The Road Not Taken


British Muslims, the Anglo-Ottoman Society, and the Disillusioning of Marmaduke Pickthall

THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE had entered World War I on the side of Germany at the end of October 1914. Three men dominated the empire’s CUP government: Enver Pasha, Talaat Pasha, and Djemal Pasha. (The last we have already met, hanging Arab nationalists in Damascus, and bidding Feisal to feast in the intervals.) Of the ruling triumvirate, only Enver Pasha, the minister of war, unambiguously favored the alliance with Germany. Daring, underhanded, and ruthless, convinced that the German war machine would prove invincible, he had secretly maneuvered his country into the conflict on Germany’s side. His two partners, and the rest of his government, and indeed his country as a whole, could not but accept the fait accompli.

Nevertheless, doubts about the wisdom of this choice would not disappear. The political strength of those who harbored them, and their willingness to act upon them, waxed and waned depending largely upon Ottoman success in battle. The doubters were strongest and most likely to call for an end to combat when their country seemed liable to defeat; they were weakest when it seemed most likely to win. Still, the possibility that Turkey would negotiate a separate peace with the Entente powers, whether under Djemal, or Talaat, or Enver, or perhaps someone else entirely, hovered always in the air. It was part of the atmosphere.

As we have also seen, Zionists in Britain at first thought Turkish entry into the war presaged disaster for Jews in Palestine. They feared that the Ottoman government would take advantage of the crisis by attacking a traditional scapegoat. They never completely lost this fear, which Djemal Pasha stoked more than once by threatening to employ “Armenian methods” against the Palestinian Jewish population. Nevertheless very quickly a hope surged to overshadow all else among British Zionists. “The Ottoman Government has drawn1 the sword … [It] will perish by the sword,” Prime Minister Asquith intoned prophetically on November 9, 1914. “They … have rung the death-knell of Ottoman Dominion not only in Europe but in Asia.” With the Ottoman Empire gone, so would be gone one of the greatest obstacles to Zionist progress. What would replace it? British Zionists concluded almost immediately that the best solution for Zionism would be a British protectorate in Palestine. Allied victory in the war would make that possible. It followed that they must oppose any compromise peace with Turkey that left her grip on Palestine intact.

As for the British: Asquith might swear that Britain would fight the war against Turkey to the end, but the easterners who sought in Turkey or the Balkans a back door to central Europe might conclude that they could more easily open it by negotiation than by force. When Lloyd George replaced Asquith as prime minister, the easterners took 10 Downing Street. But not only easterners believed that removing the Ottoman Empire from their list of enemies would benefit the Triple Entente. Westerners could think that too. So just as in Turkey where the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Allies floated always in the minds of some, so in Britain too the possibility of a compromise peace with Turkey never quite disappeared.

Here then are three pieces on a historic chessboard: namely a never-absent, if never-realized, desire on the part of some Turks for a compromise peace with the Allies; an occasional willingness on the part of some among the Allies to consider such an arrangement with Turkey; and an adamant opposition to any such thing on the part of most British Zionists. The maneuvering of these three parties during the lead-up to the Balfour Declaration is a significant aspect of our story.

Turkey and Britain had no sooner declared war upon each other than they opened secret negotiations to try to end it. British agents had been telling the Foreign Office for years that the CUP governments were not popular; now they added that neither had been the CUP decision to enter the war. On January 28, 1915, Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff, British envoy in Berne, was approached by Rechid Bey, a former Liberal Turkish minister of the interior now living in Geneva. An “Old Turk” whom the CUP had chased from his country, Rechid Bey informed the Briton that if certain assurances were forthcoming from the Entente, “the present regime2 [in Turkey] could be swept away.” On that very day, however, the War Council in London was agreeing to a British naval attempt on the Straits of the Dardanelles. Rechid Bey’s proposal appears to have been lost in the shuffle.

Nevertheless Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, whom Grant Duff informed about the visit, hoped to achieve by negotiation what would otherwise require the spilling of much blood. He told the cabinet, “What we really relied on3 to open the Straits was a coup d’état in Constantinople.” He had been in touch with director of naval intelligence, Admiral “Blinker” Hall, who just had enlisted into his service the erstwhile chief British dragoman of Constantinople, Gerald Fitzmaurice. Grey, with Hall’s knowledge and approval, sent Fitzmaurice on a delicate mission to Sofia, Bulgaria. Grey wrote to the British ambassador there: “When operations against the Dardanelles begin to be successful he may be able … to get into touch with the Turkish party at Constantinople who are anti-German and well-known to him.”

