Husseini, Hitler, and Interlaced Fingers

Hajj Amin al-Husseini met Adolf Hitler in 1941 and has been demonised in the ensuing historiography of Palestinian leadership ever since. The photographic evidence of the meeting is a fascinating insight. The two men sit adjacent to each other with Hitler leaning in, his hands mid-gesture in an explanative manner. The Mufti sits upright, also on the edge of his seat his fingers criss-crossing each other. This article is not a justification of the photo. The article is a visual analysis of the meeting, using historical evidence of the Mufti’s life up to the point he sits face to face with Hitler. The question to answer is: why does the mufti stitch his fingers together in this meeting?

Indeed, for him Pan-Arab and Pan-Islamic ideas coexisted with Palestinian nationalism without contradiction throughout his career’.i This leads to two interlocking strands of political action that Haj Amin al-Husseini had to pursue. Firstly, negotiations and work with the Allies to lobby for this independent Syria of which Palestine would be a component part, and secondly a focus on the Arab contingent for whom ideas of separate nationalisms were beginning to slowly take root.

Let us first speak of his interlaced fingers as a sign of insecurity or discomfort. Self touching is generally recognised to be a sign of needing reassurance and lacking confidence. ‘To tie one’s own body in a knot composed of fingers and limbs is to present an obstacle to the transaction of business, and to express hostility toward those who wish to proceed’.ii The locking together of fingers specifically indicates restraint. ‘This gesture is commonly thought of as a contained and controlled posture, but this is not so. This gesture reveals frustration, hostility and that a person is harbouring negative thoughts’.iii This suggests that the Mufti sitting adjacent to Hitler, is a man holding back, exhibiting discomfort and generally expressing some form of disillusionment with the affair. This line of analysis gives credence to the idea that the Mufti’s appearance in Berlin was borne of desperation rather than desire.

The Husseini clan were not strangers to politics and Amin al-Husseini followed in the steps of his father and brother, both of whom had held key positions in the Ottoman Sanjak of Jerusalem, battling through their opposition to the centralising tanzimat reforms and re-emerging as the pre-eminent political family. Amin al-Husseini himself became a surrogate puppet of the British mandate authority, who took over administration of the Palestinian land in 1920.

The position of Mufti had been fairly insignificant before the British mandate, considering that it had always been second to the Shaykh-al-Islam in Istanbul. Thus the position was essentially a blank canvas for the British, and when Kamil al-Husseini died in March 1921, the potential for the British to gain an ally was huge, especially given the religious significance of the post. The British tinkered with the position before combining the office of Qadi and Mufti, creating the title Grand Mufti. They used a pre-existing institution and remoulded it to the end of strengthening mandatory rule.iv

Relations between the Mufti and the mandatory British authorities were particularly positive. In a memorandum dated to April 1934, the Colonial Office extols Sir Arthur Wauchope, High Commissioner at the time, for his influence with and ascendency over the Mufti, ‘the most influential Moslem in Palestine to-day’.v It goes on to warn of the seriousness of the situation should the Mufti ‘throw his lot in with the extremists’.vi A clear example of such influence was evidenced only three months prior in a secret despatch from the High Commissioner to the Secretary of State for Colonies. In this, he recounts the Mufti moderating and limiting potential protests at the end of Ramadan. ‘He realises the folly of unlawful demonstration and clashes with authority, but he fears that the criticisms of his many opponents that he is too pro-British may weaken his influence in the country’.vii Correspondences such as these exemplify the character of the Mufti; his conservative sensibilities and his cordiality toward the British mandate authorities.

Despite this the Mufti worked astutely to keep his options and potential alliances open. He stated himself that ‘in 1934 British emissaries contacted me…and suggested that the Palestinian Arabs move to Transjordan’.viii Arthur Wauchope notes in January 1935 his inability to read the Mufti: ‘it is hard to see clearly into the mind of any Arab, especially such an acute mind as His Eminence possesses’.ix This ambiguity was not unfounded; historian Nir Arrieli notes how Italian officials initiated contacts with the Mufti of Jerusalem in 1933 that were gradually strengthened over the next two years, through the deliverance of thousands of pounds.x Such an alliance was hardly secret; a cutting from The Times on June 5th 1935 suggests that: ‘in the past months the Arabs have been more excited by the alleged pro-Italian sentiments of the Mufti of Jerusalem’.xi

