Alphabet und Imperium

What a WWI-era Jihadist newspaper can teach us about German orientalism

Slavs and Tatars, Alphabet Abdal, 2015, Webgarn, 1.9  ×  5  m

Slavs and Tatars, Alphabet Abdal, 2015, woolen yarn, 1.9  ×  5  m

Our recent exhibitions in Berlin, Dschinn and Dschuice at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler and at the Hamburger Bahnhof for the Preis der Nationalgalerie (both 2015), look to the El Dschihad newspaper published in Berlin between 1915 and 1918. From March 1915, the fortnightly periodical was published in Tatar, Arabic and Russian languages (among others) by the Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient, a propaganda organization that was supported by certain lea­ding German scholars of non-Western culture – an exception to the general rule of disinterested German orientalism. Subtitled the Zeitung für die muhammedanischen Kriegsge­fangenen (or ‘Newspaper for Muslim prisoners of war’), the ‘jihadist’ newspaper served as part of a general strategy of German power under Kaiser Wilhelm II to incite Pan-Islamic activity against France, Russia and the UK, who had all signed the Triple Entente in 1907. The paper also sought to convince Muslim prisoners of war of German support; if they rose, Germany would help them.

Wilhelm II – out of a combi­nation of national, economic and personal interests – had a sort of love affair with Islam, writing after a visit to Constantinople that ‘if I had arrived without any religion I certainly would have turned Mahommetan’. The more we scratched the surface of the story, the stranger it became – for example, the Kaiser’s toast to Sultan Mehmed V claiming to be a friend to 300 million Muslims around the world. Or how in the late 19th century after a trip to Damascus, the Kaiser gifted a new, marble tomb to replace Saladin’s more humble tomb in Damascus. In that awkward moment, the Ottomans accepted the gift but were reluctant to shift the remains. Even today, there are two tombs: one very ornate, marked as a gift from Wilhelm, the other where he’s actually buried. At the turn of the last century, Germany represented a third way to many developing nations such as Egypt, Iran and even Russia: a way to be modern but traditional, strong but autocratic. We find echoes of this untenable position today, when one of the world’s leading economic powers finds an uncomfort­able spotlight in light of a succession of recent crises (Greece, refugee, Volkswagen).

Max von Oppenheim in in seinem Reisezelt, Tell Halaf, Syria, 1929

Max von Oppenheim in his travelling tent, Tell Halaf, Syria, 1929

Wilhelm II coordinated a declaration of jihad with Sultan in November 1914, working with Max von Oppenheim, an amateur archeologist, Assyriologist and a self-designated ‘prophet of global jihad’ who set up the propaganda service that published El Dschihad. Wilhelm II was interested in Von Oppenheim’s suggestion of the creation of a Pan-Islamic front. Later, during the war, German Arabists drafted a paper proposing that Germany sponsor an anti-British jihad in the East, and a Zionist rebellion in Russia. It’s remarkable, seen today, that in WWI, Germany seriously considered espousing both Zionism and a jihad as a two-pronged tactical approach against the other powers.

In a quite staged event, Sultan Mehmed V declared jihad on the infidels. This ‘jihad’ was, from the beginning, a partial jihad, aimed only against certain infidels – on the
side of the German and Austro-Hungarian non-believers, but against the French, English and Russians. (The Entente powers retorted by labelling this jihad a ‘Made in Germany’ jihad, and thus illegitimate. A century onwards, this has a very different ring to it.) The German jihad was a dismal failure. For one, the Sultan didn’t have any real spiritual authority over Muslims for several centuries, if ever. Second, it assumed that the Ummah, the Muslim community, is homo­genous, which wasn’t (and isn’t) the case. Historically, political Islam has been used to motivate political change as opposed to religious struggle. To a certain extent, El Dschihad was perhaps the first instrumentalization of political Islam in the modern era, which we con­tinue to witness to this day, from the US support of the mujihadeen in Afghanistan, up through Saudi Arabian support of Wahabbism beyond its borders.

