Islam and the British Empire

A couple of years ago I was asked to comment, in a Swedish TV interview, on a series of three documentaries, called Clash of Worlds, originally shown on BBC2, but still accessible on YouTube. (Here it is: I was sent an advance copy of the programmes; and, as well as the interview, wrote this piece, but never published it. It is still I think pertinent today.


When one sees Islamic extremists justifying their war against the West, it is very often on the grounds that, since the Crusades, the West has been waging war on Islam. You hear it every day. That is why President GW Bush’s immediate post-9/11 call for a ‘crusade’ against terrorism was so appallingly insensitive. It confirmed their suspicions. It is also why the television series Clash of Worlds is so problematical.

It describes three episodes in the history of British imperialism: the Indian ‘Mutiny’, the conquest of the Sudan, and the Balfour declaration. So far so good: deeply problematical events, all of them; even – I would say – shocking; hugely provocative to Islam; and clearly (especially the last) contributing in great measure to the current terrible situation in the Middle East. It is right that British people should be made aware of all this; many – probably the majority – aren’t. But Clash of Worlds does not stop there. It presents these events as parts of a deliberate crusade against Islam, essentially fuelled by evangelical Christianity. It’s all there, in the narration. These were ‘clashes between a Christian British Empire and Islam’; ‘a war of religion’ (on both sides); ‘almost a holy war’; ‘Britain’s jihad’; and so on. In every case the ‘Christianity’ of the British participants is emphasised, even when that Christianity was merely token, or clearly secondary. All this will have added more fuel to the paranoia of any Islamicists who watch this series. I may be being alarmist here – I certainly hope so – but I can imagine some of them strapping on their bomb belts when they see the series.

The charge is ludicrous. The British Empire was many things: I’ve written about it as being (in part) racist, sexist, greedy, exploitative, patronising, brutal and insensitive. But it was never a Christian crusade. The evidence for this is overwhelming: the tolerance towards all religions it almost always displayed – often for cynical reasons – and towards Islam in particular (because it was considered to be a more ‘manly’ religion than Buddhism); its general policy of ruling through indigenous cultures and systems, including Moslem ones; the discouragement by successive colonial and Anglo-Indian governments of Christian missionary activity; the fact that it was far too short-staffed to go around proselytising even if it had wanted to; the complex mixture of other motives that went into imperialism, many of them entirely incompatible with the Christian one… and so on. Even in the three events the series specifically concentrates on, religion – on the British side – was a very minor agency, and Islamophobia scarcely a factor at all.

Of course there were exceptions. Britain had its oddball Christian nutters too, though nowhere near as many as in today’s USA. (One irritating feature of this series is its constant attempts to draw exact parallels with the present. So, for example, nineteenth-century Moslems who pledge to ‘fight to the death’ are equated with suicide bombers; British ‘Christian Zionists’ are discovered in 1920s Palestine: though, lacking contemporary evidence, the film has to illustrate this with shots of a tourist party of modern American crazies there; and the ‘Mahdi’ – Muhammed Ahmed – whose army killed General Gordon in the Sudan is elevated into ‘public enemy number one’ in Britain for years afterwards, just like Osama bin Laden. That is rubbish; and in fact all these are hopeless anachronisms.) Gordon was one of those nutters, who may have wanted to convert the Moslems into Christians – though he was in the Sudan originally to rescue them. One of the factors behind the Indian ‘Mutiny’ was probably the sudden rush of holiness that grabbed many (European) Indian army officers for a short time in the early nineteenth century, just at the time they issued those bullets coated in pork and beef fat – an insult to both Moslems and Hindus – which was the revolt’s immediate spark. And there may have been one or two (but very few) supporters of a Jewish state in Israel who were motivated by their Christianity. (The main motives were entirely different – possibly less honourable.) Other British aims could be seen as religious, if they were directed at institutions Muslims regarded as essential to Islam: like gender inequality, and the Arab slave trade in Africa (especially the Sudan), the abolition of which was a British aim. (But then one imagines not all Moslems would have gone along with that.) In view of all this, one can understand the interpretation that some Muslims have put on these events: that the British have always had it in for their religion. But when they are looked at dispassionately, it is clear that this is a very partial and distorted view. A deliberate war of religions, on the British side, this was emphatically not. If it’s good to remind Britons of how harmful their country’s past blunders have been, wouldn’t it also have been good to suggest to Moslems that this – blunders – is what they mainly were?


