The Present Danger of Islam (1921)

Andrew Orr, Kansas State University

After the First World War, French military intelligence officers of the Army and Navy Services de renseignements (SR) closely watched the Middle East for signs of German and communist influence, nationalist movements, and pan-Islamist groups that could pose a threat to French interests. French intelligence officers’ views of the Mustapha Kemal were divided and contradictory reports often co-existed in the weekly and monthly intelligence summaries. The anti-Kemal faction summarized its position in the September 1921 report “Les dangers presents de l’Islam.” It was prepared by the Beirut SR section attached to the French High Commissioner’s Office in Syria. In it, officers argued that Mustafa Kemal’s national resistance movement was supported and controlled by a combination of the German and Russian governments which were using him to undermine Europe’s colonial empires. The report’s authors made a case for the need to confront Kemal by presenting him as the lynchpin of a regional movement controlled by France’s enemies, Germany and the Bolshevik Russia.

The report’s authors cited the Treaty of Moscow and Russian arms shipments and financial support for Kemal’s national movement as proof of Russia’s influence over Kemal. In particular they emphasized the Russians’ role in organizing the Baku Conference as proof that they were working to foment colonial rebellions. French officers’ memories of the Great War strongly influenced the report. The authors cited what they believed was Germany’s successful campaign to get the Ottomans to declare Holy War as proof of Germany’s strong influence in Turkey. The report also claimed that the powerful wartime Minister of War, Enver Pasha, was still being supported by Germany and that his supporters were influencing Kemal on Enver and Germany’s behalf.

The SR officers explained that Kemal was dangerous because he was able to cloak what was really just a Russo-German attack on France as a nationalist and Islamic resistance to European and Christian encroachment. They claimed that Kemal had organized a pan-Islamic conference in Ankara during June of 1921 to discuss creating a “political and economic entente against the western colonial powers.” His goal was, they believed, to link Islamic-inspired nationalists throughout the Middle East together in their fight against colonialism. Kemal was allegedly able to finance and support this movement because of the aid her was receiving form the Soviets. The analysts alleged that Russia was creating a union that included Kemal’s Turkish Nationalists, Persia, and Afghanistan. They believed this confluence of Muslim states was intended to threaten British possessions from Iraq to India in addition to French territories.

Although SR officers recognized that discontent with colonial rule always had some local causes, they connected intelligence reports about different movements into what they presented as a global movement inspired and sometimes financed by Mustafa Kemal and his Russo-German supporters which was active in the Middle East, Western Africa, British India, and South East Asia. The report cited diplomatic agreements among Soviet Russia, Kemal’s Turkish National Movement, Persia, and Afghanistan as proof that Soviet influence was growing together with Kemal’s. It also presented Islamic and anti-colonial congresses in Baku and Samarkand and international anti-colonial committees based in Berlin as proof that outside forces were manipulating anti-colonial movements.

These persistent claims reinforced French officers’ assumption that political unrest in the Middle East was a result of outside machinations. Instead of seeing Mustafa Kemal’s revolt as an assertion of Turkish identity, French officers interpreted it as proof of German and Bolshevik plots. Ultimately, French officers used the specter of Germany and Russian power to explain the widespread anticolonial movements of the early 1920s.

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