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 he 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.”
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SOURCE: The Telegraph