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Islamists as Partners in World War II

Islamists as Partners in World War II

In North Africa, the Axis powers had the support of Islamists in the fight against the Allies. As a result of that partnership, the Allies needed to respond. This article analyzes the historical interactions of different parties and provides a multifaced picture of how the United States tried to engage Islamists. But the Islamists showed an alarming tendency of hatred for the Jewish people, such as in Baghdad’s al-Farhud pogrom, which was meant to show how to drive Jews out.

A year later, in mid-1942, as the Axis fought the British in Egypt, Jerusalem’s Grand Mufti Amin al-Husaini had called on Arabs to kill Jews. Watching it, Americans debated how to win over Islamists such as Abd al-Karim of Morocco or Libya’s Idris as-Sanusi “to make the Mediterranean safe for the Allies. The idea of engaging Islamists was never conveyed to General Dwight Eisenhower before his invasion of North Africa.

The Joint Psychological Warfare Committee, briefly the Joint Committee, tackled the “Islamist case” in the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. The goal was to weaken the enemy’s hearts and minds to make the Allied invasion easier. Islamists became a target for cooperation in launching a guerilla warfare campaign. From 1913-26, they had fought against the French, Italian, and Spanish colonials.

In May 1940, Adolf Hitler invaded France, and within a month, it became clear that the French and Lowlands countries, such as Belgium, would surrender. Britain came within Hitler’s reach, as well as French Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. After the French armistice in mid-1940, the Nazis ruled continental Europe to the Soviet border in ex-Poland and wanted to use Vichy’s colonies in the Middle East for their plans to establish its empire.

Benito Mussolini moved troops from the Cyrenaica—since 1934 part of the Italian colony of Libya—to the British-held Egypt to seize the Suez Canal as main artery of the British Empire. In 1915, the Germans and Ottomans attacked the canal form the east via Sinai. In 1941, the Axis approached the canal from the west via the Libyan Desert. Twice, Islamists waged with the Axis jihad: Morocco’s Rif Mountain tribes of Abd al-Karim, Salih at-Tunisi of Tunisia, Libyan as-Sanusi brothers; and Hasan al-Banna’s Muslim Brothers in Egypt.

The Fight for Victory in North Africa

Mussolini desired to use Islamists to strike the Suez Canal and Egypt, which he considered England’s soft spots. With Europe controlled by the Axis powers, England would perhaps have difficulties mounting a credible defense at the canal. The Arab role in this endeavor would be substantial. In exchange for their assistance, Mussolini promised in his meeting with al-Husaini full independence and self-rule. Rome would set up an Arab military center and welcome Iraq’s ex-Premier Rashid Ali al-Kailani, who went to Berlin.

Mussolini said that Jews were “our enemies” and had no place in Europe. Approximately 45,000 Jews out of 45 million residents (7,500 Jews were deported to Auschwitz) lived in Italy. He agreed with al-Husaini that Zionists had no historical, national, or other rights in Palestine. He turned against Zionism and agreed with al-Husaini’s wish of annulling a Zionist home. Both were willing to serve Hitler’s plans in Europe and the Middle East.

In mid-1940, Italy prepared to invade Egypt. While Hitler hesitated to fully fight the British, Mussolini attacked from Libya to Egypt. Early success turned to a defeat near Tubruq. In early 1941, British, Australian, and Indian forces captured it. At this point, the Allies had decided to liberate North Africa before launching the European campaign. However, to avoid full defeat, Mussolini asked for Germany’s assistance. Hitler sent the German Africa Corps under Erwin Rommel. In 1942, he drove the Allies back to Egypt from Libya. In mid-June 1942, he retook Tubruq.

Throughout the North Africa campaign, the Allies debated the usefulness of cooperating with Islamists to defeat the Axis powers. The Joint Committee checked “Islamists as partners”: They waged jihad against colonials and could be turned against the Axis. However, Germany’s ties to the Islamists dated back to World War I, so the groups had more sympathy for the Germans, who were not colonials in the region.

On August 1, 1942, the Joint Committee forwarded a study on Abd al-Karim. During World War I, it says, Germany spread discontent among natives against the French and the Spanish. Islamists embraced the effort because Muslims resent non-Muslim rule. In and after the war, colonials went after their leaders like Ahmad as-Sanusi, who fought against British and Italian colonizers. In 1916, Idris as-Sanusi assumed leadership of the brotherhood and entered a tacit alliance with London.

Since 1920, the study explains, Abd al-Karim, leader of the Berber tribes, waged jihad against the invaders, uniting the tribes for five years. The whole Rif area followed him, the study stressed, but in May 1926, the French army defeated him. Henri Philippe Pétain sent him into exile on Réunion off Madagascar. The study asks: Will al-Karim be of use to the Allied war effort? It argues that no other leader could unite all tribes for the Allies. His release from exile would show that old imperialism is gone; the Allies are waging this fight for the ideals of democracy; and nationalism will no longer be punished, but nurtured and guided along useful and peaceful lines.

The study concludes: As-Sanusi might pledge his support to the Allies against Italian excesses in Libya. He embodied the religious aspect of North African nationalism, while al-Karim embodies its secular and enlightened leadership. These two could make the Mediterranean safe for the Allies. Equally vital is the influence that such a move would have within the Muslim world. From India to the Atlantic, the Allies would receive the plaudits and the support of the faithful.

