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The Rotarian Menace

What does Osama have against Rotary clubs?

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Muslim fundamentalists aren’t shy about naming their enemies. They’ve identified Zionists and secularists as particular foes of Islam; picked out apostates, Americans, and Jews for scorn; disparaged “crusaders” and imperialists; and even—like conspiracists everywhere—warned against the Freemasons.

But Islamists have selected one enemy that’s entirely baffling: Rotary clubs.

For instance, this appears in Article 17 of the Hamas charter:

Therefore, you can see [the enemies] making consistent efforts by way of publicity and movies, curriculi of education and culture, using as their intermediaries their craftsmen who are part of the various Zionist Organizations which take on all sorts of names and shapes such as: the Free Masons, Rotary Clubs, gangs of spies and the like. All of them are nests of saboteurs and sabotage. (emphasis added)

In 2000, British police discovered an al-Qaida manual titled “Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants” in the home of a Bin Laden disciple. Its introduction learnedly explains:

After the fall of our orthodox caliphates on March 3, 1924. … Colonialism and its followers, the apostate rulers, then started to openly erect crusader centers, societies, and organizations like Masonic Lodges, Lions and Rotary Clubs. (emphasis added)

Dark references to the Rotarian conspiracy against Islam can be found in Turkey’s Islamist paper Vakit; Egypt’s weekly Aqidati and the government daily Al-Ahram; the Palestinian paper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida; and even  Saudi high-school textbooks (“Rotary [is] among the destructive organizations that were most dangerous to Islam and the Muslims”). In the 1970s, Egypt’s highest religious official, the Shaikh of al-Azhar (an Islamic institution comprising a mosque and a university), reportedly issued a fatwa forbidding Muslims to join Rotary clubs. And while these examples all stem from Sunni fundamentalism, Rotary clubs also show up in old speeches of Ayatollah Khomeini.

For Americans, of course, this seems slightly comic. Rotary clubs? Aren’t they like the Elks, except less edgy? But the roots of the peculiar Islamist fixation on Rotary clubs are deep in the tangled history of Western influence in the Middle East. Our story begins with the formation of the first Rotary club in Chicago in 1905. Originally conceived as a social club for its four founding businessmen, the club soon expanded and became focused on community service. One of its initial projects was the construction of Chicago’s first public bathroom. The name came from the club’s practice of rotating meetings among members’ workplaces.

Over the next several years, clubs were chartered in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York. By 1910 there were enough members to hold a national convention. In 1912 the first overseas Rotary club was formed in England. And by 1925, what had come to be called Rotary International had more than 200 clubs on six continents, 20,000 members, and a charitable ethos that led Albert Schweitzer to join. (Among many other activities, Rotary has since been involved in the founding of UNESCO and the near-eradication of polio.)

From the start, many confused outsiders believed that Rotary clubs were a branch of the Freemasons. While this wasn’t true, it also wasn’t made up out of whole cloth: At least one and perhaps two of the first four Rotarians were Masons, and until the practice was banned, some early Rotary clubs accepted only Masons as members.

This supposed Mason-Rotarian connection ensnared the Rotarians in the conspiracy theories and suspicions that long plagued the Masons. The Masons first appeared in the early 1700s in England, and by 1798 a British author published Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried On in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies. The book’s thesis was just what it sounds like: Masons, fired with Enlightenment fervor, were secretly planning the overthrow of the entire established order (hence, perhaps, the American and French revolutions).

The suspicion of Masons grew through the 1800s (President Millard Fillmore was first elected to Congress as a candidate of the Anti-Masonic Party) and reached a climax in the early 20th century. While almost no one remembers this now, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion isn’t about a Jewish plot to control mankind—it’s about a Jewish-Masonic plot. Hitler spoke of a Jewish-Bolshevik-Masonic conspiracy. And Reinhard Heydrich created a special section of the SS to extirpate Masonic influence in Germany.

Similar views on masonry were held (in less virulent forms) by conservative elements of the Catholic Church. And as Rotary clubs spread, the church lumped them with the Masons. In 1928 several Spanish bishops declared that Rotary was “nothing else but a new satanic organization with the same background and teachings of masonry” and deemed it “a suspected organization” that “should be considered as execrable and perverse.” Soon afterward the Vatican decreed that Catholic priests could not join Rotary clubs.

This chill lasted for a surprisingly long time. Dan Mooers, former chairman of Rotary International’s Executive Committee, recalls Rotary being denounced from the pulpit as late as 1970. The relationship between Rotary and the church began to warm in 1979, when Pope John Paul II publicly endorsed Rotary’s humanitarian projects.

But what does this have to do with Islamic fundamentalism? The answer seems to be conspiracy gridlock: For years fundamentalist Islam has borrowed wholesale from European conspiracist cosmology. Ever since Protocols of the Elders of Zion was first translated into Arabic, it’s provided a handy explanation—Masons and all—for the Western menace to theIslamic community. (In Iraq, Moqtada al-Sadr’s paper Al Hawza published a picture of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and explained that their hand gestures were a sign of the Zionist-Masonic conspiracy.) And, like the Catholic Church, Islamists lumped Rotarians in with the Masons and called both anathema.

It’s tempting to leave it there in the realm of pure conspiracy, but that actually isn’t the whole story. In fact, Masons were involved in the European efforts to control the Middle East, efforts that helped spur anti-Western Islamist sentiment.

Masonry provided an opportunity for businessmen to network. The natural progression was for European businessmen to open lodges overseas and then invite their local counterparts to join. Generally speaking, neither the European nor the Middle Eastern businessmen were what you might call populists. Berkeley’s Hamid Algar, one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars of Islamic history, explains that Freemasonry:

has generally functioned since its first appearance in the Muslim world in the late eighteenth century as a channel for the promotion of Western dominance, politically and ideologically; one Istanbul lodge in the mid-nineteenth century had the British ambassador as its grand master and the Ottoman chief vizier as one of his initiates. Visiting dignitaries from Iran and the Ottoman Empire would regularly be initiated by their hosts on their visits to London and Paris.

Of course, none of this means that Masons (or Rotarians) played a particularly important role in colonialism’s history; British and French power surely owed much more to money and guns than the Ancient Scottish Rite. Nevertheless, it’s a natural human tendency to believe that there are secret forces engineering all unseen. It’s difficult to persuade people that while there may be secret forces, they are engineering very little.

(A final bizarre and ironic twist is that the intellectual grandfather of today’s pan-Islamic fundamentalism is 19th-century thinker Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. Afghani’s figurative heirs would eventually found the Muslim Brotherhood. When Afghani lived in Egypt during 1870s, he was a Mason.)

Where does all this leave Rotary clubs in the Islamic world today? It’s a mixed picture. While it may be because of general anti-Western sentiment rather than specific fears of Rotarian menace, Rotary has had trouble operating in some Muslim areas. Several years ago the polio eradication campaign led by Rotary ran into resistance in Muslim regions of Nigeria amid rumors that the vaccine would sterilize children. And Rotary has no outposts in much of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Iraq.

At the same time, Rotary is quietly thriving in parts of the Islamic world. There are about 100 chapters in Indonesia, more than 80 chapters in Turkey, 70 in Egypt, 20 in Lebanon, and even one in Dubai. Indeed, in some quarters Rotary is perceived just as it is here. As one youthful Cairo blogger reports: “They seem nice enough, but kind of boring.”