Fitzmaurice and a couple of subordinates made contact with Turkish dissidents in Greece. Fitzmaurice offered £4 million if they would open the straits to the British navy. The Turks were willing but demanded guarantees, most particularly that no harm should come to Constantinople. They knew well the long-standing Russian desire for this warm-water port, and they would not risk their lives in a dangerous enterprise against Enver and his backers if it meant losing the chief city of the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, however, possession of Constantinople was a Russian war aim to which the British government had acceded. Fitzmaurice could not make the guarantee. Instead he warned that every day the Turks delayed, he would reduce the bribe by £100,000. It might have worked if not for Turkish success in battle. The Ottoman forces withstood everything the British and French navies could throw at them and inflicted terrible damage in return. Whatever dismay Turkish negotiators may have experienced as the value of their bribe diminished was balanced, therefore, by increasing confidence in the ability of their countrymen to resist the enemy. Conversely British assurance began to wane. By March 18, with the Turkish forts still holding out and passage along the straits too dangerous to yet attempt, the British cabinet instructed Hall “to spare no expense to win over the Turks.” It was too late. Now Britain would commit the army as well as the navy to what soon became another charnel house, the infamous, dreadful battle of Gallipoli. Fitzmaurice, having failed to bribe the Turks to get out of the war, returned to Sofia. There he would soon engage in an equally futile attempt to bribe the Bulgarians to get into it on the Allied side.

Even after these early efforts to end the war with Turkey by negotiation failed, Fitzmaurice kept his ear to the ground. “Those in touch with Young Turk circles state that the latter have been discussing advisability of a separate peace,” he cabled to Grey from Sofia on May 7. Sure enough, three weeks later the idea resurfaced in Paris.4 It proved stillborn because the French could not promise to keep the Russians from Constantinople. It resurfaced in California5 in August 1915, when an Ottoman commissioner to the San Francisco Exhibition contacted a British official there. He came up against the same stumbling block: Britain could not protect Constantinople either. At the end of the year, Russia tried to bribe6 Djemal Pasha to end the war—but he would have to give up Constantinople. Arthur Balfour had it right when the Foreign Office informed the War Council of these various maneuvers. “No harm in trying,”7 he scribbled on the F.O. minute, “but it is incredible that the Turks will agree.”

In Britain anti-Turkish sentiment ran high during the war. This was nothing new: It had been running high at least since the 1870s, when Britons learned to despise the murderous Sultan Abdul Hamid II along with the corruption of his court, the dead hand of his bureaucracy, and the brutality of his minions, in short everything that the great nineteenth-century Liberal, William Gladstone, summed up in his memorable epithet “the unspeakable Turk.” Conservatives did not dispute this judgment, only the foreign policy that flowed from it. From the floor of the House of Commons, Gladstone’s great Conservative antagonist, Benjamin Disraeli, said of the Ottomans, they “seldom resort to torture, but generally terminate their connection with culprits in a more expeditious manner.” Where opposition to the Ottoman regime constituted a bedrock of Liberal foreign policy, therefore, willingness to overlook Ottoman faults constituted the Conservative. Disraeli held that Britain must practice realpolitik in the real world. She must defend the far-flung interests of the British Empire; she must keep the Russians out of the Mediterranean Sea and far away from the Suez Canal; and if that meant allying with the brutal regime on the Bosporus, so be it.

The advent of the CUP in 1908 changed little. Gladstone was gone, but the Liberal government kept the Young Turk government at arm’s length; it joined the Triple Entente with France and Russia, Turkey’s traditional enemy. Disraeli was long gone too, but many Conservatives still preferred a Turkish alliance to one with Russia. Nevertheless they, as much as the Liberals, generally viewed Young Turks as atheists and radicals who aped the West without truly understanding it, and who continued all the while to indulge the inbred Oriental vices: intrigue, treachery, and violence.

British anti-Ottoman sentiment had a religious component. Many Ottoman subjects practiced the Muslim religion, over which the Ottoman sultan presided as caliph. Ironically, Britain too ruled over a Muslim empire whose main outposts were in South Asia, Egypt, and Sudan. The British Muslim empire numbered nearly a hundred million people and was second in size only to the Ottoman Muslim empire. Inevitably British-governed Muslims flocked to the imperial center as students, business and professional men, and tourists. Muslim lascars (seamen) lived in British port cities when their ships docked. By 1914 Britain contained a small but distinct Muslim community.

