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'Ignorant imperialist': Churchill and the Islamic World

Published Aug 21, 2016 12:00am

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Mr and Mrs Winston Churchill at a Government House reception  on March 28, 1921 in Jerusalem, Palestine | United States Library of Congress
Mr and Mrs Winston Churchill at a Government House reception on March 28, 1921 in Jerusalem, Palestine | United States Library of Congress

For the past several years, contours of the global map are being radically, and often violently, challenged. The border between Iraq and Syria, for example, has been rendered meaningless as those states collapse, endangering the lives of millions who live within them. Hundreds of thousands of their citizens have chosen to risk their lives on sea rather than on land, culminating in the largest refugee crisis Europe has seen since the Second World War.

The crisis is creating palpable anxiety among European states about future demographic shifts and the social consequences of “letting them in”. Right-wing parties throughout Europe seem to capitalise on this anxiety and xenophobic propaganda has become a legitimate part of political discourse. The borders of the Global North, as a result, are being reinforced: considered ever more important, policed ever more closely, subject to ever more vigilance. The loudest manifestation of this phenomenon comes from across the Atlantic where the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential candidate publicly talks about banning the entry of Muslims into the United States along with putting those Muslims under surveillance who are already American citizens.

This angst is fueled further by the tremors caused by radical Islam and felt across the world — from Brussels to Dhaka and from Paris to Peshawar. These tremors are capable of creating deadly ripples anywhere — at sunny beaches and football stadiums, busy airports and busier streets, even children’s parks and their schools. As city after city mourns the loss of human life at the hands of Islamist bombers, hundreds of young men – many of them European citizens – see things differently. They make their way to the Middle East, seeking to construct (or reconstruct) the borders of a new political utopia — an Islamic caliphate. To do so, they want to unravel what they consider Western machinations on lands once pure and perfect. Such visions of an idyllic past are not unique to the followers of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) but are a characteristic of most Islamic fundamentalist movements. All these movements feature, in varying degrees, animosity towards Western values, culture and/or imperialism.

Also read: Islamic Republic versus Islamic State

Reading the history of the European – and later the American –engagement with the Middle East and parts of West, Central and South Asia, indeed, shows that there is some truth to the notion that the Muslim states in these regions suffer seriously as a result of colonial and neocolonial policies of the West. While many commentators trace multiple crises these states face to the start of the War on Terror and America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, historians stress at looking much farther back. In this context, the general, non-specialist reader may turn to either of two types of history books — the ones that shock or the ones that comfort.

The ability of a work of non-fiction to disturb is often considered a good marker of its quality. Provocative works lead readers to revisit and reimagine previously believed narratives and the assumptions that underpin them. Many people seek the latter category of history: the kind that adds a nice doze of facts and stories to an already established worldview, giving it a sort of hollow profoundness but nothing more. This is particularly true of those societies, including the British, where there is a genuine public interest in popular accounts of historical events and personalities. A reader interested in Islam, browsing in a bookshop in north London, might seek to learn about this obviously troublesome phenomenon through the life and work of a trusted historical figure. Such an audience would be glad to be in the company of Warren Dockter’s new book Churchill and the Islamic World.


The book takes us through Winston Churchill’s many physical and intellectual journeys to places where Muslims resided, ruled or rebelled between 1895 and 1955. The author challenges the notion that Churchill was an “ignorant imperialist” and instead seeks to present him as a nuanced thinker who was “relatively progressive”.

Winston Churchill, 1941 | AP
Winston Churchill, 1941 | AP

The book does not intend to be creative non-fiction or popular history but a work of academic scholarship. “The effects of British imperial policy continue to resonate in the Islamic world and analyzing its origins is crucial in understanding the current geopolitical context of the ‘Arab Spring’, ‘the War on Terror’ and the rise of ISIS,” reads the introduction. "Such an analysis must include the role of Winston Churchill,” it adds. It is in this promise to serve as an illustration of the making of the modern Islamic world that the book becomes deeply problematic.

The fundamental problem with this work is the author’s anachronistic method of historiography. For several decades now, historians have eschewed – with considerable vigour – the belief that world history is the story of great men. Considerations of space prohibit me from listing all the challenges posited to this erroneous and archaic methodology. Suffice it to say that the history of any subject – particularly one as large and complex as the Islamic world – comprises myriad processes and actors that operate within the bounds of certain structures and paradigms. While the life, actions and ideas of a particular statesman may be important, they could only be so if put into dialogue with these structures and paradigms.

Biographical accounts can, indeed, matter if the author can demonstrate why a protagonist’s ideas, interventions or imagination matter to the history of a certain area or time. Muhammad Qasim Zaman and Roxanne L Euben, both eminent scholars, have, for instance, argued that examining the thought of Islamist ideologues and leaders such as Ayatollah Khomeini, Osama bin Laden and Hassan al-Banna can depict both the ‘commonalities among Islamist thinkers‘ and the ‘heterogeneity between Islamist arguments and ideas‘. Such an examination can reveal the heterogeneous and contested nature of Islamic political thought and the various contexts through which it has evolved over time.

But why should we be interested in how Churchill alone, and especially, came to impact self-perception among Muslims and the opinion of the rest of the world about them? Dockter provides no satisfactory answer except asking us to subscribe to the implicit assumption that he is important just because of who he is.

Also read: Who's afraid of the Islamic State?

This is not to suggest that looking into the historical imagining of a group of people is not important from an academic angle. At least since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism, historians and theorists have taken on innumerable projects that unpack the construction of Western conceptions of the East. Although, the overuse of this perspective has sometimes led historiography into a cul-de-sac, many works have successfully illustrated just how empirically inaccurate Western – particularly imperial – depictions of the rest of the world were.

To take just one instance, consider the popular notion of the Orient as an overly sensualised space. The image of an Ottoman harem was long used as proof of the debauched and corrupt nature of all Turkish rulers. In her widely acclaimed study, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, Leslie P Peirce challenges the idea that the harem represents the absolute subordination of women to an all-powerful sultan. Critiquing many Western representations, Peirce shows that many imperial women in the Ottoman court in the 16th and 17th centuries were able to expand their roles beyond the household, shaping decisions on war, peace and succession. The rigid male/female, private/public – even sultan/subordinate – binaries were little more than facades. The way in which political privilege was actually distributed and exercised was much more complex.

Other historians have brought to our attention the means through which certain types of knowledge are produced by the colonisers. A classic, though admittedly rather inaccessible, text is Bernard S Cohn’s Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Cohn argues that the way in which the British conceived of and studied colonised people and their languages, cultures and religions determined how these colonial subjects were to be regulated and controlled. Thomas Metcalf in his book, Ideologies of the Raj, discusses how the British sought to legitimise their imperial pursuits in India by propagating the idea that the Subcontinent needed to remain forever under the colonial tutelage if it wanted to realise its potential to transform itself.


Prime Minister Winston Churchill makes a radio broadcast at No. 10 Downing Street, London, in November 1942 | AP
Prime Minister Winston Churchill makes a radio broadcast at No. 10 Downing Street, London, in November 1942 | AP

Apart from poking holes in Western imagination(s) of the East, such works show the impact and legacy of colonial ideas on state policies and laws as well as on societies at large. They make us realise the cultural and political contexts through which imperial states see and act (or react). Churchill and the Islamic World does not endeavour to make any such connections though. It is a simple delineation of how one man understood Islam and Muslims through the course of his career. Through this, the author hopes to prove that though Churchill might have been wrong about many things, he was not as wrong as one thinks; there were others who were perhaps more wrong.

