Strange Bedfellows

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Strange Bedfellows

By George Michael
George Michael is an assistant professor of political science and administration of justice at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Next week the University Press of Kansas will publish his book The Enemy of My Enemy: The Alarming Convergence of Militant Islam and the Extreme Right.
Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 52, Issue 33, Page B7 April 21, 2006
Americans, stunned by the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and on the Pentagon, asked themselves, “Why did this happen?” The denizens of the extreme right in America believed they knew why. While mainstream commentators and public officials claimed that it was our values of freedom and democracy that made us targets, shortly after the attacks, extremist Internet discussion groups buzzed with a far different message: The United States had been attacked because of its support for the state of Israel.

That sentiment was shared by many followers of what is generally referred to as militant Islam.

Indeed for years, going back to the Third Reich in Germany, these two seemingly different groups have not only agreed on a common enemy – Jews and, after it was formed, Israel – but they have increasingly cooperated to forge a narrative of propaganda against their enemy. Last year, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran stirred worldwide condemnation by dismissing the Holocaust as a “myth,” purportedly used as a pretext for the creation of a Jewish state in the heart of the Islamic world, one of the voices that rose to his defense was David Duke, the former Klan leader (and Louisiana representative) who says he “has dedicated his life to the freedom and heritage of European American peoples.”

The collaboration of Islamic militants and the extreme right cries out for further study. For there are some indications that the narrative they tell could become more mainstream.

At first glance, there would seem to be little common ground between right-wing extremism and militant Islam. After all, the segment of the right concerned about the racial survival of white people generally tends to be derisive of nonwhites; they would not consider Muslims – the majority of whom trace their ethnic ancestry to third-world countries – to be part of the ideal, exclusively white community. For their part, Islamic fundamentalists tend to look askance at non-Muslims, whom they sometimes designate as “infidels” and a threat to the ummah, the universal community of Muslims.

Yet, as I found out in studying the linkages between the two movements, they have some strikingly similar characteristics. For example, both evince a high degree of exclusivity as they endeavor to create their own utopian versions of homogeneous societies. More and more, they have a meeting of the minds on several important political issues – for one, the cause of Palestinian independence. The two groups also offer similar critiques of American foreign policy in the Middle East, the American news media, modernity, and globalization. And both see the U.S. government as hopelessly under the control of Jews or Zionists.

Right-wing extremists and Islamic radicals have actually made strange bedfellows for quite some time. Adolf Hitler maintained a cordial relationship with the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who spent several of the World War II years in Berlin, where he was received as a foreign dignitary after fleeing British-occupied Palestine.

Hitler’s war against the British and French electrified many Arabs, as Germany’s struggle dovetailed with their own anticolonialist aspirations in the Middle East. In Egypt a protofascist organization, Young Egypt, also known as the Green Shirts, attracted many army officers, including a young lieutenant colonel, Anwar el-Sadat, who was involved in a failed scheme to provide Rommel’s Afrika Korps with secret information on British strategy and troop movements. The grand mufti was instrumental in the group’s formation. To support Hitler’s war efforts, al-Husseini also helped organize the Waffen-SS Handschar division in Yugoslavia, which was composed of Bosnian Muslim volunteers. Other Wehrmacht units included Muslims who wanted to fight the repression of Islam in various Soviet republics.

For his part, Hitler was proud of his stature among Muslims. According to private conversations he had with staff members, which were later published, near war’s end he regretted that he had not done more to take advantage of the alliance, lamenting that his association with Italy had alienated some people in the Muslim world, who looked on Mussolini’s invasion of North Africa as imperialistic aggression. “All Islam vibrated at the news of our victories,” Hitler said. “We had a great chance of pursuing a splendid policy with regard to Islam. But we missed the bus, as we missed it on several other occasions, thanks to our loyalty to the Italian alliance.”

After the war, several former German military officers and Nazi party officials, such as Otto Skorzeny, Johann von Leers, and Otto Remer, were granted sanctuary in Arab countries, most notably Egypt. German National Socialism continued to appeal to many of the early pan-Arab leaders, like Gamal Abdel Nasser, as an attractive model for nation building in the Middle East. At this stage, both camps cooperated out of expediency. It was not until later that they would develop a similar critique of their shared enemies: Jews and Zionists.

