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Emet m'Tsiyon

Thursday, August 03, 2023

H St-John Philby: British Agent, Muslim convert, Enemy of Israel

 The career of H St-John Philby shows the ambivalence, if not treachery, of British policy towards Jews and Zionism in the twentieth century. Philby is described as an orientalist  meaning that he knew Arabic and several tongues of Muslim peoples in India and Iran and some of the history of that vast area.

Over the years he served the Empire as a diplomat, intelligence officer and political officer. He became a British government official in India in  1907 but his career took off during WW I when he became head of a British army occupation unit in Iraq.  In 1917 he was sent to the Nejd (central Arabia, roughly speaking) to meet its ruler at the time, Abdel-Aziz ibn Sa`ud. Philby's mission was to persuade Ibn Sa`ud not to attack Britain's ally against the Ottoman Empire, Husayn [Hussein] the Hashemite, Sharif of Mecca, recently recognized by the British as King of the Hijaz, NW Arabia, where Mecca and Medina are located. 

Philby was the British Resident in Transjordan in 1921-1924. Now Resident was a clever British imperialist institution. A  Resident was more than a diplomat. A Resident was there not to rule an obstensibly independent country directly  but to give "advice" when requested or needed --from the British standpoint, sometimes the kind of advice that one cannot afford to refuse. The British had assigned Transjordan de facto to Abdullah [also assigned to the Jewish National Home; see clause 25 of the "Mandate for Palestine" of the League of Nations], son of the  Sharif Husayn, as part of their reward to him for military aid during WW One. While Philby was the Resident for Hashemite-ruled Transjordan, The Saudis of the Nejd attacked and conquered the Hijaz [1924-25]. Some believe that Philby encouraged the Saudis to fight and conquer  their old rivals the Hashemites, although he was the Resident in Hashemite-ruled Transjordan. Be that as it may, we see that Philby was a significant figure in British policy and intrigue in the Middle East in the first half of the 20th century. The pièce de résistance may be Philby's conversion in 1930. He subsequently served as an advisor to Ibn Saud in his capital Riyadh, formerly capital of the Nejd. He stayed there until 1954, a year after Ibn Saud's death, when he was expelled, then settling in Lebanon.

Now I am going to present a report of what Philby said at a gathering of Italian and Muslim intellectuals held in Italy in 1955. Philby was a Muslim of course but not an Arab. Maybe a would-be Arab. The conclave was meant to discuss the relations between Islamic and Western civilizations. The Italian writer, Guido Piovene, reported that the meeting turned into a trial of the West on the part of the Muslim intellectuals present, including Philby. 

Here is a passage from Piovene's short book on the event that comprises a long quote from Philby as well as observations by Piovene:

"Philby is an adventurous Englishman. He converted to Islam, lived in Saudi Arabia for many years as advisor to Ibn Saud, and  was later expelled for reasons that remain in dispute. He now lives in Lebanon. Muslim fundamentalism found specifically this neophyte to be a disappointed  defender who, having abandoned the West, saw the West invading his own refuge. The authentic Muslims do not seem to consider Philby one of their own and viewed his strict Islamic practice with skepticism and reserve [emph added]. 'The Islamic world,' Philby told us, 'before putting others on trial, should put itself on trial for having left its own religion and accepted Western civilization as superior to its own. Unfortunately, Islam has lost something by Westernizing, the essential principles of its own culture as well as the conviction that its own culture was superior to all others. The materialistic culture of the West has prevailed [in the Islamic world] and has introduced there its distinguishing vices; while exploiting petroleum, the Americans have brought wealth and corruption. Previously the poor of the Orient looked forward to a reward after death. Now, like Westerners, they  aspire to the material goods of this life. The winds of modernism have induced the Muslims to contravene the precepts of the Quran; polygamy has been abandoned; the fasts have been lightened for those who work. The strict Wahhabite movement which is opposed to modern tendencies, flourished between one [world] war and the other. It has now lost its following. For that reason, what clash there might be between the two worlds is not seen, nor is on what basis the trial might take place. The conflict is merely political and its principal cause – that nobody wanted to talk about—is the problem of Palestine. The Palestinian state [here meaning Israel] is not the work of Jews but of European colonialists, imperialists, exploiters, who adopted Zionism as an instrument. Here is the reason for the conflict [between Islam & the West]; it is not a religious conflict since one of the parties [the Muslims] has already been assimilated.'


"Thereby Philby accepted the thesis of the majority that the clash between Orient and Occident is today merely political. But, while most of the others viewed this favorably, Philby viewed it with regret. In short, he rejected that universalism, that religious syncretism, that today make up the obligatory religion of all international gatherings." [The Italian original follows below]

This is the place to bring in  a number of my own comments and observations.

1. The Arab-Muslims at the meeting know his background and do not trust him. [The authentic Muslims do not seem to consider Philby one of their own ... etc]

2. H St-John Philby prefers authentic, traditional Islam to the Westernized Islam of the second half of the 20th century. For instance, Philby regrets the passing of polygamy.

3. H St-John Philby appears more Muslim than the Muslims. Indeed he scolds the born Muslims for copying the West. He charges them with abandoning their superior civilization for the inferior Western civilization.

