British colonial strategy and the 9/11 blowback

Osama bin Laden gained his reputation as a militant Islamist during the Western backed counter-insurgency – so-called “jihad” – against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980’s

The main strategy employed by the West during this campaign to contain and repel the Soviet invasion was to recruit Islamists from around the world [1] in a war against ‘godless communism’.

Needless to say, this alliance or collusion between the West and Islamist did not originally arise with the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops. Its provenance can easily be traced back to the challenges faced by British Imperialism in the earlier part of the twentieth century.

As we shall see, in Egypt, India and in what became known as “Saudi Arabia”, the British Empire, when faced with challenges to its occupations or policies fell back on Islamism or Islamic sectarianism to hold back the tide of independence and unity against its presence.

Egypt

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 then British owned Suez Canal Company, in 1928.

One of Hasan al-Banna’s admirers was a James Heyworth-Dunne, an employee (and future scholar) of 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”. [2]

This book is considered by the author of the seminal account on the Muslim Brotherhood as a primary source of information on the group because Heyworth-Dunne was a participant in some of the early meetings of the Muslim Brotherhood. [3]

Heyworth-Dunne informs us 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. [4]

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 challenges, especially the latter, it was British officials such as Mr Heyworth-Dunne in the pre-war period, which identified Islam as the ‘rallying cry’ [5] 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”. [6]

Furthermore he urges 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. [7]

More so, with the political arrival of Hasan al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood, Heyworth-Dunne gleefully informs the reader that there had been a qualitative change in political violence:

“the difference…in the nature of the struggle now and twenty years ago is that two decades, it was anti-British, now it was Egyptian against Egyptian…” [8]

In 1942, the Britain began officially financing the Muslim Brotherhood. [9]

India

India was another terrain where nationals were eventually pitted against each other with the help of British Imperialism. In 1937, the sectarians of the Muslim League only garnered 4.8% on the Muslim vote in the provincial elections. [10] Most Muslims were inclined towards the political party of Ghandi, Congress or their allies. Today North West Frontier Province (NWFP) is more or less synonymous with extremism, but back then, this region overwhelmingly voted in favour for Congress, rather than sectarianism. [11]

With the growing ‘threat’ of Indian independence, including an independent foreign policy Britain was compelled to support the separatist Muslim League. Britain rightly assumed an independent India would want nothing to do with British foreign policy in the immediate post-war period. Britain needed military bases in South East Asia for the ostentatious purpose of fending off any Soviet Union incursions on its perceived interests.

On this basis, the British assisted in promoting the Muslim League and it’s leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah as the main voice of the Muslims of India as well as conducting propaganda campaigns on his behalf. [12] Jinnah’s agenda was to establish a new Muslim majority state that would be “in collaboration with Great Britain.” [13]

Part of the propaganda included lampooning the popular Muslim leader of the North West Frontier Province, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. The British accused him, while they had thrown him (and 6000 of his followers) into jail, of being anti-Islamic because he was a believer in Gandhian nonviolence. [14] They also argued that it was anti-Islamic for Muslims to align with Congress. [15]

Sir George Cunningham, Governor of NWFP, was able boast that the new success of the Muslim League “would not have been possible had not the ground been prepared by the propaganda which we have been doing almost since the war started, most of it on Islamic lines.” [16]

Furthermore, he considered the new success of the Muslim League, “as a victory for the British government over the subversive elements in the country.” [17]

Subversive here literally means, Gandhian nonviolence.

After the British had successfully assisted to pitch Indian against Indian which materialised in mass sectarianism killings in the mid 1940’s, Ernest Bevan, Labour Party Foreign Secretary was able to proclaim a week after the announcement of partition, that a divided India “would help to consolidate Britain in the Middle East”. [18]

Saudi Arabia

It is in the Middle East where Britain had greatly assisted the Saudi tribe to power. The head of this tribe, Ibn Saud was an exiled figure in what is now “Kuwait” in 1899. Upon meeting the British in Kuwait, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud managed to capture Riyadh in 1902 with British weapons and his fanatical Wahhabi allies.