The Arab Revolt (1936-39) is certainly a significant event in the Mufti’s move toward the chair adjacent to Hitler. The early part of the revolt, from the martyrdom of extreme preacher al-Qassam at the hands of the British police, to the violence that sparked up before the declaration of the strike on April 19th 1936 took the Mufti by surprise.xii Nonetheless his reaction was typically conservative as he continued his dual policy of non-violent opposition and ostensible political cooperation with the British authorities, while maintaining many options.xiii Events, however, were taken out of the Mufti’s hands, as the decision to strike was taken without his conference. This led to the formation of the Arab Higher Committee – which the Mufti reluctantly headed – and the open publication of their first manifesto (26th April), a strident document criticising British policy.xivInitially their protests were non-violent. They demanded free elections, based on a majority rule, to create a national assembly’.xv Despite this, the Mufti still sought to avoid membership of the committee and was reluctant to support the strike.xvi Yet he was left with little choice, leadership was incumbent upon him if he wished to maintain a leading political role in Palestinian politics. In keeping with his conservative sensibilities however, he brokered an end to the strike with the help of Ibn Sa’ud and King Abdullah.

A Royal Commission was promised by the High Commissioner to the Palestinian leadership and began its work after the strike was brought to an end. The commission’s findings were numerous but the most important amongst them was the recommendation to partition Palestine, rumours of which reached the Palestinian community in June and were later published in July of 1937.xvii Given that the Mufti himself had supplied evidence to the commission, the partition recommendation was a devastating blow. Fears increased of a united front of opposition to the Peel Commission as an article written in the Times argues, the immediate danger was no longer an outbreak of disorder, but that Palestinians would rally around the Mufti.xviii The Mufti rejected the partition plan outright.

The day after, the British made the Mufti’s decision to support the revolt final and irrevocable by issuing his arrest. Yet he eluded capture by enclosing himself in the sanctuary of the Haram al-Sharif. In his safe-house, untouchable to the British, the Mufti continued issuing statements against partition for three months.xix The ensuing violence after the murder of a district commissioner of the Galilee, Lewis Andrews, strengthened the Mufti’s leadership.xx However, his decision to condemn the murder through the Arab Higher Committee in a published statement suggests that the Mufti had maintained his conservative sensibilities and still sought a peaceful movement of opposition. xxi He would not get it, and his symbolic overtures to the British Mandate went unheeded.

His detention in the Haram al-Sharif was a humiliating limitation for the Mufti. His degrading escape from the sanctuary after learning of a plan to utilise Indian troops to oust him, involved climbing down the walls of the Haram disguised as a Bedouin during the night.xxii He travelled via Jaffa to Lebanon. While his evasion and escape considerably strengthened his prestige within Palestine, he had become a fugitive escaping from his own country at the pursuance of a foreign power. He no longer had the confidence of the British authorities and was directing a revolt miles from its epicentre, one he had not started and one whose character he did not truly agree with.

Britain’s pursuit of the Mufti is evident in telegrams sent between the British Foreign Secretary Halifax and the British ambassador to France. These document strongly encourages the French government to take action against the Mufti, who had been in Lebanon since his escape from Jerusalem.xxiii The telegram dated June 28th 1938 references an earlier assurance by the French government to watch over the Mufti given on November 5th 1937, which suggests that Britain had been following his movements. As of August 1938 the British were convinced that the Mufti was largely orchestrating the terror of the continued revolt, and criticised the French efforts to limit his action as farcical.xxiv The Arab Office in London had considered allowing the Mufti to return to Palestine to quell disorder.xxv Yet, the idea was rejected outright by new colonial secretary William Ormsby-Gore, who suggested that he had copious amounts of information that implicated the Mufti as organiser of ‘every individual act which had been committed’.xxvi Even the potential for the Mufti to be summoned as a negotiator was flatly rejected, for ‘he would enjoy a triumphal progress and sooner or later return to Palestine’.xxvii The advice from the High Commissioner was clear: ‘the Mufti should never be allowed to return to Palestine’.xxviii

The revolt, meanwhile, had become more violent. Other Palestinian leaders had been exiled to the Seychelles and ‘deprived of their traditional leaders, Palestinian peasants and villagers took to waging guerrilla warfare against the British’.xxix The crushing of the ensuing revolt by 1939 was brutal and systemic. It was a national calamity in which the loss of life, economy and political organisation all inhibited the development of an independent Palestinian state. The Mufti, isolated between Beiruit and Damascus, lost many close associates and friends and even considered suicide. He escaped again – swapping Lebanon for Iraq after bribing the police – and began agitating for a pan-Arab solution.

