Nazi and Israeli propaganda

I received a scathing response to my recent review in the TLS of Jeffrey Herf’s book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World from Tarif Khalidi, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the American University in Beirut. In a somewhat caustic letter to the editor, Khalidi questions whether, as someone who is a not a specialist on the Arab world, I was qualified to review the book and even whether Herf, a professor of European history at the University of Maryland, was qualified to write it. “The Arab/Islamic world is currently the last region on earth where non-experts can freely claim scholarly authority,” Khalidi writes. He also rejects the idea that Herf’s book, a study of the Nazis’ attempts to reach out to Muslims during World War II (which he appears not to have read), might be important for the debate about “Islamofascism”. Finally he says that my review “merely echo[es] tired and tiresome Israeli propaganda”.

Khalidi’s first point is that neither Herf nor I can write about the Nazi propaganda campaign without what he calls “proper knowledge of Arab history, society, culture, or language”. Khalidi asks in particular how people like Herf or I can “‘assess’ the impact of Nazi propaganda on the Arab world without a knowledge of Arabic”. In fact, however, neither Herf or I claims to be able to assess the impact of the campaign. After an analysis of the aims and a commentary on the content of the Nazi propaganda campaign, Herf merely asks a (in my view quite legitimate) question about whether it may have influenced some Muslims. But he explicitly says in the book – and I emphasized in the review – that further research by Arabic speakers would be needed to assess the extent of this.

Right at the end of the book, Herf does suggest that some post-war Islamists like Sayyid Qutb were influenced by the discourse the propaganda campaign created. Herf does not attempt an exhaustive analysis of Qutb’s texts but mentions his 1950 essay, “Our struggle with the Jews”, in which he says that “Allah brought Hitler to rule over” the Jews – a striking echo of Nazi wartime propaganda. It may be that Qutb’s anti-Semitism should ultimately be understood as a response to Zionism rather than European-style Jew-hatred – after all, these words were written two years after the creation of Israel. However, even if this is right, it could still be that Qutb was influenced by the ideas and language that Nazi propaganda had used during the war. There is, at least, a need for further analysis, which Herf’s research makes possible for the first time.

Khalifi’s second point is that I am wrong to claim that Herf’s book is important for the debate about “Islamofascism”, a term he regards as “tendentious”. (Incidentally, the term was first used by Malise Ruthven, who is a historian of the Arab world.) This slightly puzzles me: I did not say I approved of the term “Islamofascism”, which I put in quotation marks, simply that the book is relevant to the debate about it. (In fact, I have written elsewhere that, despite what seems to me strong evidence of historical links between Nazism and Islamism and of what Herf calls “ideological continuities” between them, I don’t like the term.) In any case, I don’t quite understand why Khalidi thinks it is so unacceptable to suggest that Nazism may have had an influence on Islamists as opposed to Arabs in general.

What really baffles me, however, is Khalidi’s accusation that my review “echoes” “Israeli propaganda”. It is ironic (though I’m not sure if this was deliberate), and a little worrying, that an academic should dismiss a history of Nazi propaganda as Israeli propaganda. Surely what matters is whether the claims that I make are historically accurate – something Khalidi does not really go into – not whether they parallel claims made by the Israeli state? I assume Khalidi is suggesting that Israel could use the idea that Islamism was influenced by Nazism, or that Islamism and Nazism are linked, to dismiss any criticism of Israeli policy as anti-Semitic. But I do not claim that all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, just that some of it is. Or is it Israeli propaganda even to discuss the Nazis’ attempts to spread their ideology to the Middle East during World War II and to ask whether this may have had longer-term consquences in the Arab world?

UPDATE 13/8/10: Jeffrey Herf responds to Tarif Khalidi’s letter in the TLS.

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