An old friend of mine in Egypt was out and about in 6th of October - a satellite city of Cairo - when he stumbled upon a shop that made him stop in his tracks. Although the establishment looked like thousands of other small boutiques across Egypt, it had one key difference. Emblazoned on the shop front, in Arabic script, was the name “Hitler” with a swastika underneath.
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“I couldn’t believe it at first. I just stood there and gawked at it for a few minutes,” Ayman, my friend, admitted.
As someone who is keenly aware of Hitler and his Nazi legacy, I could not help but feel furious at this mundane, retail exhibition of total callousness and nonchalance. My only hope for the proprietor’s humanity was that, separated by huge expanses of time and space, (s)he was not fully aware of just who Hitler was and the horrendous crimes he had committed.
Ayman is not convinced, and says that though there is ignorance, there is also sufficient knowledge and awareness of the Nazi legacy in Egypt. Despite this, there are some Arabs who regard Hitler as some kind of hero.
One small Arabic-language newspaper even went so far as to publish a fictional interview with Hitler in which the Fuhrer is depicted as a man of principle who picked on the strong European powers, and sought, as powerful Nazi propaganda once claimed, to liberate the weak in Africa and Asia.
But given Hitler’s views on the racial inferiority of Arabs, and non-Europeans generally, Hitler’s Arab cheerleaders do not seem to have stopped to consider what would have happened the day after “liberation”. “If there had been Muslims in Germany at the time, they would have joined the Jews…in the ovens of the Holocaust,” Maher, an Egyptian friend, points out.
Although it is tempting in the West today, saturated as it is with a “never-again” attitude towards Nazism, to see Hitler as an evil aberration or a solely German phenomenon, the Fuhrer was an extreme product of his times and had many Western admirers, including a number of prominent American businessmen who helped to bankroll the German dictator’s rise to power.
In the build up to and during the war, some Arab nationalists, far away from the devastation Hitler was inflicting on Europe, became pro-Axis. Individuals, such as Rashid Ali in Iraq, and certain movements in the Arab world, were directly inspired by Nazism and European fascism in general, including the al-Futuwwa movement in Iraq, the “Green Shirts” of the Misr el-Fatta party in Egypt or the Lebanese Phalanges (Kataeb) party.
But most Arab sympathizers with Hitler seem to have become so out of pragmatic attachment to the principle of “my enemy’s enemy”. The Palestinian struggle against the British and Zionists drove some towards the German camp. Among a part of this group, the Palestinian question seems to have awoken a latent hatred of Jews or instilled a deep distrust towards them in general. This was nowhere more apparent than in Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the object of fear and hatred in the minds of Jews and of embarrassment for Arabs.
Outlandish and politically motivated claims that the mufti of Jerusalem knew about the Holocaust and actively encouraged the extermination of European Jews while he resided in Berlin are ungrounded in fact and contradict the evidence. Nevertheless, what is plain is that al-Husseini played a key role in spreading anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda across the Arab world and he exerted efforts to block the transfer of European Jews to Palestine.
Sadly, both Zionists and pan-Arabists turned the period into an ideology that has led to the absence of an honest, balanced and open debate about the mufti and his legacy.
Arab apologists for Hajj Amin portray him as little more than an overzealous nationalist driven by opposition to the Zionism which was overtaking his native land, ignoring the dark face of Husseini’s more general hatred of Jews, his pronounced dictatorial tendencies and his Arab-Islamic supremacist ideas.
Meanwhile, Israeli and pro-Israeli depictions of the mufti as a two-dimensional satanic caricature, an Arab Hitler in a turban, are more often than not thinly veiled attempts to discredit the entire Palestinian struggle by association.
That is not for a moment to suggest that Judeophobia does not exist in the Arab world, as some Arabs assert. Although at its best Islam has generally had a more tolerant record than Christianity towards Jews, there is an intrinsic tension between the two faiths, and Muslims have been guilty of episodes of ugly discrimination against Jews and even periodic persecution.
Interestingly, however, in the Arab-Israeli context, the traditional formula has been inverted, and the Jew is no longer the defenceless victim. In fact, over its short life, Israel and Zionism have proven that, at its worst, politicized Judaism, like Islam and Christianity, is also susceptible to supremacism.
Although it is understandable that Jews are troubled by Arab anti-Semitism, including Holocaust denial, its magnitude is generally exaggerated. In addition, the inconvenient fact that some segments of the right wing of the Zionist movement, such as the Lehi (Stern Gang) also sought to collaborate with Germany is also ignored. Moreover, some radical Revisionist Zionists, surprisingly, admired Nazism as a “national liberation” movement that had “saved” Germany, and only opposed Hitler’s anti-Semitism.
Although Arab anti-Semitism receives wide publicity, opposition to it often goes unnoticed. By way of example, the prominent and much-admired Egyptian writer and intellectual Abbas al-Aqqad was so vocal in his criticism of Hitler that he was placed on a Nazi blacklist, forcing him to flee Egypt when it looked like Rommel, the Desert Fox, was on the verge of overrunning the country.
Today, many journalists, including in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, condemn admiration for Hitler. Like in the West, debates on the net in the Arab world often conform to Godwin’s Law - the longer the online discussion, the more inevitable it is that a participant will makea comparison involving the Nazis or Hitler – and in this context, Hitler is clearly used as a term of insult, not praise.
Take one Egyptian newspaper which described what it claimed were 30 parallels between Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Adolf Hitler. Bothaina Kamel, a famous TV presenter, political dissident and former presidential hopeful, likened the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists to Hitler in terms of their admiration for fascism.
What all this suggests is that, even if a small percentage of Arabs have regarded and do regard Hitler as a hero, or even as a retail marketing asset, the vast majority see him as a murderous villain.
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him on Twitter@DiabolicalIdea