A MOSQUE IN MUNICH: NAZIS, THE CIA, AND THE RISE OF THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD IN THE WEST
the Edge of Town
IN THE WINTER OF 2003, I was browsing in a London bookstore that sold radical Islamic literature. It was the sort of store that had earned London the nickname "Londonistan": stacked with screeds calling for the downfall of free societies, it tested the limits of free speech -- and unwittingly catalogued the troubles plaguing Europe's Muslim communities. I was a regular customer.
Wandering the aisles, I noticed a peculiar map of the world. Countries were color-coded according to percentage of Muslim population. Dark green countries had a Muslim majority; light green, yellow, and beige represented decreasing proportions of Muslims -- a typical example of political Islam, which divides the world into us and them, the only criterion being religion. Famous mosques decorated the edge of the map -- the Grand Mosque in Mecca (the yearly destination of millions of pilgrims), the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (where Muhammad ascended to heaven), the wondrous Blue Mosque of Istanbul -- and the Islamic Center of Munich.
The Islamic Center of Munich? That seemed odd. I had been writing on religion in Europe and other parts of the world for half a dozen years, and had lived in Germany even longer. I had heard of the mosque as the headquarters of one of Germany's smaller Islamic organizations. But the mosque hardly belonged in such august company. Munich was no center of Islam, and the mosque wasn't the biggest in Germany, let alone Europe. Still, it was immortalized in someone's pantheon. I was planning a visit to Munich and decided to find out why.
A few weeks later, I drove along the old main road north from downtown Munich, at first paralleling the sleek autobahn that led to the new airport and the city's futuristic sports stadium. Skirting these exemplars of Germany's vaunted infrastructure, I wove through neglected neighborhoods of the Bavarian capital. The city gave way to suburbs, then to patches of countryside. Finally, the mosque appeared, first just a slender minaret jutting above the pines, a finger pointing toward heaven. Then the rest came into view. It was an egg-shaped house, like a weather balloon held down by a tarp -- an ebullient, futuristic design straight out of the 1950s.
I spied a janitor, thin and short, a man of about sixty in a traditional white gown and sandals. I asked why the mosque was so famous. He shrugged without a glimmer of curiosity and said it surely wasn't. I asked when it had been built. He said he didn't know. I asked who had founded it, but he could only apologize.
His answers surprised me. I had visited dozens of mosques around Europe. At each, proud worshipers had regaled me with the story of its founding, often by immigrants who had scraped together construction money. But this ignorance -- or was it amnesia? -- was odd.
I looked more closely, and the mosque seemed to age. Built of concrete and tile, it had faded and cracked. The trees seemed to swallow the buildings. One of the world's great mosques? I wondered what had happened here.
That question launched a research project that has taken me to unexpected places and consumed a great deal more time than I ever imagined it would. I had supposed I would find the answer quickly by talking to a few members of Germany's Muslim community who had immigrated to Europe in the 1960s, part of a great population shift that has altered Europe's demographics. I guessed that the Islamic Center of Munich had emerged during this era.
Instead, I found the answer much further back in time -- the 1930s. I did interview many German Muslims but spent most of my time in U.S. and European archives. There, among boxes of long-neglected and newly declassified documents, I pieced together the stories of the remarkable people who laid the ideological foundations for the mosque and then battled for control of the building itself.
Contrary to expectations, these founders had little to do with the wider population of immigrants. Instead, I found that three groups supported the mosque in order to attain certain goals. Some were Nazi thinkers who planned to use Islam as a political weapon during World War II and then extended this strategy into the Cold War. Others, primarily members of the Central Intelligence Agency, built on the Nazis' work, hoping to use Islam to fight communism. A third group was made up of radical Muslims -- Islamists -- who saw the mosque as a toehold in the West. All had one thing in common: their goal was to create not a place of worship but rather a center for political -- and even violent -- activity.
At first, the story had a familiar ring. The United States had tried to enlist Muslims to counter the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1970s and '80s, famously contributing to the birth of Al Qaeda. But the Munich mosque was built thirty years earlier, during the opening phases of the Cold War, not near its conclusion, and the goals that informed its foundation were also different. In places like Afghanistan, Islam was mobilized to fight a war with guns and soldiers. But here in Germany Muslims were drawn into a psychological war -- a battle of ideas. I began to realize that the events in Munich were a precursor to developments, both ideological and military, ranging from Afghanistan to Iraq.
Then, as now, such tactics backfired. The battle for Munich's Muslims helped introduce a virulent ideology to the West: Islamism -- not the ancient religion of Islam but a highly politicized and violent system of ideas that creates the milieu for terrorism. In the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 the West experienced this violence firsthand, but it has a long history, having plagued countries around the world for decades. Islamism's most prominent group is the Muslim Brotherhood, and it was the Brotherhood that turned the mosque into a political cell for its partisan goals. Almost all the Brotherhood's activities in the West originated among the small group of people who ran the mosque. Munich was the beachhead from which the Brotherhood spread into Western society.
The parallels between the 1950s and today are striking. While our societies remain consumed with on-the-ground events on battlefields like Iraq, it is the ideological war that will determine success or failure. Now, like half a century ago in Munich, Western societies are seeking Muslim allies, hoping to find people who share our values in the struggle against a persistent enemy. Munich shows the danger of doing so without careful reflection and scrutiny.
Western governments have made this scrutiny a difficult task. By and large, intelligence agencies' files on Islam are still closed; it was only through some extraordinary luck that I was able to obtain the documents describing this story. In the United States, it took an act of Congress to pry open the CIA's files on Nazis who survived the war or were suspected of war crimes; perhaps it will take a similar law to get a complete view of U.S. dealings with Islamist groups.
In the meantime, this book fills some of the gaps. One reason for writing it now is that eyewitnesses from this era are passing away. Many collected remarkable personal archives, which are becoming scattered. As it is, most of the people I talked to were in their eighties and nineties. Several have died since. To wait another few years would have meant forfeiting their insight and advice.
These people and the archives tell a story that takes us from Hollywood to Jakarta, Washington to Mecca. But as so often seems to be the case in Germany, the story begins on a World War II battlefield.