In 1915 Ibn Saud entered World War one on the side of the British Empire against his co-religionists, Ottoman Empire. In their first and only battle during this war, the Wahhabis were joined by British political agent of Kuwait, Captain William Shakespear. The Wahhabis were defeated and Shakespear whose role was to direct the fire from a cannon onto the Caliphates troops was killed. However, had there been a victory for Ibn Saud and the Wahhabis, it seems that Britain was intending on unleashing them into Baghdad, Mecca and 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…” [19]

Indeed, some British historians have argued that if Ibn Saud and William Shakespear had been successful there would have been no need to turn to the leader of Hijaz (western region of today’s Saudi Arabia), Sharif Ali bin Hussain and hence there would’ve been no need for any kind of Hussain-Macmohan letters, Hijaz revolt or “Lawrence of Arabia”. [20]

The United States and Today

In the United States, British intellectuals and officials successfully argued that “Islam” was the chief tool that could fend off “communism” during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Needless to say, “communism” here is any policy that is not in the interests of Britain. Writing in 1954, Bernard 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.” [21]

While a former British official of the Raj, Sir Olaf Caroe, also a former governor of North West Frontier Provence in India was paid by the British Foreign Office to preach the “Islam” strategy in the United States by conducting a lecture tour. Amongst the questions he posed to his many listeners was: “Will Islam stand up to Communism?” [22]

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. [23] Or as Professor Nathan Citino has argued in his book on U.S. Oil politics, “Eisenhower’s Islamic strategy did not emerge out of a vacuum.” [24]

Indeed, Eisenhower’s “assumptions about the importance of Islam in the Cold War were far from original and reflected trans-Atlantic continuities in Middle Eastern expertise just as the U.S. inherited regional power from its European allies.” [25]

The Eisenhower doctrine was supposedly aimed at containing the threat purportedly posed by Soviet Russia in the Middle East.

All three strands of Islamism, the Egyptian, Saudi and Indian came to modern political formation during the British imperial reign in the Arab World and South East Asia. It is these three strands of Islamism that the United States “inherited” from Britain.

Naturally, during the Cold War period these three strands of British supported Islamism slowly converged and solidified with the immediate challenges posed by Nasserism, Socialism and Communism. After the alleged Muslim Brotherhood’s failed assassination attempt on Nasser, many Egyptian Islamists fled to Saudi Arabia. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia invited brigades of the Pakistani army to defend his Kingdom and Western interests.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the 1980’s, the West, led by the United States, countered by implementing the “Islam” strategy. The recruiting of Islamic militants from around the world to fight in the “jihad” included the recruitment of Osama bin Laden by Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services. [26]

Ultimately, British strategy manifested or transmogrified into American support for the ‘holy warriors’ against the Soviet invasion. The United States invested massive amounts of armoury, military training and billions of dollars in this enterprise.

Chalmers Johnson defined, ‘blowback’ “as a way of thinking of an individual, a class, a nation or an empire…” when employed in the arena of “international conflicts” this way of thinking, “has a tendency to blow back onto the party releasing it.” [27] The criminal events in New York and Washington almost ten years ago, were partly and clearly a blowback from the “Islam” strategy.

Whereas Britain concocted and propelled the “Islam” option into strategic consideration amongst policy makers during the Cold War period, it was then the United States which was largely seen to “release”, implement and support this policy in Afghanistan in the 1980’s.

In conclusion, it needs to be emphasised that as the provenance of this “Islam” strategy pre-dates the Cold War and even the emergence of the United States as a superpower, there is every reason to believe that it will also outlive a perceived declining United States. We can now see this in Libya where NATO has worked in conjunction with Libyan Islamists to overthrow the Gadhaffi regime. [28]

Nu’man Abd al-Wahid is a UK-based freelance Anglo-Yemeni writer specialising in the political relationship between the British state and the Arab World.

