A legacy of violence

Gap between delusions of grandeur, localism, bridged time and again by force of arms became key element of Islamic political culture.

blue mosque istanbul 311 (photo credit: Elana Kirsh)
blue mosque istanbul 311
(photo credit: Elana Kirsh)
Turbulent times often breed nostalgia for a supposedly idyllic past. Viewing the upheavals sweeping the Middle East as a mass expression of outrage against oppression, eminent historian Bernard Lewis fondly recalled past regional order.
“The sort of authoritarian, even dictatorial regimes that rule most of the countries in the modern Islamic Middle East are a modern creation. They are a result of modernization,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “The pre-modern regimes were much more open, much more tolerant. You can see this from a number of contemporary descriptions. And the memory of that is still living.”
I doubt past generations of Muslims would share this view. In the long history of the Islamic empire, the wide gap between delusions of grandeur and the forces of localism would be bridged time and again by force of arms, making violence a key element of Islamic political culture. No sooner had the prophet Muhammad died than his successor, Abu Bakr, had to suppress a widespread revolt among the Arabian tribes. Twenty-three years later, the head of the umma, Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, was murdered by disgruntled rebels; his successor, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was confronted for most of his reign with armed insurrections, most notably by the governor of Syria, Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufian, who went on to establish the Umayyad dynasty after Ali’s assassination.
Mu’awiya’s successors managed to hang onto power mainly by relying on physical force to prevent or quell revolts in the diverse corners of their empire. The same was true for the Abbasids during the long centuries of their sovereignty.
WESTERN SCHOLARS often hold up the Ottoman Empire as an exception to this earlier pattern. In fact, the caliphate did deal relatively gently with its vast non- Muslim subject populations – provided they acknowledged their legal and institutional inferiority in the Islamic order of things. When these groups dared to question their subordinate status – let alone attempt to break the Ottoman yoke – they were viciously put down.
In the century or so between Napoleon’s conquests in the Middle East and World War I, the Ottomans embarked on an orgy of bloodletting in response to the nationalist aspirations of their European subjects.
The Greek war of independence of the 1820s, the Danubian uprisings of 1848, the Balkan explosion of the 1870s – all were painful reminders of the cost of resisting Islamic rule. The 1990s wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are but natural extensions of this “much more open, much more tolerant” legacy.
Nor was such violence confined to Ottoman Europe. Turkey’s Afro-Asiatic provinces were also scenes of mayhem.
The Ottoman army or its surrogates brought force to bear against Wahhabi uprisings in Mesopotamia and the Levant in the early 19th century, against civil strife in Lebanon in the 1840s and against a string of Kurdish rebellions. In response to the national awakening of the Armenians in the 1890s, Istanbul killed tens of thousands – a taste of the horrors that awaited the Armenians during World War I.
Violence and oppression, then, have not been imported to the Middle East as a byproduct of European imperialism; they were a part of the political culture long before. If anything, it is the Middle East’s tortuous relationship with modernity that has left physical force as the main instrument of political discourse.
Unlike Christianity, Islam was inextricably linked with empire. It did not distinguish between temporal and religious powers (which were combined in the person of Muhammad, who derived his authority directly from Allah). This allowed the prophet and his erstwhile successors to cloak their political ambitions with a religious aura.
Neither did the subject populations of the Ottoman Empire undergo the secularization and modernization that preceded the development of nationalism in Western Europe in the late 1700s.
So when the old European empires collapsed 150 years later, individual nationstates were able to step into the breach. By contrast, when the Ottoman Empire fell, its components still thought only in the old terms – on the one hand, the intricate web of loyalties to clan, tribe, village, town, religious sect or local ethnic minority, and on the other, submission to the distant Ottoman sultan/caliph as the temporal and religious head of the world Muslim community – a post that now stood vacant.
INTO THIS vacuum stepped ambitious political leaders speaking the rhetoric of “Arab nationalism.”
The problem with this state of affairs was that the diversity and fragmentation of the Arabic-speaking world had made its disparate societies better disposed to local patriotism than to a unified secular order.
But then, rather than allow this disposition to develop into modern-day nationalism, Arab rulers systematically convinced their peoples to think that the independent existence of their respective states was a temporary aberration.
The result was a legacy of oppressive violence that has haunted the Middle East into the 21st century, as rulers sought to bridge the reality of state nationalism and the mirage of a unified “Arab nation,” and to shore up their regimes against grassroots Islamist movements (notably the Muslim Brotherhood) articulating the far more appealing message of a return to religious law (Shari’a) as a stepping stone to the establishment of a worldwide community of believers (umma).
One need only mention, among many instances, Syria’s massacre of 20,000 Muslim activists in the early 1980s, or the brutal treatment of Iraq’s Shi’ite and Kurdish communities until the 2003 war, or the genocidal campaign in Darfur by the government of Sudan.
This violence has by no means been the sole property of the likes of Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Hafez Assad, and Ayatollah Khomeini. The affable and thoroughly Westernized King Hussein of Jordan didn’t shrink from slaughtering thousands of Palestinians during September 1970 (known as Black September) when his throne came under threat from Palestinian guerrillas.
Now that the barrier of fear has been breached, it remains to be seen which regimes will be swept from power. But it is doubtful whether Middle East societies will be able, or willing, to transcend their imperial legacy and embrace the Western-type liberal democracy that has taken European nations centuries to achieve.
The writer is professor of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King’s College London, editor of the Middle East Quarterly and author of Islamic Imperialism: A History.