In response to my “Letter from London” essay and comments on Winston Churchill in the March issue, Wayne Lapham sent me a fascinating quote by Churchill from his book, The River War, published in 1899. It needs to be passed along in its entirety, and remember that Churchill was 24 years old at the time:“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyzes the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”
I am particularly struck by the insightful phrases, “fearful fatalistic apathy”, “paralyzes the social development”, and “retrograde force” and I wonder how confident he would now be that European Christianity is still “sheltered in the strong arms of science”.
Little did Sir Winston know then that just over twenty years later he would be assigned to manage the affairs of the defeated Ottoman Empire, including Mesopotamia, which produced a new map of the Middle East, making, among other inventions, a new nation—Iraq—out of a collection of tribes, decisions that continue to haunt us today as we seek to forge a “unity government” among the same tribes. Given the sentiments earlier expressed in his book, he had to know that this region and these decisions would be a continuing problem, and many historians have blamed him for not being more visionary.
But I believe we can’t blame Churchill; he did the best he could do with the tools and raw material at his disposal at the time. Moreover, he was a product of his time: the Victorian notion of “progress” which had morphed into Wilsonian and Fabian Socialist “progressivism”, shared by the well-intentioned, but also by the condescending and often duplicitous protectors of the perks of empire. All of this, in addition to the arrogance that we can play “czar” in dividing up the world to suit our interests and our preferences or to “teach people to elect good men” (Wilson). It is left for our generation to correct these misconceptions and the unfinished business. Freedom under the rule of law is the answer. The people of Iraq will now work it out. It will take more time and, unfortunately, more blood, but it is better than the alternatives.