That community did not receive a warm welcome. When William Quilliam, a prosperous solicitor from the Isle of Man, converted to Islam and established what appears to have been Britain’s first mosque, in Liverpool in 1891, the response was harsh. A crowd greeted the muezzin’s call to Friday services “with ‘discordant yells8 and loud execrations,’ pelted him with mud, stones and filth; and also pelted worshippers leaving the mosque.” In 1895 “furious Christians threatened to burn Sheikh Quilliam alive.” Ten years later things had not much improved, even in cosmopolitan London. “Opposition was9 very keen in those days and many obstacles were placed in our path,” recalled one who claimed to have been the sole British-born worshipper then taking part in London’s Muslim services. During the next decade passions abated, but general ill will did not. When the war was about four months old, that first Anglo-Muslim, who now called himself Sheikh Khalid Sheldrake, wrote to the king: “Your Majesty, May I venture10 most humbly to bring to your notice the existence of a grave danger at the present crisis? The Press have issued Cartoons and articles in which the Muslim creed, and the Sultan (its Caliph) have been held up to ridicule.”

Old habits of thought died hard among the population as a whole, but in December 1914 the last thing the British government wanted was to alienate Muslims. When Turkey entered the war, the sultan/caliph immediately declared jihad against his Christian enemies. Various imams endorsed and repeated his call. The question for Britain was how her hundred million Muslim subjects would react. Starting the Arab hare, setting up the grand sharif as an opposite pole to the Ottoman sultan, suggesting that he mightbecome caliph himself—all this was part of Britain’s strategy for vitiating the sultan’s holy war and retaining the loyalty of her own Muslim subjects.

The strategy was not completely successful. Muslim agitators, some of them financed by the Ottoman and German governments, made difficulties in South Asia and throughout the Middle East. Their message reached as far as Europe, even Britain. On October 26, 1915, somebody walked into the East Central London post office and dropped a letter into the box. It was a warning to Prime Minister Asquith, the third he had received so far, against making war on “our brothers and the Caliph11 of Mohammedans … The responsibility falls on you alone and the chastisement for deceiving the nation will be your deprivation from life, and in the world to come you will undergo the worst of torture … Beware, beware.”

During the war British Intelligence kept12 a weather eye on British Muslims great and small, whether politically moderate, liberal, or radical, and on those who sympathized with them and on the places where they gathered, not merely in South Asia and Egypt but in England too. It kept tabs, for example, on the chief Muslim cleric in Britain, Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, who appears from his writings to have been a gentle, tolerant soul; also on some of the more radical members of an Islamic Society, including its general secretary, the barrister, poet, author, and pan-Islamist Mushir Hussein Kidwai; and the pan-Africanist, anti-imperialist Dusé Mohamed Ali. It even opened the mail of a troublesome Liberal MP, Joseph King,13 who although only tangentially concerned with British Muslims publicly attacked the government for permitting the Secret Service to employ agents provocateurs against these and other groups.

Men such as Dusé Mohamed Ali, Mushir Hussein Kidwai, and Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din figure in our story because their aims and aspirations are relevant to the movement for a separate peace with Turkey.

Dusé Mohamed Ali was an Egyptian-born, English-educated son of a Sudanese woman and an Egyptian army officer who had died in the failed nationalist uprising of 1881–82. An erstwhile actor who toured the United States and Canada as well as Britain, Mohamed turned to journalism in 1909 at the age of forty-five. In 1911 he published to critical acclaim In the Land of the Pharos, which was said to be the first short history of Egypt written in English by an Egyptian. A year later he founded the African Times and Orient Review. This sporadically published journal provided a forum for opponents of British imperialism. It opened its pages not merely to critics who wished to soften what they deemed to be a well-intentioned if occasionally unjust and harsh movement, but also to those like Kidwai who wished to tear up the imperialist movement root and branch. Dusé Mohamed Ali also founded a League of Justice “to defend the rights of native peoples.” In a secret summation of his character, an agent of the India Office deemed him to be quite “capable of political mischief.”14

The barrister Mushir Hussein Kidwai came from a well-connected and politically active South Asian family, against which he rebelled. The India Office thought little of him. “He is so peculiar15 that occasionally he is spoken of as not quite right in his head. I think he is quite sane, but not sensible,” judged one of its agents. When Kidwai arrived in England shortly before the war he joined the League of Justice. He often contributed to the African Times and Orient Review: “long letters, almost always taking an extreme view of the matter, whatever it is.” The agent deemed Kidwai honest but extreme: “I don’t think he would16 touch swindling in any form. But he is certainly a pro-Turk, and a friend of the advanced political party.”

