By the time British soldiers had put down the uprising shortly before the Second World War, Palestinian society was shattered and its ruling elite broken, imprisoned or in exile. The Palestinians have never recovered from the failure of the revolt.

One of the exiles was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini. Even though it was the British who put him in this influential office in 1921, he still became one of their fiercest opponents. It was his propaganda in the 1930s that made the Temple Mount, with the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, into a symbol of the Zionist threat to Islam's holy sites for Muslims worldwide.

For its part, Zionism stood for the West's neo-imperialistic aspirations for power over the Islamic world – a message that could be used by religious militants, secular radicals and nationalists alike. While still in Palestine, Amin al-Husseini was already in contact with German diplomats. In 1941, they finally brought him to Berlin, where he offered his services to the Nazis until the end of the war. And although his radio speeches were broadcast in Arabic to the Middle East and attracted much attention, they didn't trigger the anti-British uprisings that the Germans were hoping for.

The openly anti-Semitic speeches and Nazi propaganda texts contained the same readings of the Koran that Islamic fundamentalists use today. Isolated anti-Jewish verses were taken out of context and combined with European anti-Semitic slogans to provocative effect.

It is questionable, however, whether the mufti actually wrote his radio speeches himself. German specialists, some of whom were Orientalists and were familiar with the Koran, manufactured the anti-Semitic connections themselves. This anti-Semitic interpretation of certain Koranic verses taken out of context was still unknown in the Middle East at that time.

Amin al-Husseini (photo: picture alliance/AP Photo)
Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini. A fierce opponent of the British in Palestine, al-Husseini arrived in Berlin in 1941. From there, he broadcast openly anti-Semitic radio speeches in Arabic to the Middle East with the support of the Nazis until the end of the war. Although they attracted much attention, the speeches didn't trigger the anti-British uprisings that the Germans were hoping for

Most Arab thinkers were opponents of the Nazis

There is every indication that the mufti became an unscrupulous anti-Semite during his time in Berlin. He used his connections with Himmler to try to prevent Jewish children from Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary emigrating to Palestine. He knew about Auschwitz, even if there is no proof that he ever went there himself. After the war, he was used in Egypt as a figurehead for the Palestinian national movement, but he had little influence. He never set foot in his homeland again.

Most of the Arab world's intellectuals remained opposed to the Nazis until the end of the Second World War. Although Germany was fighting the detested colonial powers of Great Britain and France, few people were under the illusion that a victory of the Axis powers would bring advantages for the Arabs in the Middle East.

The only outbreak of extensive anti-Jewish violence by Arabs occurred in Baghdad in 1941. After the defeat of a pro-German coup in a short war, a mob used the power vacuum left by the British occupation and ran amok in the streets of the deprived Jewish quarter, murdering, raping and looting. Members of a youth organisation influenced by the Mufti and German propaganda were involved. Up to 200 Jews died.

Many Muslims opened their doors to their Jewish compatriots. In places where Muslims and Jews knew each other, help was given. It was strangers who looted and committed the murders.

From the end of the Second World War onwards, however, when the conflict in Palestine began to intensify, things began to change. The Arab public began to accept Western anti-Semitic agitation indiscriminately.

The wars between Jews and Palestinians, and later between Jews and other Arabs, brought the trauma of expulsion to a majority of the new Israeli state's Palestinian population. This trauma became a symbol of two hundred years of Western hegemony over the Islamic world – and not just for Arabs. These things do not excuse anti-Semitism or justify violence against Jews, but nor do they originate in the history of Islam.

Peter Wien

© Süddeutsche Zeitung 2018

Peter Wien is Associate Professor for Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Maryland in College Park, USA.

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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Comments for this article: There is no tradition of anti-Semitism in Islam


I enjoyed reading your article. The only thing that I felt it lacked was a description of the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. I feel Muslims across the world today are not anti-Semitic. They would have no issues with a Jew. If you said that they were anti-Zionist then I would agree with you. You allude to the existence of anti-Zionism in your article but then, just as I anticipate you gonna mention it, you call it anti-Semitism again.

Yazied Gaffoir27.05.2018 | 05:51 Uhr