What does Osama have against Rotary clubs?

The conventional wisdom debunked.
July 11 2006 12:56 PM

The Rotarian Menace

What does Osama have against Rotary clubs?

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Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

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)

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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.

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