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review: non-fiction

Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, has written on Islamist terrorism and financing since the 9/11 attacks. He also won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize, and several other awards, for his coverage of the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China, and in 2004 he published Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China.

Such credentials leaven an otherwise conspiratorial-sounding book title, which seems to promise the exposure of a hidden history linking little-understood institutions to some of our favourite villains. What could be better than a tale that links mosques, Munich (historic home of Hitler's beer-hall putsch), the Nazis, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Muslim Brotherhood, the prototypical Islamist revival organization?

Even better for the now-excited reader is the book's opening. Here, Johnson recounts, in a classic play on that staple of detective fiction, the chance discovery in a London bookstore, purveyor of "radical Islamic literature," of an intriguing map which contained on its borders a series of decorated illustrations of the famous mosques of Islam. Alongside the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Blue Mosque of Istanbul was portrayed the unknown "Islamic Center of Munich."

Johnson, born in Montreal, is now a naturalized U.S. citizen who lives in Berlin. With a reporter's eye for the discordant detail, he begins an arduous hunt that involves searches through German and U.S. archives, the examination of private papers and numerous interviews to try to trace the history of the unassuming Islamic Center of Munich. What he finds is not one unified story - history can be like that - but rather a series of tales, some of which are revealing, others less so.

One story that Johnson tells well is the effort by Nazi officials, in support of the Eastern Front campaign, to raise proxy forces among the Muslim peoples of the Soviet Union, as the Wehrmacht surged into the Crimea and the Caucasus regions. The Third Reich's interest in these peoples was far from altruistic: Essentially, they were much-needed cannon fodder and ultimately deployed in some grisly campaigns. One of the most infamous of these military units, SS Division Ostturkischer Waffenverband (Eastern Turkic Armed Formation) helped to suppress the Warsaw uprising in 1944.

But some Nazi bureaucrats and one-time scholars of the Caucasus region thought differently, and genuinely imagined these legions as the vanguard of nationalist movements that would throw off the Soviet yoke and, as non-Slavs, somehow enjoy an independent status in the Reich empire-to-be. This cruel footnote to the ambitions of the Third Reich, however, lived on after the Second World War, and provides Johnson with his link to the Munich mosque.

West Germany became the home to ex-soldiers who had fought in these proxy units; it also became the home to various displaced populations, including those from the Soviet Union's Muslim regions who had collaborated with the German invaders or who had otherwise seized the opportunity to flee Stalin's Russia. Some of these ex-soldiers, ex-officials from the Third Reich's Ostministerium (responsible for administering the temporarily occupied regions of the Soviet Union) and other migrant Muslims found a new purpose in the Cold War, to serve as intelligence sources, as propaganda voices for Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, and as the nucleus of an imagined (and wholly imaginary) diplomatic offensive to help a future Germany recover some of its lost territories. Out of this stew, the project for a Western-controlled Munich mosque emerged. Such a mosque could serve, it was thought, as a weapon in the ideological war that flourished in the 1950s between the West and the (godless) communist bloc.

The CIA soon cut in as a dance partner, bankrolling propaganda to the Iron Curtain countries and seeking sources of information about potentially restive populations as part of its early (and ultimately abandoned) enthusiasm for "roll-back." The CIA and the West Germans were soon battling among themselves to control the Munich mosque project, with neither emerging as any kind of winner.

The Munich mosque never lived up to its depicted stature as one of the great mosques of the Western world. It was eventually built, in 1973, on the site of a former rubbish dump. Johnson's tale of the mosque eventually peters out into wistfulness, captured nicely in an interview with one of the current leaders of the Islamic Center of Munich, a German convert to Islam named Ahmad von Dennfer. Von Dennfer tells Johnson: "It was fifteen, twenty years after the war. It was a completely different time back then. The circumstances under which things happened here are hardly imaginable."

But Johnson is not interested in ending on a note of wistfulness, or in telling a purely historical tale, however intriguing. The final chapters of his book are devoted to exploring the history of the Muslim Brotherhood and its presence in Europe and the West. Johnson's suggestion is that the struggle over the Munich mosque was, in reality, won by the followers of the Muslim Brotherhood and that the Brotherhood, as a movement long devoted to the goal of Islamic revival, is to be watched with a very wary eye.

In fact, his potted history of the Muslim Brotherhood stands as a thinly veiled warning against its anti-Semitic (anti-Israel) message and its support for terrorism. Johnson sounds an alarm about the Muslim Brotherhood as the inspiration behind a drive to create ghettoized, unassimilated and maybe terrorist-prone Muslim communities in Europe, a general fear that he shares with various European intelligence services.

But A Mosque in Munich is better read not for its add-on editorializing, but for its history of Second World War and Cold War endeavours to cynically use Muslim populations as tools of great-power statecraft. These endeavours ultimately led nowhere, but the idea never quite faded and was eagerly seized upon again when the mujahedeen resistance in Afghanistan proved unexpectedly strong. We all know where that effort landed us.

Wesley Wark teaches at the School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and is an expert on intelligence and counter-terrorism.