Allied officers debated what to do with the report and the need for further study. In the end, the study was not shared with Allied leadership—General Eisenhower, who planned the invasion of North Africa, likely did not receive the study on how to cooperate with Islamists. The Allies invaded on November 8 without news on al-Karim or as-Sanusi. This “Islamist case” appeared to have been closed.

The Axis Powers’ Cooperation with Islamists

The Axis powers had their own debate about how to work with Islamists, but for them, it meant working above all with Amin al-Husaini. He lived in Berlin, steered a Europe-Mideastern network, and worked with Iraq’s ex-Premier Ali al-Kailani between Berlin, Rome, and occupied Europe raising troops. Both of these men bet on an Axis victory.

In 1942, as Rommel made progress in North Africa, Axis agents intercepted cables written by U.S. Military attaché Bonner F. Fellers on British tactics and forwarded the documents to Rommel. Later, some claimed this contributed to the British defeat at Tobruk. Fellers defined al-Husaini and al-Kailani in eight points, here briefly summarized:

1. Jihad can only be called by a popular movement. It must be defensive. Partaking is imperative and death is noble.

2. Islamic authorities heighten enthusiasm in Iraq’s struggle. Al-Husaini wants free and united Arabs, while al-Kailani just a free Iraq.

3. Should al-Husaini declare jihad, it would not be for Egyptians. He is a big political figure and has caused more trouble for the British than any other Arab.

4. Al-Husaini was pro-British, but opposed a Jewish home in Palestine. He said no to Zionism and has sway in India, Egypt, and Iran.

5. The British see him as German asset, while Egyptians see him as the greatest leader alive also for his family claims of noble descent.

6. Egyptians have conflicting emotions for Iraq; the result is apathy. They offered no volunteers for the Arabs, Axis, or Allies.

7. Al-Husaini is in Iraq as a refugee. If he returns to Palestine, then he will be jailed as an Arab agitator against Jews and the British Empire.

8. If al-Husaini declares jihad, then it will be antisemitic, not a religious war. The mufti is a religious figure turned a political one.

In his cable, Fellers distinguished Islamists and nationalists as well. He did not use the original Arabic word “Islamist” (الإسلامي) though it became a self-definition. In other lands, the term was current since 1900, and since 1916 tied to a “theory of Islamism.” If Allies used “nationalism,” then it was in the Western sense. Mideastern nation-building went other ways with its own features. Often tied to tribes, in young states, mosaics of faiths and life plus artificial borders led to very special nations where the word “nation” does not bear the classic Euro-American meaning.

Fellers showed identities of both leaders with Islamist or nationalist layers. To him, strong men drive a clear mindset. He did not like clerics to turn political, though Islam was a most political religion. Fellers paints a pattern: top clerical credentials by birth and education; leader of a movement or revolt; agreeable to call for jihad with a wide reach to mobilize the faithful; Islamic dogma in politics to unite Muslims for the overarching higher pan-Islamist community, the global umma.

Other than Grand Mufti al-Husaini, Fellers saw al-Kailani as a nationalist whose aim was to free Iraq. He did not mention al-Kailani’s belonging to the al-Qadiriyya Brotherhood. Fellers believed the mufti to be 52 years old (born in 1897, he was actually 44), wise, subtle, capable, energetic, and determined. As with al-Karim, there were dim chances that both would offer their services to the Allies.

Lessons from the North Africa Experience

Obviously, the Office of Strategic Services and the Joint Committee were just set up in 1942 as tools to win the war. Insights into Islamists of the Great War were not readily available.

Al-Karim, according to his memoirs, was in 1925 one of three Caliph candidates. He left Réunion in 1947 via Cairo and retired in France. Al-Husaini worked with him and asked Berlin to get Vichy to set him free. He regarded al-Karim as a great jihad fighter,المجاهد الكبير, for anti-colonial liberation. Then, as-Sanusi became an exception. He went at the end of 1922 into Egyptian exile, aided the Allies in World War II, and in 1951 became the King of Libya with good ties to them—until a 1969 coup.

In America, weeklies reported about Islamists in great detail like al-Karim in Time. So, the German-Ottoman jihadization of Islamism in World War I was fairly known. However, often, American officers were reluctant to deal with other people’s religions. Mostly, they were educated to see this as a private matter in the secular tradition of separating state and church. Then, during the North Africa campaign, they had to work with other cultures: religion as an everyday way of life with a unity of power and mosque.

Imams, mufti, and mullahs were often held in high esteem. Many followed local and pan-Islamic causes. The Allied military power left only marginal roles for Islamists. The Allies won the battle in North Africa and Egypt without them: A quarter million Axis troops capitulated in Tunis mid-May 1943. It became advisable to pay attention to the Islamists and nationalists. A question remains about if and how this new U.S. tradition of looking into Islamist affairs by leading officers was thereafter cultivated or became a stop-and-go story as needed? The North Africa campaign and the Allied effort to cooperate and coopt Islamists in the region may provide some lessons in working with Middle East actors. So, they may be partners, but not Allies—although there are exceptions. Did fears of the Joint Committee prove prophetic: Was and is there a war ongoing against the ideology of Islamism?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.