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Extract from A Peace to End All Peace - Chpt 10
Kitchener sets out to capture Islam
The West and the Middle East have misunderstood each other throughout most of the twentieth century; and much of that misunderstanding can be traced back to Lord Kitchener’s initiatives in the early years of the First World War. The peculiarities of his character, the deficiencies of his understanding of the Moslem world, the misinformation regularly supplied to him by his lieutenants in Cairo and Khartoum, and his choice of Arab politicians with whom to deal have coloured the course of political events ever since.
To appreciate the novelty of Kitchener’s approach to the Middle East, it must be remembered that when the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War, Asquith, Grey, and Churchill did not intend to retaliate by seizing any of its domains for Britain. They did propose to allow Britain’s allies to make territorial gains in Europe and Asia Minor at Turkeys expense; but Asquiths Britain had no territorial designs of her own on Ottoman lands, either in the Middle East or elsewhere. Kitchener, however, maintained that when the war was over, it was in Britain’s vital interest to seize much of the Ottoman Empire for herself: the Arabic speaking part. This would mean a total reversal of Britain’s traditional policy.
Kitchener, like most Britions who had lived in the East, believed that in the Moslem religion counts for everything. But the Field Marshall and his colleagues in Cairo and Khartoum mistakenly seemed to believe that Mohammedanism was a centralised authoritarian structure. They regarded Islam as a single entity: as an ‘it’, as an organisation. The believed that it obeyed its leaders. Centuries before, Cortez has won control of Mexico by seizing the Aztec emperor; and medieval French kings had tried to control Christendom by keeping the pope captive in Avignon. In much the same spirit, Kitchener and his colleagues believed that Islam could be bought manipulated, or captured by buying, manipulating, or capturing its religious leadership. They were intrigued by the notion that whoever controlled the person of the Caliph – Mohammeds successor – controlled Islam.
Central to Kitchener’s analysis was the contention that the Caliph might hurl Islam against Britain. Since Sunni Moslems (who predominated in Mohammedan India) regarded the Turkish Sultan as a Caliph, Kitchener perceived this as a continuing threat. In Cairo and Khartoum it was believed that, as of 1914, the Caliph had fallen into the hands of Jews and German; the war Minister worried that once the world war was won, the Caliph might become a tool in the hands of Britain’s Middle East rivals, particularly Russia.
In enemy hands, the caliphate could be used (Kitchener believed) to undermine Britain’s position in India, Egypt, and the Sudan. Britain ruled over half of the worlds Moslems. In India alone there were almost seventy million of them, and Mohammedans constituted a disportionately large part of the Indian Army. In Egypt and the Sudan, Britain ruled millions more, who lived alongside the Suez Canal sea road to India. Tiny Britain’s garrisons policed these tens of millions of natives, but Kitchener knew that they could not even begin to deal with a revolt.
The British imagination was haunted by the Indian Mutiny (1857-9), the mysterious uprising, incited by religion, that had brought down the rule of the East India Company. More recently the uprising in the Sudan, which Kitchener had so brilliantly avenged, was inspired by a new religious leader whoc himself the Mahdi, a title Europeans translated as ‘Messiah’. Pan-Islamic unrest in Egypt in 1905-06 had caused Britain deep concern. For Kitchener and his entourage, the possibility of a Moslem Holy War against Britain was a recurring nightmare.
The Director of information, John Buchan, dramatized these fears in his 1916 novel Greenmantle, in which Germany makes use of a Moslem prophet in a plot to destroy the British empire. The prophet appears in Turkey; there are portents of his coming; there’s is an ancient prophecy; there’s is a modern revelation; and the region in which he intends to ignite a rebellion is made explicit. ‘There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark. And the wind is blowing towards the Indian border.’
Kitchener believed that a call to arms by the Caliph against Britain during the 1914 war could be offset by the words or actions of other Moslem religious leaders. After Britain had won the war, however, more decisive action would be necessary. The reason was that when the war had been won, Russia was sure to take possession of Constantinople and – unless something was done about it – of the Caliph. Kitchener say a German controlled Caliph as merely dangerous – he would attempt to foment unrest in India to throw Britain off balance in the European war. But he saw a Russian controlled Caliph as a mortal danger to the British Empire; for (unlike Asquith and grey) Kitchener believed that Russia still harboured ambitions of taking India away from Britain. In Kitchener’s view, Germany was the enemy of Europe and Russia was the enemy of Asia: the paradox of the 1914 war in which Britain and Russia were allied was that be winning in Europe, Britain risked losing in Asia. The only completely satisfactory outcome of the war, from Kitchener’s point of view, was for Germany to lose it without Russia wining it – and in 1914 it was not clear how that could be accomplished. So the War Minister planned to strike first in the coming postwar struggle with Russia for control of the road to and into India.
Kitchener’s proposal was that, after the war, Britain should arrange for her own nominee to become Caliph. Mohammed had been and Arabian; Kitchener prised to encourage the view that Mohammed’s successors as Caliph should be Arabian too. The advantage of this was the coastline of the Arabian Peninsula could easily be controlled by the British navy; Britain would be able to insulate the Caliph from influence from Britain’s European rivals. Once Britain could install the Caliph within her sphere of influence in Arabia, Kitchener believed she could gain control of Islam. And even before the Ottoman Empire entered the war, Kitchener’s lieutenants in Cairo reminded the War Minister that an obvious candidate to be the Arabian Caliph – the ruler of Mecca – had already been in touch with him.