British Air Control in Colonial Iraq

by Margaret (Maggie) Sutherland, History

Abstract: Racism as we know it today is intrinsically related to colonization. Colonization demands rationale, a means of justification that humanity can digest—and racism filled that need. The history of colonial Iraq shows that claims of bringing the Middle East up to standards of the West was sufficient for justifying colonization but was inadequate in rationalizing bombardment of civilians during the interwar period. Further, it facilitated a new reformulation of racism based on religion. This essay utilizes archived telegrams and correspondence of colonial officials held in the British Archives of Iraq. The focus lies primarily on Sir Percy Cox as a case study to develop the claim that British officials matched the increased virulent methods of control with increased virulence in rhetoric, a dynamic that pushed racism from a notion of superiority of self to the dehumanization of the other. The former rationalized the destruction of tribal structure, and the latter rationalized the destruction of tribesmen.

racism, colonialism, Islamophobia, British Empire, Royal Air Force (RAF)

The British Royal Air Force (RAF) was founded in 1918 to be used as a means of control in the British Empire during the interwar period. Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, was the first British colony subjected to air control; however, the British Royal Air Force’s methods of policing the empire extended beyond surveillance into more violent methods, such as bombardment. The use of the bombs and air control, a method designed specifically for warfare, remains a controversial topic as those bombed were not military personnel, but civilians. British officials were tactical in rationalizing the use of air control in Iraq and used the most readily available source: racism and Islamophobia. Paternalistic racism, a notion of superiority which had sufficed as rationale for early colonization, lacked the ability to justify the bombardment of civilians. In its place, religion-based racism developed to meet this need. British officials adopted Islamophobic rhetoric. British descriptions of Muslims, both Shi’a and Sunni, reveal fear and disdain of the religion as a political force. The British found reason to oppress Muslims more so than Christians and Jews in the region, arguing their intelligence and morality were negatively affected by Islam. By analyzing British correspondence during the early 1920’s, it is evident that racism, rooted in Islamophobia, served as a foundation for the justification of bombardment and air control of the rural tribes of Iraq; Percy Cox’s use of inflammatory language in telegrams and reports found in the British Archives of Iraq show that his perception of Iraqi tribesmen as inferior in both intelligence and morality formed a rational basis for air control. This rhetoric was detrimental to the humanity of Shi’a tribesmen by constructing an image of them as subhuman vessels of religion, or the mere materialization of Islam.

The link between colonialism and the development of the modern construct of race is strong. Race developed alongside colonialism, finding a rationale in what is commonly known as the “white man’s burden,” where interests in territorial expansion and economic exploitation are disguised with the ethically digestible notion of helping civilize “backward” countries and elevating them to Western standards. Rupi Paul Linder’s concept of urbanized people’s “fear of the unknown” and misunderstanding of tribal structure developed the idea that different social structures need saving.1 British interests in Iraq fit the concept of “white man’s burden” seamlessly as colonization included the benefit of strategic location for military bases, railways and a lucrative oil supply, and was justified and secured by empty promises to implement a democratic government and raise the standard of living. This is the basis of racism in this context, where the British Empire saw themselves as saviors, using colonization as a vehicle to implement Western ideologies and standards in Iraq. Similarly, Priya Satia refines the concept of Orientalism, first presented by Edward Said in 1978, by arguing that the British had more than colonial interest in Iraq, but also a deep infatuation with culture, writing that the British intelligence officers were “hoping to find spiritual redemption under cover of patriotic duty.”2 She uses Said’s concept of Orientalism to demonstrate how disillusioned officials created a distorted image of Iraq, exaggerating the landscape and gawking at the culture, constructing an irresistible exploration that aided in justifying the decision to implement air control.

