August 01, 2008


A History Lesson on modern politics...

From: The Wall Street Journal

Bookshelf: Malevolence and the Mufti

June 26, 2008; Page A13

Icon of Evil. By: David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann (Random House, 227 pages, $26)

Time and again the Arab world throws up absolute rulers who do nothing but harm, working their way into power by exploiting and imprisoning and killing as they see fit. There seems no way to stop these ruthless careerists except by deploying superior violence against them. A perfect example of the type is Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem between the world wars.

Haj Amin, the subject of David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann's "Icon of Evil," was born in about 1895 into the most prominent family of Ottoman Palestine. Authoritarian by nature, he possessed the skills necessary for operating in the culture of absolutism in which he had grown up. When he was still in his early 20s, the British acquired their Mandate in Palestine as a result of World War I and in 1921 made the crucial mistake of contriving Haj Amin's election to be Mufti.

This position – as the country's senior Islamic official – gave Haj Amin unique standing to wield unchecked power over the Palestinians. It also afforded him access to large sums of money. Whether he was a sincere Muslim is doubtful – for one thing, he never finished his religious studies, and for another he seems to have been fond of fine wines.

The situation in which Haj Amin found himself was new, to be sure. In common with many other peoples, Palestinians were caught in the huge political forces released in the recent world war. British intentions for the Mandate were unfathomable. Under the British aegis, moreover, Jews soon began to seek refuge in Palestine from persecution at the hands of Nazis. Still largely tribal and rural and in any case not militant, many – probably most – Palestinians were willing to cooperate with these immigrants.

But Haj Amin was not so amenable; instead, he recruited and commanded a national movement of violence with the aim of forbidding all compromise with Jews. Regular and severe anti-Jewish riots and attacks culminated in the great Arab Revolt of 1936, which aimed simultaneously to end British rule and Jewish immigration but cost thousands of lives, mostly Arabs. In reality, Haj Amin was launching the Palestinians on the impossible task of reversing the course of world events, and that is the origin of the disaster that overwhelms them to this day.

Haj Amin's authoritarian character no doubt dictated his policy, but he was also perpetuating the absolutism of the Muslim world, in which the killing of enemies is the natural end of the political process, integral to the exercise of power, and altogether a matter of culture and custom. Palestinians who opposed him were blackened as collaborators and traitors; they were murdered by his agents in larger numbers than Jews. In the end the British had had enough, and by means of their superior force obliged Haj Amin to flee abroad.

My enemy's enemy is my friend, according to one of the staples of the absolute order. So in his quarrel with the British and the Jews, Haj Amin turned to Hitler. Spending the war in Berlin, he met Hitler in person, as well as Himmler, Ribbentrop, Eichmann and others. Letters of intention were exchanged at these levels, but he did not succeed in extracting promises that Germany would liberate Palestine and hand it over to him. Hitler viewed Arabs and Jews in the same racist perspective. My enemy's enemy, in this case, was also my enemy.

Raising Muslim volunteers for the Nazi SS, visiting concentration camps, endorsing the Final Solution and hoping for a special commando team to exterminate the Jews of Palestine, Haj Amin made himself a very public war criminal. Yet he escaped justice at the end of the war and settled in the Middle East – where he once again urged Palestinians to resort to violence. Morally and politically disgraced, he died in 1974, but many Arabs – Yasser Arafat prominent among them – continued to believe that he had set an example to follow.

"Icon of Evil" relies on sources in English to tell this story, ignoring the extensive literature in German and Arabic, including Haj Amin's own memoirs published a few years ago in Damascus. If the book is short on fresh information, however, it is long on indignation, more a brisk polemic than anything else. More mystifying than illuminating, one chapter gives a counterfactual description of the Nazi conquest of the Middle East. Elsewhere the tell-tale phrases "one can imagine," "there can be little doubt" and "it is not implausible to speculate" all appear on the same page.

To these authors, Haj Amin was essentially a wicked man, an anti-Semite of the most ignorant and brutal sort. Stretching the point, they further accuse him of spreading a virulent anti-Semitism common to a clean sweep of contemporary Arabs and Muslims, including the Muslim Brotherhood and its publicist, Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian presidents Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat, the Iranian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even the killers in Pakistan of Daniel Pearl.

What these men all have in common is not a connection to Haj Amin but the shared culture and custom of absolute politics. In the case of the Palestinians, the leadership succeeding Haj Amin has repeated exactly his murderous and self-injuring violence. The continuity is tragic and will endure until someone finds a way to break through the iron bands of absolutism.

Mr. Pryce-Jones is the author of "The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs."

Copyright 2008 - The Wall Street Journal

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