Below is my review of Mark Curtis' book Secret Affairs: Britain's Collusion With Radical Islam, which appeared in Vol 21 No:1 of Anarchist Studies, 2013.
Spend any time at an anti-war demonstration in England, and the view that there is a global war on Islam, or against Muslims, will be articulated. The protagonists are seen as the United States, Israel or the UK (or any combination thereof). Mark Curtis turns these conventions upside down, with a withering expose of how Britain has historically looked to work with and alongside Islam, and in particular its most conservative adherents. The settings for this approach vary – Empire, Iran under Mossadegh, Soviet-dominated Afghanistan, much of the Arab world in post-colonial years – but the aims and practice of British foreign policy have been surprisingly consistent. These have been to develop working relationships with those in power or likely to obtain it, and to promote British and international business interests against domestic populations.
When King Abdullah of Transjordan called for a pan-Islamic movement after World War Two, the Foreign Office was supportive, on the grounds it would be a bulwark against Communism. Within a decade a clear division existed in the region between the Islamic monarchies supported by Britain (to ensure access to their oil) and nationalist regimes whose orientation was frequently leftist. Curtis makes great use of the national archives to show that British plotting with radical Shia in Iran and funding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt bore mixed results. Eventually it was to be Saudi oil money that ensured an Islamic bloc emerged to counter the nationalists (p.92).
In 1973 the world’s economic axis shifted, as the oil price quadrupled. Saudi Arabia used that wealth in two ways: the global propagation of its brand of Islam, and making serious financial investments in Western countries. By 1975 the Saudis had invested $9.3 billion here. Curtis argues ‘The upshot was that Britain was now economically reliant on the Saudi regime and would be in effect tied to aligning its foreign policy to the regime’ (p.119).
The US support for the Mujahideen in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan is a matter of record, but this book sheds new light on Britain’s role in that ill-considered escapade. The MI6 officer co-ordinating British support to the holy warriors was Alastair Crooke, based in Islamabad (p.144), and ex-SAS men were employed to train Mujahideen in Oman, Saudi Arabia and even Britain itself. Indeed, as it is Saudi Arabia and Pakistan who have been the primary sponsors of radical Sunni Islam, Curtis concludes: ‘Whitehall thus made a British contribution to the imminent emergence of global Islamist terrorism’ (p.149). Whilst the question of where this militancy would end was ignored, the Saudis made sure they kept the money flowing: from 1985 to 1988, the UK signed military contracts worth £15 billion with the Kingdom.
In the 1990s London began to become an important centre for both Arab exiles and, in time, the Arab media. Foreign Office advice was that fundamentalism was unlikely to have much appeal in the UK; something Curtis argues led to the toleration and protection of radical emigres for many years (p.174). With hindsight, this protection was astonishing: Osama Bin Laden’s two core fatwas declaring war against the West, were faxed from London in 1996 and 1998 (p.185).
And so it continues. Kosovo, Libya, Iraq – in each country Islamist actors were embraced against nationalist regimes (p.224). At times the perfidy is genuinely shocking. In 1978 the Shah of Iran was sold CS gas to put down riots, whilst talks were opened with the opposition. In 1982 a KGB defector gave MI6 details of Soviet assets inside the new Islamic Republic. MI6 and the CIA gave their names to the Ayatollahs, leading to the crushing of the left wing Tudeh party.
There are some areas Curtis does not address. Policy within the UK is broadly outside his terms of reference, yet in recent years we have seen an interesting domestic variant of the foreign policy he sketches. Here the New Labour government simultaneously gave huge sums of public money to the Quilliam Foundation (critical of many aspects of radical and conservative British Islam, and headed by several reformed Muslim ‘extremists’), whilst at the same time the Metropolitan Police’s Muslim Contact Unit purposefully worked with and empowered Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood groups in an attempt to diminish Al Qaeda’s influence in London’s mosques. As ever, our ruling class likes to have money on both horses in the race.
What they are not however, is ‘at war’ with Islam per se, and we have Curtis’ superb historiography to thank for explaining this.
Paul Stott, University of East Anglia