Is the book successful in this, somewhat unnecessary, endeavour? Was Churchill, indeed, a nuanced thinker when it came to understanding the Islamic world? Dockter leaves one unconvinced. Chapter after chapter, the author tries to show that his subject was a consummate 19th-century statesman, possessing all the requisite qualities. His loyalty to the British Empire reached romantic proportions and he was to remain a quintessential Victorian even when that era was well and truly over. While Dockter repeatedly alludes to Churchill’s orientalist ideas, he simultaneously insists, without providing sufficient reason, that these ideas should not be seen as having resulted from his colonial haughtiness.

This notion was informed by a hierarchal worldview which placed various races and people at different stages of the civilizational ladder with Europe, particularly Britain, at its apex.

In the first chapter – titled Early Encounters – we are taken to the frontier of the Indian subcontinent, now in Pakistan, where Churchill served as a junior officer in one of the many expeditions against Pakhtun uprisings in the early 20th century. Dockter shows how the time Churchill spent here shaped his view of Islam and Pakhtun society, resulting in the writing of a book, The Story of Malakand Field Force. This “Churchillian view” of the “tribesmen” was, however, no different from the ones articulated by his contemporaries.

Since the last quarter of the 19th century, British colonial administrators had been overwhelmed by the difficulty of managing the border between ‘settled’ and ‘tribal’ Pakhtun populations. Magnus Marsden and Benjamin Hopkins examine this problem in their work, Fragments of the Afghan Frontier. They show how no tribal belt separated the border of British India from the foothills of the Kingdom of Kabul. The British referred to the territory beyond the administered border as ilaqae ghair (alien territory) or yaghistan (the land of the rebels). But though the British made this distinction, the boundary between Pakhtun areas under their control and those under Afghan rulers largely remained a notional one. The tribal links across that hypothetical boundary were extremely strong. People crossed the border regularly and with ease and could not be considered socially or economically different from each other. This also led to the frequent disregard of laws since fugitives from British India could easily find refuge across the border.

Debates on how to control this situation were frequent, with colonial administrators discussing various strategies to impose order. Thus, when Dockter points to Churchill’s critique of British policy, it is hardly symptomatic of his uniqueness. Ultimately, Churchill wanted what every other administrator wanted — a cheap and effective way of controlling the frontier. This would ultimately be the basis for the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation which instituted, among other things, collective punishments and forced enclosures — something the book makes no mention of.

Participants hold flags and a banner during an anti-immigration rally organised by an initiative called Stop Islamisation of Europe | AFP
Participants hold flags and a banner during an anti-immigration rally organised by an initiative called Stop Islamisation of Europe | AFP

Dockter does discuss Churchill’s worries about pan-Islamism and “fanatical tribesmen”. This is also very reflective of general British fears which could be traced to the 1820s when Sayyid Ahmed of Raebareli led the call for jihad against the Sikh suzerainty. The British were well aware of the presence of these jihadis when they annexed Punjab (which then also included most of present day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) in 1849. Colonial administrators would warn the central government in Delhi about “mullahs and persons belonging to the obnoxious class known as talibul ilm roamed about the Peshawar and Kohat Districts, exciting the villagers and preaching the doctrines that the service of Government of India was heresy … The presence of the dangerous fanatic and the dangerous alien in our border villages promotes disloyal excitement which leads men [to] espouse the cause of our enemies or to commit murderous outrages upon British subjects.”

Dockter also argues that Churchill’s orientalist views worked in tandem with his magnanimous opinions about the Islamic world. Here, the author begins to resemble the nostalgic anglophile members of his audience. Tutelage of the Muslims of India and later also those of the Middle East under the British colonial rule was an unqualified good in his eyes. This notion was informed by a hierarchal worldview which placed various races and people at different stages of the civilizational ladder with Europe, particularly Britain, at its apex.

