Unpacking Imperial Britain’s Islamists.

Imperial Britain duplicitously completed its control of the Middle East during World War one with the famous ‘Arab Revolt’. Sharif Hussain, the leader of the north-western Hijaz region of Arabian peninsula, was given the strong impression that Britain would support an independent and unified Arab state in exchange for support against the Ottoman Caliphate, which had taken the side of Germany. This strong impression is mainly contained in the Hussain-Macmahon letters.[1] 

Imperial Britain, of course, literally had other ideas. Simultaneously and unbeknown to Sharif Hussain, Britain had also made a commitment with France and Tsarist Russia to jointly carve up the Ottoman Caliphate as well as a commitment to “facilitate” the creation of “Jewish National Home” to a small band of European Zionists in Palestine.

Before the British entry into the region during this period the Wahhabis were an isolated sect tucked away and exiled in the southern tip of the Basra province, known as ‘Kuwait’ and the Muslim Brotherhood was non-existent. As such, I focus on these two movements because, as we shall see, they were the initial and most direct beneficiaries of Imperial Britain’s noble patronage.  

The religiously fanatical Wahhabis initially came to social and political prominence as part of a pact with the al-Saud tribe in the eighteenth century in the central part of the Arabian peninsula known as the Najd.  The founder of this doctrine, Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, claimed that Muslims had deviated from the divine path and allowed un-Islamic innovations (bid’ah) to enter their religion. One of the innovations that fervently exercised him, was so-called ‘saint-worship’ or visiting of the tombs of saints for supplicatory devotions. This, Abd al-Wahhab argued, leads to polytheism (Shirk) which is to associate another deity with Allah. And as Islam is based on a strict monotheism, practising polytheism is tantamount leaving the faith altogether. To this day, smashing the tombs of Muslim saints is attendant upon Wahhabi expansion.  

Upon its appearance, this new theology was refuted by all established Muslim bodies. More so, his theological diatribes were rejected by his own brother, a traditional Islamic scholar.  After being thrown out from one village to the next for his extremism, he did eventually find an agreeable home with the al-Saud clan.  However, what became known as the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance, after initial expansive successes covering half a century was a dead and spent force until the British arrived in the region in the late 19th century.[2]

With British weapons, obtained via the provincial Shaikh of ‘Kuwait’, the Saudi-Wahhabis established themselves in the central part of the Arabian peninsula, known as ‘Najd’ by first capturing Riyadh in 1902 and then incrementally expanding further in that region.[3]

The Ottoman Caliphate’s entry into World War one, provided the Wahhabis with an opportunity to further extend their rule and banish their (and Britain’s) local rivals.  The leader of the Wahhabis, Sultan Abd al-Aziz al-Saud, maybe knowing that his brand of Islam was always rejected by the established schools of Islamic thought and law came into an official agreement withBritain.  An official treaty between Abd al-Aziz andBritainwas declared and signed in 1915. The Ottoman Caliphate sided withGermanyin this war andBritainwas at war withGermany.  In their first and only battle during this war, the Wahhabis were joined by British political agent ofKuwait, Captain William Shakespear.  The Wahhabis were defeated and Shakespear whose role was to direct the fire from a cannon onto the Caliphate’s troops, was killed.  Had there been a victory for the Wahhabis, it seems thatBritainwas intending on unleashing them intoBaghdad,Meccaand along the Hijaz railway route:

“ There is no reason to doubt that if he (William Shakespear) had lived he would have organised British support for Ibn Saud and his Ikhwan (Wahhabi fanatics)…either north towards Baghdad or west towards the Mecca railway…”[4]

In other words, it was this British-Wahhabi defeat which seemed to have led Imperial Britain into then entering into the aforementioned correspondence and supposed agreement with Sharif Hussain of the Hijaz.

