Quite the stupidest “news” story I saw over Christmas was the one about how Winston Churchill was apparently urged in a letter by one of his future in-laws not to convert to Islam.
When I started out in journalism in the late Eighties under the great Max Hastings, it’s what we would have called a “diary story”. That is, we would have set out the basic facts, with a view to allowing the reader to have a quiet chortle at the silliness of it all: US academic at a Cambridge college, anxious for a bit of publicity for his thesis, flourishes this mildly diverting archive letter he’s found from one Lady Gwendoline Bertie.
Dated August 1907 it says:
“Please don’t become converted to Islam; I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to orientalise, Pasha-like tendencies, I really have.
“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.”
Are we really so tone deaf and historically illiterate, now, that we can no longer recognise Edwardian humour? Lady Gwendoline is quite clearly joshing Churchill, in a fairly typical amused, playful, aristocrat-with-time-on-her-hands way. Words like “Pasha” offer a big clue. The side of Islamic culture Churchill might have been attracted too – as many Englishmen have been and are, including me – is the romantic side: the exotic outfits; the rigours of the desert, the camels; the elaborate hospitality; the birds of prey; all the Sir Richard Burton meets Lawrence of Arabia stuff, basically.
As for the religion itself, we know exactly what Churchill’s view was. He spelt it out in his 1899 book The River War, in a way so forthright that when Paul Weston, the chairman of the party Liberty GB, publicly quoted it during this year’s European Elections he was arrested by the police on “suspicion of racial harassment.”
‘How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries!,’
‘Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy.
‘The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live.
‘A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity.
‘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.
‘Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the faith: all know how to die 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.’
Nope. Don’t think there’s much evidence there that Churchill was in any danger of embracing the Muslim faith. Unless, perhaps, I’m missing the tone of The River War and it was perhaps all written in the spirit of jocund irony….