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Churchill and the Islamic World

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Churchill with the Saudi King Ibn Saud in 1945 Churchill with the Saudi King Ibn Saud in 1945

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has hailed this book as “timely”.

The author is Dr. Warren Dockter, Research Fellow at Clare Hall and former Archives By-Fellow at Churchill Collegewhose research interest lies in British Imperialism in the Middle East during the late nineteenth and twentieth century.

This book got a lot of advance publicity because of a letter Dockter found during his research that says Churchill’s regard for the Muslim faith was so great his relatives feared he might convert. The revelation comes with the discovery of a letter to Churchill from his future sister-in-law, Lady Gwendoline Bertie, written in August 1907, in which she urges him to rein in his enthusiasm.

In the letter, she pleads: “Please don’t become converted to Islam; I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to orientalise [fascination with the Orient and Islam], Pasha-like tendencies, I really have.” Lady Gwendoline, who married Churchill’s brother Jack, adds: “If you come into contact with Islam your conversion might be effected with greater ease than you might have supposed, call of the blood, don’t you know what I mean, do fight against it.”

Of course it was really just a flight of fancy. Dockter concludes that his fascination was “largely predicated on Victorian notions, which heavily romanticised the nomadic lifestyle and honour culture of the Bedouin tribes”.

When Churchill spoke in 1920 about “the greatest Mohammedan Power in the world,” who do you think he was referring to? Turkey? Maybe Iran? No, it was the British Empire.

Dockter says Churchill’s “views of Islamic people and culture were an often paradoxical and complex combination of imperialist perceptions composed of typical orientalist ideals fused with the respect, understanding and magnanimity he had gained from his experiences in his early military career, creating a perspective that was uniquely Churchillian.”

Time and again throughout his decades-long engagement with these issues, Churchill adopted a pragmatic approach governed by the concept of cost-effectiveness. Typical of this was his solution of the naval crisis of 1912 when he was in charge of the British navy. It was at this time ships were being transformed from coal-burning to oil-burning, but how to secure the oil fields of Persia?

He “had to barter a deal with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Churchill’s brokerage of an oil deal in Persia illustrates his distinctive ability to merge British strategic interests with what he perceived to the advance of civilization in terms of helping the Bedouin tribesmen.” The deal was made, “ensuring that Persia would remain in the British orbit.”

During the Great War, in 1915, Churchill was among several ministers of the government “who wanted to be aligned with Muslim sympathies after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.” Churchill was fearful that the unorganized armies of Turkey would be drawn into the struggle on the German side. In Churchill’s own words, “India is the target, Islam is the propellant, and the Turk is the projectile.” No one else could have said it like that!

As we see the Middle East in turmoil in 2015, it is amazing how nothing seems to have changed since Churchill wrote this in 1921: “On the one hand it is perfectly clear that we cannot go on spending these enormous sums on Mesopotamia and that the forces we maintain there must be drastically reduced. On the other hand, the disadvantages and even disgrace of such a procedure [complete withdrawal] should not be under rated. If we ignominiously scuttle for the coast, leaving sheer anarchy behind us and ancient historic cities to be plundered by the wild Bedouin of the desert, an event will have occurred not at all in accordance with what has usually been the reputation of Great Britain.”

Now we see the results of the American decision to completely withdraw, and the descendants of those barbarous desert people of 1921 are now destroying the very ancient cities Churchill sought to protect. In 2015, it is the reputation of the United States that is being questioned.

This is a fascinating book that shows Churchill as an informed and progressive leader in his interaction with many countries of the Islamic world.

I found a disturbing number of typos, including these: “stay her” should be “stay here” pg 15; “the elction” chould be “the election” on p 194; “If they has they had” on pg. 225; ‘politics’ is spelled wrong on 289; ‘especially’ on 290; the first sentence on 293 makes no sense.

Churchill and the Islamic World (377 pages) is $40 from I. B. Tauris.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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