Thursday, June 11, 2009

Islamic Imperialism

When folk use the term imperialism nowadays, it is almost taken as read that one means Western imperialism. Yet, if we take Western civilisation to have arisen from the collapse of Classical civilisation, then, from the C7th to the C15th, Western civilisation was more likely to be the victim of imperialism than the perpetrator of it.

Apart from the Reconquista (which was, after all, a re-conquest), the Norman conquest of Sicily (ditto) and the (ultimately failed) Crusader states, for a thousand years—from the C7th to the C17th—Christendom was subject to waves of attacks and conquest by Islamic imperialism (as was every other culture Islam came in contact with): first Arab, then “Moorish” (i.e. Berbers & Arabs) and Turkish imperialism. Much of what we now think of as classically Islamic countries (North Africa, Near East, Turkey, Albania) had been Christian countries for centuries prior to their conquest by Islam: Christianity is centuries older in Egypt and Syria than it is in, say, Sweden. Even the beginnings of Western global imperialism around 1500 were primarily motivated by a wish to “outflank” an Islam that was still aggressively expanding and was not definitively stopped until 180 years later.

Efraim Karsh’s Islamic Imperialism: A History tells the story of Islamic imperialism, bringing out just how drenched in blood the history of Islam has been from the start.

Muhammad himself was a conqueror, who raided, expelled and engaged in mass beheadings of opponents and built warrior ethics (including payment of booty as a religious duty) into his religion. Of his immediate successors, only one (Abu Bakr) died peacefully. Both the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphal dynasties established their rule with great violence and were constantly plagued by revolts.
Karsh sets out the successive imperial dreams within Islam—those since the fall of the Ottoman Empire being treated in more detail. First came the unification of Arabia. Then the Umayyad imperium based on Arab supremacy: what amounted to a form of Arab apartheid. (Arab pride of race had led to deep—and enduring—anti-black sentiment, which showed up particularly in reactions to the Zanj revolt in C9th.)

Then came the Abbasid version, with a broader view of Muslim identity. It fractured into regional rulerships and suffered subordination to the Seljuq Turks until being swept away in the Mongol invasions of the C13th, invasions that were far more traumatic for Islam than the relatively minor incursions of the Christian Crusades. (Which also had much bigger impact on Christendom—through the techniques brought back—than on Islam.)

With few exceptions (notably the Ottomans), Muslim rule failed to create long-term stability. The pattern was of dynastic rule that might well achieve a golden age of prosperity but would then decay before suddenly disintegrating in an economic and political crisis. (A major reason for the Reconquista was that the Christians were able to create much more resilient polities.)

The Ottoman disaster of the Battle of Vienna was a clear sign that the adaptiveness of the West had overtaken the capacities of Islam. Ottoman rule suffered a slow retreat before the advancing Habsburg and Romanov empires. Eventually, even relatively minor nationalisms were able to throw off Ottoman rule.

By astutely playing the “Great Game”, the Ottomans were able to enlist the Western Powers (particularly Britain) as their saviours against the Russians and a rising Egyptian-based dynasty. The Qajar dynasty in Persia also played Britain and Russia off against each other. One of the virtues of Islamic Imperialism: A History is that Karsh has no truck with the silly fable of poor non-Westerners passively reacting to dominant Western causal agency. Indeed, Karsh has an excellent sense of how regional actors could "play" foreign Powers and the cross-purposes, trade-offs, ad hoc improvisations and shifting priorities which are the stuff of public policy in real life. Including imperial public policy.

Eventually, both the Ottoman and Qajar regimes fatally mis-stepped. The Ottoman empire’s ruling “Young Turktroika made the completely unforced error of entering WWI on the side of the Central Powers, expecting Germany to win. Which meant that the Ottoman Empire was on the losing side, and so was, after much hard fighting, destroyed by the victorious Entente Powers. The Qajar dynasty also mishandled the “Great Game” (the bribery benefits of playing the British and Russians off against each other being much more attractive than developing Iran) and collapsed.

The Ottoman declaration of war on a British Empire that had protected them for over a century provided an opportunity for new imperial dreams, that of the Hashemite dynasty. Despite the fact that most Arabs within the Empire remained loyal to Ottoman rule to the end, the Hashemites, their ally T. E. Lawrence and enterprising journalism managed to forge a myth of the Arab Revolt as a national liberation movement. But, as Karsh sets out, what has been passed off as “national liberation” movements have been little more than a succession of imperial dreams. Pan-Arabism in particular has been a vehicle for such dreams.

That various Hashemite princes were determined to have their own realms led to the creation of two Hashemite kingdoms (Jordan and Iraq) and the loss of their base in Arabia to the al-Saud. In the 1950s, the high point of Arab monarchism receded as monarchies fell in Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Tunisia. (Typically leading to more repressive regimes.)

Nasser in Egypt seemed to epitomise the new wave of Arab politics. Karsh takes us through the ebbs and flows of Nasser’s manoeuvres and rhetoric, which tended to trip over each other. Indeed, Nasser admired Zionism—until it became convenient to excoriate it.

The imperial dreams of “secular” pan-Arabism fell apart in military, economic and political failure. Which led to the new imperial dreams of the Islamists and the jihadis (most notoriously, that of Osama bin Laden).

Karsh ends with
only when the political elites of the Middle East and Muslim world reconcile themselves to the reality of state nationalism,* forswear pan-Arab and pan-Islamic imperialist dreams, and make Islam a matter of private faith rather than a tool of political ambition will the inhabitants of these regions at last be able to look forward to a better future free of would-be Saladins (p.133).
But Islam-as-private-faith is not the Islam of the Prophet, the first Islamic imperialist.

For imperial dreams are at the heart of Islam and have been for its entire existence. An Islam without imperial dreams would be much easier to live with, but would be a rather different Islam than that which has dominated the Middle East, Northern Africa, Central Asia and beyond for the last 1300 years. As Karsh’s informative book makes clear.

* Which is also code for “accept the existence of Israel”.

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