What had once been a marriage of convenience, not without mutual respect, between the Mufti and the British, had deteriorated into a silent and dangerous stand-off. This was manifest in the Mufti’s increasingly radical demands at the convening of the Round Table Conference in 1939. The Mufti himself was not invited, but his overtures to other attending Arab leaders to adopt a maximalist position eventually lead to the failure of the Conference.xxx The key moment was the Mufti’s rejection of the White Paper, which offered independence in ten years time and the cessation of the building a Jewish National Home.xxxi The Mufti would later suggest that his rejection was based on a mistrust of the British, for they had not carried out any of the other commission’s recommendations which were advantageous to the Arabs before.xxxii

Joseph Nevo notes that the summer of 1940 saw the final attempt at negotiations with the Mufti by new Colonial Secretary Lord Lloyd, who attempted to gain the Mufti’s acceptance of the White Paper.xxxiii Through Iraqi mediation, the Mufti accepted a British compromise to bring forward Palestinian independence.xxxiv In return, the Mufti and the Iraqi government would support the British war effort, declaring themselves on the side of the allies.xxxv Given the Mufti’s acceptance of the latter proposal, it is clear that he was not, as some have suggested, merely waiting in Baghdad for the victory of the Axis powers.xxxvi The outbreak of war had put the Mufti in a stronger position, yet rather than merely assuming his cooperation with the Axis powers, he was biding his time, his key aim still Palestinian independence under an Arab government. The Mufti’s original decision not to accept the White Paper may also be seen in this light, as political manoeuvre designed to exploit his renewed importance in the British perception of the Palestinian problem.

The Mufti and the British were tied in a relationship in which both parties resented each other but neither could fail to see the importance of the other’s actions, resulting in reluctance on both sides to fully close the door on relations. However, they were finally brought to a close when Winston Churchill withdrew the offer for the revised White Paper, and the Mufti’s very final attempt at moderation was rebuffed. He now openly sought to negotiate with the Axis powers as all hope of a pro-Arab British policy dried up.xxxvii Churchill also approved a failed assassination attempt on the Mufti, who fled from Iraq to Iran before travelling via Italy to Berlin.

The second line of analysis regarding the interlaced fingers of the Mufti suggests that he was hopeful and not necessarily uncomfortable in his position. ‘If the thumbs dart up while the fingers are interlaced it can turn a timid interlaced fingers gesture into a positive cue. Thumbs-out is a representation of ego, dominance, confidence, comfort, assertiveness and sometimes even aggressiveness’.xxxviii Furthermore, the Mufti’s posture could be analysed as an expansive one. ‘posing in a positive, upright posture leads individuals to rate themselves higher in leadership than posing in a negative, slouched posture’.xxxix It has also been suggested that:Holding a dominant posture may alleviate or exacerbate the experience of social exclusion’.xl This line of thinking suggests an interpretation of the Mufti as determined and somewhat comfortable. This may be because negotiations with the Axis powers were negotiations from the very start. They were a clean slate of political opportunity upon which the Mufti could suggest once again the notion of a united and independent Syria, of which Palestine would be a component part. With a fractured Arab polity, caught between the fertile crescent, Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus, the Mufti sought to use Palestine as the springboard of agreement from which pan-Arab politics might grow.

Throughout the late 1920s and early 30s, there had been a bubbling Arab nationalism that the Mufti’s early moderate policies could not satisfy. For the nationalists, immediate independence was the only solution. Weldon C. Matthews notes this movement’s rejection of the formation of the Arab Executive in the early 1920s, and therefore also of the Mufti’s position as negotiator for the Palestinians.xli The outrage caused by the arming of Jewish settlers led to a strike in Nablus, held by the forces of the emerging nationalist movement, not merely as a protest but the beginnings of a coherent centre for action and agitation.xlii The example set by the nationalists striking in Nablus would force the Arab Executive to also call a strike in Jerusalem.xliii Abdelazziz Ayyad suggests that the Palestinian national movement received delegations from Amman and As-Salt, in the face of which the Executive Committee quickly took measures to counter the notion of its declining status. xliv The Palestinian nationalist movement was becoming popular and a threat to the Mufti’s leadership. His reaction was to hold the General Muslim Congress 1931.

This effort allowed Husseini to hit back at the growing opposition, who could not fault the Congress’ intention.xlv The purpose of symbolising the pan-Islamic concern for Palestine was evident in the list of participants including large delegates from India and Egypt.xlvi The latter two cannot go unnoticed as key colonial interests; the Mufti was therefore laying a claim of spiritual support, and his political posturing was aimed at demonstrating his international influence. His success was evident before the Congress even took place, with British attempts to prohibit and limit the scope of discussion.xlvii The issues of discussion would in fact result in little action, but its symbolism is striking .xlviii The Congress must be seen as an attempt by Amin to restore his waning prominence in the face of nascent nationalist activism, while also hinting to the British at his influence within key colonial assets.