As for Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din,17 he was a South Asian who had abandoned his legal practice to become a Muslim missionary and to lead the sole mosque in England, at Woking, some thirty miles south of London. By 1914 this institution had become the center of Muslim activity in Britain. With its domes and minarets, set in the grounds of what once had been the Royal Dramatic College, it was (and remains to this day) an impressive albeit incongruous structure. Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din conducted services there; he started a monthly journal, the Islamic Review; and he helped to strengthen the London-based Islamic Society that Kidwai served as an officer and that boasted some three hundred members, many of whom made at least a weekly trek to the Woking mosque. Wherever he went and whenever he wrote, Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din emphasized the tolerant, progressive aspects of his religious creed. He and his followers stressed that Islam made no racial distinctions. As one of the followers wrote, when Muslims gathered annually in the early days of the last lunar month to worship in Mecca, “you would see a black18 presiding over a meeting of white people. Men in Islam were estimated by their moral greatness, and neither color, [nor] rank, nor wealth was any criterion for preference.”

When Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din and Mushir Hussein Kidwai spoke at a meeting organized by the Islamic Society in June 1917, the British government took note. The purpose of the meeting was to protest the possibility of Palestine becoming a Jewish state under Britain’s protection. Kidwai argued in his opening address that Palestine was “holier to the Muslims than … to the Jews or the Christians … So if the Zionistic ambitions of our Jewish brothers must be realized; if they have suffered for the last two thousand years … suffered, mind, never at the hands of Muslims but always by the hands of Christians … then those ambitions can only be realized by the cooperation and under the suzerainty of Muslims.” And Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din said in part: “The great Temple of Solomon19 at present is below the surface of the ground with a large and splendid mosque over it … Does not restoration of the Temple of Solomon mean demolishing the mosque and its appurtenances?” Such statements seem mild enough, but on the cover of the Foreign Office file in which the report of this meeting rests, one of the mandarins scrawled, “Christianophobe C.U.P.-ophils.”

An ill wind of anti-Ottoman and anti-Muslim sentiment swept through Britain before and during the war, even among members of the government, who worried that British Muslim subjects might join in a holy war against their rulers. But the anxiety did not touch everyone. Those who resisted tended to be people who actually knew something about the Ottoman Empire and its inhabitants: journalists and academics, for example, but also people who had traveled there, or who had worked there either on business or for Britain. Among the latter category, Mark Sykes, Aubrey Herbert, and George Lloyd had overlapped in Constantinople in 1905 as honorary attachés. Of the three, Sykes reacted most publicly to the experience, extolling traditional Ottoman mores and practices, including religious ones, in books, articles, and speeches, presenting them always with flair and élan. He hated the Young Turks, however, whom he accused of diluting the admirable ancient Ottoman conventions with a half-baked and half-understood Western ideology based upon the principles of the French Revolution. Less voluble but equally impressed by what they had seen of the pre-CUP Ottoman Empire, George Lloyd and Aubrey Herbert advocated a renewed Anglo-Ottoman alliance. Unlike Sykes, they continued advocating it even after the Young Turks came to power.

Herbert went further. He took seriously the Young Turk promises of constitutional government, equality before the law of all Ottoman subjects including women, cultural rights of small nationalities within the Ottoman Empire, and so on. He favored an Anglo-Ottoman alliance not merely because he thought it made strategic sense for Britain but also because he thought the Ottoman government worthy of British support, worthier than brutal, reactionary tsarist Russia. Herbert got to know the leading Young Turks, Enver Pasha and, most particularly, Talaat Pasha. What was more, he liked them.

