Wolfgang G. Schwanitz on Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam, by David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann

Jewish Political Studies Review 21:1-2 (Spring 2009)

A Mosaic on the Mufti’s Islam

Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam, by David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann, New York: Random House, 2008, 230 pp.

Reviewed by Wolfgang G. Schwanitz


In a kind of delirium he dreamed of the skyscrapers of New York going down in a blaze of fire. Collapsing towers illuminate the exploding city like gigantic torches. This is how the Nazi War Minister Albert Speer described one of Adolf Hitler’s visions. This hellish scenario took place at the beginning of this millennium. Two American academics, David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann, maintain in their book about Hitler’s mufti and the rise of radical Islam that there is a continuity (141) in Islamist thought linking Amin al-Husaini with Ramzi al-Yusuf, the mastermind of the first assault on the Twin Towers of the World in Manhattan in 1993, and Osama Bin Ladin, the leader of al-Qaida, who in 2001 destroyed them.

The authors take the reader on a journey into the last century to explain their thesis of historical continuity. They explore the life of Amin al-Husaini. We learn that he was born in 1895 to a prominent Jerusalem Arab family. During the First World War he served as an officer in the Ottoman army. Three years later the British High Commissioner of Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel, bestowed on him the office of the Mufti of Jerusalem (later he would sign his letters with the title al-Mufti al-Akbar Min Filastin, the grand mufti of Palestine). Amin al-Husaini turned out to be ungrateful because, according to the authors, he did his best to block Samuel’s pro-Zionist policy (and that of Great Britain) to establish a national Jewish home in Palestine. Similarly, Samuel is portrayed here as an appeaser. The grand mufti incited jihad, plots, and murder. During the First World War (111) he attained a copy of the forged work Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He believed in a “Jewish World conspiracy” and propagated this idea until his death in 1974.

Dalin and Rothmann also venture into counter-factual history: “What if the Nazis and the grand mufti had succeeded?” They ask whether the course of history would have taken a different turn if someone from the rival Nashashibi clan had been appointed to this post. They have no doubt that, in this case, Amin al-Husaini would have had his adversaries murdered. The authors say that the mufti was not the only one who went on an extreme path, but also the Arabs in Palestine. Dalin and Rothmann describe a series of Arab-Jewish clashes which took place in the 1920s. When Jewish leaders challenged the status quo at the Western Wall, the residents “openly resisted” Jewish demands, “inspired by the demagoguery” of Amin al-Husaini and his fellow “Islamists.” The authors even lump the Egyptians Abd an-Nasir and Anwar as-Sadat together (35) in the same basket of future leaders of radical Islam. Saddam Husain, with his Bath party, is also depicted here as a “radical Islamic government” in the 1970s (88).

The reader can see that the authors take a decidedly one-sided approach. They are not able to explain properly why the Arabs in Palestine could not have watched the rise of Jewish immigration and construction of new settlements without opposition. For religious and nationalistic reasons their response was quite natural. There are also questions on the other side of the coin that the authors fail to explain. What were the alternatives to Amin al-Husaini? Was he a born radical Islamist, as it appears here, or did he experience some kind of transformation? Why did he end up as the backer of Benito Mussolini’s Fascists and Hitler’s National Socialists? When did he cross the “red line”? Was it with the mentioned Protocols in 1918? Could it have been in 1926 when Mein Kampf was first completely published? Or could it have been in 1933 when Hitler came to power and the mufti offered him his services (with the Haavara-Transfer agreement that allowed about sixty thousand German Jews to emigrate to Palestine, on the horizon)? Or could it have been in 1941, when he learned first-hand about the Holocaust in Europe, and Hitler explained to him his desire that the next chapter of the Holocaust should take place in the Middle East?

The authors found some revealing aspects of the opportunism of Amin al-Husaini. The New York Times quoted him saying in early 1937 that he fought British-supported Zionism in Palestine, and that he did not care who backed him “as long as it helps us to attain our goals.” As Dalin and Rothmann point out, this view was widely held. The reader might wonder why the Arabs had changed sides, as they expected to get some independent countries in compensation for their support of the Allies during the Great War. Or, could there have been, even before 1900, and all the more so during the Great War, a German-Ottoman axis for the jihadization of Islam in British Arabia and India, French North Africa, and Russian Asia?

The authors argue that Amin al-Husaini not only knew about the Holocaust but was directly involved. Dalin and Rothmann mention that the mufti spoke at the end of 1944 about eleven instead of seventeen million Jews; that he blocked the rescue of Jews from occupied Europe to Palestine; and that he recruited Muslims for Nazi military units, particularly in Bosnia. However, they do not offer new evidence. Dalin and Rothmann base their study mainly on a narrow representation of the published English language literature, to the exclusion of scholarship and sources in Arabic, French, German, and Hebrew. They rarely consulted primary sources in the archives, even in English, and new documents have become available. One exception is the Churchill War Papers in London, and they deserve credit for having discovered some files in the Sir Martin Gilbert Collection.

