Yet again, the controversial Palestinian leader Hajj Amin al-Husayni is making headlines. In May 2019, in a Washington post op-ed, Middle East studies scholar Dr. Maha Nassar addressed recent critics of US House Representative Rashida Tlaib, saying that ‘by citing the pro-Nazi propaganda of Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husayni to claim that “Palestinian leaders at the time sided with Hitler,” they conflate the statements and actions of a single individual with those of an entire people.’ This conflation is indeed a problem.
Notorious for siding with the Nazis during the Second World War and for his inclusion on the UN War Crimes Commission list, Husayni’s prewar career comes into focus in Statecraft by Stealth. When writing the book, I tried to address the Mufti’s prewar career without being unduly influenced by our knowledge of his collaboration with the Nazis. In fact, I argued that he showed little interest in the Nazis before the war. It is helpful to examine the beginning of Husayni’s career in order to better understand the events which led up to his disastrous choices of the 1940s.
The British appointed him Mufti of Jerusalem and President of the Supreme Muslim Council. From 1921-37, Husayni used those government offices to amass power and influence, and, I argue, to secretly galvanise nationalist opposition to Britain’s support for Zionism. He led revolt against Britain in the later 1930s, which was crushed by the British army. However, during the 1920s, Husayni was still an inexperienced politician. His fashion choices tell us a lot about how he saw himself, how he presented himself, and his search for a brand during the 1920s.
His passport photos and applications from his early career reflect his changing self-image. His first passport application in 1921 lists his occupation as ‘proprietor’, malak in Arabic. This was before his appointment as Mufti of Jerusalem, but during the debates and consultations for that job. There is no trace of politician here, even though Husayni had played an important role in promoting nationalist insurrection the previous year. In the 1921 photo he wore a suit and tie with a tarbush. This was typical of any Ottoman urban aristocrat.
For each of the subsequent passport applications, Husayni self-styled as the Grand Mufti alone. He wore black robes and a white ’amama wrapped around his tarbush. This is the look of a judge or cleric. I suspect that his fashion here was inspired by his former teacher, Rashid Rida. Rida was a famous pan-Arabist and Islamic Modernist journalist and activist based in Egypt. Hajj Amin never completed a degree during his studies before the First World War, but nonetheless was appointed Mufti over other qualified candidates. Rashid Rida was his teacher for about two years and his goal of reviving the Arab Islamic world so to resist Christian imperialism influenced Husayni considerably.
As we see Hajj Amin’s transformation, we can see the influence of his former teacher, who was still his friend and mentor during the 1920s. His photos from 1923 and 1926 are less polished, but he has certainly chosen a direction for his outward image. Playing the part of a religious leader would have been helpful to his image both domestically and internationally, especially given his lacking academic credentials. We can see that by 1927 his “look” took shape. By then, Hajj Amin had developed a pattern of leadership – playing the part of loyal government officer with enormous power over Muslim civil law and life. Simultaneously, he built up his connections abroad to other pan-Arab movements, and had offered material support from his land trust in Palestine to anti-French rebels in Syria.
British intelligence officers might have benefited from analyzing Hajj Amin’s fashion choices. Had they done so, they might have gained insight into what the Mufti really thought about the British Empire, since Rida’s anti-imperialist views were well-known. Statecraft by Stealth helps to explain why warning signs about Husayni’s relationship with the Palestinian independence movement and armed resistance were readily dismissed by other authorities.
Dr. Steven Wagner is Lecturer in International Security at Brunel University London. His research examines multilingual and declassified records to shed new light on the history of the British Empire and the Modern Middle East. Specifically, his research on the British Mandate of Palestine has examined the impact of intelligence on policy and armed conflict.
Learn more about Statecraft by Stealth: Secret Intelligence and British Rule in Palestine, here.
 Maha Nassar, “Perspective | Rashida Tlaib’s Critics Have Palestinian History All Wrong,” Washington Post, May 17, 2019, sec. Made by History Perspective Perspective Discussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/05/17/rashida-tlaibs-critics-have-palestinian-history-all-wrong/.
 Photos: Israel State Archive RG/65/p/3051/26