Why Margaret Thatcher hearted Islamists

Upon Margaret Thatcher’s death, her champions naturally eulogised her as a fighter for liberal democracy in Eastern Europe, while her detractors brought attention to the fact that she was highly supportive, even complimentary, of dictators and apartheid in the Global South such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Chile, Indonesia and South Africa as well as her assistance to the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Overlooked in both scenarios is her support of political Islamism and by extension Jihadis. Here is Thatcher in December 1979, advocating a political Islam as a counterweight to left-wing or communist ideology which she derogatively dubbed “imported Marxism”:

“I do not believe that we should judge Islam by events in Iran…There is a tide of self-confidence and self-awareness in the Muslim world which preceded the Iranian revolution, and will outlast its present excesses. The West should recognise this with respect, not hostility. The Middle East is an area where we all have much at stake. It is in our own interests, as well as in the interests of the people of that region, that they build on their own deep religious traditions…”[1]

Thatcher’s corollary that “our interests as well as…the interests of the people of that region…” are one and the same initiative is rooted in a particular type of British imperialist strategy that was generally articulated by Frederick Luggard.

An imperial officer in Northern Nigeria in the nineteenth century, Luggard managed the local Fulani emirs (rulers) on the basis they “were allowed to retain the trappings of power so long they accepted the advice of their new overlords.”[2] There was nothing new about this puppet-overlord relationship in the history of British Imperialism and indeed Empire. But what Luggard added, inter alia, is a further aspect to this relationship. He framed the Empire’s relationship with its subjects “in terms of the preservation” of their way of life. So therefore the British Empire’s responsibility or mandate was to partly preserve and conserve their subject’s culture, religion or whatever the belief system maybe.[3] Hence, Thatcher’s notion that the “Muslim world” should “build on their own religious traditions”

Professor John Callaghan further argued that if there were no indigenous structures the British Empire could partner with, to consolidate its exploitation and to also “retard the rate of social and political progress” then they would need to “invented”[4].

When the Empire began to consolidate its lordship over the Arab world after World War One it partnered with what we today understand as the two major trends in pro-Western Islamism: Saudi-Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood. Both of these two trends were not so much “invented” by the British but favoured and promoted.

The Saudi-Wahhabis were a rejected, isolated and exiled cult in the Basra region known as “Kuwait” before British armoury allowed the Saudi clan and their brand of Islam, Wahhabism, to re-establish themselves in Riyadh in 1901. With further support from the Empire, the Wahhabis expanded into the western part of the Arabian peninsula, Hijaz, in late 1924-1925, then ruled by Sharif Husain bin Ali who had fallen out with the British in April 1924 partly over his refusal to accept Britain’s Zionist project for Palestine, the Balfour Declaration.[5]

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928. In his seminal book on the Muslim Brotherhood, “The Society of the Muslim Brothers” the American academic Richard P. Mitchell, states that a British operative seemingly from the British embassy, James Heyworth-Dunne was “a participant in some of the history of the movement and his work must be considered a primary source.” The work in question is primarily the latter’s “Religious and Political Trends In Modern Egypt”[6] 

Heyworth-Dunne informs the reader that the challenges faced by the Empire in twenties and thirties Egypt were twofold.  Firstly, President Wilsons’s “declaration of self-determination inspired the Egyptians to higher ideals…” i.e. that is independence.[7]  

Secondly, there was what Heyworth-Dunne refers to as “communistic ideas” i.e. along with independence this also included socialism and nationalism.  To offset these two challenges, Heyworth-Dunne advocated the Islam as “taught and represented by Hasan al-Banna”[8] rather than the traditional Islam as practised by the oldest university in the Islamic world, al-Azhar for which he had nothing but disdain as they did not see their purpose as defending British interests or rather resisting “communism.”

Furthermore he urged the “Egyptian ruling class” to “surrender some of their privileges in order to uplift the less unfortunate of their compatriots, for it is useless to expect Islam to hold out against the ideology of Communism…” otherwise.[9]

As can be noted the Empire had an over-protective attitude towards “Islam”. It heroically and selflessly defended “Islam” even if the traditional bastion of Islamic learning in the world didn’t comprehend this urgency.

By the time these two major trends of Islamism strategically coalesced in the 1950’s to meet the challenge third world independence and socialism, the Americans had embraced the British Empire’s imperialist strategy during the Cold War period.

This embrace meant bringing British puppets – the Arab version of Fulani rulers –  such as al-Saudi clan and al-Thani clan of Qatar under its protective umbrella. This Americam appropriation of the puppets initially gained doctrinal credibility with the Eisenhower doctrine and ultimately, even notoriously, bludgeoned to supporting the Islamist mercenaries (otherwise known as ‘Mujahideen’) during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980’s.[10]    

It is for this reason that Margaret Thatcher declared that these Mujahideen were engaged in “one of the most heroic resistance struggles known to history.”[11]

For the United Kingdom, the policy of employing Islamists to further its interests is rooted in an imperialist existential strategy, whereas for the United States utilising Islamists commenced in the 1950’s during the Cold War. This is the reason why there is currently a mild schism between the US and the UK with regard to supporting the Islamists “rebels” in Syria.

With the Cold War over, the 9/11 tragedy and the Iraq war disasters, the obstacle currently facing the United Kingdom is convincing the United States to remain enlisted to this pro-Islamist strategy in Syria.[12]     


[1] Quoted in Mark Curtis, “Secret Affairs, Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam” (London: Serpant’s Tail, 2010), pg. 136

[2] Dane Kennedy, “Britain and Empire, 1880 – 1945”, (Harlow: Longman, 2002), pg. 65

[3] ibid.

[4] John Callaghan, “The Labour Party and Foreign Policy, A history”, (Oxon: Routledge, 2007), pg.11-12.

[5] John Keay, “Sowing the Wind, The Mismanagement of the Middle East 1900 – 1960” (London, John Murray, 2003), pg.211

[6] Richard P. Mitchell, “The Society of the Muslim Brothers”, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pg.xxiv, footnote 2.

[7]J. Heyworth-Dunne, Religious and Political Trends in Modern Egypt, (Washington: McGregor & Werner, Inc., 1950) pg5               

[8]Ibid, pg50.   

[9]ibid., pg78   

[10] Nu’man Abd al-Wahid, “British Colonial Strategy and the 9/11 Blowback”, Mondoweiss.net, 10th September 2011, Accessed at http://mondoweiss.net/2011/09/british-colonial-strategy-and-the-911-blowback.html on 12th April 2013

[11] Margaret Thatcher in Sandey Gall’s “Afghanistan, Agony of a Nation” (London: Bodley Head, 1988) Preface.

[12] Nu’man Abd al-Wahid, “Why the United States must reject British Foreign Policy in Syria”, Mondoeiss.net, 13th February 2013, Accessed at http://mondoweiss.net/2013/02/british-foreign-policy.html on 12th April 2013.

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