How the Arab world took over the ideology of the Left

After the Great War, Arab societies, like many others, for the first time came to know politics as a modern mass phenomenon in which modern communication technologies were used for mass  mobilization. Intellectuals, journalists, poets, and men of letters replaced religious scholars as the source of moral knowledge and ethical education. Much of the intellectual underpinning of these movements came from Europe – specifically Germany – but had a disastrous effect on Arab societies, argues Hussein Aboubakr Mansour in The Tablet. Mansour’s work is desperately needed:  he is that rare bird – an Egyptian- born Arabic-speaker with a background in philosophy and an inside knowledge of the Arab world’s key influencers:

Iraqis make the fascist salute, 1932

It was (therefore) inevitable that such intellectual and psychological conditions would lead to consequences not too dissimilar from the consequences of such conditions in Europe; the appearance of popular political movements carrying devotional romantic symbols founded by self-styled fuehrers who embodied the potent Leninist mix of intellectual-politicians leading a vanguard in the final phase of a historical struggle toward an inevitable salvific future in which all contradictions will be resolved. In the interwar years in Egypt and the Levant, communist, Arabist, Egyptianist, Syrianist, and Islamist groups proliferated and created an ideologically competitive mimetic contagion. Together, those groups formed a common space where the abstract ideas of German philosophy, nationalism, socialism, unification and European revolutionary thought combined and recombined along with the local symbols of Islam and Arab culture and altered the entire substructure of Arab thought.

If the arrival of the Arabic printing press in the 19th century allowed literary nationalism and romanticist ideas to proliferate among the new educated classes, the shortwave radio brought a new phase of possibilities carrying on its waves the thunderous voices of mass mobilization. The new possibilities of the new technologies were first fully realized in the Middle East by the two protagonists of the global European revolution known as WWII, Italy and Germany. The former established its Arabic Radio Bari station in 1934 and the latter, the Voice of Berlin in Arabic, in 1939. Together, they filled the airwaves with Arabic propaganda of the most sensationalist kind mixing Islamic motifs and symbols with anti-Westernism, antisemitism, and incitement to mass violence. Radio Bari and the Voice of Berlin championed the national liberation of all the Arab and Muslim peoples and warned against the conspiracies of imperialist powers and the “Jewish States of America,” and called for a revolution against the West.

Many of the antisemitic catchphrases and conspiracy theories still found in Arabic culture today can indeed be traced to the legacy of the Voice of Berlin and its Iraqi anchor, Yunis Bahri. According to the British propaganda official, Nevill Barbour, “The Nazis had the skill or luck to find and employ an Iraqi, Yunus al-Bahri, who had a remarkable talent for the sensational type of broadcasting which they favored. Berlin Radio was bound by no scruples and cared nothing for factual accuracy … it, therefore, used every device to inflame Arab resentment against Britain for favoring Zionism, to exploit every conceivable suspicion regarding British actions, and to sneer at Arabs who publicly declared their support of the British connection. The Berlin Radio announcer, for instance, used regularly to refer to Prince Abdallah as ‘Rabbi Abdallah.’”

Nazism and fascism served as an inspiration and a prototype to many aspiring movements such as the Syrian Socialist National Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. The excitement in the prospects of a German victory brought, along with Arab intellectual affections to German philosophy, can be clearly read in almost all the memoirs of those who came to political age during the period including Presidents Nasser and Sadat in Egypt and Antun Saadah in Syria. More significant than politicians, in my opinion, are those who would become the founders of Arab and Muslim modern thought, such as the Egyptian thinker Abdulrahman Badawi, the first modern Arab philosopher, a figure of utmost importance, whose memoirs show deep sympathies with Germany and Nazism and a near-pathological obsession with Jews. Or the most prominent Algerian thinker of the era of national liberation, Malek Bennabi, who was accused later by France of having been a Nazi collaborator.

During the war, the minority of Arab intellectuals and thinkers who firmly opposed Nazism and fascism belonged to either the older generations of the pro-British or else were young communists. Otherwise, it is not an exaggeration to say that the overwhelming majority sympathized with Germany and the Axis and encouraged the population to do so. The political fervor of the time was primarily anti-British, anti-French, and anti-Jewish, and in favor of revolutionary mobilization; the question of ideology was secondary at best. That is why qualifiers of ideological identity added to famous figures of the period, such as Haj Amin el-Husseini, often oscillate between describing him as an Arab nationalist and or as an Islamist.

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