Footnotes

  1. Ahmed Rashid, Taliban, (London: Pan Books, 2000), pg.129
  2. J. Heyworth-Dunne, Religious and Political Trends in Modern Egypt, (Washington: McGregor & Werner, Inc., 1950)
  3. Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) pg.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).
  4. Heyworth-Dunne, op. cit., pg5
  5. 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.
  6. Heyworth-Dunne, op. cit., pg50. Another writer admired by Heyworth-Dunne, was Sayid Qutb, see ibid, pg 97.
  7. ibid., pg78
  8. ibid., pg77
  9. Mark Curtis, “Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam”, (London: Serpants’s Tail) 2010, pg. 24.
  10. Madhusree Mukerjee, “Churchill’s Secret War” (New York, Basic Books) 2010, pg. 9
  11. Rajmohan Gandhi, “Ghaffar Khan” (New Delhi, Penguin Books) 2008, pg. 112-113.
  12. ibid, pg 149 and Narenda Singh Sarila, “The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition”, (New Delhi, Harper Collins), pg.52-60.
  13. ibid., pg.42.
  14. Mukerjee, op. cit.,pg. 134.
  15. Gandhi op. cit., pg. 167: “Cunningham had promoted the idea that it was anti-Islamic for Muslims to align with Congress”
  16. Nicholas Mansergh, “The Transfer of Power 1942-1947”, London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1970-1982, Vol. IV, pg. 186
  17. ibid. pg.187
  18. Singh Sarila, op. cit., pg.15
  19. David Howarth, The Desert King, (London : Quartet Books, 1980), pg. 82. Gary Troeller, The Birth of Saudi Arabia, (London : Frank Cass, 1976). Troeller also mentions British generals on the ground who agree with this view, pg120, nt. 24.
  20. ibid and R Baker, King Hussain and the Kingdom of Hijaz (Cambridge: Oleander Press) 1979.
  21. Bernard Lewis, ‘Communism and Islam’, International Affairs, 1954, Vol.30, No.1, pg.12
  22. Singh Sarila, op. Cit., pg.31
  23. Said Aburish, Nasser, The Last Arab, London:Duckworth, 2005, pg128
  24. Nathan Citino, From Arab Nationalism to OPEC, (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2002) Pg95
  25. ibid., pg.98
  26. Rashid op. cit., pg. 129
  27. Chalmers Johnson, “Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire” (London: Time Warner paperbacks) 2003, pg. 182
  28. Charles Levinson, “Ex-Mujahidden Help Lead Libyan Rebels”, Wall Street Journal, 2 April 2011. Richard Spencer, “Libya: the West and al-Qaeda on the same side”, Daily Telegraph, 18th March 2001. Rod Nordland, “In Libya, Former Enemy is Recast in Role of Ally”, New York Times, 1st September 2011.

About Nu'man Abd al-Wahid

Nu'man Abd al-Wahid is a UK based freelance Yemeni-English writer specialising in the political relationship between the British state and the Arab World. My focus is on how the United Kingdom has historically maintained its interests in the the Middle East. A collection of articles are posted at www.yamyam-yemeni.net.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 19 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. alfa says:

    link to gilad.co.uk
    General Wes Clark talks about the foreign policy coup and the Zioncon plans to invade 7 Middle Eastern Nations.

    • Citizen says:

      Thanks, alfa; very much to the point here. It’s amazing to me that none of the Americans I know have even a clue about PNAC, Frum’s Axis of Evil, Wolfowitz, Scooter Libbey, Rummy & the rest of the neocons and how they quite literally hijacked US foreign policy to serve Israel; it’s like talking to Germans after Hitler came to power and asking them then and there to see how his folks used the Reichstag Fire. That’s the real legacy of 9/11. As Rahm says, “Never lose an opportunity to use an opportunity.” No doubt Wolfowitz thought he was doing the right thing because he conflated US interests with Israeli interests.

      • Mooser says:

        Sometimes I wonder if we’re all thinking much too hard. America’s foreign policy, such as it is, may not go any deeper than this .

        • libra says:

          I don’t know Mooser, I always thought Dubya was a coke guy not a pepsi guy.

        • alfa says:

          Kieth
          A myth created by Clark??? I’m no fan of Clark, but You’ll need to hang you hat on that.

          That they “hijacked” US foreign policy is a PR myth by more discreet militarists like Wesley Clark. US foreign policy and militarism has been in evidence from the beginning. It is a mistake to think that US Middle East policy is a radical departure from past history, or that it is exclusively shaped by Israel, or that it would be fundamentally different without AIPAC.

