Why Margaret Thatcher Loved 'Islamists'
Upon Margaret Thatcher’s death, her champions naturally eulogized her as a fighter for liberal democracy in Eastern Europe, while her detractors brought attention to the fact that she was highly supportive of dictators in countries of the Global South like Pakistan, Chile, and Indonesia.
Overlooked in both portrayals is her support of political Islamism and, by extension, jihadis. In December 1979, Thatcher advocated political Islam as a counterweight to left-wing or communist ideologies, which she derogatively dubbed “imported Marxism.” As cited in Mark Curtis’ Secret Affairs, Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, she said:
"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 recognize 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…"
Thatcher’s statement that “our interests” and “the interests of the people of the region” are one and the same is rooted in a particular type of British imperialist strategy that was articulated by Frederick Lugard.
An imperial officer in northern Nigeria in the 19th century, Lugard managed the local emirs on the grounds that they “were allowed to retain the trappings of power so long they accepted the advice of their new overlords,” according to Dane Kennedy’s Britain and Empire.
There was nothing new about this puppet-overlord relationship in the history of British imperialism, but Lugard added a new dimension to this relationship. He framed the Empire’s relationship with its subjects “in terms of the preservation” of their way of life. Hence, Thatcher’s notion that the “Muslim world” should “build on their own religious traditions.”
Professor John Callaghan further argued in The Labour Party and Foreign Policy that if there were no indigenous structures for the British Empire to partner with, then it would consolidate its exploitation and also “retard the rate of social and political progress.”
When the Empire began to consolidate its lordship over the Arab world after WWI, it partnered with Saudi Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood. The trends that these movements represented were not so much “invented” by the British but favored and promoted.
Before the British allowed the Wahhabis to establish themselves in Riyadh in 1901, they were an isolated, exiled cult in the Basra region known as “Kuwait.” With further support from the Empire, the Wahhabis expanded into the western part of the Arabian peninsula in 1924 and 1925.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928. In Richard P. Mitchell’s seminal book on the Brotherhood, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, the American academic 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 Heyworth-Dunne’s Religious and Political Trends In Modern Egypt.
Heyworth-Dunne wrote that the challenges faced by the Empire in Egypt in the 1920s and 30s were twofold. First, US president Woodrow Wilson’s “declaration of self-determination inspired the Egyptians to higher ideals.” Second, there were the “communistic ideas” to be dealt with.
To offset these two challenges, Heyworth-Dunne advocated the Islam as “taught and represented by Hasan al-Banna,” the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than the traditional Islam as practiced by the oldest university in the Islamic world, al-Azhar, for which he had nothing but disdain.
The British Empire had an overprotective attitude toward Islam. It heroically and selflessly defended Islam, even if al-Azhar, 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 1950s to meet the challenge of third world independence and socialism, the Americans had embraced the British Empire’s imperialist strategy.
This embrace meant bringing British puppets, such as the Saud clan of Saudi Arabia and the Thani clan of Qatar, under its protective umbrella. This American appropriation of the puppets had initially gained doctrinal credibility through the Eisenhower doctrine and extended all the way until the 1980s to support the Islamist mercenaries, or mujahideen, against the Soviets in the 1980s.
It is for this reason that Thatcher declared that these mujahideen were engaged in “one of the most heroic resistance struggles known to history,” as cited in Sandy Gall’s Afghanistan, Agony of a Nation.
For the UK, the policy of employing Islamists to further its interests is rooted in an imperialist existential strategy, whereas for the US, utilizing Islamists commenced in the 1950s 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 Islamist “rebels” in Syria. With the Cold War over, the obstacle currently facing the UK is convincing the US to remain enlisted in a pro-Islamist strategy in Syria.
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. He focuses on how the United Kingdom has historically maintained its interests in the Middle East. www.yamyam-yemeni.net.