In late December 1913 Herbert, now Conservative MP for South Somerset, received an invitation to join “an Ottoman Association”20 whose aim would be to foster Anglo-Ottoman understanding. Among the names listed21 as endorsing this fledgling body was that of his friend George Lloyd, who had also become a Conservative MP, for West Staffordshire. (Sykes too had entered Parliament by this time, as Conservative MP for Kingston-upon-Hull, but as strongly opposed as he was to the CUP, he refused to endorse or join the society.) Unlike Sykes, Herbert did join it. But do not think the Anglo-Ottoman Society was dominated by Conservative politicians. Liberal, Labour, and Irish Nationalist MPs lent their names to it too, as did several members of the House of Lords, one of whom, Lord Lamington, became its president. Then there were the men of business, journalism, and academia. The name of at least one Jew, Jaakoff Prelooker, a Russian refugee and liberal rabbi, figures on the society’s early masthead. Startlingly, on the eve of war the names of Moses Gaster and Lucien Wolf22 are listed as members of the society’s executive committee. And at the body’s meetings23 we find Dusé Mohamed Ali, Mushir Hussein Kidwai, and Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din speaking in favor of various motions.

The Anglo-Ottoman Society takes its place in prewar England as a well-intentioned, not particularly effective, but nevertheless active political lobbying group, most notable perhaps for its highly eclectic membership. Unanimity among members was impossible. Conservatives like George Lloyd believed Britain should ally with the Ottomans for strategic reasons; Muslims like Dusé Mohamed Ali and Mushir Hussein Kidwai believed Britain should support a regime that the other powers, great and small, were pecking to death. They saw the Young Turk government both as the victim of imperialism and as the protector of dark-skinned people throughout the world. Some British Muslims, like Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, wanted an Anglo-Ottoman alliance in part because both empires contained millions of Muslims.

Then came the war. Most British Turcophiles and British Muslims believed that Britain had to enter it. Most members of the Anglo-Ottoman Society agreed. Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, who24 thought Germany was the aggressor, endorsed Britain’s decision to fight: “Islam teaches that the use of arms in self-defense is perfectly legitimate.” Anti-imperialists like Dusé Mohamed Ali held back, although the possibility of German victory appalled even him. “Are the Germans to extend their rule over vast numbers of Black and Brown men?” he asked. “We who know something25 of what German rule means and of their treatment of Africans in Togoland, Kamerun and their other African Colonies, say fervently, God forbid!” One thing, however, every British Turcophile and every British Muslim agreed upon: War between Britain and Turkey would be disastrous. Britain must do everything in her power to woo the Ottomans, to keep them from the German embrace. Then Enver Pasha engineered his casus belli, and Turkey joined the war. Now British Turcophiles and Muslims reached another shared conclusion: that Britain and the Ottoman Empire must negotiate a separate peace.

It took time for the British Turcophile and Muslim communities to develop spokesmen who could credibly articulate this demand, but once they did so, the British government could not ignore them. In fact, on occasion the easterners made use of them. This uneasy relationship lasted from early 1916 until the end of the war.

One British Turcophile who desperately wanted a separate peace was the deliciously named Marmaduke Pickthall. He was a successful novelist who often wrote about the mysterious, romantic Middle East, with which he had fallen in love as a young man while traveling there, “living native,” as he later put it. A second extended visit in 1907 at age thirty-three confirmed his early impressions, and a third trip in 1913 taught him to greatly admire Young Turk politicians as well. He spoke often at prewar and wartime Anglo-Ottoman Society meetings. Dusé Mohamed Ali may have been the instigator of the society, and Lord Lamington may have been its titular president, but Pickthall became its motor. He “did everything for it,26 except bathe the members,” writes his biographer.

Pickthall belonged not only to the British Turcophile community but to the British Muslim community too. Although he was the son of an Anglican minister and the stepbrother of two Anglican nuns, he was drawn to Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din and spent much time at the mosque in Woking. He would convert to Islam in 1917. Many years later he would write the first literal translation of the Quran into English. It is worth pointing out that Pickthall and Aubrey Herbert had formed a friendship. The Conservative MP introduced the novelist to important Young Turks who came to England and wrote introductions for Pickthall when he traveled to Turkey in 1913. Upon his return to England, Pickthall made a point of attending the House of Commons when Herbert spoke on Turkish questions.