The rise of Palestinian terrorism in the early 1970s caused some elements of the extreme right in Europe to once again take interest in the Middle East. Members of a small German neo-Nazi group, Hoffmann-Wehrsportgruppe, for example, sought to develop an operational alliance with Middle Eastern terrorist groups. Some of the neo-Nazi groups received paramilitary training in Al Fatah camps in Jordan and fought alongside Palestinians during Black September, when the Jordanian army launched an assault on Palestinian guerilla groups in 1970. François Genoud, a leader of a Swiss far-right organization, financed Palestinian groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Fatah, and Black September. And a Belgian, Jean-François Thiriart, served both as an adviser to the PLO’s Fatah organization and as the secretary for a neo-Nazi group called La Nation Européene. The Palestine Liberation Front and a small neo-Nazi group, the VSBD, also carried out joint attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets in Europe.

Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi was frequently involved in international terrorism during the 1970s and 80s. To forge a broad anti-imperialist coalition, Qaddafi developed an ideology known as the Third Position – an alternative to Communism and capitalism – that took a strong anti-Zionist and anti-American posture. Qaddafi’s defiance of the U.S. government, which was increasingly becoming the bte noire of the international extreme right, appealed to, for example, members of Britain’s National Front, an extreme right-wing political party. Qaddafi invited members of that group and other right-wing organizations to conferences in Libya to create a coalition against the United States. But like earlier attempts to forge alliances between militant Islam and the extreme right, his efforts were ephemeral.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, however, both the extreme right and militant Islam became more radical. As each escalated its denunciation of its enemy, they found more common ground.

In 1979 the success of the Iranian revolution and the establishment of a theocratic regime further strengthened the legitimacy and appeal of militant Islam as a means by which to effect change in the Middle East. That same year, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan sounded the clarion call for jihad throughout the Islamic world, making Afghanistan the incubator of the major jihadist organizations that would go on to bedevil the United States in the years to come. The intifada, which began in the occupied territories of Palestine in 1987, set off a similar kind of “Islamicization” of the Palestinian resistance movement. While, before the rebellion, Palestinian militants had generally been secular and left wing, the new militants sought inspiration from Islam and used it as an organizing principal for resistance. Most notable was Hamas, whose charter contained elements of the notorious anti-Semitic Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.

During that same period, the extreme right also went through a process of radicalization. Characteristic of that trend was a small underground group in the United States led by Robert Jay Mathews: the Order. Starting in 1983, the Order conducted a campaign of terror in the Pacific Northwest that included several armored-car heists, bank robberies, bombings, and homicides – declaring war against the United States, which it believed was controlled by Jews working for the destruction of the white race. According to the accounts of some of its members, the group reached out to Egyptian Islamists in an effort to forge an anti-Zionist terrorist alliance. Although strategically the Order did not accomplish much – by early 1985, virtually all known members had been arrested, and many would subsequently be given long prison sentences – its campaign crystallized the increasingly revolutionary orientation of the American extreme right. The tragedies at Ruby Ridge, when government agents killed family members of a purported sympathizer with the Aryan Nation, and Waco, when an FBI raid ended with the burning of a Branch Davidian compound, contributed further to that trend. More and more, the far right in the United States viewed the government as irrevocably lost, an implacable enemy. Consequently its rhetoric became more extreme, revolutionary, and millennial.

Moreover, increasingly the chief target of the extreme right’s animus crystallized as well. Although anti-Semitism had loomed large in the extremist subculture for many years, Jews had shared the right’s animus with other groups like Communists, liberals, “insiders” (a term John Birch Society members used to refer to shadowy plutocrats who allegedly ruled America), the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, et al. What intensified in the 1980s was the identification of Jews as the primary enemy, indeed the puppet master of all the extreme right’s enemies. That notion was expressed in the acronym “ZOG,” which stands for Zionist Occupational Government. The focus on ZOG attained great currency in the international far-right movement and did much to link together disparate groups in the West. As that happened, ZOG began to be viewed as a global Leviathana Pax Judaica, as it werewith tentacles reaching into the innermost recesses of government and society.

Ideological developments in both the extreme right and militant Islam thus contributed to the convergence in their worldviews. Both Jews and the U.S. government were seen as the principal enemies – with Jews pulling the strings.

That meeting of the minds has continued. Shortly after September 11, 2001, the Bush administration accused a Swiss national and convert to Islam, Ahmed Huber, of being an important cog in Al Qaeda’s global financial network. According to Huber himself, he has been an intermediary between right-wing extremists and radical Islamists in Europe. Over the past 40 years, he says, he developed ties with major figures in the Middle East, including the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, Egyptian President Nasser, and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran; he claims to have been the first European Muslim to speak before the Iranian Parliament (which he did for the first time in 1983).

