Churchill's complicated legacy in the Arab world

While he angered many Arabs by backing the Balfour Declaration, others praised his role in helping achieve Syrian and Lebanese independence.

Churchill had created a social hierarchy for the Middle East, and at its helm were the Arab Bedouins, then came the urban merchants in cities like Damascus. The third tier was Palestinian farmers.
Mona Eing
Churchill had created a social hierarchy for the Middle East, and at its helm were the Arab Bedouins, then came the urban merchants in cities like Damascus. The third tier was Palestinian farmers.

Churchill's complicated legacy in the Arab world

Throughout the 19th century, international diplomatic dispatches referred to our part of the world as either the East or the Orient. The French would later devise the term “Near East” in reference to territory controlled by the Ottoman Empire.

The term “Middle East” was only first used by American historian Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1902 and would be picked up and popularised by The Times before becoming official and entering the dictionary of foreign affairs, thanks to Winston Churchill, who, while serving as Colonial Secretary in 1921-1923, created its famous Middle East Department.

Churchill’s first tenure as premier during World War II is well-known and well-documented. From May 1940 to July 1945, he led the nation through its darkest hours and would return to the premiership in October 1951 and stay in power until April 1955, receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

He remained MP until 1964 and died on 24 January 1965. The Arabs remain divided on what to make of the man. Some will never forgive his support for the Balfour Declaration, which eventually led to the occupation of Palestine in 1948.

Others, however, regard him as a brilliant statesman who almost single-handedly created the modern states of Iraq and Jordan while playing a pivotal role in securing the independence of Syria and Lebanon.

First encounters with Muslims and Arabs

Born in 1874, Churchill was raised in the heyday of the British Empire and received a highly imperialistic education like all his contemporaries. His first encounter with the Muslim world was when, as a young 23-year-old soldier, he was sent on assignment to the Indian south frontier (present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan) in October 1896.

He was fascinated by cities like Hyderabad but wrote to his mother back home that he would enter it on an elephant so the natives wouldn’t spit on him. He knew that Great Britain was unpopular in the colonies, but yet, ever loyal to his country, he saw it as the cornerstone of progress with a duty to “civilise the world.”

His interpretation of civilisation was not the Old World's centuries-old culture but rather London's modernity and progress. Before returning home for a visit, he once again wrote his mother: “I am looking forward immensely to seeing civilisation again after the barbarous squalor of this country.”

Two years later, Churchill was stationed in Sudan, coinciding with a period in his life where he had started to distance himself from all religions.

That explains why he frowned on the conservative Muslim society that he saw in Khartoum, remarking in his 1899 book The River War: “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammadism lays on its votaries."

"Individual Muslims may show splendid qualities. Thousands have become brave and loyal soldiers of the queen; all of them know how to die. But the influence of the religion paralysis the social development of those who follow it.”

For many, that single phrase was damming proof of Winston Churchill being both racist and Islamophobic. However, he would regret his language later and drop the entire phrase from the book's second edition in 1901.

Some will never forgive Churchill's support for the Balfour Declaration, which eventually led to the occupation of Palestine in 1948.

Sudden fascination with Islam

Churchill's more nuanced views on the region and its people were undoubtedly influenced by his good friend, British poet and writer Wilfrid S. Blunt, who had travelled the Middle East and knew its history and culture well.

Blunt was an Arabist who spent long hours talking to Churchill about the virtues of the Muslim faith. By 1910, there were 20 million Muslims in the Ottoman Empire, with another 62 million in British India and 10 million in Egypt. And since India and Egypt were part of the British Empire, Churchill would later describe it as "the greatest Mohammadian power in the world."

Churchill began seeing the Muslims as an asset, and in his diaries, Blunt says that at one point, he even talked him into dressing up in Arab attire, with a keffiyeh and abaya. Churchill would mention this masquerade to his friend Lady Constance Lytton, an influential speaker and campaigner for women's rights.

"You would think me a pasha," he wrote to her, "…I wish I were."

His sudden fascination with Islam raised the ire of another friend, Lady Gwendoline Bettie, who wrote begging him not to become a Muslim. "Please don't convert to Islam," she said. "I have noticed in your disposition a tendency towards Orientalism."

Churchill and the Ottomans 

In 1902, Churchill met with Aga Khan III, impressing him with his knowledge of the region and for memorising entire passages from Edward Fitzgerald's 1859 translation of Rubaiyat al-Kham.  

As Undersecretary of State for the Colonies, he took a cruise to the region in 1910 and stayed for four days in Istanbul, where he met Sultan Mehmed V.

