This week, an amazing and unprecedented interview will appear in the Egyptian newspaper, Almasry Alyoum. It is one of the leading Cairo newspapers, and has an average readership of 200,000 people. What the paper features is an interview with Jeffrey Herf, the University of Maryland historian, about his new and important book, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, published by Yale University Press.
The interview has already appeared online in English. Given the almost constant barrage of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic propaganda throughout the Arab world, the Herf interview comes as a fresh antidote that will undoubtedly shock many Egyptians and cause great consternation. As the interviewer says to Herf, “Most Arab historians agree that the Nazis did not contribute great ideas that grew in the region, but you posit the opposite.” Herf tells him:
The absurd and false notion that an international Jewish conspiracy existed and was a major force in world politics was a key theme of Nazism’s wartime propaganda. Conspiratorial thinking focused on the supposed power of the Jews persisted after the war in the Middle East. The pejorative and hateful depictions of Jews in Nazi propaganda, the belief that they were inherently evil and that they should be punished as a result found echoes in the postwar publications of the Muslim Brotherhood, the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the postwar activities of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Egyptian government’s propaganda under Nasser and in the Hamas Covenant of 1988.
Remember, these words by Herf will hopefully be read throughout the Arab world. Contrast it, for example, with the sermon about Jews broadcast recently on the official Palestinian Authority TV station, approved by Mahmoud Abbas. The speaker said the following: “The Jews, the enemies of Allah and of His Messenger, the enemies of Allah and of His Messenger! Enemies of humanity in general, and of Palestinians in particular – they wage war against us using all kinds of crimes.” These words are akin to those regularly broadcast to the Arab world during World War II by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Palestine, from his radio studio in Nazi Berlin. Keep in mind that Husseini was given asylum in Egypt after the war, and for years, the Nasser regime spread similar words of anti-Semitic hate.
Herf also makes the following point, which must come as dynamite to many Arab readers:
Nazi officials dealing with propaganda aimed at Arabs and Muslims concluded that a selective reading of the Quran and the commentaries about it was their most effective means of reaching this audience. In so doing they drew out the already existing anti-Jewish themes. They presented Islam — not radical, fundamentalist, political or jihadist Islam, but Islam in general –as a religion infused with and inseparable from hatred for the Jews. In their view, from the time that the Jews rejected Prophet Mohammed’s demands that they convert to Islam, the Jews became an “enemy” of Islam. In so doing, Nazism’s Arabic-language propaganda placed the events of the mid-20th century into the far longer context of a supposed, but actually false, Jewish antagonism to Islam as a religion.
Herf goes on to note that the Mufti’s views prevailed in Arab lands after the war, and what he calls an “ideologically driven distortion” was carried over at the war’s end. The Arabs, he argues, saw the creation of Israel as confirmation of the Jews’ power, and that “the predictions of Nazi propaganda had been accurate.” With an eye to his Egyptian audience, Herf says that those who saw the Nazis as ideological allies “fashioned a blend of Nazism and Islamism,” and were the ones who “always rejected compromise with the state of Israel.” He even tells the readers something they may not have ever acknowledged- that 700,000 Jews had to flee the Arab lands after 1948!
So the question arises. Why did an Egyptian paper, obviously with the government’s approval, allow such an interview to be published, and such an anti-Islamist viewpoint to be expressed? The answer, I suspect, is that the Egyptian government, now in the throes of a massive campaign against the growth of radical Islamist extremism — particularly that of the Muslim Brotherhood — needs to allow this candid expression of the truth to now be heard in Egypt.
In the guise of an interview with an author of a book that obviously would be of interest to many in Egypt, they have succeeded in giving their readers perhaps a unique and previously forbidden point of view and history of Egypt’s own pro-Nazi past to be heard. Whatever the reason, the paper’s editors have shown great courage in putting this into print.
Now if only Mahmoud Abbas would reprint it in the West Bank newspapers.
UPDATE: Wed, February 3rd, 10:30 am
I have received the following communication from Lee Smith, author of the important new book, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations. Smith is one of the most informed reporters writing about the Arab world, and he points out the following:
“I’ll be interested to follow the debate, but wanted to note that, first, Al-Masry Al-Youm is not a government paper but is somewhat independent, edited by Hisham Kassem, who is known to be basically a liberal, is close to liberal and leftist figures like Saad ed-din Ibrahim, and is, as you suggest anti-Islamist. Also, although I hope this interview does stir up some argument, my sense is that it won’t go far in combating Arab anti-Semitism. Newspapers are not a major medium in Egypt and for an independent paper like this the circulation is relatively miniscule and restricted entirely to the intelligentsia – as opposed to the enormous bureaucracy which reads the official govt press; alas, the official discourse of the Egyptian intelligentsia, is well represented by Culture Minister Farouk Hosny’s anti-Zionist rants before he was up for for the UNESCO post and his anti-Semitic rants after he was passed over. Also emblematic is the ostracism of the researcher and editor Hala Mustafa who got in a lot of trouble with the government for having a meeting with the Israeli ambassador – that is, the envoy of a country with whom Egypt has had full diplomatic relations for three decades. I applaud the paper’s decision to run the interview, and hope it has a positive effect but I am not counting on it.”