Slavs and Tatars, Reverse Dschihad (Urdu), 2015, Druck auf poliertem Stahl, 2.4 × 1.2 m

Slavs and Tatars, Reverse Dschihad (Urdu), 2015, screenprint on polished steel, 2.4 × 1.2 m

Our interest in El Dschihad newspaper also arose from the fact that it offered a counterpoint to the understood history of German orientalism. Edward Said, who wrote that Germany had no substantial orientalist history, later corrected himself: German orientalism, on the contrary, was – unlike that of France and the UK – removed from direct imperial interests. Strong components of German orientalism were theolo­gically-driven – in the 18th century, the development of philology meant that Hebraic and Semitic texts, among others, were seen as getting back to the source – back to the scriptures. German philologists asked questions about the language of the scriptures and the Old Testament: Was the language of the revelation Syrian or Aramaic? Scholarship in Germany had not undergone the same secularization that it had experienced in England and France in that period. This fact resonates with us strongly: part of the reason we embarked on Slavs and Tatars was to ask questions about forms of knowledge that are not taught or uncovered within professional or academic milieus.

It’s very difficult to distinguish an 18th-century philologist from an Orientalist, because it’s a kind of double-headed beast. Someone like Johann Georg Hamann – a Fideist, counter-Enlightenment German philosopher, and close friend of Immanuel Kant – was doing analyses of texts in Hebrew. Hamann’s unwillingness to treat knowledge and being or the body and thought as separate entities – this convergence of contemplation and action, of reason and religiosity – speaks volumes to our interest in coupling the metaphysical and the political, the immaterial and material, which was a goal of this project, and for Slavs and Tatars more generally. Hamann was actually a real discovery for us. Not only for the forcefulness of his thinking but the demands that he makes on his reader: they are not solely intellectual but affective and corporeal. It’s the idea of a totum simul: the whole is in a part and the part is in a whole. So you have to know all of a text to understand some and some to understand all of it. That’s something that doesn’t follow the pedagogical model of knowledge that we have been exposed to.

El Dschihad, Arabic edition, 5. März 1915

El Dschihad, Arabic edition, 5 March 1915

Admittedly, jihad is a theologically very complex and contested tenet: primarily whether the struggle is an inner one, against oneself or one’s ego, or an outer one, as in warfare. Louis Massignon, an important Orientalist scholar and biographer of Manur Al-Hallaj, a 10th-century Sufi martyr, talks about waging a ‘holy war of nonviolence’. When we first read this, we did a double take: what exactly is a holy war of nonviolence? That, contrary to popular thought and decorum, we shouldn’t shy away from these terms – jihad, crusade, holy war – but instead take them and actually use them against their own perpetrators, rescuing a progressive agency within them.

As is often the case, our interests are thick and thin. On a very literal level, we were compelled by the spelling of ‘dschihad’ in German. In the Duden (the German equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary), we searched for other words in German that start with ‘dsch’. It reads like a Saturday Night Live sketch of Orientalist terms: Dschingis Khan, Dschinn, Dschungelfieber. The awkwardness of four consecutive consonants– to approximate the phoneme, otherwise not native to German – is a sign of something else, a kind of foreignness. For example, when Germans spell ‘jeans’ or ‘gin and tonic’, it’s not written with a ‘dsch’. There are certain Gs that are acceptable and others that are not. For several years, beginning with our book Khhhhhhh (2012), we have been looking into the approximation of graphemes. Like Hamann would say, these letters are not arbitrary; alphabets accompany empires.

Slavs and Tatars live in Berlin, Germany. Their mid-career survey opens at the Pejman Foundation in Tehran, Iran on 5 May and then travels to Salt, Istanbul, Turkey; CAC Vilnius, Lithuania; MOCA, Belgrade, Yugoslavia; and Albertinum, Dresden, Germany, through early 2018.   

Issue 22

First published in Issue 22

Dec 2015 - Feb 2016

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

September 2019

frieze magazine

October 2019

frieze magazine

November - December 2019