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Imported jihad: How non-Muslim powers armed Muslim groups to fight their wars in the name of Islam

Nadeem F. Paracha tells us why anti-Soviet jihad was not the first time non-Muslim powers had stirred up the idea of jihad to counter a common enemy. The first well-documented episode in this respect took place during the First World War (1914-1918).


The respected ideologue of the Jamat-i-Islami (JI) Professor Khurshid Ahmed in America and Unrest in the Muslim World, wrote that the policy of siding with the United States during the Cold War was a mistake by ‘Islamic forces’.

Across the 1960s, 1970s, and, a lot more fervently in the 1980s, various Islamic outfits in Muslim countries were frequently castigated by those on the left for taking up the West’s fight against Soviet communism, and (in the Arab world) against hybrid leftist innovations such as Arab nationalism.

Although JI’s founder and scholar, Abul Ala Maududi had explained this as a tact partnership between ‘believers’ (Muslims and Christians) against ‘non-believers’ (the communists), many years later his contemporary, Ahmad, confessed that the idea was largely flawed.

It is interesting to note that Maududi, a prolific writer, was as suspicious of secularism as he was of communism and socialism. But he saw the mentioned partnership as one which was between Muslim and Christian powers, and not between Muslims and the secular West.


Abul Ala Maududi (second left).

Nevertheless, Professor Ahmad, in his reassessment of JI’s policies during the Cold War, lamented the folly of siding with the West. But he did not ponder whether this also meant that the Islamic groups instead should have sided with the Soviet Union and leftist outfits.

Ahmad wrote that the Islamic groups had committed a tactical error which helped the West eliminate the Soviet Union and move a lot more freely to overwhelm the economic, political and social resources of Muslim countries. It is admirable that a scholar from a steadfast right-wing religious outfit would expose his party to self-criticism, but the way out from the quagmire it found itself in after the end of the Cold War is not quite as well thought-out by him as is his self-deprecation.

Ahmad advises that the Islamic community (ummah) must now “purify its ranks and become a homogenous community that can mobilise against the “American-Zionist-Hindu plot (to subdue the Muslim world)”. However, he does not quite explain exactly what would be the nature of the procedure which would “purify the ranks”. He argues that the Islamic forces had helped an ally wipe out Godless communism but were betrayed once the Soviet Union collapsed.

Such forces were electorally feeble (maybe except Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood). Weaker forces in such a context are usually willing to derive power from outside after they fail to find it from within. And when they do gain it from within, it usually comes in the shape of patronage from state institutions who are repulsed by the more populist political groups.

Thus, these forces willingly became part of the plans drawn up by the US against its main nemesis, the ‘Soviet bloc’, during the Cold War. They saw such an alliance as an opportunity to gain political prominence.

Much of the combative aspects of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union were expressed by proxy outfits (both from the left and the right) operating outside the US and the Soviet Union but backed by the two. But self-interest was also at the heart of those fighting the battle on behalf of these two states.

When JI and other such outfits in various Muslim countries allied themselves with the US, they did so only to bolster their own standing in scenarios in which they were electorally weak or had failed to gather any mass momentum.

The Western sides of the Cold War strengthened these forces (along with conservative Muslim regimes and monarchies). This became convenient to do because, again, weaker forces are usually willing to derive power from outside after they fail to find it from within.


Crowds in Cairo Egypt, set fire to the headquarters of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in 1955. Till the 1970s MB was considered to be close to US and Saudi Arabia. The Arab nationalist regime of Gamal A. Nasser often accused both the countries of funding the MB.


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For example, the ‘Afghan jihad’ against the Soviets was fought and fronted by such forces. Their interest in doing so had more to do with gaining earthly political power and monetary benefits. They were bankrolled by external powers whose interests, too, were entirely their own and had nothing to do with jihad.

But the whole concept of jihad, which was so vehemently propagated during the mentioned conflict by a verity of anti-Soviet entities and funded by a non-Muslim power, wasn’t quite such a unique phenomenon. It wasn’t the first time non-Muslim powers had stirred up the idea of jihad (with the help of Muslim allies) to counter a common enemy.

The first well-documented episode in this respect took place during the First World War (1914-1918). As war clouds began to gather over Europe in 1914, a German aristocrat and adventurer, Max von Oppenheim, arrived in Berlin after his travels to the Muslim world. He met the Kaiser of Germany and told him that “Islam can become Germany’s secret weapon”.

Hew Strachan, a professor of history at Oxford, in his book, The First World War, writes that Oppenheim convinced the Kaiser that Germany’s enemies, Britain and France, could be weakened if Germany was to secretly organise an extensive pro-jihad campaign among the Muslims of French and British colonies in Africa, Middle East and South Asia.


Max von Oppenheim


At the onset of the war, Germany engaged the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul and asked him to fight on the side of Germany. But the Ottoman Empire was by then in shambles; it was militarily weak and corrupt. Viewing the German offer as an opportunity to win back the territory that the empire had lost in the 19th century, and fill up its almost empty treasury, the Sultan agreed — but only after Germany promised to pay a hefty sum of money.

The Sultan was asked to proclaim Germany’s (and Turkey’s) war as a jihad. The Sultan did just that, followed by Turkish clerics and officials who whipped up jihadist frenzy among Turkey’s population. In his proclamation, the Sultan insisted: “Know that our state today is at war with the governments of Russia, England and France and their allies, who are the mortal enemies of Islam […]”.

Apart from sending officers to train the Turkish soldiers, Germany also published pamphlets (in French, Persian, Arabic and Urdu) which called on all Muslims to kill Christians. One pamphlet assured the faithful: “The blood of the (British / French / Russian) infidels in the Islamic lands may be shed with impunity […]”. In the 1980s much of the jihadist pamphlets and literature which was distributed among those fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan was published in the US.


Cover of a propaganda magazine glorifying German-Islamic alliance during the First World War.


A 1984 pro-Jihad poster that was distributed in Afghanistan but printed in the United States.

The pamphlets printed in Germany during the First World War were distributed among the Muslim populations of the British colonies and were expected to trigger mutinies by Muslim soldiers in colonial armies. But the plan, on which Germany had spent over three billion Deutsche Mark, ended in tragedy. By the end of the war in 1918, the Ottoman Empire lost Damascus, Baghdad and Jerusalem; and rest of the empire’s territory was distributed among its European counterparts.

More than 240,000 Turks were killed on the battlefield for a ‘jihad’ which was mainly propagated by Germany for ambitious imperial reasons, and sanctioned by the Sultan purely for monetary gains. The empire was left penniless, Germany, too, lost badly.

The damage also included the fall of the centuries-old Ottoman Empire. Turkey became a republic, led by secular Turkish nationalists who radically abjured and discarded the fallen empire’s narrative churned out during the war.


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