4. The West is materialistic, whereas traditional Islam is spiritual. [Christianity traditionally valued --or claimed to value-- the spiritual over the material, spiritualiter against carnaliter]

5. Since the Muslims have assimilated to Western civilization, the clash between the West and Islam, or Philby might have put it as between the West and the Orient, is purely political and not religious.

6. Israel was not established by Jews but by "European colonialists, imperialists, exploiters." Hence Zionism was not an authentic, genuine Jewish movement but was a pretext for "Europeans" whose motives were colonialism, imperialism, and exploitation. The charge of "imperialism" coming precisely from a British imperialist is rather rich of course.                   Now, the whole effort to make Zionism seem to be not genuinely Jewish reminds me of a somewhat similar effort by another British imperialist, Arnold Toynbee, a historian and director of studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs [RIIA-Chatham House; also partly funded by the American Rockefeller Foundation], and frequent contributor to the RIIA's journal International Affairs, an official British publication inasmuch as it was the organ of the Royal Institute. Toynbee argued in the early or mid-1950s that Israel was not an authentically Jewish state since it had been founded and  governed at the start by unreligious Jews, by socialists and secularists rather than by religious Jews, and especially not by the so-called Ultra-Orthodox [in Israel called Haredim] whom he seems to have considered the most authentic Jews. Another similarity between Philby and Toynbee was the latter's favoring of spirituality. For Toynbee, the secularized West had rejected its spiritual Christian heritage.

7. Philby's use of the term "Palestinian state" to refer to Israel suggests that the "Palestinian people" notion was not yet in the open in 1955. Philby uses the term "Palestinian state" more as a geographic reference.

Some of the themes enunciated by Philby are still around in Western anti-Israel discourse. "Colonialist" and "imperialist" are still often used although they appear usually in "Leftist" rhetoric. "Exploiter" is not often heard nowadays since today's "Left" has little to say about the working class who used to be considered by the "Left" the constant objects of capitalist exploitation. Use of the term exploiter today would remind folk too much of the old themes of fighting for the working class, which is out for now.

Philby's sympathy for Islam is still around and was enunciated by both US presidents, Bush 2 and Obama. Bush notoriously declared that Islam was "a religion of peace." Obama traveled to Cairo in 2009 to make a speech extolling Islam and sympathizing with its travails and difficulties.

Philby spoke in favor of Islam and championed the Arab anti-Israel cause. Did he stay a British agent all his life? Was his conversion to Islam a cover for promoting British policy?

Piovene's Original Text in Italian

Philby è un inglese aventuroso, convertitosi all'Islam, vissuto a lungo nell'Arabia Saudita come consigliere di Ibn Saud, più tardi espulso per motivi che rimangono controversi. Ora vive nel Libano. L'integralismo mussulmano trovò un defensore deluso proprio in questo neofita che, abbandonato l'Occidente, vede l'Occidente invadere il suo stesso rifugio. I mussulmani autentici non sembrano considerare Philby uno dei loro, e accoglievano non senza scetticismo e riserbo il suo rigorismo islamico. "Il mondo islamico," ci ha detto Philby, "prima di processare gli altri, deve processare se stesso, per avere lasciato la propria religione e acccettato la civiltà occidentale come superiore alla sua. Disgraziatamente l'Islam ha perduto occidentalizzandosi i principi essenziali della propria cultura; e insieme la convinzione che la propria cultura sia superior a tutte. La cultura materialistica dell'Occidente vi ha prevalso, e vi ha introdotto i vizi che la distinguono; sfruttando il petrolio, gli americani hanno portato la richezza e la corruzione; i poveri dell'Oriente prima aspettavano un compenso dopo la morte, adesso ambiscono, come gli occidentali, i beni materiali di questa vita. La ventata del  modernismo ha indotto i mussulmani a contravvenire ai precetti coranici; è stata abbandonata la poligamia; sono stati alleviate i digiuno per chi lavora; il movimento rigoristico Wahabita contro le tendenze moderne, fiorito tra una guerra e l'altra, ha perduto il suo seguito. Non si vede perciò quale contrasto possa esservi tra i due mondi, né su che basi possa avere luogo il processo. Il contrasto è solo politico; e la sua causa principale, di cui nessuno ha voluto parlare, è il problema della Palestina. Lo stato palestinese [il stato di Israele] è opera non di ebrei, ma di europei colonialisti, imperialisti, sfruttatori, che hanno adottato il sionismo come strumento. Ecco il motivo del contrasto; nessun contrasto religioso, perché una delle parti è stata ormai assimilate."


Philby accedeva dunque alla tesi dei più, che il contrasto tra Oriente e Occidente  è oggi soltanto politico; ma, mentre la maggioranza degli altri vedeva questo con favore, Philby se ne rammaricava. Egli rifiutava insomma quell'universalismo, quell sincretismo religioso, che costituiscono oggi la religione d'obbligo di tutte le riunioni internazionali.                             [Guido Piovene, Processo dell'Islam alla civilta` occidentale (Milano: Oscar  Mondadori 2001) pp 24-25]

Abdel-Razek Abdel-Kader, Le Conflit judéo-arabe

_________ . Le Monde arabe a la veille d'un tournant

Nihad Ghadri, The Great Challenge (np, nd)

Yaacov Shimoni and Evyatar Levine, Political Dictionary of the Middle East in the 20th Century (New York: Quadrangle 1974)

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