          Foreign policy certainly was hyjacked long ago by the Military Industrial Congressional complex and International corporate plutocrats

      • Keith says:

        CITIZEN- “…how they quite literally hijacked US foreign policy to serve Israel….”

        That the neocons were particularly aggressive in pursuing militarism is beyond doubt. That they “hijacked” US foreign policy is a PR myth by more discreet militarists like Wesley Clark. US foreign policy and militarism has been in evidence from the beginning. It is a mistake to think that US Middle East policy is a radical departure from past history, or that it is exclusively shaped by Israel, or that it would be fundamentally different without AIPAC. Two quotes, the first from Chomsky, the second from Kissinger. I don’t fully agree with Kissinger, however, I think there is more truth there than many Mondoweissers care to admit.

        “Already early in the 19th century, Simon Bolivar observed that: “the United States seems destined to plague and torment the continent in the name of freedom.” Simon Bolivar lived in Colombia and is like a George Washington for Latin America – Bolivia is named in his honor. The USA has not been kind to Colombia. The USA took the province of Panama away from Colombia by force, and installed a puppet government so that the USA could build, own and operate the Panama Canal on US terms. Late in the 19th century, the then President (and dictator) of Mexico, Porfirio Diaz, made a statement that has become legendary: “Pobre Mexico, tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos.” (Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the USA.) Few have questioned his judgment in this statement.” (Noam Chomsky)

        “Israel is dependent on the United States as no other country is on a friendly power…. Israel sees in intransigence the sole hope for preserving its dignity in a one-sided relationship. It feels instinctively that one admission of weakness, one concession granted without a struggle, will lead to an endless catalogue of demands…. And yet Israel’s obstinacy, maddening as it can be, serves the purpose of both our countries best. A subservient client would soon face an accumulation of ever-growing pressures. It would tempt Israel’s neighbors to escalate their demands. It would saddle us with the opprobrium for every deadlock.” (Henry Kissinger, quoted in “Straight Power Concepts in the Middle East” by Gregory Harms)

        • Citizen says:

          After the fall of the communist bugaboo, PNAC started up, a plan originally for Israel was adopted/adapted as a plan for a “New American Century;” states antagonistic to Israel were lined up as sequential targets, a new bugaboo was picked, “the Axis of Evil.” “Islamofacism was born, and the new non-state fanatics were dumped as our partners against the USSR, reborn as our mortal enemies.

        • Keith says:

          CITIZEN- I am aware of the Project for a New American Century, a neocon enterprise which has profoundly effected US foreign policy. I maintain, however, that although extreme in its brazenness, it was not a substantive departure from US imperialism. Furthermore, the “hijackers” are no longer in the government, yet the policy guidelines appear to remain in force, a sure indication that they represent established policy not an aberration. In fact, a strong case can be made that Obama embodies the neocon philosophy. What President has been engaged in more wars at one time than Obama? How many covert interventions? How many secret drone assassinations?

          Ten years ago, neocon Michael Ledeen said: “If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely and we don’t try to piece together clever diplomacy, but just wage a total war… our children will sing great songs about us years from now.” To me at least, this could be the unstated mantra of the Obama Whitehouse. It also reflects the times. We appear to have entered an era of massive assaults on any and all opposition to corporate/financial control (neoliberalism).

        • Citizen says:

          Keith, surely you see that the Vietnam War became a hated war and American Jews were in the forefront of this disgust at American Imperialism? After the collapse of the USSR, that is, the collapse of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the Cold War that emerged in later 1945, the neocons gave us a new bugaboo, the war on Muslim terror, which was analogized by Frum as a new war on fascism, and this resulted in a new form of Jew, the PEP. PEP-Neocon is still growing strong, I agree. You have done nothing to collapse my theme that a right wing notion of “What’s good for the Jews” is the key to current US politics & its enormous war spending; it’s one thing that is bipartisan, as your comments on Obama support. Macro or micro, the deal is the same–look at the fight right now to replace Weiner in congress. The republican contender and democrat contender are disputing who rubber-stamps Israel more. The difference has come down to a few hundred jewish votes. Stay tuned.