However, the Sharif Husain would later fail to come to terms with the new imperial British dispensation, including Britain’s Zionist project (or the “Palestine Mandate” as it is diplomatically known), in a meeting with British officials in April 1924 and within a year a revitalised Sultan of the Wahhabis invaded and annexed the Hijaz.[5]

On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt was founded by Hasan al-Banna during his teaching stint in Ismaliyya, a town generously populated by employees of the British owned Suez Canal Company, in 1928.  It seems that the owners of the Suez Canal Company were impressed enough with Mr al-Banna to the extent that they part funded the first institution, a mosque, built by the Muslim Brotherhood.[6]  Mr al-Banna, on his behalf, although very publicly contemptuous of foreign economic denomination by companies such as the Suez Canal Company, was strangely not untoward in accepting the fruits of this economic domination.  After four years of developing the new movement in Ismaliyya he moved the nucleus of the organisation to where he had earlier studied, Cairo.

Banna’s relationship with the ruling dynasty ensconced in the palace in Cairo and the palace’s actual rulers, the representatives of the British Empire is murky but all too real.  One of Hasan al-Banna’s admirers was a Mr. J. Heyworth-Dunne, an employee (and future scholar) of the British Embassy in Cairo. It is said that he was the cultural attaché at the British embassy in Cairo.  His admiration, even hero-worship, for Mr al-Banna is contained in the first book (in the English language) on the Muslim Brotherhood, “Religious and Political Trends in Modern Egypt”.[7] This book is considered by one authoritative account as a primary source of information on the group.[8]  However, Heyworth-Dunne is too possessed of imperial modesty to not refer to himself as a participant in some of the early history of the Muslim Brotherhood, but simply refers to his attendance at group meetings purely in an observatory capacity.[9]   

The challenges faced by the British Empire in twenties and thirties Egyptwere twofold.  Firstly, President Wilsons’s “declaration of self-determination inspired the Egyptians to higher ideals…”.[10] That is, the type of self-determination or independence Sharif Hussain thought he was winning when he colluded with the Britain in the so-called, ‘Arab Revolt’. Secondly, there was what Heyworth-Dunne refers to as “communistic ideas” i.e. socialism and what later was called, third world nationalism.

To offset these challenges, it was British officials such as Mr Heyworth-Dunne in the pre-war period, which identified Islam as the ‘rallying cry’[11] by which British interests can be maintained.  However, this Islam is not the Islam that had been practised in the region in previous centuries but the Islam as “taught and represented by Hasan al-Banna” so wrote Heyworth-Dunne.[12] 

Heyworth-Dunne’s admiration was certainly not limited to al-Banna. Our man in Cairo was also in awe of one Sayyid Qutb, who many in the last decade have argued is the Godfather of modern jihadi violence. The Empire’s former cultural attaché declared him to be, “a first class writer and literary critic.” More importantly he was a, “firm believer in the principles of Islam, and thinks that the religion can be reformed to face communism…” and also to “diffuse socialistic ideas.”[13]

One must keep in mind that for the British elite of this period (and the Americans during the Cold War) “communism” and “socialism” is an all encompassing generic label denoting any ideology or movement which is not in congruence with British economic and geo-political interests.

As we can see, both of these movements singularly came to modern political formation during the overt British imperial reign in the Arab World. By the end of the second world war, Sultan Abd al-Aziz al-Saud had established the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, while the Muslim Brotherhood had become one of the largest mass political parties, if not the largest, in Egypt. 

In the immediate post war period, Heyworth-Dunne was joined by other British intellectuals such as the academic Bernard Lewis and Reverend Kenneth Cragg in their noble and divinely unsolicited defence of Islam.[14] Writing in 1954, Lewis asserted that, “Communism is not and cannot be a religion, while Islam, for the great mass of believers, still is; and that is the core of the Islamic resistance to Communist ideas.”[15]

According to the Arab writer and political biographer, Said Aburish, the United States enlisted into this British driven Islamist strategy with the implementation of the Eisenhower doctrine in the late 1950’s.[16] This doctrine was supposedly aimed at containing the threat purportedly posed by Soviet Russia in the Middle East.

Simultaneously, in the early 1960’s the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi-Wahhabim began to coalesce under the perceived multiple threats of Gamal Abd al-Nasser of Egypt, Third World Nationalism and socialism.

