My post yesterday discussed the creation and ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as how it came to the favourable attention of the British and the Germans, for different reasons, in the first half of the 20th century.
I felt prompted to do further investigation after reading an interview in French newsweekly Marianne with author and documentary maker, Michaël Prazan.
Prazan’s latest book is Frères musulmans, enquête sur la dernière idéologie totalitaire (Muslim Brotherhood: investigating the latest totalitarian ideology). What follows in the next few posts of mine are excerpts from or references to Marianne‘s interview (‘Les Freres musulmans vivent dans le complot’ [‘The Muslim Brotherhood lives in conspiracy’], no. 875, 25-30 January 2014, pp. 72-75).
Prazan told the magazine that the Brotherhood’s presence in Europe began after the Second World War (emphases mine below)
in the 1950s with the creation of the Munich Mosque, partly because of former Nazis who had converted to Islam. And, at that time, the Americans sought the Brotherhood’s help in the war against Communism: they sent Said Ramadan, Tariq’s father, to direct the mosque and build their network in the West. They’re everywhere, in England, Belgium, France, notably in the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF), which, among other things, is responsible for training imams.
However, it wasn’t just Nazi converts to Islam which made this nexus of Islam in Europe possible. Award-winning journalist Ian Johnson wrote a book about the mosque in 2010, A Mosque in Munich. It is possible that Prazan might have used it for research, in addition to his many interviews of Muslim Brotherhood members.
In archived documents, which were only declassified several years ago, Johnson was able to uncover what happened at the beginning of the Cold War
uncovering the untold story of a group of ex-Soviet Muslims who had defected to Germany during World War II. There, they had been fashioned into a well-oiled anti-Soviet propaganda machine. As that war ended and the Cold War began, West German and U.S. intelligence agents vied for control of this influential group. At the center of the covert tug of war was a quiet mosque, which became Munich radical Islam’s first beachhead in the West.
Culled from an array of sources, including newly declassified documents, A Mosque in Munich weaves the stories of several key players: a Nazi scholar turned postwar spymaster; key Muslim leaders across the globe, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood; and naive CIA men eager to fight communism with a new weapon, Islam.
After reading more articles on this book and rereading Prazan’s interview, one can better understand the European and American historical position with regard to radical Islam, which governments often call ‘moderate’ when it is anything but. There are reasons for this, some of which are explained below and in the rest of this series.
Unfortunately, the West has held on to its prized allies for far too long. As Prazan says (p.75) of the Muslim Brotherhood’s place in Islam and their ideology:
It’s true enough that unity is part of the five pillars of Islam. This universalist ideology can be put into place in two ways. Either by revolution, combat, jihad, which is the method of [Sayyid] Qutb [the Brotherhood’s first intellectual] and Al Qaeda. Or by the Brotherhood’s strategy, in taking power there where it’s possible, little by little, after having built up a real base in the countries where they are implanted. It’s very much a long term strategy.
No wonder many Western governments term these men ‘moderates’. No doubt they are thinking, ‘Well, these guys haven’t blown anything up, so they must be all right.’
Now on to what Ian Johnson’s book explores. The source is Spitfire List‘s ‘Islamism in Europe’ and quotes are from Johnson’s brief history for the Wall Street Journal (2005) to the background of his book.
The story starts with Gerhard von Mende, who, whilst employed by Berlin University, worked as a political analyst and operative for the Third Reich during the Second World War, namely for the Imperial Ministry for Occupied Eastern Territories — or Ostministerium — to head a department overseeing the Caucasus. As amateur historians know, ethnic conflict continues in that region today and could prove a threat to the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
von Mende had a strong dislike of Russia. In 1919, when he and his parents lived in the German quarter of the Latvian capital of Riga, the Red Army invaded the city. von Mende’s father was a banker; troops shot him in cold blood for the crime of being a member of the bourgeoisie. Young Gerhard was 14 at the time; he and his mother and six siblings escaped to Germany. Gerhard loathed Russia from that point and would do anything to undermine the nation.
At university, von Mende began to study the cultures of Muslims in Central Asia. He also spoke fluent Russian, Latvian and French. His Arabic, Turkish — and, thanks to his wife, Norwegian — were passable. His books and papers were well received, hence his subsequent appointment to lecture at Berlin University.
On a personal level, he was well-dressed and had an Old World charm. This came in useful once Hitler decided to release a number of prisoners of war if they turned their allegiances to the Nazis and fought for Germany. Many of these prisoners were Muslims from the Caucasus region and central Asia. von Mende was able to persuade them to switch sides. They felt he understood them and their dislike of Russia.
After the war, these men were at a loose end in Munich. They also had no place to worship and no work. von Mende was also without a job. However, it did not take long before British Intelligence requested his services. They knew he had a deep understanding of Central Asian people and wished to exploit that in the early days of the Cold War. In the short term, this proved fruitful:
Mr. von Mende settled in the British-occupied sector of Germany, in the commercial center of Dusseldorf. Although he was no longer an academic, he called his office the ‘Eastern European Research Service.’ His staff was made up of ex-Ostministerium employees — basically a re-creation of the Nazi apparatus that oversaw the Muslims during the war. Funding came from British occupation forces initially, then a variety of West German agencies, including the national domestic intelligence agency and the German foreign ministry, according to foreign-ministry documents and Mr. von Mende’s private correspondence.
von Mende secured funding to keep the Muslim ex-soldiers fed, housed and clothed. However, the main objective from the British and West Germans was to ensure the Muslims would not gravitate back to the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the United States was operating a similar programme. The American Committee for Liberation from Bolshevism — Amcomlib — was working with a Muslim ex-soldier Ibrahim Gacaoglu who also had a group of his fellow soldiers to look after. von Mende and his team were unsure of the viability of working with Gacaoglu and the Americans, so he turned to an imam who had been assigned to the Waffen SS, Nurredin Nakobhodscha Namangani. Gacaoglu accused Namangani of participating in war crimes.
Despite the controversy from some quarters towards Namangani, with von Mende’s persuasion the German government appointed him the imam of the Muslim ex-soldiers.
At the top of his objectives was the desire to build a proper house of worship for the ex-soldiers. By late 1958, Namagani announced his Mosque Construction Commission which would make Munich a centre for Germany’s Muslims with the help of the Bavarian government.
Tariq Ramadan’s father, Said, was present at the announcement. Said Ramadan was at the time head of the Muslim Brotherhood and secretary general of the World Islamic Congress. Ramadan donated 1,000 marks to the effort. von Mende wrote in his records:
Said Ramadan, Geneva. Circa 36 years old, 3 children. Since 1956 drives an expensive Cadillac, gift of the Saudi Arabian government. R.S. [sic] is supposed to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ramadan was one of a relatively small number of Brotherhood members to escape from Egypt once Nasser banned the group from the country in 1954. Nasser was also once a member, and it was the Brotherhood as well as the Nazi-style Young Egypt party, of which Nasser was once leader, who put him into office in 1952.
Ramadan — as you’ll recall from yesterday’s post — was the son-in-law of the founder of the Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, who was assassinated in 1949.
Tomorrow’s post covers more of the mosque in Munich and relates what happened to Said Ramadan.