"A microcosm of all our mistakes with Islam"

President Eisenhower meeting Muslim leaders, including Said Ramadan (second from right) of the Muslim Brotherhood. Backed by the U.S., Ramadan helped wrest control of the Munich mosque away from local Muslims, creating what became a global base for the Brotherhood.

Q&A with Ian Johnson

Q: We're inundated with books on Islam and Europe and so on. Why another? 

A: Two reasons. The simplest is because this story is important and hasn't been told before. It starts in World War II with the Nazis deciding they could use Muslims to fight the Soviet Union. Then, after the war, the very same group of Muslims are recruited by the CIA to do the same thing--fight the Soviets by using Islam. This group is then taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood, which uses Munich as a beachhead to spread into the West. This is twenty years before Afghanistan and the muhajadeen; it's the prequel to a lot of what's gone on since. Plus this continues right up to the present. The Muslim Brotherhood still plays a key role in setting a radicalized agenda for Islam in Europe. It's no coincidence that the mosque in Munich is associated with many major terrorist attacks in the West, including the two attacks on the World Trade Center. As our governments try to figure out how to deal with Islam, we need to know our own history first. 

Q: So it's important. 

A: To be honest, my roots are in journalism and I like colorful stories. This is a really strange one with memorable characters. The people involved are so bizarre that they sound like the start of a joke: you have a brilliant Nazi linguist, a CIA man who's a nudist and a radical Muslim on the lam… 

Q: I'm afraid to hear the punch line. You combed many archives to write this book. Was there an "a-ha" moment that made the drudgery worthwhile? 

A: I especially remember the archives in Eisenhower presidential library in Abilene, Kansas. I got Eisenhower's appointment book for 1953. It was this big, thick, leather-bound book--like a presidential appointment book should look. And in it, on September 23, was the name Said Ramadan, "Delegate of the Muslim Brothers." It wasn't a big, important meeting, but it was the culmination of early efforts by the Eisenhower administration to use Islam to fight communism. The more time I spent in those archives, the more fascinated I was. The president was a practicing Christian and saw Muslims as fellow believers. He thought faith could help immunize them against communism if they could be made aware of communism's aetheist message. So he endorsed all sorts of schemes to use religion--his advisors called it the "Religious Factor." Embracing the Muslim Brotherhood was part of this effort.

Q: What about the CIA man's party when he leaves Germany after having set up the relationship with the Brotherhood. You have a scene where people are singing a farewell song. How can you describe this event in such detail? 

A: Thanks to the other main source for this book: interviews and the personal archives of people from that era. One of the CIA man's friends is still alive in Munich and she had a tape recording of the farewell party. We spent an afternoon listening to it and chatting. She also showed me sketches that he made of her at nudist colonies and talked about that era in such detail it sprang alive. As much as I liked the archives, it was these people who volunteered their personal papers and stories that made it worthwhile. People knew they were involved in history and were waiting to give it to someone. 

Q: What about the Nazi angle? Are you saying radical Islam has Nazi roots? 

A: No, I'm not equating Islamists with Nazis. Some people do but I'm trying to stay away from polemics. I'm also not dissecting problems in Islam or immigration in Europe. Instead, the big-picture idea I'm trying to convey is to show an early--and decisive--effort by the West to use Islam. These Muslims were instrumentalized by three groups: the Nazis, the Cold Warriors and the Islamists. So the story carries us from the past to the present, a microcosm of all our mistakes with Islam since the 1940s. 

Q: What's wrong with engaging with religion? You think it should be kept separate from politics? 

A: No. Religion is a big part of every society and politicians should engage with it, for example by talking to religious leaders and listening to believers' concerns. But it should be done with respect. It shouldn't be used as a tool for short-term gains--like let's get the Muslims to declare jihad on our enemies, or let's create Muslim champions who will speak for us around the world. Religion isn't a puppet that you can control like that. It isn't a cudgel These things are a bad idea and always backfire. But we're still doing it. 

Q: You say in the endnotes that there's still a lot left unexplored. 

A: Right now, the CIA roadblocks anyone trying to get information on our dealings with radical Islam, claiming that releasing documents, even half a century old, would harm the national interest. It was like this too with the Nazis. The CIA only released information when Congress passed a law mandating it. I think something similar will have to happen here, too. For now, however, this book is a first step toward understanding this past.