Still other European extreme rightists have been drawn to the dynamism of militant Islam. While the right has often appeared as a caricature of ineffectuality, militant Islam seems disciplined, resolute, and strong. Chief among the admirers is David Myatt, arguably England’s principal proponent of the contemporary neo-Nazi ideology and theoretician of revolution. Several years ago, he converted to Islam, assumed the nom de guerre “Abdul Aziz,” and openly announced his support for Osama bin Laden and his declared war against the United States and Israel. Myatt’s articles on the World Wide Web exhort his Aryan followers to make common cause with the Islamists. The primary battle against ZOG, he says, has shifted from the West to the Islamic world, in areas such as Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq.

Despite the episodes of cooperation in the past, an enduring terrorist alliance has yet to be established. Several obstacles militate against that happening. For one, there is no real extreme-right terrorist infrastructure in place. Leaderless resistance by individuals or small cohesive groups accounts for the vast majority of acts of right-wing violence. Thus, even if Middle Eastern terrorists were willing to collaborate with American right-wing terrorists, they would be hard pressed to find a viable network to work through. What’s more, the extreme right is closely monitored by law-enforcement agencies and private groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which would make cooperation a risky proposition for both parties.

However, in the area of propaganda, a greater potential for collaboration exists. Indeed, there appears to be increasing cooperation between the two movements on a rhetorical level. Traditionally such efforts tended to move only in one direction – the extreme right voicing support for Islamic radicals, with the latter being less reciprocal. Anecdotal evidence suggests that could be changing, as right-wing extremist propaganda is being acquired and recycled by Islamic radicals.

For example, the Holocaust denial of so-called “revisionist historians” in the West has gained currency in the popular newspapers and magazines in the Arab world. In fact, in the summer of 2001, revisionists planned a conference on “Revisionism and Zionism,” scheduled for late March in Beirut. It was organized by the American Institute for Historical Review and the Swiss-based Vérité et Justice, and was to have included lectures in English, French, and Arabic. The Swiss organizer, Jürgen Graf, had fled in November 2000 to Iran – a country where other revisionists in the last few years have received a warm welcome – after his appeals of a Swiss conviction for hate-speech violations were denied. The conference incited fierce opposition from the Jewish defense organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Anti-Defamation League, and the World Jewish Congress, which put pressure on the Lebanese government to cancel the event. The U.S. State Department weighed in against it as well. After a last-minute cabinet meeting on the subject, the Lebanese government did cancel the conference, although a smaller meeting was eventually held in Amman, Jordan, sponsored by the Jordanian Writers Association. Both the aborted and final conferences were evidence of a growing cooperation between the Western revisionists and Islamic sympathizers.

The cross-fertilization of rhetoric between the two parties reached new heights in 2005 when the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made his claim that the Holocaust was a myth. A few weeks before his pronouncement, he had called for the destruction of Israel. Although Ahmadinejad’s comments were condemned by officials in the West, they drew praise in some quarters in the Muslim world. A spokesman for Hamas, Khaled Meshal, commended the Iranian president for his “courage”; Muhammad Mehdi Akef, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition force in Egypt, reiterated that the Holocaust was a myth (although his office later said he wasn’t suggesting it had never happened). For their part, representatives and organizations of the extreme right in the West – including David Duke and the Institute for Historical Review – expressed satisfaction that a head of state had publicly impugned the generally accepted version of the Holocaust. In March 2006, Iran played host to a seminar entitled “The Holocaust: Myth or Reality.” Revisionist historians from the West participated. Later in the month, on an interview program with Charlie Rose, President Bashar Assad of Syria remarked that the six-million figure of the number of Jews who had perished in the Holocaust was “exaggerated.”

In recent years, Duke has been in the forefront of the effort to reach out to the Islamic world. In the fall of 2002, he presented two lectures in Bahrain on “The Global Struggle Against Zionism” and the “Israeli Involvement in September 11.” Duke claims to have found a receptive audience in Bahrain. That same year, he appeared on a talk show, Without Borders, which is broadcast by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite network. More recently, in November 2005, he traveled to Syria, where he held a news conference expressing support for the Syrian people and pledging to do his best to convey to the world the “real peace-loving Syrian” positions. Attendees at the event included several members of the Syrian Parliament and Arab and foreign correspondents.

