British Encounters with the ‘Islamic World’ 1921–1989

  • Pippa CatterallEmail author
Part of the Britain and the World book series (BAW)


Before the Great War, the British Empire already had more Muslim subjects than any other polity. To these millions in India, Malaya and elsewhere were now added many more in the Middle East. The overstretched British imperial state consequently faced many strategic challenges in the region, including the potential appeal of Islam as a hostile political cause. Limiting that appeal, not least by avoiding the rise of a Caliphate, was thus one British consideration. If that could be achieved, then the more pressing problems for imperial administrators in the Middle East often seemed those posed by secular nationalism, such as the Wafd in Egypt or Kurdish irredentism in Iraq. Such forces seemed more of a threat to the client princes through whom Britain retained its shaky hold in the region: Islam, often conceived as a conservative political force, much less so. These perceptions indeed seem to have persisted after the Second World War. A weakened Britain was by then threatened by Russian (and even Chinese) interventions in Cold War proxy conflict in the Middle East, while the importance of that region had been enormously augmented by the financial and strategic importance of oil to post-war Britain. Conjunctures between communism and nationalism were seen as matters for concern. Instead, notwithstanding the post-war problems Britain had with Ibn Saud, conservative forms of Islam were still seen as positively to be encouraged. That the latter could serve just as easily as a vehicle for radical political movements inimical to Britain’s interests seems not to have been grasped. Indeed, the Foreign Office’s own internal assessment of the failure of its analysis in the run-up to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 shows that British policymakers were aware of the existence of Islamic fundamentalism, but not of its political significance. One consequence of that revolution was that, within ten years, the issues of the Islamic world were to be felt very much on Britain’s own soil following Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa over The Satanic Verses. Whether Britain had learnt anything from its long experience of managing Muslim subjects overseas that could now be deployed in this domestic setting, however, seemed open to doubt. Whether British policymakers should have done, through exploring a taxonomy of how British officials attempted to manage their encounters with Islam in the Middle East, will be a key theme of this chapter.


The Hajj Ottoman Empire Caliphate Question Muslim Brotherhood Palestine mandate Pan-Islamism Jamaat-i-Islami Nasserism Rushdie affair 


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of WestminsterLondonUK

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