With the commencement of the war, Pickthall wrote a steady stream of well-informed articles and letters to the press extolling Young Turk virtues and criticizing Britain’s Near Eastern and Middle Eastern policies. He feared, rightly, that Turkey would be drawn into the conflict on the side of Germany. In September 1914, before Enver Pasha maneuvered his country into the war, Pickthall attended an exclusive gathering at the home of Professor R. W. Seton-Watson, an expert on the Habsburg Empire and the Near East. He read a paper to “a group of men who were certainly not ill-informed on the subject of Foreign Affairs.” The subsequent discussion left him aghast. No one who spoke thought the Ottoman Empire would be allowed to survive the war. Pickthall wrote incredulously: “The question was how much of Turkey should be left to Turks at the peace settlement!” He determined to find out what the British policy really was (no doubt by questioning his well-connected friends in the Anglo-Ottoman Society) and by February 18, 1915, was in a position practically to predict the Tripartite Agreement. This was about a year before the diplomats inked in its final clauses.

Our unknown rulers27 seem so far as I can learn to contemplate a full partition of the Turkish Empire … Russia will have Eastern Anatolia, Northern Mesopotamia and almost certainly Constantinople … England will have southern Mesopotamia and probably all the territory southward roughly of a line drawn on the map from a point a little to the north of Samara on the Tigris to a point a little south of Jaffa on the Coast of Palestine. The whole peninsula of Arabia will be included in her “sphere of influence” for gradual absorption. France will have much of Syria.

Long before Mark Sykes began rethinking the arrangements he had arrived at with Picot, Marmaduke Pickthall knew what to make of this plan: “It is essentially a mess and not a settlement, bound to produce another great war.”

Some nine months28 earlier Pickthall had become friendly with another pro-Ottoman, Dr. Felix Valyi, the Hungarian-born editor of a French journal of opinion, La Revue politique internationale. When the war began, Valyi moved to Lausanne, continuing to publish his Revue and connecting with the Turkish minister there, Fuad Selim al-Hijari.29 The latter disapproved of Enver Pasha’s pro-German policy and maintained contact with like-minded Turks. In the spring of 1916 this group made what appears to have been a concerted effort for a separate peace. Almost simultaneously Prince Sabaheddin, founder of the Turkish Liberal Union Party, sounded the British ambassador in Paris about peace talks; one of his followers approached Sir Henry McMahon in Cairo; and Fuad made discreet inquiries with the Italian ambassador in Switzerland.

By now the British government, which did not believe the Ottoman government was ready to make peace under any circumstances, was telling such men first to depose Turkey’s present rulers and then to bring up the matter with Russia, because the issue of Constantinople would have to be dealt with before any separate peace could be arranged, and Russia had specific plans for that city. Even so, the separate peace idea remained alive in the minds of certain liberal Turks and their fellow travelers, including Dr. Valyi.

Valyi once said of himself, “I am more a philosopher30 than a politician, and my program is to remove politics from the exclusive influence of the personally ambitious and to introduce into its domain those unselfish intellectuals who, up to the present, balk at the idea of associating themselves with politics.” “Philosopher” may not have been31 an accurate self-description, but “unselfish intellectual” was a fair rendering of Marmaduke Pickthall. When Valyi suggested to Fuad Selim al-Hijari that Pickthall was an obvious choice to serve as intermediary between British officials and nonconformist Turks interested in a separate peace, the latter agreed.

Valyi wrote to his English friend from Berne:

Try to come here as soon as possible. You could be very useful for your country … You inspire absolute confidence in the Islamic world and you’re the only man able to render services to your country in the question of the East. You may show my letter to whom it is appropriate.

Pickthall, a political innocent, jumped at the opportunity. Unfortunately he could not consult with his more experienced friend Aubrey Herbert, who was now away in the army. He made his initial formal approach to Lord Newton, an assistant under secretary of state for foreign affairs, who warned him that Britain would not undertake anything “directed against the solidarity of the Entente.” What was this except a repetition of the recognition that Russia would veto any peace plan threatening its acquisition of Constantinople? It meant, really, that Pickthall’s assay in diplomacy was doomed from the start, yet the aspiring peacemaker wrote to Valyi that he was optimistic.

The mail was slow. On pins and needles, Pickthall wrote to Valyi again: “I am awaiting with some anxiety your answer to my letter.” He repeated the Foreign Office prescription about the solidarity of the Entente. If the Turks accepted that, then “I have been informed that I would be allowed to go to Switzerland to talk over the matter to which you refer.” This was like saying that he would be allowed to go when the Turks proved that the moon was made of cheese.