The Ottoman sultan did not impress him, coming across as uninteresting and senile. But Enver Pasha had a remarkable impact on Churchill, then a ranking member of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) who would soon become minister of war and chief-of-staff of the Ottoman Army.

Churchill described him as a "would-be-Napoleon", and recalling their first meeting, he would write: "I was attracted by this fine-looking young officer. Had it been possible for the main lines of British policy to have been more in accord with legitimate Turkish aspirations, I am sure we would have worked agreeably with him." 

After becoming First Lord of Admiralty in 1911, Churchill strove for an alliance with the Ottomans, given that their empire and his were the strongest "Mohammadian powers" in the world.

He was not alone, however, in seeking an alliance with the Ottomans; so was the emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II. He advised Foreign Secretary Edward Grey: "Turkey has much to offer. We are the only power that can really help and guide her."

To this end, he approved selling two splendid battleships to the Ottoman Army, the Reshadieh and Sultan Osman, at reduced prices. He even offered to build a dock for them, but by the summer of 1914, he changed his mind as war loomed in Europe, eventually keeping them with the British Navy. 

On 4 November 1914, Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire went to war, and seven days later, Sultan Mehmed V declared a holy war against the British. Officially, Churchill promised to break this "inefficient and out-of-date nation," but privately, he continued striving for an understanding with Enver Pasha until 1916.

After failing military in the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, Churchill was forced to resign as First Lord of the Admiralty, returning as minister of munitions in 1917 and, two years later, as Secretary of War in January 1919.

By then, however, the First World War was over, and the Ottoman Empire — weakened and dismembered — was beginning its long march into history. Churchill wanted it maintained under strict international supervision on the condition that it remain weak and toothless.  

Churchill's more nuanced views on the region were undoubtedly influenced by his good friend, British poet Wilfrid S. Blunt. In 1910, he began viewing Muslims as an asset.

Between the two wars

In his new job as Minister of War, Churchill wanted to downsize British military presence across the world, saying that British troops were costing too much to feed, train, equip, and protect. This could be significantly reduced, he reasoned, now that the guns had gone silent.

He also feared that any insubordination of disturbances within British barracks would be used for infiltration by the communists. Several ideas were put on the table on what to do with the Middle East, now free from 400 years of Ottoman rule.

Some of them were wild and utterly ignorant of the region, like putting the Holy Places under US control (proposed by Colonial Secretary Lewis Harcourt in 1915).

The former governor of Egypt, Herbet Kitchener, wanted Mecca and Medina to be transferred to British control. However, Churchill advocated phased disengagement by empowering the Arabs to become financially independent and support themselves and relieve pressure on the British treasury. But there was one problem with that. He was only willing to work with Arabs who were pro-British. 

The Colonial Office and Cairo Conference 

Members of the Mesopotamia Commission pose for a group photo at the Cairo Conference in 1921 in Egypt, where they discussed the future of the Middle East and divided up the countries.

On 1 January 1921, Churchill was appointed Colonial Secretary by Prime Minister Lloyd George, who, according to American historian Warren Dockter, wanted to invest in his "imagination and energy."

This was when Churchill established the Middle East Department, appointing Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence – the legendary Lawrence of Arabia – who had fought with the Arabs in their revolt against Ottoman rule, leading them to victory in 1918.

They first met at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and became good friends. Churchill held his opinion in high esteem, and Lawrence would work, as Wilfred Blunt did before him, towards steering him towards Arab aspirations.

At the Colonial Office, Churchill created a uniform way to spell Arabic names. He brought a map of the region to his office, showing who exercised influence in every geographical territory. He also asked to be briefed about the differences between Shiites and Sunnis. 

In this capacity, Churchill convened the famous Cairo Conference between 12 and 30 March 1921, which led to the creation of the modern states of Transjordan and Iraq.

Years later, he would famously say that he created the emirate of Transjordan "with the stroke of a pen, on a Sunday afternoon." Sharif Hussein became king of the Hejaz, and his two sons, Abdullah and Faisal, were enthroned, respectively, in Amman and Baghdad.

Faisal had recently been ejected from his throne in Syria when the country was put under a French mandate. Lawrence lobbied strongly for his compensation, arguing that he was a faithful and loyal friend of the British.

Abdullah had amassed an army to march on Damascus to liberate it from the French and was convinced to accept an alternate fiefdom in Transjordan "for six months." Churchill and Lawrence travelled to Jerusalem to meet him and convinced the emir to accept the offer, saying he should ward off anti-British and anti-French sentiment. 

Winston Churchill, TE Lawrence and Emir Abdullah of Jordan in the gardens of the Government House, Jerusalem, at a secret conference in 1921.

