Ikhras Note: The Muslim Brotherhood is currently the main tool of the US-Saudi led counter-revolution in the Arab world, but the history of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements is filled with self-serving collaboration with foreign imperialist powers. The following guest piece examines that history. Nu’man Abd Al-Wahid, a UK based freelance Yemeni-English writer specialising in the political relationship between the British state and the Arab World. His focus is on how the United Kingdom has historically maintained its interests in the the Middle East. A graduate of the University of Wolverhampton in 1995, one of his last pieces is on how the United Kingdom denied democracy to the Palestinians so they could establish a Jewish majority in Palestine. A collection of his essays are posted at http://numanabdalwahid.wordpress.com/
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 main strategy employed by the West during this campaign to contain and repel the
Soviet invasion was to recruit Islamists from around the world1 in a war against ‘godless
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.
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
“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 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.14They 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
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
And 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 Shakespeare 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
“ 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
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.
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.