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Hitler and Husseini in Berlin, November 1941
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caused a storm of controversy on October 20 by quoting Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the infamous grand mufti of Jerusalem during the interwar years, as having told Adolf Hitler in 1941 to "burn" rather than deport the Jews of Europe, insinuating that this influenced the unfolding Nazi genocide.
While the veracity of this quote is in question, few dispute that Husseini could well have said something to this effect given his genocidal hatred of Jews, penchant for blood-curdling rhetoric, and determination to prevent Jewish immigration to Palestine. However, opinions differ sharply, even among MEF staff and fellows, as to the degree of Hussein's influence, both in Nazi Germany and the Middle East.
MEF Hochberg Family Writing Fellow Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, coauthor of Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2014), argues that two components of this question are unmistakably clear. First, Husseini's overarching goal prior to and during Hitler's reign, he notes, was that "whatever happens with Jews under Hitler's reign in Europe, they should not come to the Middle East." At the very least, the Germans understood that deportation as a solution to Europe's "Jewish Question" risked alienating their top protégé in the Arab world – a region they expected in 1941-42 to be invading soon.
Husseini (left), Indian nationalist leader Subhash Chandra Bose, and Iraqi leader Rashid Ali al-Gaylani in Berlin, 1943
Second, Schwanitz notes that the historical record shows the mufti to be unquestionably the "foremost extra-European adviser in the process to destroy the Jews of Europe." Adolf Eichmann and his subordinates frequently briefed Husseini as the genocide unfolded, "as if to reassure him that Hitler had not changed his mind," he writes in a forthcoming article.
In contrast, MEF fellow Jeffrey Herf, author of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (2010), contends that the Husseini's "importance in Nazi Berlin lay far more in assisting the Third Reich's Arabic language propaganda ... and in mobilizing Muslims in Eastern Europe to support the Nazi regime." Although these achievements surely facilitated Nazi atrocities, Hitler "made the decisions to implement the Final Solution and had communicated those decisions to key actors in the Nazi regime at the latest a month before his meeting with Husseini."
Whatever his role in the Holocaust, MEF staff and fellows widely agree that Husseini was a critical ideological progenitor of Middle Eastern extremism today. The mufti was among the first to "exploit the draw of the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem to find international Muslim support" for the anti-Zionist cause, notes MEF President Daniel Pipes, a theme very much in evidence today among Palestinian Islamists.
Hitler's Mein Kampf has been a bestseller in the Middle East since the 1930s.
Moreover, Husseini "can be largely held responsible for the Middle East's endemic antisemitism," writes Daniel Pipes in a recent Washington Times op-ed, pointing to his postwar tutelage of Yasser Arafat and other rising Palestinian figures, as well the Muslim Brotherhood during his stay in Egypt after the Nazi defeat.
As Boris Havel illustrates in a recent Middle East Quarterly article, Husseini's propaganda traced "alleged Jewish power and ambitions" in the here and now "to supposed Jewish activities at the time of Muhammad," a theological innovation that is today a staple of Islamist discourse.
Because of Husseini, there remains an "inescapable and inextricable connection between Islamists ... and the Nazi movement" today, MEF Director Gregg Roman told Al-Jazeera English on October 22. In an early Middle East Quarterly article, famed Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis notes (without specific reference to Husseini) the "astonishing degree" to which "the ideas, the literature, even the crudest inventions of the Nazis and their predecessors have been internalized and Islamized" in the Middle East.
At the same time, it is important not to overstate Husseini's influence. When the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) placed ads on Philadelphia buses displaying a photo of Husseini and Hitler with a caption reading "Adolf Hitler and his staunch ally, the leader of the Muslim world," Daniel Pipes cautioned that the "text is factually inaccurate," calling Husseini "a British appointee in the Mandate for Palestine, where Muslims constituted less than 1 percent of the total world Muslim population."
Compiled by Middle East Forum web editor Gary C. Gambill