Winston Churchill’s friend the Aga Khan once told him, “You have what I may call a cursory knowledge of Indian affairs.” It was a fair comment. His prodigious literary talent – genius indeed – was never matched by his intellectual grasp, brilliant though it often appeared. His enthusiasms were powerful, but erratic. In his youth he committed Edward FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám to memory; later he admired Katherine Mayo’s anti-Hindu writings, and approvingly observed that “while the Hindu elaborates his arguments, the Moslem sharpens his sword”.
Churchill’s judgement was often sound. He fought long and hard against David Lloyd George’s disastrous support for the Greeks against the Turks – “On this world so torn with strife I dread to see you let loose the Greek armies” – only to abandon his opposition in the end. He could argue intelligently against the use of loaded terms such as “fanaticism” to describe Muslim behaviour. He told the Arabs of Palestine that the second part of the Balfour declaration (guaranteeing the rights of non-Jews) was “vital to you and you should hold it and claim it firmly”; sadly, he failed to convince them.
Although Warren Dockter’s publisher would have us think that his book overturns a “widely-accepted consensus that Churchill was indifferent to the Middle East”, this seems doubtful. Churchill’s long commitment to Zionism is well known – likewise his dramatic role in the delineation of the new Arab states at the 1921 Cairo Conference. On these high-profile issues, there are few revelations here. There is, however, a mass of detail on Churchill’s consistent, often surprising interest in Islamic affairs. One example is the Central London mosque project of 1940, to which he gave a large government subsidy.
A question that must arise is: how well did Churchill understand Islam? It seems clear that his main interest in Islam was the aid (or threat) that Muslims might offer to Britain’s position in the world – above all in India. The fact that it is, Dockter thinks, “somewhat remarkable that Churchill even knew” in 1921 that there were conflicts between sects of Islam, speaks volumes about the British ministerial grasp of essentials even after six years of attempting to control Mesopotamia/Iraq – and placing a Sunni monarch on its throne. His cherished idea of fostering a pan-Arab confederation headed by Ibn Saud, Saudi Arabia’s first king, was quite unrealistic. (Churchill blithely offended Ibn Saud by downing whisky in his presence – a small but telling point. Roosevelt was more sensitive.)
Dockter’s comments on Churchill’s attitudes (orientalist, quasi-racist, blatantly or shamefully racist) add up to a heavy charge sheet. It is not clear whether he thinks that Churchill’s diffuse approval of “the Islamic world” excuses him. That key phrase remains vague, sometimes appearing as the “Arab and Islamic world”; Dockter says that the 1948 Arab-Israeli war “reinforced a sort of sympathetic approach to the Islamic Arabs” (although one-tenth of Palestinian Arabs were Christians). Boris Johnson hails this book as “timely”; but it is hard to see how Churchill’s Victorian views remain relevant. Rather carelessly written and edited, it lacks the sharpness to properly dissect them.
Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East
By Warren Dockter
I. B. Tauris, 376pp, £25.00
Published 15 April 2015