This I think raises a larger issue. I have no problem with non-historians producing films about history: so long as they take authoritative advice. I’ve worked myself in very ancillary roles on a number of BBC and ITV documentaries, and found their producers highly amenable to suggestions; all these pieces have gained from my involvement, I think, not only in accuracy, but also in more exciting ways. The Clash of Worlds series interviewed a small number of very reputable historians on specific events and issues (these were in my view the best parts of the films), and I was told by Blakeway – the production company involved – that ‘scripts’ were sent to historians (I presume specialists) to check. But no general historian of imperialism, or of international relations, is credited with any input; and none appears to have viewed the complete series before it was delivered to the BBC. (There’s many a slip ’twixt script and film.) Remember, that it’s the overall ‘angle’ of the series that is mainly objectionable.

This seems to me to be almost incredible. When we academics produce books and articles, for a readership of (sometimes) only a few hundreds, we and our publishers always seek third party scrutiny of the whole finished products. It is surely even more incumbent on the makers of films likely to be seen by tens of thousands, especially when those makers are essentially ignorant in this field, to go through the same kind of process. It’s from films like this, after all, rather than our books, however popular we try to make them, that the general public gets its ideas about history. And the TV reviewers won’t know any better. The expertise is out there, in the academic community and elsewhere. It’s not expensive: many of us academics would give it for free. So why not seek it out? That doesn’t seem to have happened, at least adequately, in this case.

Compounding this, and even more shocking, I think: the BBC made no effort itself to properly examine and seek advice on the series before showing it. (It doesn’t deny this.) That, I have to say, surprised me more. I realise that the BBC no longer makes many films of its own, instead buying the programmes of private production companies; but surely that should make it all the more necessary for it to carefully check the products it receives, over whose creation it no longer has full control. Indeed, that should be the BBC’s responsibility, as a public corporation, directly funded by you and me. In this case I’m told it simply took on trust the competence and accuracy of Blakeway, on the strength of that company’s ‘reputation’. (Much of that reputation apparently rests on Niall Ferguson’s Empire series, which the BBC must know was highly controversial, to put it mildly, among historians; though at least that had a historian to write it.) SVT, by contrast, did not take the series on trust. That’s why they contacted me – a British imperial historian living in Sweden. They were also aware of the sensitivity of this subject. It’s even more sensitive in Britain; so surely the BBC should have sought outside professional advice too?

In the course of my correspondence over this with the BBC, the point was made to me that ‘history may be dangerous, but it should not be suppressed for that reason, for fear of political backlash’. That was meant I think to shame me; but in fact it betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. First, I never requested ‘suppression’: only discussion, either before the films went out or (publicly) afterwards. If only the BBC had responded constructively – or at all – to my concerns at the start! Second: what I was objecting to was emphatically not ‘history’, but its blatant distortion; ‘myth’ rather than history, if you like. Thirdly, there are dangers and dangers. I may be exaggerating the effect these films could have on impressionable and already aggrieved young Muslims; but the quality of this particular danger surely necessitates some sense of responsibility in the light of it. If the history in these films were good, I think I would tolerate their dangerous nature. It is one thing to be inflamed by the truth – and there’s a lot in the true British colonial record that ought to inflame people; but it’s quite another to put out inflammatory distortions of this kind.

Let’s take a hypothetical parallel. It would be perfectly possible, by the methods used in these films, to create a series of documentaries showing that it was Islam’s aim throughout its history to destroy all other religions, including Christianity; so explaining and justifying non-Moslems’ suspicion and hatred of it. Islam created, through war, an empire that was in many ways more impressive than the British, even including parts of Europe; and which was possibly the only empire in history that really was founded in and motivated by religion. You can find quotes in the Qu’ran to back this up. (This may be partly why Islamists impute the same motives to the British Empire.) It was frequently dogmatic and intolerant, and perpetrated what today we would regard as atrocities. In the eighteenth century Europeans were terrified of Moslems, who captured and enslaved thousands of them, as well as all those Africans in the nineteenth century that they then sold onto the Europeans. Extremists in Britain today still profess the conversion of the whole world to Islam as an aim. Several books have been written about this. I reviewed one a few years ago, by Efraim Karsh (above, March 30) – but critically, because I thought it was putting only one side of a complicated picture (as we all know, there were periods and places where Moslem imperial rulers were wonderfully tolerant); and because, being distorted, I thought it ran the danger of fanning Islamophobia even more. Wouldn’t the BBC be careful, before it broadcast a series along these lines, to make sure it had got it right? Or would it adopt the same attitude: ‘that history may be dangerous, but should not be suppressed for that reason, or for fear of political backlash’?

No, Blakeway, don’t even think of it!

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