How imperial Britain promoted religion to stymie Palestinian nationalism

Islam Under the Palestine Mandate: Colonialism and the Supreme Muslim Council, Nicholas E. Roberts, I.B.Tauris (2016)

In the dangerous and inaccurate popular narratives on Palestine, religion – a black-and-white tale of Islam versus Judaism – is often given priority of importance. Religious identities are taken as the simple, unquestioned driving force behind the actions of Palestinians throughout history.

A closer look, of course, reveals the flaws in this image. During the Ottoman period, the people of Palestine might have been more likely to identify themselves in terms of their family, neighborhood, city or profession, depending on which identity the situation called for at a particular time.

Like most other cultures, Palestinian identities were mixed and layered. Their sense of belonging to any kind of social group varied according to the conversation they were having and was situational, rather than static.

At moments when political issues raised their heads, they might line themselves up according to a range of social, religious or economic factors.

The same is, of course, true of Palestinians now. But despite this, the news and popular opinion often conflate Palestinian nationalism simplistically with Islam, even though many Palestinian nationalists were and are Christian.

Nicholas E. Roberts’ valuable book helps unpack how matters of personal faith and community religiosity became, as a result of British colonial meddling, part of Palestinian politics in a way which ultimately damaged and distorted the national movement.

British interference

He outlines how, despite claiming to adhere to their usual colonial policy of nonintervention in religious affairs, British civil servants and politicians interfered in Islamic community affairs, including the management of huge sums of religious endowment monies and matters of communal leadership.

Combined with ideas about Palestinians and Arabs in general which were often rooted in racist and orientalist stereotypes, but which informed British Mandate policies on everything from agriculture and trade to policing, archaeology and education, the effects were disastrous for Palestinian daily life and political development.

Most of Roberts’ examples are well known to and widely discussed by historians of the British Mandate period in Palestine. British responsibility for constructing the Supreme Muslim Council and for imposing Haj Amin al-Husseini as Grand Mufti in a rigged election which sidelined more popular and better qualified candidates has been discussed by many other scholars, ranging from the patrician conservative Elie Kedourie in the 1960s to the radical Israeli writer Ilan Pappe more recently.

And the idea that the British authorities tried to promote religion to Palestinians as a way of diverting them from nationalist campaigns, as Roberts describes as taking place in the 1920s, will be a familiar theme to anyone who has read historical accounts of Israeli and Western tolerance towards early Hamas activists, while secular Palestinian politicians and militants were targeted.

The “management of Islam”

But the main importance of Roberts’ contribution is his exploration of the archival sources to tell a coherent story of British policies and practices, and his assertion that these were not unique to Palestine, but part of a wider pattern of control used across the Empire.

As Roberts points out, the British Empire ruled over more Muslims between the two world wars than any other state in world history up to that time. From the perspective of British policymakers, Palestine was not just another colony; it was a place which was highly symbolic to Muslims around the globe.

The “management of Islam,” as Roberts terms it, wasn’t just, therefore, about internal Palestinian issues; it was also closely related to British fears about, for instance, its policies in Palestine provoking political unrest among the millions of Muslims in India, the so-called “Jewel in the Crown” of the Empire. This unrest could have potentially hindered the ultimate goal of the mandate – to build a Jewish homeland in Palestine with the cooperation of the Arab population.

In addition, Roberts points out, Britain adopted its often used practice of preserving the religious status quo in its imperial domains as a way of excluding other European powers from interfering in Palestine; maintaining a mythical status quo allowed the British to refuse proposed changes. This particularly applied to Ottoman-era French claims to intervene as the “protectors” of Middle Eastern Catholics and their holy places.

Also worth noting is the fact that, although Roberts’ account is that of an academic – and at times heavy with detail which some may find dry – it is not written in university jargon. He unfolds the history in a clearly structured and comparatively accessible way which means that, should the publisher issue it in paperback, this would be a useful resource for anyone wanting to understand how British colonial interference distorted large parts of Palestinian politics and society.

At times – such as in Roberts’ assessment of the motivations driving the general populace of Palestinians who took part in the 1920 Nabi Musa riots – he falls into the trap of oversimplifying the role of Islam in Palestinian identity and nationalism. In these lapses, Islam is depicted as a monolithic belief system and inspiring force, rather than as one among many other social and political factors which saw Palestinians, angry at the imposition of British Mandatory rule, take to the streets.

But ultimately, this is a valuable analysis of one of the primary means by which the British colonial regime exerted control in Palestine and undercut the Palestinian campaign for self-determination in order to impose its vision of the region’s future.

Sarah Irving is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone.