In 1897, twenty-three-year-old Winston Churchill waged war against the Islamists of that day on the North-West Frontier of India. Churchill used his mother’s political influence to take leave from his regiment, the Fourth Hussars, and get attached to the Malakand Field Force as a war correspondent. This assignment resulted in a series of articles for the Daily Telegraph and his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. Churchill’s observations about the nature of the enemy and the half-measures taken by the British government of the time to deal with the enemy have an eerie resemblance to the West’s contemporary struggle against the Islamists.
The Malakand Field Force, led by General Sir Bindon Blood, was dispatched to relieve the Malakand Pass and Fort Chakdara, which guarded the important road to Chitral on India’s North-West Frontier. Churchill, although a war correspondent, served at the front and saw action with British and Indian forces fighting the uprising by Muslim tribesmen. Though some non-religious leaders were involved in the uprising, the tribesmen were largely inspired by Muslim holy men, one of whom Churchill called the “Mad Mullah.” Churchill described him as “[a] wild enthusiast, convinced alike of his Divine mission and miraculous powers [who] preached a crusade, or jihad, against the infidel.”
The outbreak of war on the frontier, Churchill wrote, was due to the mullahs recognition that “[c]ontact with civilisation assails the superstition, and credulity, on which the wealth and influence of the Mullah depend.” The mullahs, wrote Churchill, sent messengers “to and fro among the tribes. Whispers of war, a holy war, were breathed to a race intensely passionate and fanatical.” “Vast and mysterious agencies,” he continued, “the force of which are incomprehensible to rational minds, were employed. The tribes were taught to expect prodigious events. A great day for their race and faith was at hand.” The infidel would be destroyed.
Churchill noted that the mullahs and tribesmen were also affected by “a strange combination of circumstances,” including a Turkish victory over the Greeks, “the publication of the Amir’s book on Jihad; his assumption of the position of a Caliph of Islam, and much indiscreet writing in the Anglo-Indian press.” These circumstances, he wrote, “united to produce a ‘boom’ in Mohammedanism.”
The tribesmen pressed their attack on the Malakand Pass and Fort Chakdara in late July-early August 1897, but were repeatedly repulsed. Churchill described fighting in which “no quarter is ever asked or given.”
” He noted that field hospitals and convoys of the sick “are the especial targets of the enemy.”
Other mullahs proclaimed a jihad against the infidel, inciting the tribe of Mohmands to rise up against the British and their Indian allies. The mullahs asked their followers: “How long should Islam be insulted? How long should its followers lurk in the barren lands of the north?” The Mohmands were urged to “rise and join in the destruction of the white invaders.” They were promised that all who fell in battle would become saints, and all who lived would become rich. Churchill called this the “combined allurements of plunder and paradise.”
Churchill called this Muslim-inspired uprising “the most successful attempt hitherto made to combine the frontier tribes,” and he warned that “[it] will not be the last.” He ridiculed the timid and half-measures that constituted British policy on the frontier. “Civilisation is face to face,” he wrote, “with militant Mohammedanism. When we reflect on the moral and material forces arrayed, there need be no fear of the ultimate issue,” he continued, “but the longer the policy of half-measures is adhered to the more distant the end of the struggle will be.”
With an eloquence that he would repeatedly demonstrate throughout his literary and political careers, Churchill described British policy toward the Islamists as “[a]n interference more galling than complete control, a timidity more rash then recklessness, a clemency more cruel than the utmost severity.” “To terminate this sorry state of affairs,” he concluded, “it is necessary to carry a recognized and admitted policy to its logical and inevitable conclusion.” In other words, the enemy must be defeated and British interests protected and preserved.
Like the British Empire of 1897, the United States today is the world’s superpower with global interests and responsibilities. The United States and its Western allies—indeed Western Civilization—is today under assault by Islamists motivated by the same allurements of plunder and paradise that motivated the Muslim tribesmen in 1897, and who, like their forbearers, use torture and mutilation in their war against the infidel.
Western Civilization today, in Churchill’s words, “is face to face with militant Mohammedanism” in the form of Iran, ISIS, and other modern day Islamists. Were he alive today, Churchill would no doubt criticize the West’s timidity and its use of half-measures to combat its enemy. Indeed, he would be incredulous that so many Western leaders refuse even to describe the enemy as “Islamic.” The enemy must be defeated and U.S. and Western interests must be protected and preserved.
Francis P. Sempa is the author of "Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century" and "America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War." He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, American Diplomacy, the University Bookman, the Claremont Review of Books, The National Interest, the Washington Times, and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.