        • annie says:

          american jews were also in the forefront of protesting that war too citizen. i hardly think vietnam can be blamed on american jews. there were others in the forefront besides american jews.

        • Citizen says:

          annie, pls reread what I said, which is the same thing you say regarding Vietnam protesters. Although it’s true American Jews were more against the war on Iraq than other Americans, not nearly so much as they were loudly against the Vietnam War. And the cold war threat posed by Communist nations right up to the fall of the USSR, way after the Vietnam War, was a much more realistic threat to the USA than the manufactured war on Islamofacism & Saddam’s nonexistent WMD (now replaced by Iran’s nonexistent WMDs). The difference in traditional Jewish liberal outrage was that Vietnam was never Israel.

    • Keith says:

      ALFA- I would just like to add that those 7 nations include Libya, Syria, Lebanon (Hesbollah), and Iran. Ah, the Arab Spring takes curious twists and turns.

  2. Keith says:

    What a fantastic post! It is this type of background information that is so essential in understanding the various individual events in the Middle East and elsewhere, which may otherwise appear random and incoherent or, worse, be misrepresented in a manipulative fashion, as in the clash of civilizations.

    Additionally, it highlights the responsibility that imperialism and the imperial powers bear for much of the negative aspects of life/culture/etc in the Third World countries they exploited. Divide and conquer, divide and rule. Then complain about the inevitable dysfunctional consequences of First World suzerainty which now predictably require a “humanitarian” First World intervention to “help” the benighted natives. And it continues. Neoliberal globalization hit the Third World first and hardest. Now, it appears, chickens are coming home to roost. A global elite has arisen, and the rest of us have become disposable. Welcome to the world of debt servitude.

    • Mooser says:

      “Welcome to the world of debt servitude.”

      That’s right. In America, you are what you owe! I wish I had known that years ago, before I made myself a nobody.

    • annie says:

      i agree this kind of background is an awesome addition to the site.

      great informative post. thank you Nu’man Abd al-Wahid

  3. MHughes976 says:

    I don’t think that this is a balanced history of British/Muslim relations. We weren’t always on the side of religious Islamism – think of the Mahdist revolt in the Sudan.
    In the World Wars we could expect reasonable support from the Indian Army and the Muslim members of its officer corps, who in WW1 were fairly impervious to religious ideas proclaimed by the Sultan of Turkey, who regarded himself as Caliph, (Stevenson, 1914-1918, p.125). The Germans set great store by an Islamic revolt that did not, for many reasons, happen – (Strachan, First WW, p. 694-711).
    If the argument is that it is and always has been in the truest interest of Anglo-American powers to set the Muslim world at sixes and sevens I don’t think it’s made out. We have a lot to fear from their instability and a lot to gain from cooperation with them.

  4. ToivoS says:

    The Americans and British made use of Islamists in Iran in 1954 that is not frequently mentioned. As we all know the CIA and MI6 were instrumental in undermining the Mossedegh government and replacing him with Shah Pavlavi. The event that created the crisis that permitted the Shah to return and restore order in Tehran was a series of major street demonstrations that turned to riots against the Mossadegh government. These demonstrations were led by the Islamists parties and were directed against the secular nature of the the government. They were largely instigated by British and American propaganda.

    Of course these were same Islamic forces that seized total power after the 1979 revolution. What has always puzzled me is why this story is rarely mentioned when we discuss blowback operations . Surely, it more significant than Israeli backing of Hamas and at least equally as important as US support for Al qaida.

    • MRW says:

      What has always puzzled me is why this story is rarely mentioned when we discuss blowback operations .

      The term “blowback” was invented (within the CIA) in the early 1980s to describe what Khomeini did to the CIA in the early months of 1979 in Iran. The CIA thought that it was was courting a compliant and dumb imam in Khomeini when they approached him in the south of France and suggested he could take over Iran with their help. That’s when the CIA starting bankrolling him, and teaching him tricks like walking five-mile circles for the TV cameras to convince the world that the entire society was behind the revolution, etc.

  5. munro says:

    Today Christian extremists are being cultivated in the US for similar reasons.