Lawrence knew Abdullah from their joint days in the Arab World. He didn't like him, describing him as "self-indulgent," but he was deeply fond of Faisal, whom he saw as graceful and chivalrous. This affection was channelled to Churchill, who also seemed amiable to Faisal until they later proposed a treaty to regulate Iraqi-British relations.

Furious with what he saw as delinquency, Churchill wrote him an angry letter on 17 August 1922, reminding him of the high cost the British government had paid to establish his throne in Baghdad.

"I have learned with profound regret the course in which Your Majesty is resolved to preserve. It will only lead to the downfall of the hopes of cooperation between the British government and the Sherifian family."

He would eventually be advised to shelve the letter and subsequently agree to the Ango-Iraqi Treaty of October 1922, giving Iraq limited self-governance while keeping its foreign affairs in the hands of the British. 

As Wilfred Blunt did before him, Thomas 'Lawrence of Arabia' would work to steer Churchill towards Arab aspirations.

Zionism and the Palestinians 

The creation of the modern state of Jordan raised loud objections from the Zionists, who argued that this had halved the territory given to them by the Balfour Declaration. Churchill respected the Jewish National Agency and frequently praised the resolve of their leaders. 

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

When meeting a delegation of Palestinian notables in Jerusalem on 28 March 1921, he frowned upon their criticism of Jewish emigration to their country. In as much as he respected the Zionists, he didn't think highly of the Palestinians, probably inspired again by Lawrence, who described them as "materialistic and bankrupt."

With his famed bulldog face, Churchill told the Palestinian notables: "You ask me to repudiate the Balfour Declaration and to stop the emigration. It is not in my power nor my wish to do this."

Churchill had created a social hierarchy for the Middle East, and at its helm were the Arab Bedouins, whom he liked and felt he could do business with. Coming in second were urban merchants of Middle Eastern cities like Damascus, followed at a distant third was the category of farmers, into which he looped the Palestinians.

And this structure was evident in how he described Arab leaders, with the most considerable praise going to King Abdulaziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia. During World War II, he hailed "the splendid king, Ibn Saud, who in the darkest hours never failed to send messages and encouragement of his unshakable faith that we should win this war."

Winston Churchill sits with King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia during lunch at Auberge due Lac, Fayoum, in February 1945.

Outbreak of World War II

After World War II broke out in 1939, Churchill's focus shifted entirely to Europe. However, the Muslim world remained strategically important for military reasons, and he wanted to make sure that Nazism never penetrated it.

In October 1940, he approved the construction of the London Mosque to please the city's large Muslim community, wanting to win minds and hearts in the Muslim world. But when the shah of Iran refused to break with Adolf Hitler, Churchill commanded the joint invasion of his country with the Russians in August 1941.

Reza Shah was toppled, humiliated, and exiled to the island of Mauritius. At the same time, his son replaced him on the Peacock Throne in Tehran with assurances that he would cooperate fully with the Allies and never cross Winston Churchill.

Churchill supported the national movements in both Syria and Lebanon.

When Syria fell under the control of Vichy France, Churchill marshalled an army with the Free French forces of Charles de Gaulle to liberate it from the Nazis. 

That campaign, known as Operation Exporter, took place in June 1941, leading to the re-establishment of British military presence in Syria.

After sharing the country with de Gaulle, Churchill began to squeeze the French out of Syria, hoping to replace their influence with that of the British.

He supported the national movements in both Syria and Lebanon, meeting with Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli in Cairo in February 1945 and inviting Damascus and Beirut to take part in the founding conference of the United Nations, held in San Fransisco that April. 

Syria's first president Shukri al-Quwatli and Prime Minister Winston Churchill - Suez Canal, Feb 1945

King Abdul-Aziz and King Farouk organised the meeting, and in return, Syria declared war on the Axis, formally entering World War II. 

Churchill even wrote to Charles de Gaulle saying: "You know that we have sought no special advantage over the Free French and have no intention of exploiting the tragic position of France for our own good."

"I welcome, therefore, your decision to promise independence to Syria and Lebanon, and as you know, I think it is essential that we should lend to this promise the full weight of our guarantee."

Furious at bringing Syria to the UN from behind his back, de Gaulle ordered an aerial bombardment of the Syrian capital on 29 May 1945. British officials are often accused of triggering the assault with the specific purpose of ruining the French in Syria.

Two days later, on 1 June 1945, Churchill sent de Gaulle an ultimatum, ordering him to begin withdrawing his troops from Syria, ending 26 years of French occupation. 

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