Professor Gilbert Achcar gives a solid account of Nazi-Islamist wartime collaboration, and those Arab liberals and communists who opposed it. But his book is marred by flawed logic and misquotation arising out of blind hatred of Zionism. Professor Jeffrey Herf reviews Achcar's book, The Arabs and the Holocaust, for the New Republic (with thanks: Eze):
It is surprising, after all this, to find Achcar making the implausible claim that after the war Hajj Amin al-Husseini was unimportant. His reputation had “reached a low ebb in Arab and Palestinian political circles with the defeat of the Axis.” Achcar acknowledges that “the Palestinian population nevertheless continued to regard the Mufti as its leader since no alternative had emerged.” Yet it was precisely members of some of the same “political circles” who, in 1946, unanimously elected Husseini as President of the Arab Higher Committee, the central organization of the Palestinian national movement. His reputation was clearly quite untarnished in this environment. Moreover, Achcar does not explain why “no alternative” had emerged, or why the alternatives that existed among the secular liberal forces were defeated by Husseini and his associates. In fact, Husseini emerged preeminent in post-1945 Palestine despite, and in some cases because of, his wartime propaganda declarations from Berlin against the Allies and the Jews and because (as Edward Said noted) his election rested on a consensus in Palestinian political circles.
Achcar cites the Israeli historian Zvi Elpeleg’s comment that “the memory of Hajj Amin disappeared from the Palestinian public consciousness almost without trace.” He takes Elpeleg’s quotation out of context. In the same work from which Achcar is quoting, Elpeleg concluded that though Husseini was “denigrated and forgotten” at the end of his life, it was the Mufti who laid the foundations for the national movement. Elpeleg concluded that “there is almost nothing in the PLO doctrine, or in the national charters of the Palestine National Council, which had not already been conceived and given expression by Hajj Amin, but the PLO does not even take the trouble to pay lip service to Hajj Amin for this. This is a sad fate for a man who, during his lifetime, embodied more than any other, the appearance of the Palestinian national movement and its decades of struggle.” Elpeleg’s point, in other words, is just the opposite of the impression left by Achcar’s selective quoting.
Achcar delivers equally unfair attacks on the work of the Israeli historians Yehoshafat Harkabi, Meir Litvak and Esther Webman and the German political scientist, Matthias Küntzel, all of whom have written works that are crucial for understanding the extent and the nature of Arab collaboration with Nazi Germany, and its aftereffects. He subjects Litvak’s and Webman’s very important study, Empathy and Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust, to particularly unfair criticism. These historians examined major Arab newspapers and journals, as well as books and essays by prominent scholars and journalists, to describe what they regard as the dominant published opinion in the Arab societies about the Holocaust. They presented abundant evidence regarding Holocaust denial and, in the wake of Islamization, Holocaust justification. Their pages are filled with quotations from eminent authors in the decades since the Holocaust who equate Zionism with Nazism, and the Palestinian refugee crisis with the Holocaust.
Litvak and Webman report, for example, that in 1998, after Roger Garaudy, the French Holocaust denier and anti-Zionist, spoke of “the myth of the Holocaust,” “Arab intellectuals, writers, journalists, politicians and clergy embraced the man and his book.” Publishers brought out an Arabic edition. The book conveyed by then familiar themes: Zionism is a danger to the world; Jews and Zionists dominate international affairs; Israel is a racist state; Zionists collaborated with the Nazi regime and then fabricated the myth of the Holocaust to extort money from guilt-ridden Germany. Any criticism of these views was seen as part of “the West’s attack on Islam.” To Litvak and Webman, the enthusiastic Arab reception of Garaudy was evidence of the importance of the Arab “Holocaust discourse” that had been developing for decades.
Achcar agrees that the Arab reception of Garaudy was “a calamity,” and was evidence of “the intellectual regression that has been under way in the Arab countries for several decades now.” Yet rather than applauding Litvak and Webman for documenting and interpreting a key element of this regression, Achcar expresses astonishment at the “ethnocentric complacency” that supposedly prompted their criticism of Edward Said for seeking mutual recognition of the Holocaust and the Palestinian fate after 1948. This, despite Litvak’s and Webman’s acknowledgment of Said’s plea that Arabs speak frankly and honestly about the Holocaust, and Achcar’s own acknowledgment that the mass murder of Europe’s Jews ought not be equated with the Palestinian refugee crisis. If Achcar can criticize this equation, these Israeli historians should be able to do so too, and without being accused of “ethnocentric complacency,” which is a euphemism for saying they are guilty of “anti-Arab racism.” The charge is baseless.
Achcar’s treatment of Matthias Küntzel’s Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11 is equally regrettable. He calls it a “fantasy-based narrative pasted together out of secondary sources and thirdhand reports” that points to a “direct line of descent from Amin al-Hussein and Hassan al-Banna through Gamal Abdel-Nasser to Osama bin Laden.” In fact, the rather embarrassing fact is that Küntzel’s analysis of al-Banna, Husseini, the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb and Islamism in general runs along the same main lines as Achcar’s own account of the Pan-Islamist reactionaries from Rashid Rida onward. (The major difference is that Küntzel draws on biographies of Yassir Arafat to examine his connection to Husseini and with that, to draw attention on the impact of the Islamist tradition on the history of comparatively secular Al Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization.) Should we therefore dismiss Achcar’s own account as a “fantasy-based narrative,” or should we recognize that scholars with different political opinions can agree on a common set of facts? Given Küntzel’s eloquent defense of Israel, Achcar may be embarrassed by the similarity of his view of Islamist Jew-hatred with Küntzel’s view. But such discomfort does not excuse his intemperate attack on a scholar who shares his roots in Enlightenment values.