The convening of the Congress itself was an act of political defiance that breathed new life into the Mufti’s leadership. This is supported by the fact that parts of the Congress were filmed and photographed by Egyptian media.xlix Re-aligning the centre of the Islamic world to Jerusalem would unite the Arab nations in their desire to protect Palestine from the growing Zionist movement. The Mufti sought both the potential unity and the political protection of a united Arab front.

Yet the Congress was utilised by Egyptian politicians as a fresh battlefield for their own political turmoil. There was an ongoing anxiety about Jerusalem replacing Cairo as the epicentre of Islamic learning.l Plans to construct a large university in Jerusalem to rival the Hebrew University, for instance, were considered threatening by the authorities at al-Azhar. Further, the succession debate between King Fuad and the ex-Khedive Abbas Himli also found ground at the conference, with the latter seeking inclusion and the former being distinctly concerned about the nomination of a new Caliph.li

Having previously refused to declare a jihad alongside the erudite and populist leader al-Qassam, whose martyrdom led to the strike, the Mufti maintained a rejection of violent means of struggle throughout the 1930s. In 1936 the Mufti aided the British in removing al-Qawuqji, the foremost Arab military commander, from Palestine. Qawuqji had fought the British regime, successfully shooting down British aircraft, as well as killing British officers. His withdrawal had been part of the negotiated truce between the Mufti and the British; a deal brokered by Ibn Sa’ud and King Abdullah. However, the use of violent means had been popular, and the two Levantine fighters that the Mufti had rejected both fought for a pan-Arab solution, recognising Palestine as part of Southern Syria.

The imagination of a united Arab state had not been long in the consciousness before the Sykes-Picot agreement tore it asunder, taking with it the tattered political geography. In 1936 ‘the Sunni Mufti of Palestine, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, issued a legal opinion (fatwa) concerning the Alawis, in which he found them to be Muslims’.lii This small detail tells much about the relationship between the Mufti in Jerusalem and the population of Damascus, their close ties and consciousness of one another. Indeed, the Alawis, a minority sect in Syria that did not exist in Palestine, found support in an unlikely place. ‘Some Palestinians were still attached to the idea of Palestine as Southern Syria as late as 1936’.liii

The Allies had already proven themselves to be against a united independent Arab homeland. Britain had not proven itself loyal to the Mufti’s Palestinian ambitions; rather, they remained loyal to him as long as he towed their line. In a climate of political instability and personal catastrophe, Hajj Amin al-Husseini turned to the Third Reich and the Axis Powers more generally, to aid him in securing a Greater Syria, an independent Arab land, or at the very least an autonomous region called Palestine. The Middle Eastern region was in the throes of a chaotic battle between nationalism and pan-Arabism after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, in which the Mufti wished to contribute by providing a fresh opportunity to achieve a united Arab land. Furthermore, the growing radicalism of the Palestinian national movement could not be satiated by the Mufti’s cordial negotiations with the British. In order to prove himself as a leader of the Palestinian people, it seemed – at least to the Mufti – that radical action was required. Hence we can imagine a hopeful and optimistic Mufti sitting adjacent to Hitler.

It is well documented that in this meeting the Mufti sought a public vow from Hitler that Nazi Germany supported an independent Arab federation. He arrived in Berlin with the same aim and purpose that he had when he refused to declare jihad and fight British rule. He sought the reversal of the Balfour Declaration and the cessation of the building of a Jewish National Home. He sought independence from British rule and for a federation of Arab states. Naturally the reason for his interlaced fingers is both desperation and hope. Despite sitting adjacent to Adolf Hitler, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was not Hitler’s right-hand man. He was at this point a time-worn, heartbroken and lonely individual who saw in Hitler an opportunity to counter the defiant opposition to Palestinian statehood.

i Mattar, Philip. The Mufti of Jerusalem: Al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni and the Palestinian national movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, 18.

ii Nicgorski, Ann M. “Interlaced Fingers and Knotted Limbs: The Hostile Posture of Quarrelsome Ares on the Parthenon Frieze.” Hesperia Supplements 33(2004). The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 299.

iii Body Language of Interlaced Fingers, http://bodylanguageproject.com/nonverbal-dictionary/body-language-of-interlaced-fingers/. Accessed 3rd December 2015.

iv Mattar, Philip. The Mufti of Jerusalem. 22.

v Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister, March 28 1934, Cabinet Memorandum on Palestine, National Archives (NA), CAB/24/248, 1.

vi Ibid.

vii Sir Arthur Wauchope, Secret Despatch from the High Commissioner for Palestine to Secretary of State for Colonies, January 5 1934, NA, CAB/24/247, 2.

viii Husseini, Amin, Zvi Elpeleg. Through the eyes of the Mufti: the essays of Haj Amin, translated and annotated. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2009, 24.

ix Wauchope, Secret Despatch,2.

x Arrieli Nir, “Italian Involvement in the Arab Revolt in Palestine, 1936–1939.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 35:2 (December 2008), 187.

xi The Times, June 5th 1935, 115.

xii Elpeleg, Zvi. The Grand mufti: Haj Amin al-Hussaini, founder of the Palestinian national movement. Portland: Frank Cass, 1993, 41.

xiii Mattar, The Mufti of Jerusalem, 68.

xiv Ibid, 72.

xv Bird, Kai. Divided City: Coming of Age between the Arabs and Israelis. London: Simon & Schuster, 2011, 1943.

xvi Elpeleg, The Grand Mufti, 42.

xvii Mattar, The Mufti of Jerusalem, 80.

xviii The Times, 16th July, 21.

xix Mattar, The Mufti of Jerusalem, 82.

xx Elpeleg, The Grand Mufti, 48.

xxi Mattar, The Mufti of Jerusalem, 82.

xxii Ibid, 83.

xxiii Viscount Halifax to Sir E. Phipps June 28 1938, British documents on foreign affairs, Part II series b Turkey, Iran and the Middle East Vol. 13, Eastern Affairs December 1937-September 1939, 46.

xxiv Malcolm McDonald, Memorandum by the Secretary of State for Colonies, 21 August 1938, National Archives, CAB/24/278, 14.

xxv McDonald, Memorandum by the Secretary of State for Colonies, 14.

xxvi Ibid.

xxvii Malcolm McDonald, Cabinet Committee on Palestine, 20 April 1939, National Archives, CAB/24/285, 21.

xxviii Ibid.

xxix Bird, Divided City, 1945.

xxx Elpeleg, The Grand Mufti, 52.

xxxi Ibid.

xxxii Husayni, Through the eyes of the Mufti, 38.

xxxiii Nevo, Joseph.“Al-Hajj Amin and the British in World War II.” Middle Eastern Studies, 20:1 (January 1984), 8.

xxxiv Ibid, 9.

xxxv Ibid, 9.

xxxvi Elpeleg, The Grand Mufti, 57.

xxxvii Mattar, The Mufti of Jerusalem, 93.

xxxviii ‘Body language of interlaced fingers.’, http://bodylanguageproject.com/nonverbal-dictionary/body-language-of-interlaced-fingers/. Accessed 3rd December 2015.

xxxix Arnette, Sarah L.,Pettijohn, Terry F. “The Effects of Posture on Self-Perceived Leadership.” International Journal of Business and Social Science, 3:14 (July 2012), 8.

xl Welker, Keith M, Oberleitner, David E, Cain, Samantha, Carre, Justin M. “Upright and left out: Posture moderates the effects of social exclusion on mood and threats to basic needs”. Eruopean Journal of Social Psychology, 43:5 (May 2013), 356.

xli Matthews, Weldon C. “Pan-Islam or Arab Nationalism? The Meaning of the 1931 Jerusalem Islamic Congress Reconsidered.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 35: 1 (February 2003), 5.

xlii Ibid, 10.

xliii Ibid, 10.

xliv Ayyad Abdelazziz A. Arab Nationalism and the Palestinians 1850-1939. Jerusalem: PASSIA Publications, 1999, 142.

xlv Kupferschmidt, Uri M. The Supreme Muslim Council: Islam under the British mandate for Palestine. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1987, 220.

xlvi Kupferschmidt, The Supreme Muslim Council. 220, 206.

xlvii Ibid.

xlviii Ibid, 218, 220.

xlix Pappe, Ilan. The rise and fall of a Palestinian dynasty: the Husseinis, 1700-1948. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010, 256.

l Mayer, Thomas.“Egypt and the General Islamic Conference of Jerusalem in 1931.” Middle Eastern Studies 18:3 (1982) 311.

li Ibid, 311.

lii Kramer, Martin S. Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival: The Politics of Ideas in the Middle East. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1996, 194.

liii Schayegh, Cyrus. The Routledge Handbook of the History of the Middle East Mandates, London: Routledge, 2015, 108.

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