Lion's Den: How Islamists came to dominate European Islam

Ian Johnson's new study is classic 1950s intrigue, complete with rehabilitated Nazis, CIA-front organizations and dueling Soviet-American ambitions.

mosque in munich 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of
mosque in munich 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of
The 7/7 bombings in London, in which Islamists killed 52 and injured 700, prompted British authorities to work with Muslims to avoid future violence.
However, rather than turn to anti-Islamist Muslims who reject the triumphalist goal of applying Islamic law in Europe, they promoted nonviolent Islamists, hoping these would persuade coreligionists to express their hatred of the West in lawful ways. This effort featured Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Islamist intellectual. For example, London’s Metropolitan Police partially funded a conference Ramadan addressed and prime minister Tony Blair appointed him to an official “working group on tackling extremism.”
Deploying an Islamist may have seemed like a original and clever idea but it was neither. Western governments have been allying without success with Islamists for decades. Indeed, they have been allying with Ramadan’s own family.
In 1953, US president Dwight D. Eisenhower hosted a group of foreign Muslims that included Said Ramadan, a leader of arguably the most influential Islamist organization of the 20th century, the rabidly anti-West Muslim Brotherhood – and also Tariq’s father. The Eisenhower-Ramadan meeting took place in the context of sustained US government efforts to rally Muslims against Soviet communism, in part by putting Ramadan on the CIA payroll. Talcott Seelye, an American diplomat who met with him about that time, explains: “We thought of Islam as a counterweight to communism.”
Then there was Hasan al-Banna, Tariq’s grandfather, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and recipient of Nazi funding. American diplomats in Cairo in the late 1940s had “regular meetings” with Banna, found him “perfectly empathetic” and perceived his organization to be a “moderate” and even a “positive” force. The British apparently offered him money.
In other words, Western governments have a history of ignoring the Islamists’ repulsive ideology and working with them, even strengthening them.
IN A stunning piece of investigative historical research, Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly with The Wall Street Journal, reveals new twists and turns of this drama in his just-released book, A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West.
Johnson opens with a review of the systematic Nazi efforts to recruit Soviet Muslims from among their prisoners of war. Many Muslims loathed Stalin; and between 150,000 and 300,000 of them fought for the Axis in World War II. In other words, over and above their unfulfilled propaganda effort directed at Arabs, the Nazis actually fielded a substantial force of mainly Turkic Muslims under the leadership of a scholarly Nazi enthusiast named Gerhard von Mende.
After the German defeat in 1945, Johnson follows von Mende as he continued his anti-communist work with ex-Soviet Muslims, now in a Cold War context. But his network of former soldiers proved not very competent at the task of arousing Muslim hostility against the Soviet Union. Their leading intellectual, for example, had served as the imam of an SS division that helped suppress the Warsaw uprising of 1944. Islamists quickly proved themselves far more competent at this political and religious challenge. Johnson explains that they “wear suits, have university degrees and can formulate their demands in ways that a politician can understand.”
The heart of his fascinating study lies in tracing the evolution, much of it in Munich, from old soldiers to new Islamists. It’s a classic tale of 1950s intrigue, complete with rehabilitated Nazis, CIA-front organizations and dueling Soviet-American ambitions.
Johnson shows how, without anyone quite planning it, the Americansusurped von Mende’s network and handed it over to Said Ramadan. Thisearly US boost to the Muslim Brotherhood, Johnson argues, gave it themeans to establish an Islamist framework just in time to welcome thesurge of Muslim immigration to Europe in the 1970s.
Thus did the Islamist domination of European Muslims have two hiddenfacilitators, Nazi and American. Its origins in Operation Barbarossareveal the ugly pedigree of today’s Islamist strength. Hitler and histhugs could not have foreseen it, but they helped set the stage forEurabia.
American backing for Islamists prompts Johnson to warn against thefutility of allying with the Muslim Brotherhood and its ilk – as TonyBlair once again recently attempted. However tempting, it invariablyharms the West. The lesson is simple: be cognizant of history and donot assist the Islamists.
The writer ( is director of the MiddleEast Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the HooverInstitution of Stanford University.