The perils of manipulation
A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West
by Ian Johnson.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 318 pp., $27 (or free at your local library).
Most people in the United States know that the CIA supported and equipped the mujahideen to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. This, and the dangers of such a strategy, are now common knowledge. What most Americans don’t know and what journalist Ian Johnson has investigated and described in his book, A Mosque in Munich, for the first time, is that the US strategy of using Islam as a tool of foreign policy has an even longer history that stretches back to events surrounding the Second World War.
This story is one of harsh realpolitik with many covert operations conducted by the US, West Germany, and the Muslim Brotherhood that centered around a mosque in Munich during the Cold War. There are few relatable characters in Johnson’s book, but several of them led colorful lives of travel and geopolitical intrigue as they struggled to co-opt the religion of Islam for national or ideological purposes.
Kaiser Wilhelm II was perhaps the first modern European leader to engage in this kind of manipulation with the goal of undermining another Western power, England, in the diplomatic wrangling leading up to World War I (a book devoted to this topic, The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power by Sean McMeekin, was published in September).
The Germans picked up on this idea during World War II, when they realized that many Muslims living in the Soviet Union were embittered citizens and could be convinced to fight in Nazi uniform against the Soviets when they were captured. About 150,000 Soviet Muslim prisoners volunteered for service in the German army during World War II.
Fast-forward to the Cold War. The US, now wrestling against the USSR itself, saw the value of the German idea that Soviet Muslims were a weak link in that empire. If the predominantly Muslim territories of the Soviet Union could be convinced to rebel, the Communist government would grow weaker (or so the theory went).
The CIA copied German tactics and began recruiting Muslims living in western Europe. Instead of fighting with rifles and grenades, though, these ex-Soviet Muslims were tasked with spreading propaganda by radio to their countrymen living under Communist rule. The West Germans intelligence services scrambled to beat the Americans at this game and maneuvered to steal the secret agents recruited by the Americans, with little success.
Slowly the West German effort lost momentum and fizzled out completely, the Americans became more interested in the escalating war in Vietnam, and the West’s propaganda campaign to the Muslim world ebbed. Seizing on the opportunity, a powerful group originating in Egypt called the Muslim Brotherhood took the lead during the late 1960s in organizing the now-growing communities of Muslims living in Europe.
This is the course of events that unfolds in Johnson’s narrative, and at about this point in the story, he becomes more polemical and draws controversy from critics. The Cold War part of his story is fresh news, but the connections he draws between US policies, the Muslim Brotherhood, and recent terrorist attacks are tenuously argued according to his detractors. One commentator to a blog post reviewing this book on a website focused on Arab culture put it this way: “Shame that it took an unnuanced rightwinger to write this story but glad someone did.”
Johnson’s political views are not directly stated in the book, but the untold origins of the covert use of Islam in foreign policy by the United States is indeed the most fascinating part of it. A Mosque in Munich is difficult to read because of the many individuals, their complicated motives, and their front organizations that he discusses. In one instance, during the course of two pages Johnson brings up the Muslim World League, the Muslim World Conference and the World Muslim Congress without notifying the reader of the significance of each group. While the book does cover a broad stretch of 20th-century multicultural history, Johnson took strides to make the narrative as engaging as possible, as is clear from one of his interviews.
His main contention is that manipulating religion for political purposes almost always ends up backfiring in unpredictable ways. If read with a grain of salt, Johnson’s book is an interesting look at the actualization of this idea in 20th-century American foreign policy.