How did Churchill view Islam and Muslims?

Winston Churchill was so interested in Islam that his family thought he might convert

Peter Harrison

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As the world grows increasingly concerned by terror threats, with the finger often pointing in the direction of Muslims, it is worth noting that one of Britain’s most respected statesmen - Winston Churchill - was so interested in Islam that his family thought he might convert.

In 1907 his future sister-in-law Lady Gwendoline Bertie wrote to him in a passionately worded letter: “Please don’t become converted to Islam; I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to orientalize [fascination with the Orient and Islam], Pasha-like tendencies, I really have.”

Lady Gwendoline, who later married Churchill’s brother Jack, said: “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.”

The letter, written in 1907, from Lady Gwendoline was found by Cambridge University history fellow Dr. Warren Dockter while researching a book about Churchill.

Docktor told British newspaper The Independent, that while Churchill was progressive for his time - he saw Muslims as equals to Christians – he “never seriously considered converting."

He added “He was more or less an atheist by this time anyway. He did however have a fascination with Islamic culture which was common among Victorians.”

While he held the Muslim faith in high regard, he was later also seen by the Jewish world as a Zionist hero.

The Jewish population welcomed his support - early in his career when he served as Colonial Secretary - for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Publically Churchill was well known for his drawing up of boundaries across the Middle East, creating oil companies and dealing with uprisings - not least in 1920 in Iraq - historically the region do not look upon him favorably.

And in Churchill's 1899 book ‘The River War', about Britain's 19th Century war in Sudan, he included a passage condemning Islam that says: “No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith."

He was not a hardliner – originally a member of the British Conservative Party, he switched to the center-left Liberals in 1904.

And despite his role in the Colonial department Dockter said: “He often came to loggerheads on imperial policies with hardline 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.”

Later in life he and his close friend Wilfrid S. Blunt - a poet and supporter of Muslim causes - were so interested in the Muslim world that the pair took to dressing in Arab clothes.

Later on in his career in 1940, when Britain was at war with Nazi Germany, Churchill approved plans for a central London mosque in Regent’s Park and earmarked $152k for the project.

Although publicly criticized for the project, he hoped it would help build Muslim support for Britain.

Dockter wrote of Churchill’s views of Islamic people and culture that they were “an often paradoxical and complex combination of imperialist perceptions composed of typical orientalist ideals fused with the respect, understanding and magnanimity he had gained from his experiences in his early military career, creating a perspective that was uniquely Churchillian.”

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