The World Muslim League was set up in 1962 by the Wahhabi King Faisal of Saudi Arabia at a conference in May 1962. Most of the major Islamist luminaries of the day attended this conference, including of course, the Muslim Brotherhood. Actually, according to the son the then leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the League was a Brotherhood initiative.[17] The purpose of the League was, “to disrupt the growth of Third World nationalism and its secular sense of community, and to recall in its place the sublime bonds of religion.” [18]

Their ultimate union came with the war against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s. The Arab volunteers in this war, the so-called ‘Arab-Afghans’, upon arrival at the Afghan-Pakistan border, were centred around the offices of the World Muslim League and Muslim Brotherhood in Peshawar.. This office, known as Maktab al-Khidmat (MAK), was run by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam.[19]

Azzam was a “huge influence”[20]on Osama bin Laden as well as a “mentor”[21] and it was Azzam that was ferried around the United States recruiting for the CIA-Saudi war against the Soviet Union’s backed Marxist government of Afghanistan.[22]

Yet this historical trajectory which originated in the bosom of Imperial Britain is rarely acknowledged. Instead, according to the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a foreign policy speech given on the 3rd anniversary of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq,[23] “The roots of…extremism are deep.  They reach down through decades of alienation, victimhood and political oppression in the Arab…World.” What Blair, Prime Minister of the dodgy-dossier, predictably but possibly perfidiously fails to mention in this speech was the foresight and initiative shown by British imperialist, intellectuals and officers in identifying this Islamic extremism or Islamism as the most expedient weapon against perceived anti-British interests in the Arab World so many decades ago.

Originally published at Pulse Media in February 2009. 


[1]               George Antonious, The Arab Awakening, (Florida: Simon Publications, 2001) Appendix A and D, pg. 413 and 433 respectively.

[2]               Gary Troeller, The Birth of Saudi Arabia, (London : Frank Cass, 1976), pg. 13-14

[3]               Troeller, ibid, pg20

[4]               Troeller, ibid, pg.120, nt. 24 and David Howarth, The Desert King, (London : Quartet Books, 1980), pg. 82.  In this respect, T.E. Lawrence only became “of Arabia” because British-Wahhabism was routed at this point by the Ottoman Caliphate. 

[5]               John Keay, Sowing the Wind, (London: John Murray), 2003, pg. 211.

[6]               Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, (Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press, 1993, pg. 9       

[7]               J. Heyworth-Dunne, Religious and Political Trends in ModernEgypt, (Washington: McGregor & Werner, Inc., 1950)               

[8]               Mitchell, op. cit., xxiv: Heyworth-Dunne, “was a participant in some of the history of the movement and his work must be considered a primary source.” (Italics are mine).           

[9]               Heyworth-Dunne refers to himself as an observer. See Heyworth-Dunne, op. Cit., pg vii.  

[10]             Heyworth-Dunne, op. cit., pg5         

[11]             The term belongs to Robert Dreyfuss. See his Robert Dreyfuss, Devils Game, (New York, Metropolitan Books, 2005).  In some respects this essay is filling out the important gaps in the early chapters of this (and Said Aburish’s, The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of The House of Saud, London: Bloomsbury, 2005) essential book.  

[12]             Heyworth-Dunne, op. cit., pg50.        

[13]             ibid, pg 97-8.

[14]             Dreyfuss, op cit., pg83-84

[15]             Bernard Lewis, ‘Communism and Islam’, International Affairs, 1954, Vol.30, No.1, pg.12

[16]             Said Aburish, Nasser, The Last Arab, London:Duckworth, 2005, pg128

[17]             Dreyfuss, op cit, pg136

[18]             Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations, New York, The New Press, pg. 260

[19]             Ahmed Rashid, Taliban, London: Pan Books, 2000, pg 131.

[20]             Jason Burke, “al-Qaeda”, (London:IB Taurus), 2003, pg.68

[21]             Abdel Bari Atwan, “The Secret History of al-Qaeda”, (London:Saqi Books), 2006, pg. 73

[22]             John Cooley, Unholy Wars (London: Pluto Press), 2002, pg70.

[23]             Tony Blair, ‘A Clash about Civilisations’ http://www.number10.gov.uk/Page9224. Access 30th August 2008.

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