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Important topic poorly served

Icon of Evil
Icon of Evil
By David G. Dalin and John F. Rothman

Random House: 2008

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This review first appeared in the September 21, 2008 issue of the North County Times.

A biography from a major publishing house about the life of one of the most overlooked figures in recent Middle East history ought to be cause for celebrating a major contribution to 20th-century history.

But while "Icon of Evil" is an important book in the topic it tackles, and deserves credit for documenting the evidence of Nazi complicity by former Jerusalem mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, it is so poorly written that it ultimately contributes little understanding of the lessons of al-Husseini's life. In fact, it accomplishes little other than tying together numerous sources regarding the bonds between some Islamic fundamentalists and Nazi Germany.

And while al-Husseini was consistently enthusiastic in his embrace of Nazism in pursuit of his own anti-Semitic agenda, he was ultimately a minor player in both World War II and the Holocaust. While that might have been due more to lack of opportunity than intent, the fact remains that his principal role throughout his life was as propagandist.

That the propaganda he fomented was vile racism is not to be overlooked nor excused, but titling this book "Icon of Evil" is a bit much in a century that gave us figures such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao, who each oversaw the murder of millions. "Icon of hatred" would be a more accurate description of al-Husseini.

The authors, David G. Dalin and John F. Rothman, get the basics down – laying out the where, when and how of his cooperation with Nazi Germany, and his postwar use of his religious position to fan the flames of anti-Jewish bigotry in the Middle East. The photographs, the footnotes and the bibliography all attest to the incontestable fact that al-Husseini chose the path of hatred, and never veered from that path from his prewar appointment to the honorific religious post of mufti of Jerusalem (by the British) through his years in Nazi Berlin up until his death in 1974.

But the authors aren't content to simply illustrate his crimes against humanity, nor his disturbing use of racial antipathy in building several Arab nationalist organizations.

Too often, they engage in over-the-top flights of imagination – devoting one whole chapter to what al-Husseini might have thought if Hitler had won World War II! And even in their more sober chapters, they repeatedly make unsubstantiated claims about the influence al-Husseini might have had on other Arab and Muslim leaders.

At one point, the authors surmise that Saddam Hussein's uncle must have been influenced by al-Husseini, as the mufti had served with Saddam's uncle during an abortive pro-Nazi uprising in Iraq during World War II. From here, they invent a scenario in which Saddam's uncle regales the young future dictator with tales of al-Husseini's Nazi glories.

Did it happen? Who knows? If so, there is no documentation offered to support it.

This sort of "what-if" approach to history undermines the portions of the book that are unassailable in their historic veracity: That when the world had to choose between unquestionable evil and the faith in humanity that is democracy, the mufti of Jerusalem came down on the side of evil. He wasn't alone in this, of course. Many Irish nationalists made their peace with the Nazis as a way of sticking it to their British tormentors.

But the mufti didn't just align himself with the Nazis out of some misguided realpolitik; as this book provides ample evidence of, he embraced the Nazi cause and spent his entire adult life espousing the racist poison at the heart of Hitler's twisted world view.