In a chapter on “stigmas and stigmatization,” Achcar underscores his rejection of Zionism. He presents himself as one of “the humanists of the two communities” of Israelis and Palestinians caught between “neo-Zionism and xenophobia on the one hand, ultranationalism and Islamic fundamentalism on the other.” “The bigoted notion,” he adds, “that all Jews are Zionists has its pendant in the bigoted notion that all Arabs are anti-Semites.” The pairing in the sentence repeats Achcar’s assumption that Zionism and anti-Semitism are equally repugnant forms of racism. He then dismisses the arguments of Harkabi, Lewis, Robert Wistrich, Yehuda Bauer, and others regarding a “new anti-Semitism” in recent years in the Arab and Islamic world and among Muslim immigrants to Europe. He spends five pages on “the new anti-Semitism” without presenting a shred of evidence that its advocates have put forward to document its existence. He gives Bernard Lewis a rhetorical pat on the back for not indulging in “the excesses of anti-Arab propaganda” which presumably flow from the pens of others, yet he never presents an example of a serious scholar who has suggested that all Arabs or all Muslims are anti-Semites.
Finally, Achcar wades into the issues of postwar German history and the memory of the Holocaust, a subject about which a large body of scholarship exists. Not surprisingly, he calls the West German support for the state of Israel from Adenauer onward a form of “philosemitism,” that is, a mix of cynicism and sentimentality that was the price West Germany paid for integration into the West during the Cold War. If Achcar had bothered to read more works in German history, he would have learned that financial restitution for Jewish survivors and for the state of Israel found its strongest support among Social Democrats and moderate conservatives around Konrad Adenauer, while it was denounced most vociferously as a cynical ploy by the East German Communists and only reluctantly accepted by the right wing of Adenauer’s Christian Democratic Party.
His misunderstanding of postwar German history and policy, and yes, his hatred of the state of Israel come to the fore in Achcar’s criticism of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech to the Knesset on March 18, 2008. The core of her argument was a reaffirmation of the existence of the state of Israel and of Germany’s solidarity with it in the face of Iran’s threats to wipe it out. Achcar omits Iran’s threats to implement what would amount to a second Holocaust from his discussion of Merkel’s speech, and then changes the subject to that of Islamophobia. He informs us, again without evidence, that there has “of course...been a huge increase in Islamophobia, notably after the September 11, 2001 attacks.” Achcar’s definition of this unfortunate addition to political language is, to put it mildly, elastic. “Islamophobia,” he writes has found a means of large scale ‘sublimation’ in hostility to what has come to be called ‘Islamism’ or even ‘Islamofascism.’” Again, without presenting the arguments and the evidence of writers on the subject such as Paul Berman, Laurent Murawiec, Bassam Tibi, among others (including myself), he writes that “if the word ‘Islam’ were replaced by ‘Judaism,” [such statements] would provoke an uproar and, in Europe, lead to legal prosecution.”
The term “Islamophobia” suggests that there is an irrational fear, a “phobia,” that is widespread in Western society about the religion of Islam. The term is too often deployed to deflect criticism which is not aimed at the religion of Islam or at Muslims, as such but at those ideological currents that terrorists adopt. The discussion and criticism of Qutb, bin Laden, Ahmadinejad, or the Hamas Charter do not rest on a “phobia” about the religion of Islam. They stem from a fully rational fear of terrorism, and by a lucid and empirical grasp of the reality of Islamist fanaticism.
Those of us who have written about Islamism and its connection to the terrorist attacks of the past decade have always gone to great effort to define this tradition as an extremist interpretation of the traditions of Islam. We have distinguished between Islam and Islamism, but we have also insisted that it is naïve to assume that when terrorists say they act in the name of Islam that their actions have nothing at all to do with their interpretation of the religion. To criticize Islamism is not a sublimation of hostility to Islam. It is the result of an interpretation of widely known facts about one extremist interpretation of that religion.
Achcar is a man at war with what he has written in his own book. It is Achcar, not us supposed Islamophobes and anti-Arab racists, who documents the tradition of Pan-Islamism and the fusion of Nazism and Islamic fundamentalism that was a key chapter in its history. The same author who traced this tradition from Rida to Husseini now writes as if the terms “Islamism” and “Islamofascism” are the product of anti-Islamic bigotry. Isn’t it possible, and even likely, that those he denounces for criticizing Islamism in recent years have arrived at conclusions similar to his own regarding the Islamists of the 1930s and 1940s because they, like him, concluded that there was good evidence in both cases to do so?
The Arabs and the Holocaust has elements of candor and courage. It is a salutary development that someone with Achcar’s political views acknowledges the realities of the Nazi-Islamist wartime collaboration. It is important to be reminded of the history of a secular Arab leftism and liberalism that opposed fascism, Nazism, as well as Zionism. Yet Achcar undermines these virtues of his book with superficial, unfair, and unreliable readings of those with whom he disagrees, above all those who fought fascism and Nazism on the basis of secular, liberal, and even leftist values yet still support Zionism. His attack on these scholars is neither a contribution to scholarship nor a contribution to moderation.