In 1918, Britain was the world’s greatest Muslim power. Its victory in the First World War meant that there were few parts of Asia and the Middle East which did not come under British imperial influence in some shape or form, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, Transjordan, Palestine and, of course India. Even nominally independent Persia and Afghanistan were heavily dependent on British patronage. Yet, despite emerging from a conflict which saw the collapse of all the other major empires of the day, the post-war period was a difficult time for Britain, and the future of its empire was less than assured. For, together with (some would say because of) the devastation it wrought on humanity, the First World War served to accelerate the growth of three of the most significant ideologies of the 20th century – Communism, nationalism and pan-Islamism. Despite what some contemporaries in Whitehall might have believed, it was not Communism but in fact the latter two ideologies (particularly in combination) that were to prove the greatest threat to the British Empire in the years immediately after 1918.
Prior to the war
Muslim discontent had been simmering beneath the surface long before the outbreak of the First World War. Since the late nineteenth century, more and more Muslims had come to the realisation that the expansion of European influence in Asia and the Middle East was increasingly subjecting them to Christian rule. Past glories of Islamic power had slowly been replaced with Western hegemony. Instead of the Moghul Emperors, British sovereigns now ruled over India (including modern day Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Burma) while Russian Tsars had absorbed much of Central Asia into their empire. Even those Muslim countries which were retained their own rulers were still weakened by foreign interference: Afghanistan’s foreign relations were controlled by the viceroy in India, Persia had been divided between Britain and Russia and everybody seemed to be sniffing around ‘the sickman of Europe’, the Ottoman Empire. By the start of the twentieth century then, Muslims across the region were feeling decidedly encircled. Fear for the future of Islamic identity resulted in the founding in 1906 of the Muslim League, its aim being to stimulate political awareness among the Muslims of India. Meanwhile, the pre-war period also witnessed the rise of pan-Islamism – the idea that Muslims throughout the world should be unified under one Islamic state with the Caliph as its head. Since the 16th century it just so happened that the Caliph was also the Ottoman Sultan – a fact that would become particularly relevant when the Ottomans decided to enter the First World War on the side of Germany.
During the war
Nevertheless, despite these early pan-Islamic tendencies, Anglo-Muslim relations were relatively stable. Indian Muslims remained loyal to the British crown, and the political reforms sought by the Muslim League had were consistent with the maintenance of British control. Haunted by the spectre of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, successive viceroys were also careful not to alienate their Muslim citizens too much. With the outbreak of war, the League even professed its support for Britain. One million Indians (Muslim, Hindu and Sikh alike) fought during the First World War and even when the Sultan pronounced a jihad against the Allies, Indian Muslim loyalty held. Britain supported the Arab revolt and the government in India even managed to keep Persia and Afghanistan neutral, despite German and Turkish pressure to join the conflict on their side. The Afghan emir, Habibullah, lamented in 1916 that he was ‘between the devil and the deep sea, with a friend on the one hand and a brother in faith, weak and in need of help, on the other hand, asking me for help against the first friend’. In fact, it would appear that it was his support of Britain that came to cause Habibullah’s later assassination and the succession of his anti-British son to the Afghan throne.
The real trouble began after the conclusion of the First World War. With the defeat of the Central Powers began the Allied debate on what to do with the Ottoman Empire. That this last bastion of Islamic power had lost the war was bad enough for Muslims to stomach but in 1919 it appeared that the Allies (and Britain in particular) were planning to dismember the Sultan’s territories, thereby weakening the power of the Caliph. According to those who accepted the authority of the Sultan/Caliph (and not all Muslims did), the temporal and spiritual power of the Caliph could not be separated. The Caliph needed to retain control of certain territories – including the holy places of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem – in order to be able to act as protector of the Muslim world. A Caliphate movement soon formed in India (with supporters in England) demanding for Turkey the ‘restoration of status quo ante bellum’. A deputation even travelled to Britain to put forward their defence of the Caliph, only to find themselves rebuffed by the prime minister, David Lloyd George, who, together with the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, believed the Caliphate movement to be a lot of hot air.
