In 1941, a Harvard University anthropology professor named Carleton S. Coon traveled to Morocco, ostensibly to carry out field research. His true mission was to smuggle weapons to anti-German rebels in the Atlas Mountains, on behalf of the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime precursor to the CIA. The following year, as the United States prepared to invade North Africa, Coon and an OSS colleague, Gordon Brown, drafted propaganda pamphlets intended to soften up local reaction to the coming swarms of GIs. They settled on a religious idiom: “Praise be unto the only God…. The American Holy Warriors have arrived…to fight the great Jihad of Freedom.” The pamphlet was signed “Roosevelt.”
Nazi Germany’s leaders also harbored half-baked ideas about messaging to North Africa’s Muslims. Heinrich Himmler was the Third Reich’s most influential advocate of the instrumental use of Islam in war strategy. In the spring of 1943, as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s army in North Africa stumbled to defeat, Himmler asked the Reich Security Head Office “to find out which passages of the Qur’an provide Muslims with the basis for the opinion that the Führer has already been forecast in the Qur’an and that he has been authorized to complete the work of the Prophet.”
Ernst Kaltenbrunner of the Head Office replied with the disappointing news that the Koran had no suitable passages for such a claim, but he suggested that Hitler might be advertised as “the returned ‘Isa (Jesus), who is forecast in the Qur’an and who, similar to the figure of the Knight George, defeats the giant and Jew-King Dajjal at the end of the world.” Ultimately, the office printed one million copies of an Arabic-language pamphlet that sought to persuade Muslim Arabs to ally with Germany:
O Arabs, do you see that the time of the Dajjal has come? Do you recognize him, the fat, curly-haired Jew who deceives and rules the whole world and who steals the land of the Arabs?… O Arabs, do you know the servant of God? He [Hitler] has already appeared in the world and already turned his lance against the Dajjal and his allies…. He will kill the Dajjal, as it is written, destroy his places and cast his allies into hell.
Such propaganda “may seem absurd today,” writes David Motadel in his comprehensive and discerning history, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War. And yet one need only review the awkward, cartoonish texts of American propaganda pamphlets dropped on Afghanistan before the US-led invasion of that country in 2001 or the similarly naive pamphlets dropped on Iraq before the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003 to recognize that the history of ill-considered Western hypotheses about how to mobilize or co-opt Muslim populations during expeditionary…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.