The Magazine


The sinister career of a not-so-nifty mufti.

Oct 6, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 04 • By JAMIE WEINSTEIN
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Icon of Evil

Hitler's Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam

by David G. Dalin and John F. Rothman

Random House, 240 pp., $26

When not denying the Holocaust outright, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad often asks rhetorically why the Palestinian Arabs should bear the consequences for a crime committed by Europeans. "If the Europeans are telling the truth in their claim that they have killed six million Jews in the Holocaust during the World War II," he said in 2005, "why should the Palestinian nation pay for the crime?"

With his question, Ahmadinejad seeks to frame Israel's legitimacy through the lens of the Holocaust. Of course, the Jewish state's foundations and right to exist go much deeper; nonetheless, Ahmadinejad's query has an answer, one that David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann explore in Icon of Evil: Hitler's Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam. The book has two main purposes. The first and most important is to detail the life of Haj Amin al-Husseini and his close connection to, and complicity with, Hitler's destruction of the Jews. The second is to draw a line from al-Husseini to modern jihadi terrorism.

Icon of Evil does a splendid job of recounting the little-known, though enormously important, history of Haj Amin al-Husseini. Born in
Palestine sometime in the last decade of the 19th century, al-Husseini rose to become the leader of the Arabs of Palestine through his role as the mufti of Jerusalem, president of the Supreme Muslim Council, and president of the Arab Higher Committee for Palestine. For years, al-Husseini incited anti-Jewish riots and anti-British animus. Finally the British authorities decided it was time to remove him from Mandatory Palestine in 1937, when a British official was assassinated by one of his followers.

After escaping and causing mischief in other locales throughout the Middle East, the mufti found his way to Berlin in November 1941, where he was welcomed as a "head of state in exile and deferred to as an important ally and political supporter," according to Dalin and Rothmann. Al-Husseini, who had a penchant for the high life, was given luxurious accommodations, a car and driver, and a considerable expense account.

The blond-haired, blue-eyed al-Husseini was accepted by Hitler as an "honorary Aryan." The mufti also developed deep relationships with other top German officials; he and Heinrich Himmler, according to Dalin and Rothmann, "collaborated most actively and consistently." And while al-Husseini would deny after the war any real connection with Adolf Eichmann, the authors argue that the record of their close connection is "indisputable." One of Eichmann's senior deputies testified at Nuremberg that al-Husseini "was one of Eichmann's best friends and had constantly incited him to accelerate the extermination measures."

Yet the Mufti's role was not simply that of a cheerleader for the Nazis. In addition to broadcasting to Muslims throughout the world, and encouraging Arabs to "kill the Jews wherever you find them," al-Husseini actively recruited Muslims in Eastern Europe and the Balkans for the German war effort.

At the same time that he was serving as a propagandist for the Nazis, al-Husseini was preparing to move the Holocaust to the Middle East--and even before a German victory in Europe. He seems to have urged the Germans to bomb the Jewish communities in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and having failed to persuade the Luftwaffe to divert resources to do that, "in late 1944, al-Husseini organized the dispatch of five parachuters to Palestine with ten containers of toxin to poison Tel Aviv's water system." The attack was unsuccessful.

Al-Husseini escaped prosecution for war crimes. He ultimately found his way back to the Middle East, where he continued to foment hatred of Jews and Israel, and died in 1974.

While al-Husseini was certainly a mentor and inspiration to his distant relative, the future Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Dalin/Rothmann's insinuation that there is a direct line from al-Husseini to modern jihadism and the attacks of September 11 is a bit overwrought. It is true that al-Husseini used religion to inspire the hatred and murder of Jews; but he was not a Sayyid Qutb, a leading light of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose works have influenced Osama bin Laden and continue to inspire many of the jihadi radicals America confronts today. Indeed, as Dalin/Rothmann themselves note, al-Husseini was much more likely to make accommodation with secular governments than someone like Qutb. He was an opportunist, who made whatever accommodations he had to in pursuit of his cause, not a pure Islamist of the Qutb variety.