What those in London failed to realise, however, was that the plight of the Caliph proved the perfect focal point for all Muslim discontent across Asia in the post-war period. This was about much more than the future of Turkey – to Muslims in India, this was about their future, and their relationship with their imperial rulers. For, compounding this idea of being encircled, was the feeling of failure Indian Muslims had hitherto experience in trying to gain greater political say over their lives. A great part of why the Muslim League had supported the empire’s effort in war was the idea that in showing their loyalty thus, Britain would grant political concessions in return. Unfortunately, the enactment of the suppressive Rowlatt Bill in 1919 quickly put paid to this optimism. Muslims who had once shown complete loyalty to the Raj were now angry: ‘They had joined the Christian powers to fight against Muslims and had not received any reward…neither any degree of self-government for India nor any particular advancement in the status of the Muslim community.’ Matters were made worse for Britain when Gandhi lent his support to the Caliphate movement, thereby effecting a collaboration between Muslims and Hindus and a united front against the imperial rulers. Meanwhile, in Egypt violent anti-colonial riots were breaking out and in 1920 Mesopotamia would follow suit.
Indeed, the Caliphate movement epitomised the way in which pan-Islamism blended with rising nationalist feeling in the aftermath of the First World War. The Russian Revolution had been an inspiration to much of the Asian world, with Bolshevik anti-imperial declarations and promises of religious freedom striking a chord. In Persia, for example, Britain would face harsh public opposition to its attempts at imposing an intrusive agreement on the government in Tehran. In Afghanistan the accession of emir Amanullah signalled a great change in Anglo-Afghan relations. To celebrate his new position of power, Amanullah decided in 1919 to invade India and begin the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Enthusiasm for the conflict soon faded with the start of an RAF bombing campaign; however, during the subsequent peace negotiations the emir managed to win back the right for Afghanistan to conduct their own foreign relations. For die-hard imperialists back in London, such as Curzon, this was a real blow to the empire’s prestige; for the viceroy and his men, relinquishing this control over Kabul was an inevitable consequence of the changed state of international relations after the First World War. No longer would popular feeling among Asians allow for such blatant subjugation of their independence.
In August 1920 when the Treaty of Sèvres was signed by Turkey, the Afghan emir decided to take the opportunity to cause even further trouble for the British government in India. The terms of the agreement were harsh in Muslim eyes, removing parts of Turkey to place under Greek control. Amanullah capitalised on this, announcing that all of those who wished to perform Hijrat (religious migration) would be welcome in Afghanistan. With this encouragement, some 20,000–30,000 Muslims left India and travelled to Afghanistan as a protest against the treatment of Turkey by the Allies. This huge exodus of people caused anxiety for the viceroy and his men – although in the end, the Muhajirun (those performing Hijrat) were soon flocking back to India after receiving a less than warm welcome from the Afghan government who had quickly become overwhelmed with the number of Indians seeking refuge. The whole affair was a blow to the prestige of the Caliphate movement hierarchy (who had organised the Hijrat) and to Amanullah’s pan-Islamic credentials.
In the end, the Caliphate movement was curtailed in a way few Indians expected – when in 1924 the new Turkish state under Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliph themselves. In fact, initially Muslim Indians refused to believe the news, although ultimately they had no choice but to come to terms with it. This was not before the issue had created widespread unrest in India and caused the downfall of the secretary of state for India, Edwin Montagu (who was forced to resign after publishing a telegram from the viceroy who pleaded with London not to impose harsh terms on Turkey for fear of what it would do to Muslim agitation in India). The cooperation of Hindus and Muslims in India, which had always been something of a marriage of convenience was also on the wane by the mid 1920s. Six years or so after the conclusion of the First World War, Britain could start to breathe a little easier as across Asia things appeared to settle down somewhat. Nonetheless, the conflict had ushered in an era of greater politicisation among the region’s population which could not be put back in the box once released. The Caliphate issue had been a convenient focal point for Muslim unrest – its removal did not mean an end to the growing feelings of alienation that prevailed among Britain’s imperial subjects. By 1947 the force of Muslim demand would result, not only in the independence of India but the creation of Pakistan.