Another factor drawing the extreme right in the West and militant Islam together is that both increasingly see their struggles in global terms: Both are searching for an identity in an era of globalization. Just as Osama bin Laden encourages Islamists around the world to view their regional conflicts not as isolated, parochial battles, but rather as theaters of a larger war in the defense of Islam against the West and Zionism, some elements of the extreme right view their individual nationalist movements as part of a larger struggle for white racial survival against a rising tide of nonwhite demographic expansion, said to be orchestrated by the forces of globalization and international Judaism. Here the Internet has been important, allowing disparate groups to spread their message and exchange ideas.

In his study Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (Columbia University Press, 2004), the noted French scholar of Islam, Olivier Roy, argued that Muslims in the West often experience a trauma of “deterritorialization” because they feel estranged from their native lands. To overcome their anomie and alienation, young Muslims, in particular, look for solace in a new, purified Islam and attach themselves to a “virtual ummah,” a Muslim community built on the World Wide Web. In similar fashion, Jeffrey Kaplan and Leonard Weinberg observed, in their study The Emergence of a Euro-American Radical Right (Rutgers University Press, 1998), that scattered elements of the extreme right in the West, faced with declining white birth rates, sweeping third-world immigration, diminishing life opportunities for working-class youths, and perceived cultural decadence, have come to feel like strangers in their lands. Communicating through chat rooms and other Internet media, they have found solace in the slogan “white power” and sought to develop a new pan-Aryan identity based on race and civilization that transcends national borders.

To be sure, anxiety about immigrants inhibits cooperation between the extreme right and militant Islam: The former, after all, fears demographic inundation by the latter. But despite their concern with nonwhite immigrants, extremists on the right still see Jews as the principal enemy of the Aryan peoples. And although militant Islam generally eschews racial themes, its version of anti-Zionism in many ways parallels that anti-Semitism.

Both the extreme right and militant Islam charge that a Jewish conspiracy is undermining their societies through “cultural poisoning.” According to the standard extreme-right narrative, the chief aim of the Jewish conspiracy is to defile the white race through miscegenation, thus ultimately leading to its extinction as a distinct racial group. (Jews are said to see whites as their most dangerous “rivals.”) Using a similar narrative, but in the framework of religion, militant Islamists argue that Jews seek first and foremost to destroy Islam because it constitutes the strongest moral challenge to perceived Jewish perfidy. Both right-wing extremists and Islamists also often invoke the status of the Palestinians as a symbol of what awaits them if they do not act swiftly. Thus David Duke, Kevin Alfred Strom (of the white-separatist organization National Vanguard), and the late William Pierce (leader of the National Alliance) have expressed admiration for the dedication and valor of Palestinian militants. Pierce even went so far as to eulogize Wafa Idris, the first female Palestinian suicide bomber.

Both movements are also very critical of the Bush administration’s decision to wage war against Iraq. The fact that several of President Bush’s neoconservative advisers who were among the most adamant in clamoring for the war also happened to be Jewish was not lost on either group. What does that presage?

If the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, it is conceivable that the extreme right’s critique of American foreign policy in the Middle East, and its focus on Israeli influence on it, could become more mainstream. Recently two prominent academics – John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, a dean at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government – released a working paper on “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” In it, they asserted that the various interest groups lobbying on behalf of Israel have subverted foreign policy in the Middle East to the detriment of the national interests of the United States. The report has occasioned considerable controversy. Critics like Harvard Law School’s Alan M. Dershowitz have been quick to point out the stylistic parallels between the study and traditional anti-Semitic canards of Jewish dual loyalty and malfeasance. Dershowitz, according to The Harvard Crimson, has gone so far as to aver that the authors culled information for their report from “hate sites” on the Internet. Although such allegations appear spurious, the paper did contain motifs – about, for example, the power of Jews in the news media and Jewish manipulation of the political system – that have formed the basis of classic anti-Semitic narratives. The report, indeed, has been enthusiastically received by representatives of the extreme right, including Duke, who expressed satisfaction that his criticism of Israel has been vindicated by such esteemed academics.

It is difficult to predict how the unexpected and alarming convergence between militant Islam and the extreme right will unfold in the future. Over the past two decades, several countries have imploded due to centrifugal ethnic rivalries. The extreme right is worried that large-scale immigration, the ascendance of multiculturalism, and the decreasing popularity of the assimilationist ideal could one day foreshadow a similar situation in the United States. The September 11 attacks and their consequences have the potential to amplify their fears. If the “war on terror” should falter, more people in the United States and Europe could become receptive to their views.

The meeting of the minds among what are now just some groups and individuals could presage strange alliances in the future.