Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain's Collusion with Radical Islam London: Serpent's Tail, 2nd edn 2012, 352pp. ISBN: 978-1-84668-764-8
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 exposé 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. …