One of the nation’s best loved countrymen, Winston Churchill is best remembered for his role in overcoming the Nazi threat, and later for denouncing the Soviet regime’s Iron Curtain. But few are aware of his fascination with the orient and his strong admiration for Islam, which even led him to adopting Arab attire in private. Now a newly uncovered letter sent to Churchill by his future sister-in-law has revealed that, such was his obsession, she was moved to urge him not to convert to Islam.
In 1907, Churchill wrote to Lady Litton: “You will think me a pasha [rank of distinction in the Ottoman Empire]. I wish I were.” In the same year, Lady Gwendoline Bertie, who would go on to marry Churchill’s brother Jack wrote to him in order to urge him to rein in his obsession with all things Oriental, saying: “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.”
She continued “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,” the Telegraph has reported.
The letter was discovered by Warren Dockter, a history research fellow at Cambridge University, while researching his forthcoming book, Winston Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East. He commented “Churchill had fought in Sudan and on the North West frontier of India so had much experience on being in ‘Islamic areas’.
“But during this period Churchill was in the Liberal phase of his career, having switched to the Liberals in 1904.
“He often came to loggerheads on imperial policies with hard-line imperialists such as Frederick Lugard, the High Commissioner of Northern Nigeria. Churchill was opposed to Lugard’s punitive expeditions against Islamic tribes in northern Nigeria.”
Dr Dockter has pointed out that Lady Gwendoline may not have been overstating the case when she relayed her concerns. Churchill did indeed show a high level of interest in oriental culture and Islam. He and his close friend Wilfrid S Blunt, a poet and radical supporter of Muslim causes, would often dress in an Arab style when in each other’s company.
The interest was sustained for decades – in 1940, Churchill set aside £100,000 and granted approval for a mosque in Central London, which became the London Central Mosque in Regent Park. Despite public criticism of the project, he hoped that the building would inspire support for Britain in the hearts and minds of Muslims abroad. In December 1941, he told the House of Commons: “Many of our friends in Muslim countries all over the East have already expressed great appreciation of this gift.”
Yet his admiration didn’t preclude any criticism. He lambasted the fundamentalist Mahdiyya version of Islam, as practiced by the Dervish population of North Africa in his 1899 book The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan, in which he writes: “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries … Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce … The influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.”
Within the same book, which was written whilst Churchill was serving with the Army in the Sudan, he also criticises the trend within fundamentalist Islam towards subjugation of women, and militancy, writing: ““The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities – but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith.”
Ironically it was reading this passage outside the Winchester Guildhall in Hampshire which led to the arrest of Paul Weston, chairman of Liberty GB during the European Election campaigning period earlier this year.
Nonetheless, Dr Dockter has said that closer examination of Churchill’s attitude to the Muslim world at large reveals it to be “in stark contrast to the purely imperialistic and orientalist perspective of many of his contemporaries.”
“His 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,” he said.
However, his views were “largely predicated on Victorian notions, which heavily romanticised the nomadic lifestyle and honour culture of the Bedouin tribes”, Dr Dockter points out. And of course Churchill did not, in the end, ever convert to Islam.