Despite its importance, Winston Churchill’s relationship with Islam and the Arab World has not before been the subject of a specific study. Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East by Warren Dockter (University of Cambridge), however, has filled this void in the Churchill literature. This book studies Churchill’s personal relationship with the religion and his political dealings with the Arabs as well as the other states and peoples of the Middle East.
In the first chapter of the book Dockter describes Churchill’s initial contacts with Islam as a cavalry officer on the North West Frontier and in the Sudan as well as his “orientalism” phase in which he developed a “fascination with the Orient (and to some degree, with Islam).” The often quoted hostile comments Churchill made about Islam in The River War during this period did not reflect the sum of Churchill’s opinion on the subject. Dockter writes that Churchill had an “ever-evolving and at time conflicting perceptions towards the Arab World.” This evolution, while retaining a Victorian and Imperialist outlook, developed towards a respect for and indeed, at times, a great interest in Islamic culture.
The following seven chapters of the book study Churchill’s relationship with the Middle East as a senior British statesman and twice prime minister. His most important involvement with the Middle East was as Colonial Secretary in the Lloyd-George government in the aftermath of the First World War. As Dockter notes, in this cabinet post Churchill assembled such sweeping powers that “the entire general policy of Britain regarding the Middle East was placed in Churchill’s hands.” Using these powers Churchill sought to place his imprint on the Middle East, including pursuing the sherifian solution of placing Hashemite rulers on the thrones of the newly created states of Iraq and the Trans-Jordan and implementing the Balfour Declaration while also seeking “a middle ground between the Zionists and Palestinian Arabs.” As Colonial Secretary, Churchill was influenced by the need to reduce the financial expenditures of maintaining the British position in the Middle East and the opinions of his close advisor T.E. Lawrence. He also believed that as the British Empire had more Muslim subjects than any other state it was thus the largest Muslim power in the world and had to take Muslim sensibilities into account.
After his close involvement with the Middle East as Colonial Secretary, it is noteworthy how the region was of only tertiary importance when Churchill was prime minister during the Second World War. Dockter’s discussion in the chapter entitled “Churchill, the Middle East, and India during World War II” centers mainly on the brief Iraqi revolt and the Syrian campaign.
Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East is a detailed, well-researched, and nuanced study. It convincingly describes Churchill’s evolving view of Islam and his complex relationship with the Middle East and Arab World.