Islamism's accidental midwives

Neither the British Empire nor communism would be expected to support an extreme Muslim ideology, but that's what their policies ended up doing.

The rise of Islamism may have had no greater unintentional allies than the British Empire up until 1948 - and communism afterwards. This sounds surprising, as the British Empire is generally seen as founded on Christian Anglican values, and nothing seems more anathema to communism than religion. But while the professed values and foundations of British imperialism and communism would militate against Islamism's rise, the actual practices of the two regimes led to conditions under which it grew and gained converts. The British Empire contained many millions of Muslims. It tended to colonize countries on the periphery of Islam, such as India and the Sudan, where Muslims had gained inroads or where Islamic colonial regimes, such as the Mughals, had long held sway. Unlike the French in North Africa, the British Empire had within it the power to roll back the imposition of Islamic law and protect non-Islamic minorities. But while the British Empire did perform admirably in ending the Islamic Arab slave trade in West Africa through colonizing Zanzibar, the slave traders' capital, it was not as successful a protector of non-Muslims in the Sudan, Egypt, Iraq or Palestine. IN THE SUDAN the British had the opportunity to help the local pagan and Christian Africans in the south form their own autonomous government. In fact, given the history of the Sudanese Mahdi's Islamist extremism, which led to the death of British Gen. Gordon at Khartoum in 1885 and the battle of Omdurman in 1898, the British should have understood the threat that Islamism posed to minorities. But Britain did the opposite, forcing Sudan into a federation with Egypt until Sudan gained independence in 1956. At that point, southern Sudan, predominantly African and Christian, was forced to give up its autonomy and become part of newly independent Arab Islamist Sudan. Civil war and genocide have been the bane of Sudan ever since. In Iraq, the minority Assyrian and Chaldean Christian community were originally armed by the British as auxiliaries in the 1920s. But when England handed the country over to King Faisal in the 1930s, Assyrians were massacred. In Palestine, the British pledge to the Jews was undermined by the 1939 White Paper restricting Jewish immigration; the country was partitioned eight years later into two states, one with a bare majority of Jews and the other entirely Arab and mostly Muslim. INDIA PRESENTS a further example of the way in which British rule unintentionally furthered the goals of states and ideologies that would become centers of Islamism. Originally the British seemed to save Hindus and Sikhs in India from Mughal Muslim domination. England fought wars against Muslim potentates such as Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1799. But Britain also destroyed the non-Muslim independent states in wars against the Hindu Marathas and Sikhs. In the laws enacted by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries in India, Shari'a family law was enshrined by Britain in its colonial legal system. In general, the British, out of a desire to be paternalistic, attempted to reform and "modernize" laws affecting the Hindus, but specifically exempted Muslims from such laws so as not to engender mass protests by the Muslim community. In the Partition of India in 1947, the Muslim League's demand for a state was met, while that of the Sikhs was denied. The result was the creation of Pakistan (which included Bangladesh at the time) and the mass movement of some 14 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims across the partition border. More than 500,000 died in ethnic-cleansing on both sides. In Pakistan, the few remaining minorities have faced increasing discrimination and the imposition of Shari'a law. COMMUNISM in Russia, Yugoslavia, Ethiopia and China followed a similar pattern. While there were examples of Muslim minorities, such as the Chechens, being brutalized by communism, overall, Islam did well under such regimes. The Chinese have been forbidden to have more than one child since 1979. However, Chinese Muslim minorities such as the Hui and the Uighur are allowed to have more than one child under the idea that children are central to their religion, as if the same were not true of Chinese Buddhists and Christians. The Soviet Union pursued a similar policy in regards to religion. While the Orthodox Church and Jewish religion were suppressed, churches turned into museums and synagogues turned into government buildings, Islam was never subjected to such extreme degradation. Although the use of the veil was proscribed in Central Asia, Islam thrived in other ways, especially because it was seen as part of the "national" characteristic of the Central Asian and Caucasian Soviet Republics. In Yugoslavia, a similar policy was embarked upon in Kosovo and Bosnia, and the result was the ethnic-religious wars of the 1990s in which Islamist Mujahadeen, including members of Al-Qaida, came to Bosnia to join the Jihad. Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the leader of the group that beheaded Daniel Pearl, was among them. Ethiopian communism suppressed the Ethiopian Orthodox church, but ignored the rise of Islamism in parts of Ethiopia, such as among the Oromo and their Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia. Thus communism did not support a rise in Islamism but served unintentionally as its incubator in some cases. Communist atheist zeal usually assaulted the majority religions its leaders were familiar with, such as Orthodoxy and Buddhism, ignoring Islam and the growth of Islamist groups. THE BRITISH EMPIRE's decision to give in to Muslim nationalist and proto-Islamist demands, and its unwillingness to meddle with Shari'a law, had catastrophic consequences for non-Muslim minorities such as the Copts, Assyrians, Sikhs and African Christians, who were abandoned in policies designed to avoid social unrest. British partition plans in Palestine and India led to the ethnic-cleansing of Jews, Hindus and Sikhs, while minorities in Sudan who had enjoyed autonomy were forced to live under regimes which suppressed them and became increasingly intolerant of their beliefs. Communism pursued similar policies. Most often seeing the church as a greater threat than the mosque, it viciously destroyed national churches, ignoring the rise of Islamist and Wahhabi preaching in its midst. When communism declined and fell, Islamism went on the march: from Eritrea, Bosnia, Chechnya and Central Asia to Western China. While the policies of the British Empire and communism were in no way shaped to support the spread of Islamism, the fall of both had the unintentional affect of creating states that have provided safe havens for its growth. The writer, a PhD student in geography at the Hebrew University, contributes to the Canadian Jewish News, Frontpage magazine and Middle East Quarterly and runs the Terra Incognita blog. (