The Muslim groups which today threaten the West with terrorism, subversion and insurgency are not only “fascist” in the broad sociological sense, but can trace their literal historical origins to Nazism and its genocidal ambitions.
The ideology of the Islamists whose ranks today include not only al-Qaeda but also Hamas and Hezbollah, originated with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in 1928 by Sheikh Hassan al-Banna. The Muslim Brotherhood finds not just its roots, but much of its symbolism, terminology, and political priorities deep within the heart of Nazi fascism.
For al-Banna, as for many other Muslims worldwide, the end of the caliphate, although brought about by secular Muslim Turks, was a sacrilege against Islam for which they blamed the non-Muslim West. It was to strike back against these evils that al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928.
Al-Banna’s antipathy towards Western modernity soon moved him to shape the Brotherhood into an organization seeking to check the secularist tendencies in Muslim society and return to traditional Islamic values. Al-Banna recruited followers from a vast cross-section of Egyptian society by addressing issues such as colonialism, public health, educational policy, natural resources management, social inequalities, Arab nationalism, and the weakness of the Islamic world. Among the perspectives he drew on to address these issues were the anti-capitalist doctrines of European Marxism and especially fascism.
As the Muslim Brotherhood expanded during the 1930s and extended its activities well beyond its original religious revivalism, al-Banna began dreaming a greater Muslim dream: the restoration of the Caliphate. He would describe, in inflammatory speeches, the horrors of hell expected for heretics, and consequently, the need for Muslims to return to their purest religious roots, and resume the great and final holy war, or jihad, against the non-Muslim world.
The first big step in the international jihad al-Banna envisioned came in the form of trans-national terrorism during the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-39, when one of the most famous of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders, the Hajj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti (Supreme Muslim religious leader) of Jerusalem, incited his followers to a three-year war against the Jews in Palestine and against the British who administered the Palestine Mandate. In 1936 the Brotherhood had about 800 members, but by 1938, just two years into the Revolt, its membership had grown to almost 200,000, with fifty branches in Egypt alone. By the end of the 1930s, there were more than a half million active members registered, in more than 2,000 branches across the Arab world.
To achieve that broader dream of a global jihad, the Brotherhood developed a network of underground cells, stole weapons, trained fighters, formed secret assassination squads, founded sleeper cells of subversive supporters in the ranks of the army and police, and waited for the order to go public with terrorism, assassinations, and suicide missions. It was during this time that the Muslim Brotherhood found a soul mate in Nazi Germany.
The Reich offered great power connections to the movement, but the relationship brokered by the Brotherhood was more than a marriage of convenience. Long before the war, al-Banna had developed an Islamic religious ideology which previewed Hitler’s Nazism. Both movements sought world conquest and domination. Both were triumphalist and supremacist (in Nazism the Aryan must rule, while in al-Banna’s Islam, the Muslim religion must hold dominion). Both advocated subordination of the individual to a central power. Both were explicitly anti-nationalist in the sense that they believed in the liquidation of the nation-state in favor of a trans-national unifying community. And both rabidly hated the Jews and sought their destruction.
As the Brotherhood’s political and military alliance with Nazi Germany developed, these parallels facilitated a full-blown alliance, with all the pomp and panoply of formal state visits, de facto ambassadors, and overt as well as sub rosa joint ventures. Al-Banna’s followers easily transplanted into the Arab world a newly Nazified form of traditional Muslim Jew-hatred, with Arab translations of Mein Kampf (translated into Arabic as My Jihad) and other Nazi anti-Semitic works, including Der Sturmer hate-cartoons, adapted to portray the Jew as the demonic enemy of Allah.
When the Second World War broke out, Al-Banna worked to firm up a formal alliance with Hitler and Mussolini. But the best known Nazi sympathizer in the Muslim Brotherhood was the Hajj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and one-time President of the Supreme Muslim Council of Palestine. The Grand Mufti was a bridge figure in terms of transplanting the Nazi genocide in Europe into the post-war Middle East and creating a fascist heritage for the Palestinian national movement.
Al-Husseini used his office as a powerful bully pulpit from which to preach anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist, and (turning on his patrons) anti-British vitriol. He was directly involved in the organization of the 1929 riots which destroyed the 3,000-year-old Jewish community of Hebron. And he was quick to see that he had a natural ally in Hitler. As early as spring 1933, he assured the German consul in Jerusalem that "the Muslims inside and outside Palestine welcome the new regime of Germany and hope for the extension of the fascist, anti-democratic governmental system to other countries."
The youth organization established by the Mufti used Nazi emblems, names and uniforms. Germany reciprocated by setting up scholarships for Arab students, hiring Arab apprentices at German firms, and inviting Arab party leaders to the Nuremberg party rallies and Arab military leaders to Wehrmacht maneuvers. Most significantly, the German Propaganda Ministry developed strong links with the Grand Mufti and with Arabic newspapers, creating a propaganda legacy that would outlast Husseini, Hitler, and all the other figures of World War II.
In September 1937, Adolf Eichmann and another SS officer carried out an exploratory mission in the Middle East lasting several weeks, and including a friendly productive visit with the Grand Mufti. It was after that visit, in fact, that the Mufti went on the Nazi payroll as a Nazi agent and propagandist. During the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-39, which al-Husseini helped organize and which Germany funded, the swastika was used as a mark of identity on Arabic leaflets and graffiti. Arab children welcomed each other with the Hitler salute, and a sea of German flags and pictures of Hitler were displayed at celebrations.
After meeting with Hitler on November 21, 1941, Husseini praised the Germans because they “know how to get rid of the Jews, and that brings us close to the Germans and sets us in their camp.” On March 1, 1944, the Mufti called out in a broadcast from Zeesen: “Arabs! Rise as one and fight for your sacred rights. Kill the Jews wherever you find them. Kill them with your teeth if need be. This pleases God, history, and religion. This saves your honor.” His own memoirs, and the testimony of German defendants at the Nuremberg trials later on, showed that he planned a death camp modeled on Auschwitz to be constructed near Nablus for the genocide of Palestine’s Jews.
It was the Mufti who urged Hitler, Himmler, and General Ribbentrop to concentrate Germany’s considerable industrial and military resources on the extermination of European Jewry. The foremost Muslim spiritual leader of his time, he helped in this effort by lobbying to prevent Jews from leaving Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, even though those governments were initially willing to let them go. As Eichmann himself recounted: “We have promised him [the Mufti] that no European Jew would enter Palestine any more.”
Adapted from "The Nazi Roots of Palestinian Nationalism and Islamic Jihad," by David Meir-Levi (2007).