Several arguments are not anchored in fact, and some have been distorted. Specifically, Mein Kampf does not say anything about a “racial inferiority of the Muslims” (47). The mufti did not write a book titled Islam and the Jews (57). The booklet in question is Islam Judentum Bolschewismus (Islam, Jewry, Bolshevism). Muhammad Sabri edited it in Berlin in 1938, and the publisher was Junker-Duennhaupt. It contained the mufti’s 1937 appeal – some called it a fatwa – to the Islamic world. The Nazis reprinted this part as Islam and Judentum (Islam and Jewry), and distributed it to Muslim SS units in Bosnia, Croatia, and Russia. Dalin and Rothmann do not offer new facts with regard to the mufti’s “role in instigating and encouraging the Nazi plan of exterminating European Jewry” (63). This very heavy accusation should have been based on solid evidence.

At the start of the Second World War Hitler had no “plans to conquer North Africa and the Middle East.” On the contrary, with the long tradition of a secondary Middle Eastern policy in Berlin, he readily conceded the region to London, Rome, Paris, and Moscow. He did not “postpone his invasion of Soviet Russia to transfer the bulk of his armed forces to support Rommel in Egypt” (68). It should be noted that General Rommel’s expedition was an unplanned action to help the Italians. Hitler provided very limited forces. In Berlin, the Islamic Central Institute was founded on 18 December 1942. It did not exist in 1941 (4). The authors’ claim that Amin al-Husaini had not been “ordained as a Muslim cleric” is not of material importance because there is no clergy, as such, in Sunni Islam, or ordination, as in the Catholic Church (8). An “Arabist” (17) is a scholarly profession. We have no solid facts for the assertion that the mufti “never went out without a bulletproof vest” (20).

The claim that the mufti got “ten containers with poison” to kill a quarter of a million people via the water system of Tel Aviv in exchange for the five Palestinian paratroopers in late 1944 (61) is not substantiated in British or German sources. If the authors can now show really hard proof, this would be a discovery, since the British police report of 1944 on file is very detailed. If such an attempt at chemical warfare turns out to be true, this would be an important piece of evidence as to how far the mufti was willing to go in causing, at the same time, the death of so many fellow Muslims living in the Tel Aviv area.

The mufti never boarded a plane after the Nazi’s surrender on 8 May 1945 (65) because he left Germany to Switzerland much earlier; see his memoires in Arabic (Damascus 1999). Arafat would never “succeed the mufti as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1969” (105), since the mufti was not formally head of the P.L.O. (this was Yahya Hammuda, following Ahmad ash-Shuqairi), although the mufti did play a certain role in this arrangement in late 1968. Arafat did not “merge Fatah with P.L.O. in 1969.” The word Fatah is not the Quranic word for “conquest.” It is a reverse acronym of Harakat at-Tahrir al-Filastini. The scholar’s correct name is David Wurmser (147).

In the ten attached documents there are some mistakes. For example, that Hitler stated to the mufti on 28 November 1941 that he would also turn against the power “which protects the Jews” in the Middle East and Great Britain, not as page 164 says “which produces the Jews.” Also, that he would “ask one non-European nation after the other to solve its Jewish problem,” not, as on page 160, “ask one European nation after the other.” It would have been helpful if the authors would have marked the exact bibliographic data of these sources and translations.

David G. Dalin’s und John F. Rothmann’s main conclusion can only be underscored: the grand mufti Amin al-Husaini linked the old fascism with the new National Socialism, as well as the Middle Eastern hatred of Jews with the European racist anti-Semitism of the Nazis, creating a new ideology. However, this book represents a missed opportunity to allow the reader to develop a fair and balanced perspective about continuities and discontinuities with regard to Hitler’s hellish dream of the burning Manhattan, the grand mufti, the Holocaust, the recent torching of the Twin Towers, and the great loss of life which followed.

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Dr. Wolfgang G. Schwanitz is a historian of the Middle East and German Middle East policy. He is the author of four books and the editor of ten others, including Germany and the Middle East, 1871-1945.

About Dr. Wolfgang G. Schwanitz

Dr. Wolfgang G. Schwanitz is a historian of the Middle East and German Middle East policy. He is the author of five volumes and the editor of ten books, including Germany and the Middle East, 1871–1945 (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2004). His upcoming book is German Middle Eastern Studies After 9/11 (Weist, Berlin 2013).