Monday, May 08, 2006

Islamic Imperialism

An interview with the author of "Islamic Imperialism, A History'

FP: The Left often likes to paint Muslim political ambitions as reactions to Western encroachments. What would your view be of this interpretation? What, for instance, was 9/11 about? The victims of American imperialism striking back?

Karsh: I am afraid that such perceptions have long transcended the traditional divide between left and right, representing as they do the received wisdom among many educated Westerners since the early twentieth century. In this view of things, Muslims, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, are merely objects - the long-suffering victims of the aggressive encroachments of others. Lacking an internal, autonomous dynamic of their own, their history is rather a function of their unhappy interaction with the West. Some date this interaction back to the crusades. Others consider it a corollary of the steep rise in Western imperial power and expansionism during the long nineteenth century (1789-1923). All agree that Western imperialism bears the main responsibility for the endemic malaise plaguing the Middle East to date.

In Islamic Imperialism: A History, I challenge this mega-narrative by showing that Islamic history has been anything but reactive. From the Prophet Muhammad to the Ottomans, the story of Islam has been the story of the rise and fall of an often astonishing imperial aggressiveness and, no less important, of never quiescent imperial dreams. Even as these dreams have repeatedly frustrated any possibility for the peaceful social and political development of the Arab-Muslim world, they have given rise to no less repeated fantasies of revenge and restoration and to murderous efforts to transform fantasy into fact. These fantasies gained rapid momentum during the last phases of the Ottoman Empire, culminating in its disastrous decision to enter World War I on the losing side, as well as in the creation of an imperialist dream that would survive the Ottoman era to haunt Islamic and Middle Eastern politics to the present day.

This in turn means that if, today, America is reviled in the Muslim world, it is not because of its specific policies but because, as the preeminent world power, it blocks the final realization of this same age-old dream of a universal Islamic empire (or umma). In the historical imagination of many Muslims and Arabs, Osama bin Laden represents nothing short of the new incarnation of Saladin, defeater of the Crusaders and conqueror of Jerusalem. In this sense, the House of Islam’s war for world mastery is a traditional, indeed venerable, quest that is far from over.

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Even during the age of the crusades, the supposed height of civilizational antagonism, all Christian and Muslim rulers freely collaborated across the religious divide, often finding themselves aligned with members of the rival religion against their co-religionists. The legendary Saladin himself spent far more time fighting Muslim rivals than the infidel crusaders; while he was busy eradicating the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem he was closely aligned with the Byzantine Empire, the foremost representative of Christendom’s claim to universalism.

So, I would rather refer to the millenarian confrontation between the worlds of Islam and Christianity as a “clash of imperialisms” rather than a “clash of civilizations.” But then, while the West had lost its imperialist ambitions by the mid-twentieth century (having lost its religious messianism centuries earlier), the fuel of Islamic imperialism remains as volatile as ever, and this ambition for world domination is the primary threat confronting the West today.


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Only last month Mu’ammar Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, predicted the imminent Islamization of Europe. “We have 50 million Muslims in Europe,” he stated in a public speech aired on al-Jazeera television. “There are signs that Allah will grant Islam victory in Europe - without swords, without guns, without conquests. The fifty million Muslims of Europe will turn it into a Muslim continent within a few decades.” “Allah mobilizes the Muslim nation of Turkey, and adds it to the European Union,” he went on. “That’s another 50 million Muslims. There will be 100 million Muslims in Europe.”

While this prediction will probably be dismissed by many as a delusional gloating of an eccentric leader, the truth of the matter is that to this day many Muslims and Arabs unabashedly pine for the reconquest of Spain and consider their 1492 expulsion from the country a grave historical injustice waiting to be undone. Indeed, as immigration and higher rates of childbirth have greatly increased the number of Muslims within Europe itself over the past several decades, countries that were never ruled by the caliphate have become targets of Muslim imperial ambition. Since the late 1980s, Islamists have looked upon the growing population of French Muslims as proof that France, too, has become a part of the House of Islam. In Britain, even the more moderate elements of the Muslim community are candid in setting out their aims. As the late Zaki Badawi, a doyen of interfaith dialogue in the UK, put it, “Islam is a universal religion. It aims to bring its message to all corners of the earth. It hopes that one day the whole of humanity will be one Muslim community.” To deny the pervasiveness and tenacity of this imperialist ambition is the height of folly, and to imagine that it can be appeased or deflected is to play into its hands.


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A book to add to my reading list.

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