Also read: A Partition too deep- How events in 1947 shaped Pakistan today

Rather than debunking this dangerous way of thinking, Dockter maintains that Churchill was a man of his times and should not be judged by today’s standards. Even more worryingly, he keeps pointing to what he considers progressive elements in Churchill’s thinking. For example, the third chapter of the book features a discussion on the Hunter Commission formed to inquire into the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre that took place on April 13, 1919. Brigadier General Reginald Dyer had ordered his troops to close the exits of a public park in Amritsar and open fire on an estimated 10,000 non-violent protestors that day. In the inquiry that followed, Churchill strongly condemned Dyer’s action, stating how the British “reign in India or anywhere else has never stood on the basis of physical force alone … The British way of doing things …has always meant close and effectual cooperation with the people of that country”. This condemnation notwithstanding, Churchill would go on to stress, against the wishes of Edwin Montagu, the then Secretary of State for India, that Dyer should not be punished severely.

For Dockter, this apparent contradiction is caused by Churchill’s Victorian chivalry towards fellow officials of the state existing side by side with his “distinct concern for the well-being of the Indian subjects”. Such paternalistic conclusions are perilous at many levels, perhaps most importantly because they preclude readers from appraising the nature of colonial violence — both intellectual and physical.

Taylor C Sherman’s book, State Violence and Punishment in India 1919-1956, offers a poignant insight into the whole range of techniques and punishments that made the colonial state’s “coercive repertoire”. Colonial violence, she argues, was meted out not through a single institution but also through a network of collaborators, quasi-official outfits and private persons. She goes on to argue that such penal practices as the mass shooting that took place in Amritsar were intricately connected to the larger imperial aims and anxieties. The physical violence, thus, also operated at a cultural and symbolic level.

Winston Churchill sits with King 'Abd al-'Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia during lunch at Auberge due Lac, Fayoum, in February 1945 | AP
Winston Churchill sits with King 'Abd al-'Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia during lunch at Auberge due Lac, Fayoum, in February 1945 | AP

Dockter’s contention about Churchill’s concern for Muslims, especially Indian Muslims, makes repeated appearance in the book. As evidence, the author provides detailed accounts of Churchill’s affinity with prominent Muslims like the Aga Khan, Baron Headley and Waris Ali who was a senior executive of the Indian Empire Society and later worked with Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The author deems it unnecessary to clarify that all these men represented a privileged socio-economic class, and their exalted political status was secured by the continuation of British colonial rule. Instead, he uses Churchill’s interaction with them to exemplify the consolidation of his relationship with Islam and all Muslims of the Subcontinent.

Even more space is spent depicting his unrestrained hatred for the Indian National Congress, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Hinduism in general. Foreshadowing the narrative propagated in Pakistani textbooks today, Churchill is shown to be a firm believer in the two-nation theory and the irreconcilable difference between Hindus and Muslims. Most contemporary observers, including British ones, are, however, cognisant of the ahistorical nature of this politicised dichotomy. Muslims of India were not – and had never been – a homogenous national group. As Ayesha Jalal points out in The Sole Spokesman, the divisions and not the unity among Muslim population of India drove the story of the making of Pakistan. The All-India Muslim League that claimed to be representing all the Indian Muslims did spectacularly badly in all electoral processes before the 1945 election.

Churchill also subscribed to what is the mainstream Indian view today: that the Congress leadership did not want the partition of the subcontinent. On the contrary, leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel were among the main proponents of Partition after the Second World War. Its strongest opponents were Gandhi and a former president of the Congress, Abul Kalam Azad. In his biography, India Wins Freedom, Azad narrates how hard he had to fight within his own party against those who favoured Partition which he believed would sentence the subcontinent to endless communal strife. These nuances were obviously lost on Churchill. What is egregious is that they also seem to be lost on Dockter who offers no contestation of Churchill’s simplistic and inaccurate ideas. Instead, the reader is invited to believe that Churchill was progressive when it came to Muslims because he frequently exchanged letters with Jinnah.


