Al-Ahram Weekly Special pages commemorating
50 years of Arab dispossession
since the creation of the
State of Israel
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

50 Years


Arabs, Muslims and
the Nazi genocide of the Jews *

By Abdel Wahab El-Messeri

In this extract from his recent book, Abdel Wahab El-Messeri reflects on the many mutations of anti-semitism in the Western mindset, and interrogates one of the strangest transformations in the history of the 20th century -- how, as death approached, the Jews in the Nazi camps became "muslims"

It is important that we, as Arabs - both Muslims and Christians - examine our position towards the Nazi genocide of the Jews. As Muslims and Christians, our stance is incontrovertibly clear. Our religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) all contain strong prohibitions against murder. The Qur'an says, "for whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or sewing corruption on earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind." (The Table Spread:32) The West has attempted to taint Arab history with the Nazi crime as a way of justifying implanting the Zionist settler state at the centre of the Arab World, in order to compensate the Jews for the injustices they suffered within the western cultural formation and the geographical boundaries of Europe. Zionist propaganda, with Western collaboration, employs certain fundamental techniques to accomplish this.

Firstly, Zionist propaganda portrays Arab resistance to the Zionist invasion of Palestine as a form of direct or indirect support for Nazi genocide, on the grounds that the resistance sometimes hampered the entrance of Jewish immigrants into Palestine. This argument is entirely baseless. The Arab resistance was not directed against immigrants in need of refuge; it was directed against settlers who had come to usurp the land and expel its native inhabitants. Many settlers came under western flags and recived the support of the British mandate government (as well as support from the Nazis themselves, a point to which we will return below) at a time when many countries of the West had closed their doors to Jewish refugees. However the Zionists acted towards the original inhabitants (with unreserved western support), the right to resist them was and remains a legitimate human right, indeed a duty incumbent upon every human being who reveres humanity. Men and women's fight against oppression will always be an indication of their dignity, their greatness and their humanity.

Zionist propaganda is also quick to depict several Arab leaders as Nazi sympathizers. This is another myth. Most Arab governments during the war sided with the Allied powers (since in any case the Arab World fell within their colonial sphere). Moreover, Nazi racist theory put the Arabs and Muslims on a par with the Jews. Therefore, any putative alliance their might have been would have been as pragmatic and temporary as that between Hitler and Stalin. Any sympathy for the Nazis on the part of certain Arb leaders and of certain segments of the Arab public was not motivated by hatred for the Jews nor by any love for the Nazis, but by hostility towards British colonial rule and Zionist colonisation. In all events, it was a naive sympathy, uninformed, lacking adequate knowledge of the nature of the Nazi project, its grounding in Western imperial culture and the extent of its racist contempt for Muslims and Arabs. In no way was such sympathy as existed translated into active participation in the Nazi crime, which remained throughout a properly and exclusively Western phenomenon.

These Western and Zionist aspersions do not alter the geographical, historic, moral, religious and humanitarian facts. Nazi genocide was never a part of Arab or Muslim history. The Arabs and Muslims did not taint their hands with the blood of the Nazis' victims, whether Jews, Slavs or Gypsies. Rather, these attempts to distort the Arab and Muslim image ultimately demonstrate the extent to which the West is consistent with itself. In doing penance for the crime of genocide committed in Germany, it is perpetuating a no less atrocious crime against the Arab World.

Whenever the Muslims and Arabs did come into direct contact with the fact of Nazi genocide, their actions were above reproach. The Muslims in Bulgaria, for example, were very active in protecting Jewish groups from persecution, and King Hussein V of Morocco refused to hand over his Jewish subjects to the Vichy government in France.

In the course of my research for the Encyclopedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism, I was surprised to find how frequently the word "Muselmann" (Muslim) appeared in the Auschwitz concentration camp lists. According to one source, the victims who were led off to the gas chambers were called "aliens" ((??)) and according to other sources, "Muselmanner". In the Encyclopedia Judaica, I came across the following entry:

"Muselmann (Muslim in German) was a commonly used terms in the concentration camps, used to refer to the prisoners who were on the brink of death, that is to say those who began to show the final symptoms of starvation, disease, mental apathy and physical weakness. The term was primarily used in Auschwitz, but was also used in other camps."

We see here an epitome of one central dimension of the Western mentality. Whenever it destroys its victims it perceives them as "other," and the other, since the time of the Crusades, has always been the Muslim. In the Middle Ages, moreover, Muslims and Jews were closely linked in the Western mind. One can find, for instance, many paintings which portray the Prophet flogging Christ.

The Nazi experience is an authentic product of this Western mindset. The Nazis were the standard bearers of this vision. They epitomised the Western confrontation with the oriental civilisation closest to Europe: the Islamic civilisation. They never forgot this burden, even when annihilating millions of inhabitants of Europe. The connotation of the term "Muselmann" was simply extended to include the "other" in general, whether Slavs, Jews or Gypsies (as has occurred in a similar mannr with the word "Arab" in Zionist discourse). The writer of the preceding entry in the Encyclopedia Judaica attempted to explain how this term came into currency in the camps. The Nazis' victims, he said, would crouch cross-legged in the "oriental" manner and the expression on their faces would be wooden, as lifeless as a mask. One notes that the writer, in his definition, made no attempt to avoid the customary Western stereotype of Muslims. He simply substituted the word "oriental" for "Muselmann".

The term "Muselmann" as applied to the victims of the Nazi gas chambers brings to the fore two issues, the first practical, the second a question of historical understanding. With regard to the first issue, various news agencies in the Arab/Muslim world should disseminate this piece of information, in order to drive home how the West perceives us. Knowing this can also help us explain why the West felt a compulsion to "compensate" for the crime of Auschwitz with the crimes of Dir Yasn, Kafr Qasem and other Palestinian villages. It is important to stress that this knowledge of the history of the term "Muselmann", as it has been used to signify the "other" in Nazi Germany and in Palestine, will serve to undermine the monopoly the Jews pretend to as the only victims of fascist brutality. This issue also simultaneously gives rise to another question, concerning the dissemination of information. Information is a powerful tool that can be used to serve the interests of a particular party. Why, one wonders, has the use of the term "Muselmann" in the Nazi concentration camps received such little attention in the press?

Turning to the question of historical understanding, this is a domain in which we are clearly at the mercy of the West. We do not read Western history from our perspective, but rather from their perspective, just as it is fed to us. That is our fault, not the fault of the West. The history books and references are there for all of us to consult. It is up to us to examine these sources and reinterpret the facts, in the light of careful scrutiny of the subtext of their contents and in the light also of newly discovered information, or information that has not previously been accorded the centrality it deserves.

* (From: Zionism, Nazism and the end of history (in Arabic), Abdel Wahab El-Messeri, Dar al-Sharouk, Cairo, 1997).