Book review: Secret Affairs. Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam by Mark Curtis


According to the American dissident Noam Chomsky "The responsibility of a writer as a moral agent is to try to bring the truth about matters of human significance to an audience that can do something about them."

Since his 1995 book The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy Since 1945 historian Mark Curtis has been doing just that. Bypassing the establishment-friendly analysis of mainstream media and academia, Curtis argues “the basic fact is that Britain is a major, systematic contributor to much of the world’s suffering and horrors” carrying out brutal military interventions, large-scale human rights abuses and opposing economic development that benefits the poor.

Previously the Director of the World Development Movement and a Research Fellow at Chatham House, Curtis has continued his evidenced-based critique of UK foreign policy with 2003’s Web of Deceit and, more recently, Unpeople, in which he maintains Britain “bears significant responsibility” for around 10 million deaths since 1945.

In Secret Affairs Curtis turns his attention to the UK’s relationship with radical Islam. Both Labour and Conservative governments have “colluded for decades with radical Islamic forces, including terrorist organisations”, he argues. “They have connived with them, worked alongside them and sometimes trained and financed them”. Why? To help promote Britain’s two main foreign policy objectives – “influence and control over key energy resources” and “maintaining Britain’s place within a pro-Western global financial order.” Whether it is working with major state sponsors of Islamist terrorism such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan or non-state actors such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Britain has consistently attempted to undermine secular, nationalist forces in the Arab World.

As with Curtis’s previous work, the first part of this chronological historical overview makes extensive use of declassified government documents, all scrupulously referenced in the over 60 pages of footnotes at the back. For example, in 1957 the British Ambassador to Jordan makes British policy plain in a letter to the Foreign Secretary: “I suggest that our interest is better suited by an authoritarian regime which maintains stability and the Western connection than by an untrammelled democracy which rushes downhill towards communism and chaos.”

Presumably because to the ‘thirty year rule’, the more recent chapters on Britain’s involvement with radical Islam during the wars in the Balkans rely mainly on newspaper and Hansard reports. The picture is therefore far from complete, and Curtis seems less sure of the terrain. However, there is no doubt the claim of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Kosovo in 1999 is seriously undermined by the fact Britain trained the Kosovo Liberation Army, an outfit who worked closely with Al-Qaeda and who were openly described as a terrorist organisation by British ministers at the time.

Turning to the present conflict in Afghanistan, Curtis notes that Britain is now fighting Islamist forces it had previously supported in the 1980s against the Soviet Union in what he calls “Whitehall’s most extensive covert operation since the second war.” The media have followed the Government’s lead, consigning inconvenient facts like the brutal insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s visit to London in 1988 to the memory hole. Or as one former literary editor of Tribune famously wrote “Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.”

As for Pakistan’s continuing support for the Taliban highlighted by the recently leaked Afghan War Logs, he simply says “the situation is truly absurd: in order to defeat the forces of the Taliban, Britain is dependent on their main ally.”

Bang up to date, comprehensive and clearly written, Secret Affairs is a masterly work of great importance and sobering conclusions. Almost a lone voice in telling uncomfortable but necessary truths about the nation’s post-war foreign policy, Curtis remains essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand Britain’s real role in the world.

Secret Affairs. Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam is published by Serpent’s Tail, priced £12.99.

*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected].

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