Early reports from British archives provide a foundation for British conceptions about Christians, Jews, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in Iraq. Considerable favor is given to the Christians, although the reason is not clearly defined. Evidence found in the rhetoric used by officials suggests that it is because of the familiarity of the religion, but more profound is Christian Iraqis compliance with British authority in the region. Christians and Jews were considered more educated, and their favorable orientation towards the occupation was met with considerable praise, as when one official wrote: “The standard of education in this country is very low, and except among Jews and Christians there is total absence of men who have received an education on western lines.”3 It is clear, from this statement and others similar, that a hierarchy has been established based on compliance with Western culture, where Jews and Christians are more receptive, and Sunni and Shi’a Muslims are not. British officials implemented a double standard here, as many Sunni Muslims embraced Western education. The rising socio-economic class of Effendi’s was composed of young Muslim men, and the British disdain for this class is evident. Whether this stems from fear of nationalism, a Western ideology which had been thoroughly studied and adopted by Effendis, or racism is unclear; however, British fears of “easily excited” Muslims is well documented, and the nationalistic rhetoric and ideology of Effendis considered a threat to British control if distributed to the tribesmen of rural Iraq. Gertrude Bell, who worked closely with Cox in Iraq, encapsulates this view in her “Review of Civil Administration,” saying, “an argument was needed which would be understood by the most ignorant and it was found in an appeal to religious fanaticism. For some time past it had been obvious to the nationalists that it would be necessary for them to present a united Islamic front.”4 The Shi’a tribesmen are considered nearly unintelligible, and simultaneously religious fanatics. By creating an image of Shi’a tribesmen as religious fanatics (specifically of a non-Christian religion), British officials implicitly or explicitly stated that Shi’a Muslims are immoral, “backward”, and anarchical. Tribesmen were believed to be mobilized easily with strong oratory, a fanatical reaction stemming from religious zeal, and officials insinuated that they lacked the capacity to define themselves as anti-colonial, and instead relied on other sects of the population to make religious appeals. To this end, efforts were made to alter the beliefs of the young sons of tribal sheikhs, which the British believed would change the disposition of the young men entirely. For example, in early discourse over the education of Shaikh’s sons, the Department of Education argues that a young Shi’a boy needs a minimum of six years under British influence and education to overcome the unfavorable qualities that stem from solely religious education. On this matter, the department argues that Shi’a men without British influence suffer, as naturally their “intelligence is inclined to degenerate into deceit and his quickness into cunning.”5 These epithets contributed to an image of Shi’a Muslims that portrayed them as not fully cognizant and overly emotional human beings, a strategy that facilitated air control and bombardment. The “subhuman” image of cognitively dependent tribesmen minimized pushback from humanitarian voices, as human rights violations cannot exist against beings that don’t possess full humanity.

In 1917, before the beginning of the Revolt of 1920, Cox was already making appeals to religion. This tactic is rooted in manipulation, and evinces that Cox’s bias in written documents was put into practice. He addresses the people of Baghdad, promising the respect of Islamic holy sites, women, and landowners. With these promises and comparison of British rule to Turkish rule, Cox attempts to persuade Baghdadis to join the British war effort, stating, “it is for those who have the cause of Islam and of the Arab race and Arab progress at the heart to cooperate with forces and Government of Great Britain in accomplishing the complete expulsion of the Turks, and thereby assisting to bring war to a speedy conclusion, and to ensure their own emancipation.”6 It is clear from Cox’s address to the people in Baghdad, specifically the Muslim community, that he expects to find his words met with support and mobilization.

The insurrection of 1920, a collective effort of urban and rural masses, was one of the first uses of air control in British colonial history, and marks the beginning of a long, violent history for Iraqis. British forces suppressed the revolt using bombardment, which disproportionately targeted tribal areas where Shia Muslims dominated the population. The tribes of the Euphrates area, which were described as the “Achilles’ heel of Iraq” by Sir Percy Cox, specifically suffered bombardment during the insurrection, which persisted for several years after the revolt.7 Following the insurrection, aerial presence in Iraq increased. In 1921, new procedures for the RAF were adopted that allotted more control to Britain in the name of finance and efficiency, which were both positively impacted by their standards. The new policy, centered on air control, required pilots to be trained for warfare tactics, and “the importance of testing potentialities of the Air Force.”8 Experimental warfare tactics, originally designed to be implemented in colonial Mesopotamia, were tested during the interwar period and presumably used in tribal areas. The new policy mirrors a preparation strategy for an impending war, but in practice air control tactics were implemented on civilians. This dichotomy suggests that rationale beyond total war is necessary to justify using warfare tactics on a mandated region, where inhabitants are punished by bombardment for resisting colonization.9

After the Revolt and new policy in Iraq, air demonstrations and bombardment increased dramatically and became the main source of control. Bombardment was implemented against tribes to maintain order regularly. British policy in Iraq had also changed significantly, and the virulence of the revolt moved British officials to adopt a new administration stratagem. In 1920, Cox became the High Commissioner of Iraq, and the new and cheaper system of air control was implemented under his authority. By 1924, British officials were acutely aware of the criticism of air control in Iraq; however, the criticism is met with an argument of efficiency, where control is increased and casualties decreased. One colonial official wrote, “It is not that air action causes more casualties than action by ground forces; probably the reverse is the case. But it offers a wider surface to ill-informed criticism and is more apt to create incidents which lend themselves to press agitation and Parliamentary attack.”10 Examination of documents dealing directly with tribal disturbances diminishes this statement to merely pacification, void of any value in practice. For example, in 1924 Percy Cox authorized the bombardment of Beni Hachiam. The rationale for the air action taken is blurred, and Cox makes no mention of violent uprisings that needed to be extinguished. Instead, Cox references the arms (although not actively in use), forts, the construction of an unauthorized dam on the Euphrates, and describes the area as a “plague spot which might at any time infect the surrounding population.”11 It appears that Cox fears the tribesmen might be prone to insurrection on a whim, in line with other claims that tribesmen are susceptible to incitement. The tribal sheikhs did not respond to Cox’s summons, and thus were “severely bombed,” followed by Cox’s rationale: “I had to choose therefore between leaving untouched an island of anarchy which might at any time become eruptive or reducing it to order by Air action.”12 Cox reports that after the bombing, the police entered the area to dismantle 180 forts and the unauthorized dam. The infrastructure clearly was not the intended target, but rather the tribesmen. Furthermore, Cox fails to temper his own language, insulting the tribesmen, stating, “It is a notable feat for the Air Force to keep order among people of predatory and insurrectionary instincts.”13 This same telegram from Cox embodies the circular argument that air control is more efficient in controlling the masses, and that it causes less casualties, despite the differing reality. Several times, Cox mentions the significant benefits of air control, arguing that its toll on human life is less than ground operations, “imposes peace” by controlling tribal disturbances that, according to Cox, “would be of almost daily occurrence were it not for the terror of the air.”14 Cox’s language in this telegram displays his own view of himself, and the practice of British colonization, as a “savior.”

