118 of the Abbas Hilmi Papers at Durham University Library. This file, which somehow eluded Cleveland, contains some 300 pages of Arslan’s letters to Abbas, and here the picture becomes clear. Arslan massaged the ex-Khedive’s vain ambition in a masterful way, leading his patron to believe that Arslan would declare himself for Abbas—when the right moment came. When Abbas finally made his bid, in 1931, and Arslan was called upon to return interest on Abbas’s investment, he naturally defaulted. The relationship ended. Abbas could never have owned Arslan, but Arslan intentionally led him into thinking he could, an Arslanian ruse which the “Prince of Eloquence” would employ whenever it suited him.
Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud also extended his patronage to Arslan, and Cleveland accurately describes the many ways in which Arslan exalted the new king, by publishing praise of Ibn Saud’s regime at every turn. Cleveland tends to regard Arslan’s attachment to Ibn Saud as a complete devotion, inspired by the Arabian monarch’s Islamic fervor and martial prowess. Arslan was so enamored of his hero, claims Cleveland, that Arslan favored Ibn Saud as head of a possible confederation of Syria, Iraq, and Arabia. Cleveland quotes a letter to Rida in 1931 in which Arslan declared that “I prefer no one over Ibn Saud, not even Faysal.”
Not even Faysal? Arslan’s declaration to Rida that he preferred Ibn Saud came in a letter written to persuade Rida that Faysal should have the throne; it was a rhetorical flourish, meant to disarm Rida’s objections. In fact, Arslan’s well-know flirtation with Faysal in the early 1930s led Ibn Saud to cut off Arslan completely. Arslan revealed this in a letter which he wrote some years later to Haj Amin al-Husayni (preserved in a collection described below). When Arslan visited Faysal during the latter’s stay in Bern in 1931, Arslan urged him to unify Syria and Iraq under one throne, on which Faysal would sit. “You needn’t promote yourself,” Arslan told Faysal. “We will handle the promotion.” When Ibn Saud got wind of Arslan’s role in a scheme which would have greatly strengthened his rival, “I lost all my standing with him.” wrote Arslan, “and he cut off relations with me. I had received heavy subventions from him because, the truth be told, he was generous to an extreme. And all this was lost because I called for the unification of Syria and Iraq; that is, I put general Arab interests before my personal interests.” Khaldun S. Husry has published the gist of a remarkable letter by Arslan, in which he actually tried to convince Ibn Saud that Faysal’s occupancy of a combined Syrian-Iraqi throne was in Ibn Saud’s best interest! Ibn Saud understandably could not follow this sort of logic, and shut off the money supply. With the failure of the confederation plan, Ibn Saud relented, but Arslan admitted that he never again enjoyed the same standing with Ibn Saud as before.
The episode confirmed how little personal devotion Arslan felt, even to his most generous patron. To advance his sacred cause, he needed the support of more powerful men, and brilliantly led them to believe they could guarantee his loyalty through their patronage. They inevitably felt cheated in the end. Much more remains to be done in exploring Arslan’s alliances with Muslim rulers, for they resemble Afghani’s in their complexity and volatility.
In the Axis
Cleveland has worked from a more substantial dossier in reconstructing Arslan’s most dangerous liaisons, with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. If the British and French were to be ousted from Muslim lands, popular resistance would never suffice. Arslan had seen popular revolts put down time and again. On his own initiative, he sought an alliance with great but disinterested European powers, who would guarantee Arab and Muslim independence in return for Arab and Muslim support in the event of a general war. Cleveland has drawn upon official German and Italian archives to follow the diplomatic dance which produced the understanding between Arslan and the Axis powers.
Obviously, Arslan’s services were needed more by Italy than Germany, since Italy, colonizer of Libya, hardly had the image of a disinterested power in Muslim eyes. Arslan’s campaign to cast Italy in a favorable light (for which the Italians showed their appreciation by occasional donations) opened Arslan to severe criticism, even by his admirers. But Arslan would not relent. Through his dealings with Mussolini, he had concluded that Italy’s Mediterranean ambitions could help to rid the region of the British and French. Once that end had been achieved, Germany could be relied upon to check the Italian colonial impulse. With this in mind, Arslan assiduously cultivated old friends in the German Foreign Office, who thought it useful to hear him out from time to time. Those of his co-religionists who could not fathom the genius of this scheme, and so accused Arslan of selling himself for a few lire, became his worst enemies. Under the hail of their criticism, Arslan became obsessed with the defense of his personal integrity. Cleveland treats this most compromising of Arslan’s liaisons with admirable insight and sensitivity, concluding that Arslan again acted on principles, which he again followed straight into disaster.
It was Arslan’s last shred of sound judgment which kept his feet firmly on neutral Swiss soil during the war. Failing health and force of habit also made a move to Berlin or Rome unthinkable. But the Swiss authorities had become strict with him. They banned publication of La Nation arabe, and informed Arslan that he would not be readmitted if he left the country. Cleveland shows us an ailing and frustrated old man, sliding into debt and bereft of real influence.
It may prove possible to modify this assessment on the basis of a source which was beyond Cleveland’s ken and reach when he conducted his research: the complete collection of Arslan’s wartime correspondence to Haj Amin al-Husayni in Berlin exile. The Americans found these letters with the Mufti’s other papers in Austria, where he had abandoned them during his flight from fallen Germany. The Israeli foreign ministry had the papers microfilmed in their entirety many years ago, and the materials were finally deposited in the Israel State Archives in 1984. The collection contains 370 pages of correspondence from Arslan to the Mufti, conveyed via the German diplomatic pouch.
Here we have Arslan’s running commentary on the course of the war, and his tireless admonitions to the Mufti to pursue this or that line of political action. Arslan exercised an elderly mentor’s influence over the Mufti, who kept Arslan going with occasional subventions. These letters also provide evidence, which Cleveland found lacking, for the wartime appearance of La Nation arabe. By 1943, four issues had been published in cooperation with the German Foreign Office. After an interruption, the journal reappeared in 1944 in Budapest, the product of the same collaboration. According to Arslan, the periodical carried many articles on such subjects as Muslim cooperation with the Axis powers and the “plots of the Jews.” Cleveland’s conclusion that Arslan published very little during the war must therefore be revised. Arslan’s letters relate that one of the journal’s wartime issues ran to one hundred pages, and that he wrote ceaselessly, despite his doctor’s advice against such mental exertions.2
In concluding this balanced and elegant portrait of a controversial life, Cleveland chooses to regard Arslan’s last few years until his death in 1946 as tragic. Arslan was “impoverished, ill, and ignored,” and Swiss police reports “revealed an aging man living apart from his wife and son in a residence hotel, passing the days in tearooms with his newspapers, seeing few visitors other than his son, and spending an inordinate amount of time frequenting his bank.” So he appeared from a distance, to those assigned to tail him. But in a letter to the Mufti, we learn of an inner reflection which gave Arslan satisfaction during his last years. His enemies had “died in my lifetime. . . . I take no malicious joy in death, for I will die as they did. But God made allowance for me, that I might witness the deaths of those who incited aggression and made slander against me.” A strange thought in which to find tranquility, and a stranger one to commit to writing; but perhaps not, for a Druze chieftain.
1. William L. Cleveland, Islam against the West: Shakib Arslan and the Campaign for Islamic Nationalism (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1985).
2. I have yet to discover copies of these wartime editions, which would have been published in very limited press runs in the last days of the war. They are not included in the reprint edition of 1988 by Archive Editions in four volumes.