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.