In Switzerland more experienced heads were mulling the thing over. Valyi might claim to be a better philosopher than he was a politician, but Fuad Selim al-Hijari knew about politics. He probably understood that the “solidarity of the Entente” could not stand an Anglo-Ottoman peace agreement that left Constantinople in Turkish hands. Could he entice the Foreign Office to let Pickthall come to Switzerland anyway? Who knew what might develop if only discussions could begin? Valyi, undoubtedly coached by Fuad, wrote to his friend: “I cannot say more than this by letter, but there is no risk in granting you a passport. If the results of your voyage are nil you merely return to England. If, however, things are as I think you will find them [then] I am sure that you will be strongly requested to go on with the work.”

Before this message arrived, the fretful Pickthall had sought out Mark Sykes, whom perhaps he had met through Aubrey Herbert. Perhaps he thought he was playing a trump card. He did not realize that Sykes’s hatred of the Young Turk regime overshadowed his rosy prewar view of the Ottoman Empire—that, in fact, Sykes was one of the men planning its complete dismemberment. Sykes had just returned from Russia, where he had polished details of the Tripartite Agreement with Picot and Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazanov, skinning the Ottoman bear before it was a carcass. The busy, high-powered, roving British agent had little time for novelists and editors spinning dreams of a separate peace. He wrote to Pickthall on May 25, 1916, denying him permission to travel abroad. The invitation from Valyi did not warrant it: “The writer is apparently an Hungarian with no authority to speak on behalf of the Ottoman Government.”

Pickthall now appealed to the Reverend H. G. Rosedale, who had introduced him to Dr. Valyi in the first place. Rosedale knew another assistant under secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir Maurice de Bunsen—chairman of the committee that had envisaged carving up and parceling out Ottoman territories the previous year! Rosedale wrote to de Bunsen: “The man whom the Turks like & trust & [who] especially finds an admirer in M. Valyi, is a man I know well, Mr. Pickthall, the writer of many books & an expert on Oriental questions … In my opinion there would be no danger in intrusting Mr. Pickthall with a mission to see what really lies behind this ‘olive branch.’” But it was not Rosedale’s opinion of Pickthall that mattered, it was the Foreign Office’s opinion. As to that: “Mr. Pickthall is most undesirable, and should in no way be encouraged. In fact he ought to be interned as an alien enemy!” wrote one mandarin when de Bunsen circulated Rosedale’s letter. And another, repeating the now-common British refrain, added: “If Turkey wishes to make peace, then the present Government must be ejected & overtures must be made, not to us, but to Russia.” Eventually de Bunsen wrote to Rosedale and in similar vein to Pickthall: “I am directed by Sir Edward32 Grey to state that, in present circumstances, he regrets his inability to avail himself of Mr. Pickthall’s offer.”

Still the novelist could not quite let the matter lapse. He wrote again to Valyi, giving vent to his frustration, praising the Ottomans, criticizing the Foreign Office. Unwisely he sent a copy of the letter to Sykes. The latter replied cuttingly, “I do not consider that it is proper that you should assume absolute friendship to an enemy State in writing to the subject of another enemy State, and further speak in a distinctly hostile tone of your own government.” This appears finally to have burst Pickthall’s bubble. He had written six months before, “I am a nobody33 and can do nothing to avert the great disaster I have long seen coming.” It was true. The Turcophile community would eventually produce an envoy whom the British government took seriously, but Marmaduke Pickthall was not that man.

That the Ottoman Empire would or could have negotiated a separate peace with the Allies during 1915–16 seems unlikely, although serious men wished for it. Meanwhile British Zionists remained ignorant of the Turcophiles’ efforts. Had they known of them, they would have been angered and frightened, for a separate peace with Turkey might have left Palestine languishing (as they would have termed it) inside the Ottoman Empire. In those years British Zionists lacked the strength to effectively oppose such an outcome.

A year later they had gained strength—and knowledge. Now they knew what the British Turcophiles and Muslims and a few easterners and dissident Turks wished for. But meanwhile the advocates of a separate peace had grown stronger too. How could it have been otherwise, when the war continued to grind up lives and principles and the will to fight on? The pieces from both sides of the historical chessboard moved purposefully forward; already a pawn, Marmaduke Pickthall, had been sacrificed; now more powerful tokens slid into position. The fate of millions depended on where they would land.

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