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Islamic Imperialism: A History
By Efraim Karsh
Yale University Press
Are Muslim countries the victims of history? Yes, according to two opposing schools of thought.
The first, widely held among academic Middle East Studies departments, maintains that the cynical machinations of outside powers, in particular the United States and Great Britain, have been primarily responsible for reducing the Arab world to its present divided state. The West invaded the region, redrew its maps according to the convenience of the conquerors, and implanted the "Zionist colonial entity" in its midst.
The second, which occasionally surfaces in the press, abuses Middle Eastern regimes as losers, perpetually condemned to such status by backwardness, lack of democracy, and their fanatic mindsets.
Professor Efraim Karsh, who heads the Mediterranean Studies Programme at Kings College, London, will have none of these explanations. In his most recent book, Empires of the Sands, he presents a wealth of evidence showing that the Ottoman Empire fell because it chose to enter World War I on the wrong side, not because it was a victim of European great powers. In fact, it had long adopted a prudent policy of manipulating these powers to its advantage, which it abandoned in making its fatal alliance with Germany.
Now he takes a further step toward restoring the view of Islamic countries as vigorous, ambitious and competitive societies. Islamic Imperialism surveys Muslim history to illustrate his main point: the Islamic world has a deep-rooted and vital impulse to extend its rule over other non-Muslim countries which it successfully practiced in the past and which is very much alive today.
This impulse comes, he maintains, from the Prophet himself, even though the great and rapid expansion of Muslim power took place after his death. However, the unified Empire rapidly broke down, as pre-existing enmities dictated by geography and tribalism were overlaid by clashing dynastic ambitions. Each faction laid sole claim to the Prophet's mantle, and resorted to war to prove it.
Such turbulence became a settled feature of the House of Islam, as rivals rose and made their bids for supreme power. In doing so, they were happy to make alliances with the non-Muslim world in order to do down the competition.
Karsh cites the example of the Crusader kingdom, which, far from being the target of a relentless jihad for the 200 years of its existence, was courted by other Muslim rulers as a counterweight to the ambitions of rivals. Its downfall began only when one of its princes imprudently picked a fight with the great Kurdish general Saladin at a time when the latter was busy with Muslim rivals to his own bid for regional mastery. Even then, clashes within civilizations were more important than clashes between civilizations.
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire, however, marked a new chapter in the history of Islamic imperialism. Until 1918, the Ottomans were the accepted standard bearer for the Islamic imperial impulse. Lawrence's much-vaunted "Arab Revolt," led by discontented scheming leaders who promised the British massive support, had failed to win over the bulk of the Empire's subjects.
The new order worked out well for Turkey. It embraced the values of the 20th century nation-state and forsook its imperial dreams, symbolized in its formal abolition of the caliphate. It worked out less well for the other countries in the region that were carved out of the former Ottoman Empire.
The competing aspirations of Arab power-seekers were accommodated by the great powers in the creation of new states: their boundaries did not result from an imposed settlement. No sooner were the rulers ensconced in their capitals, however, than they started to pursue their own plans for regional dominance.
The usual mask behind which such activities were pursued was that of Pan-Arabism, which Karsh neatly labels as "a euphemism for the imperialist ambitions of successive Arab dynasties and rulers."
Egypt's Nasser was a case in point. Loud in condemnation of Western "colonialism" and a proponent of Arab unity, he tried to merge his country and Syria into the grandiosely-named United Arab Republic. The Syrians, however, swiftly realized that Nasser intended to control everything from Cairo, and broke up the union before Syria could become an Egyptian vassal state.
Nasser's follies, though, just like the other follies of the newly-independent Arab states, were not willed on them by wicked outside powers, but were the products of his own overly ambitious dreams.
The current plethora of Islamic fundamentalist movements, Karsh argues, whether in the form of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian Hamas, or the Al-Qaeda terror network, have one thing in common: the impulse to create a worldwide caliphate. In this they are legitimate heirs to Islam's imperial aspirations. Even Hamas views the "liberation" of Palestine as but a stepping stone to this goal.
Significantly the most successful of modern-day Arab countries are those which have come to terms with what Karsh terms the "reality of state nationalism" and exploited great-power rivalry to their advantage. Nasser's successors, Sadat and Mubarak, successfully allied themselves with the West, and used this to help roll back Israel's territorial gains in the Six-Day War. Not "losers" by any definition, they offer an alternative role model for the successful conduct of an Islamic state.
Why have all these imperial movements flopped? From Karsh's account, they appear to have inspired in the minds of ambitious rulers visions of power beyond their abilities to attain. The very raising of the banner of Empire inspires the armed enmity of rivals, thus dooming the enterprise at the moment of its birth. The Arab world is too differentiated by culture, clan, and types of Islam to be effectively united. Therefore attempts to unify the region, though expressed in the language of liberation from the colonialist and the oppressor, nearly always end up in one Muslim state fighting another.
Whether this state of affairs will endure should one of these states or terror organizations obtain nuclear weapons is another story.
In the meantime, Karsh's lively, clearly written and well-researched account should have an appeal beyond an academic audience. The crisp manner with which he disposes of accepted wisdom will delight the reader. And in laying to rest the victim theory, he restores a measure of dignity to the Middle East.