Winston Churchill, left, U.S. President Harry S. Truman and Josef Stalin, right, shake hands in front of Churchill's residence in Potsdam, Germany, on July 23, 1945 | AP
Winston Churchill, left, U.S. President Harry S. Truman and Josef Stalin, right, shake hands in front of Churchill's residence in Potsdam, Germany, on July 23, 1945 | AP

This brings us to the heart of the problem: this is a book on the sources of Churchill’s worldview yet the author never interrogates the problems with those sources. Most of Churchill’s conclusions about Muslims were based on his personal relationship with a very limited number of people. This comes across most potently in parts of the book which deal with the Middle East. Churchill’s major sources on the Arab world included people such as T E Lawrence and Wilfrid S Blunt — both considered British spies. Through discussions with them, he developed his incredibly incorrect ideas about “bedouin culture”, sectarian differences within Islam, pan-Islamism and the politics of the Middle East in general.

Churchill entertained several absurd ideas about who could be categorised as an Arab. Dockter himself notes this when discussing his subject’s views on Palestinians who Churchill believed did not quite qualify to be Arabs. He was a strong proponent of the 1917 Balfour Declaration for the establishment of a Jewish nation state within the Middle East. Interestingly, this was due to his deep anti-Semitism. Like many prominent anti-Semites, Churchill believed that the “international Jews” had an important role in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and that they wanted to create similar revolutions all over the world. He supported the Zionist project of establishing a Jewish homeland so as to distract Jews from working for an international revolution. Yet, Dockter argues that Churchill’s support for Israel “did not necessarily contradict his view on Islamic Arabs. He believed that the shared history of the two groups, based on similar religious origins and shared Semitic ethnicity, would unite them in symbiotic relationship.” This is a clear indication of how remarkably little Churchill understood the two people, and yet, for the author, it is an example of how committed he was to finding a solution that suited everybody.

In reality, considerations of realpolitik mattered significantly more to Britain and to Churchill than any imaginary progressive ideas about durable peace in the Middle East and considerations about Muslims. The British had been in Egypt since 1882 and officers like Sir Henry McMahon were deeply invested in fostering an Arab unity against the Ottoman Empire. This was the basis of their support to Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, whose sons Faisal and Abdullah would eventually lead the revolt against the Turks during the First World War. In return for their support to the British, the Sharif and his sons were promised an Arab kingdom in the event of an Ottoman defeat. In 1916, however, Britain and France secretly entered the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement and divided the Arab provinces into their respective “spheres of influence”.

The celebration of a pompous imperialist’s worldview, on the other hand, is unwarranted at any given moment, including and especially now

In a white paper he wrote in 1922, Churchill argued that “the whole of Palestine west of Jordan” was not part of McMahon’s pledge. Yet Arab writers contended otherwise, proving that Palestine was not included in areas excluded from the pledges in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, and the British had actually gone back on their promise. Their arguments were strengthened by the fact that the British authorities refused to publish the correspondence. Like many of his contemporaries, Churchill also believed that assuaging French ambition in the Middle East was far more important than placating the Arabs. Dockter’s claims that Churchill was invested in making all treaties and promises work in tandem with each other is simply unfounded.

Churchill and the Islamic World covers a vast geography and a lengthy time period. Given its scope, many interesting stories could have been told here — stories which illuminate the past and hence explain the present. Yet, the book leaves one unimpressed and somewhat concerned. Works which avoid confronting the problematic nature of imperialist thinking and its outcomes implicitly give credence to that thinking. They run the risk of fostering misrepresentations of not only history but consequently of the present as well. In refraining from taking apart Churchill’s understandings not only of Islam and Muslims but also of statecraft, diplomacy and war, Dockter tacitly agrees with him.

In order to fulfill his aim of providing insight into the world today, the author should have provided the readers with an account which grapples with the heterogeneity of Muslim state, societies and cultures as well as the multifaceted ways in which these were created and recreated over time. The celebration of a pompous imperialist’s worldview, on the other hand, is unwarranted at any given moment, including and especially now.


This was originally published in Herald's June 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is a Teaching Fellow at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).