The discovery of a letter to Sir Winston Churchill from his future sister-in-law has thrown new light on his fascination with Islam and Muslim culture
He is indelibly associated with the fight to preserve Britain and its Empire from Nazi invasion and his subsequent denouncement of Soviet totalitarianism’s Iron Curtain.
In the public eye, Sir Winston Churchill’s long political career earned him a place among the greatest of Britons.
But what may come as a surprise is that he was a strong admirer of Islam and the culture of the Orient — such was his regard for the Muslim faith that 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, discovered by Warren Dockter, a history research fellow at Cambridge University, 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.”
In a letter to Lady Lytton in the same year Churchill wrote: “You will think me a pasha [rank of distinction in the Ottoman Empire]. I wish I were.”
Churchill’s fascination led him and his close friend Wilfrid S. Blunt, the poet and radical supporter of Muslim causes, to dressing in Arab clothes in private while in each other’s company. Dr Dockter said of the letter from Lady Gwendoline: “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.”
The letter was discovered by Dr Dockter while researching his forthcoming book, Winston Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East.
He points out that Lady Gwendoline’s concerns may not have been so wide of the mark. Not only did Churchill appear to regard Islam and Christianity as equals – a surprisingly progressive notion for the time – but he also admired the military prowess and history of expansion of the Ottoman Empire.
In October 1940, as Britain faced its darkest hour against Nazi Germany, Churchill approved plans to build a mosque in central London and set aside £100,000 for the project.
He continued to back the building of what became the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park – which he hoped would win support for Britain in the Muslim world at a crucial moment – even in the face of public criticism.
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.”
Churchill’s attitude may appear hypocritical, given his forthright defence of the British Empire – which at its height ruled over millions of Muslims across India, Egypt and the Middle East.
In his book The River War (1899) – his account of the frontier wars of India and Sudan – he was scathing of the fundamentalist, ultra conservative Mahdiyya form of Islam adopted by the Dervish population of North Africa.
He states: “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.”
Lady Gwendeline Spencer Churchill (National Portrait Gallery London)
But Dr Dockter says a closer examination of Churchill’s attitude to the wider Muslim world reveals it to be “in stark contrast to the purely imperialistic and orientalist perspective of many of his contemporaries”.
In his book, he states: “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.”
The revelation that Churchill had a close affinity for Muslim culture comes at a time when tensions between the three great monotheistic faiths, Christianity, Judaism and Islam are greater than they have been for centuries.
Ironically, many of the fault lines between Islam and the West have their roots in the world Churchill helped shape after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the redrawing of the Middle East at the end of the First World War.
The settlements between the region’s colonial powers, brokered by Churchill, with T E Lawrence – “Lawrence of Arabia” – as an adviser, gave birth, in Dr Dockter’s words, to “the Middle East we know, warts and all”.
Sir Winston Churchill in Bangalore, India in 1897
Dr Dockter, who assisted Boris Johnson on his book The Churchill Factor, said: “Not many people are aware that Churchill and T E Lawrence were friends or that they worked together to solve the riddles of the Middle Eastern settlements. Understanding these settlements is paramount to understanding the legacy of Britain in the Middle East.”
Of course, Churchill did not convert to Islam, and Dr Dockter concludes that his fascination was “largely predicated on Victorian notions, which heavily romanticised the nomadic lifestyle and honour culture of the Bedouin tribes”.
Such was his limited understanding of Islam that as colonial secretary during the early 1920s he had to ask what the difference was between Shia and Sunni Muslims, the two major groupings whose long-standing animosity is currently playing out in Syria and Iraq.
As Dr Dockter points out, at least he had the good sense to ask the question in the first place, regarding an issue which bedevils the West’s involvement in the region to this day.