Churchill and the Islamic World

Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East
Warren Dockter
I.B. Tauris 377pp £25

Churchill’s involvement with the British Empire has received much attention but his attitude to the Islamic world has been largely neglected. Yet, as Churchill pointed out, the Empire, at its peak, included more Muslims than any other state. He was also acutely aware that, if the Empire was to endure, Britain needed to respect Muslim sensitivities. In this scholarly and wide-ranging study, Dockter surveys Churchill’s views on the Islamic world throughout his career. He paints a nuanced portrait of Churchill’s outlook, eschewing denigration and hagiography. He argues that Churchill believed that Islam and the British Empire could have a common purpose; a Victorian view, which he failed to update in his later career.

The subtitle of the book is misleading. ‘Orientalism’ had little influence on Churchill’s perception of the Islamic world, except with regard to the Bedouin Arabs and perhaps to his paintings. Similarly, much of the book relates only indirectly to Islam per se. Further, India was not in the Middle East, but contained the largest number of Muslims in the Empire. 

Dockter does not pay much attention to Egypt before the 1950s, although it was the most populous, influential country in the Middle East. On India, he contrasts Churchill’s positive attitude to the Muslims, as a martial race loyal to Britain, with his negative views of the Hindus. But Churchill’s opposition to Gandhi, Brahmin rule, the caste system and child brides did not make him hostile to all Hindus, some of whom shared his reservations about representative self-government. Further, he was aware from his early days on the North-West Frontier and in the Sudan that Muslim zealots strengthened opposition to British rule. 

On many issues, Dockter provides a balanced, persuasive assessment of Churchill’s outlook. He stresses the importance that Churchill attached to Turkey before and after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate. He also explains why Churchill, in an apparent volte-face, championed military action against the Turks at Gallipoli in 1915 and at Chanak in 1922. His support for a ‘Sherifian solution’ to the power vacuum created by the fall of the Ottoman Empire reflected not only the influence of T.E. Lawrence but also Churchill’s determination to reduce the cost of maintaining Britain’s new informal empire in the Middle East. On Palestine, Dockter points out that Churchill’s well-known support for Zionism was balanced by his support for Arab rule in Transjordan and Mesopotamia. He sought to create not a fully independent Jewish state but a Jewish homeland within a wider Middle Eastern Federation. His hope that Jew and Arab would work together was a well-intentioned aspiration.

Dockter concludes by acknowledging that Churchill assessed the Islamic world largely on whether it would help or hurt the British Empire. Yet he also asserts that Churchill felt a camaraderie with Islam, which went beyond self-interest. Certainly Churchill assessed Muslims – like other religious groups – according, not to the details of their faith, but to the character of their conduct. 

Roland Quinault is the author of British Prime Ministers and Democracy: From Disraeli to Blair (Continuum, 2011).

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