There are a lot of myths and apocryphal stories about Churchill that can never quite be put down (such as the one that he was so drunk on one 1940 radio speech that he hired an actor to deliver it for him). The Churchill Center—you should join!—has a long list of the myths, along with links with the definitive information.
My email box is exploding right now with readers wondering about a story in the National Post of Canada: “Winston Churchill quietly flirted with Islam — to the point that relatives feared he might convert.” Here’s some of the relevant copy:
But what may come as a surprise is that he 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. . .
In the letter, discovered by Warren Dockter, a history research fellow at Cambridge University, she pleads: “Please don’t become converted to Islam; I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to orientalise [fascination with the Orient and Islam], Pasha-like tendencies, I really have.”
Lady Gwendoline, who married Churchill’s brother Jack, adds: “If you come into 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 fight against it.”
In a letter to Lady Lytton in the same year Churchill wrote: “You will think me a pasha [rank of distinction in the Ottoman Empire]. I wish I were.”
This is complete and utter nonsense. Let’s go in reverse: why might Churchill wish to be a pasha? It requires only 10 seconds to grasp why a junior cabinet minister (as he was at the time)—or even a prime minister—might well think this: you don’t have to drag your cabinet colleagues along, or get “consensus” for what you want to do. It certainly has nothing to do with the tenets of Islam.
Second, can anyone really see Churchill giving up alcohol, as Islam demands? To the contrary, one famous story recalls Churchill, dining with King Feisal of Saudi Arabia, who informed Churchill that his religion forbade the consumption of alcohol during meals. To which the sensible Churchill replied, while having his own supply of wine poured, that his religion required the consumption of alcohol before, during, and after all meals.
You will scour Churchill’s voluminous writings in vain looking for the slightest approval of Islam. To the contrary, his books are full of assessments that are politically incorrect today. I’ve shared this one before, but what the heck, let’s print it again:
How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property—either as a child, a wife, or a concubine—must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen: all know how to die. But the influence of the religion paralyzes the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science—the science against which it had vainly struggled—the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.
What did Churchill find admirable about the Islamic tribesmen he fought against in the Indian frontier and in the Sudan? Their pure martial courage. In The River War Churchill wrote:
The valour of their deed has been discounted by those who have told their tale. ’Mad fanaticism’ is the depreciating comment of their conquerers. I hold this to be a cruel injustice. Nor can he be a very brave man who will not credit them with a nobler motive, and believe that they died to clear their honour from the stain of defeat. Why should we regard as madness in the savage what would be sublime in civilized men?
There is nothing in this passage that indicates approval of Islam. Incidentally, there follows this passage—written, remember, in 1900—an astonishingly prescient passage about Churchill’s own future:
For I hope that if evil days should come upon our own country, and the last army which a collapsing Empire could interpose between London and the invader were dissolving in rout and ruin, that there would be some—even in these modern days—who would not care to accustom themselves to a new order of things and tamely survive the disaster.
Who does that sound like, if not the defiant Churchill of 1940?
Then, finally, there is Churchill’s fondness for Jews and Judaism, and his very early support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which was a mark against him in the fashionable anti-Semitic circles of pre-war England. “Winston is too fond of the Jews” was a complaint frequently whispered about him. (I reviewed the best two books about Churchill and the Jews for the Weekly Standard way back in 2008: you can find the review here.) Clearly this wouldn’t fit someone who admired Islam, since hatred of the Jews is a central obsession.
While visiting Jerusalem in 1921 Churchill commented:
We owe to the Jews in the Christian revelation a system of ethics which, even if it were entirely separated from the supernatural, would be incomparably the most precious possession of mankind, worth in fact the fruits of all other wisdom and learning put together. On that system and by that faith there has been built out of the wreck of the Roman Empire the whole of our existing civilization.”
You simply can’t find him saying anything like this about Islam. Instead, you find things like this (from The Story of the Malakand Field Force):
That religion, which above all others was founded and propagated by the sword—the tenets and principles of which are instinct with incentives to slaughter and which in three continents has produced fighting breeds of men—stimulates a wild and merciless fanaticism. The love of plunder, always a characteristic of hill tribes, is fostered by the spectacle of opulence and luxury which, to their eyes, the cities and plains of the south display. A code of honour not less punctilious that that of old Spain is supported by vendettas as implacable as those of Corsica.
Oh heck, how about one more just to drive the point home. Also from Malakand Field Force:
Indeed it is evident that Christianity, however degraded and distorted by cruelty and intolerance, must always exert a modifying influence on men’s passions, and protect them from the more violent forms of fanatical fever, as we are protected from smallpox by vaccinations. But the Mohammaden religion increases, instead of lessening, the fury of intolerance. It was originally propagated by the sword, and ever since its votaries have been subject, above all the peoples of all other creeds, to this form of madness.
Churchill adds a few sentences later that fanatical Islamists are best treated like mad dogs. Yeah, sure—Churchill really thought seriously about converting.