The woman would would one day be Winston Churchill’s sister-in-law was so worried he might convert to Islam, she wrote a letter urging he rein in his enthusiasm for the religion to which he had been exposed as a British officer serving in Sudan.
In a newly-discovered letter dated August 1907, Lady Gwendoline Bertie, who later married Churchill’s brother Jack, described what she saw as an alarming fascination with Islamic culture.
“Please don’t become converted to Islam; I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to orientalize, Pasha-like tendencies, I really have,” she wrote in the letter that was discovered by Cambridge University history research fellow Warren Dockter.
“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,” she wrote in the letter that was widely reported in the British media Sunday.
But were Lady Gwendoline’s fears based in a reliable assessment of Churchill’s mindset?
"Churchill never seriously considered converting," Dockter told The Independent. "He was more or less an atheist by this time anyway. He did however have a fascination with Islamic culture which was common among Victorians."
That fascination was expressed in a letter to Lady Lytton in 1907 in which Churchill wrote he “wished he were” a Pasha (a high-rank in the Ottoman Empire).
He also occasionally privately dressed in Arab-style clothing along with his friend, poet Wilfrid S. Blunt.
Dockter said, "[Lady Gwendoline Bertie] would have been worried because Churchill was leaving for an African tour and she would have known Churchill had been seeing his friend, Wilfrid S. Blunt, who was a renowned Arabist, anti-imperialist and poet. Though he and Churchill were friends and dressed in Arabian dress at times for Blunt's eccentric parties, they rarely agreed."
Churchill’s own writings included harsh criticism of what he described as the negative effects of Islam.
In his 1899 book, “The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan,” he wrote, “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,” Churchill wrote in 1899.
“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 – but the influence of the religion paralyses 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,” Churchill wrote.
Despite those earlier writings, Churchill in 1940 approved plans to build a mosque in central London and budgeted £100,000 for the project, Britain’s Telegraph reported, which he hoped would draw the support of Muslim countries for Britain’s efforts in World War II.