The language used in most published official records remains largely objective, but in telegrams and classified documents, British officials are guilty of using derogatory descriptions, and, ironically, the same inflammatory rhetoric in relation to tribesmen. This language evinces the personal bias of each official and his own agitation towards Muslims, whereas Christians and Jews are spared such derogatory commentary. Furthermore, Christian populations were protected by the British and appear to be the only sect of people receiving genuine care from Britain, followed by the Jewish population. It is clear, from the policy under Sir Percy Cox and the descriptive derogatory language used that British colonial officers used their own personal prejudices against Muslims and tribesmen to justify bombardment and air control during the early interwar period.

Using the narrative of fanaticism to explain rebellion strengthens the idea that Muslims are unstable and in need of British leadership to correct the indigenous social structure. Furthermore, the accreditation to air control for the period of peace after the 1920 rebellion evinces that the violent methods of air control have been justified following this same current: every action a tribal Muslim makes is not of their own volition, but motivated by Islam. This notion deprives Muslims of full humanity or personhood by replacing their cognitive and emotional abilities with religious zeal, effectively creating the image of Muslims as merely subhuman vessels of Islam, not fully emotional nor cognizant human beings. As mentioned briefly before, you cannot violate the human rights of subhuman creatures – the British took this rationale, and ran with it while distorting the image of Muslims along the way.


  1. Rupi Paul Linder, “What Was a Nomadic Tribe?,” 1982, Comparative Studies in Society and History 24, no. 4, 690. ↩︎
  2. Priya Satia, “The Defense of Inhumanity: Air Control and the British Idea of Arabia,” 2006, The American Historical Review 111, no. 1, 26. ↩︎
  3. Percy Cox, “Proposed Constitution: Telegraphic Correspondence with Baghdad,” April 27, 1920, [IOR: L/P&S/18/B 346], in Rush and Priestland, Records of Iraq, 1914-1966, vol. 2: 1914-1918, 217. ↩︎
  4. Gertrude Bell, “Review of Civil Administration,” 1920, [FO 371/5081], in Rush and Priestland, Records of Iraq, 1914-1966, vol. 2: 1914-1918, 265. ↩︎
  5. H.E. Bowman, “Administration Report for the Year of 1918 of Certain Departments of the Civil Administration of the Occupied Territories of Iraq,” January 20, 1919, [FO 371/5078], in Rush and Priestland, Records of Iraq, 1914-1966, vol. 2: 1918-1921, 97-106. ↩︎
  6. Percy Cox, “Draft Proclamation,” March 1917, [FO 371/3042], in Rush and Priestland, Records of Iraq 1914-1966, vol. 1: 1914-1918, 146-108. ↩︎
  7. Percy Cox, “Telegram from High Commissioner, Baghdad, to Colonial Secretary,” February 1924, [CO 730/57], in Rush and Priestland, Records of Iraq, 1914-1966, vol. 3 1921-1924, 470. ↩︎
  8. “Meeting of the Combined Political and Military Committee,” March 16, 1921, in Rush and Priestland, Records of Iraq, 1914-1966, vol. 2: 1918-1921, 544. ↩︎
  9. Peter Amour’s “On the Partiality of Total War” follows this thought current, focusing on the rationale of “inferior race” alone without the element of religion. ↩︎
  10. Middle East Department, Colonial Office, “British Policy in Iraq,” February 8, 1924, [CO 730/146/4], in Rush and Priestland, Records of Iraq, 1914-1966, vol. 3 1921-1924, 124-128. ↩︎
  11. Percy Cox, “Telegram from High Commissioner, Baghdad, to Colonial Secretary,” February 1924, [CO 730/57], in Rush and Priestland, Records of Iraq, 1914-1966, vol. 3 1921-1924, 470. ↩︎
  12. Ibid., 471. ↩︎
  13. Ibid., 472. ↩︎
  14. Ibid., 472. ↩︎

Citation Style: Chicago