Did Churchill Wish to Convert to Islam?
N“The idea that Winston Churchill wanted to convert to Islam is utter tripe,” tweets the historian Andrew Roberts. This has not prevented the National Post from claiming that he did, in a December 2014 edition.
Churchill, writes Patrick Sawyer, “was a strong admirer of Islam and the culture of the Orient — such was his regard for the Muslim faith that relatives feared he might convert. The revelation comes with the discovery of a letter to Churchill from his future sister-in-law, Lady Gwendoline Bertie, written in August 1907, in which she urges him to rein in his enthusiasm.”
Certainly Churchill was not inured to Muslim virtue. Prowling the stricken field at Omdurman after British forces had decimated the dervish hordes in Britain’s campaign to reconquer the Sudan in 1898, Churchill wrote that the Muslim defenders were “as brave men as ever walked the earth.”
But the letter referred to, suggesting the he wished to convert, is misconstrued by Sawyer since Lady Gwendeline was clearly writing in light-hearted mode:
You will be wildly interested, but please don’t become converted to Islam; I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to orientalism, pasha-like tendencies I really have; you are not cross my writing this, so if you come in contact with Islam, your conversion might be effected with greater ease than you might have supposed…. (27 August 1907, as Churchill was preparing for travel to East Africa)
Bertie’s entire letter to Churchill follows, taken from volume 3 of the official biography:
Dear Mr. Winston, It is positively cruel of Fate to determine that we should not say good bye, not to allow us the opportunity of bidding each other a friendly farewell, for it is a long time to lose sight of someone, five months, it is five months that you will be away, five is it not, & that is a long time, & I really do think it might have been allowed us – I can not help rebelling against fate, for how entirely unreasonable it can be, considering what pleasure it would have given us, I made the assertion in the plural; why I can not think, but all the same you would have liked me to have wined & dined & I would have liked to have done so, & what I call fate is a chain of impossibilities which prevented me from coming up to London, & which was of no use my trying to free myself from; so I must content myself by wishing you from here a very pleasant, happy & delightful journey, which I feel sure it will be, it will be wildly interesting, & you will be wildly interested, but please don’t become converted to Islam; I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to orientalism, pasha-like tendencies I really have; you are not cross my writing this, so if you come in contact with Islam, your conversion might be effected with greater ease than you might have supposed, call of the blood, don’t you know what I mean, do do fight against it! I am just off to the manoeuvres on the Downs, where what Punch calls the flower of the British Cavalry [are] mounting dashing chargers.1
In another letter quoted by the National Post, a month later, to his friend Lady Lytton, Churchill remarks: “You will think me a pasha [a rank of distinction in the Ottoman Empire]. I wish I were.”
The context of Churchill’s statement follows, taken from volume 4 of the official biography:
Today what a programme for me! First I am going at 10.30 to row about in a gondola with Gladys D. [Deacon, later Duchess of Marlborough] all the morning and then climb the tower of San Giorgio Maggiore. Then lunch with Helen [Vincent]: and afterwards gondola with that other person! Such a dream of fair women. You will think me a pasha. I wish I were. But still believe me it is a greater pleasure to me to write to you – and think of one kind heart that has a responsive palp for me – than to see these strange glittering beings with whom I have little or nothing in common (I shan’t tell them this). It is for private circulation only and for the especial delectation of the demure kitten purring and prinking over what I trust will ever be to her the sweet and abundant milk of life.2
This is hardly an expression of driving ambition to convert and, written as it was to his former fiancée and lifetime friend, has to be considered as it was, a statement of frank self-evaluation.
1 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 3, The Challenge of War, 1914-16 (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2008), 672.
2 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 4, The World in Torment, 1916-1922 (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2008), 679–80.