I’ve written quite a bit on the issue of Islam. I am highly critical of it, after writing on the subject of enlightened secular humanism I think it is fair to say I am highly critical of all ‘religion’.
I have also argued that the west is not the cause of the clash with Islam. I agree that some policy decisions have exacerbated the situation but overall I think the west has dealt with Muslim countries in the way that it deals with any other country, including other ‘western’ countries, with a kind of moderated, pragmatic self-interest – the way all countries treat other countries. The west has not singled out Islam for any special mistreatment. This is in the imagination of Islam which has always defined itself as the victim of conspiracies and in ‘opposition’ to Judaism and Christianity (well, to all other religions). Mohammed believed (or cynically spread the idea) that there was a conspiracy by the Meccans and then the Medinite Jews against the ‘truth’. His acts of aggression against the pagan Meccans and Medinite Jews are justified as a legitimate defence against conspiratorial aggression. This pattern is repeated today. Islamic aggression is justified as the legitimate defence against a ‘perceived’ conspiratorial agression by infidels. There is no such conspiratorial aggression – it is a figment of their imagination, the consequence of a flawed narrative.
I came across an interesting book yesterday, ‘Islamic Imperialism’ by Efraim Karsh. Okay, let’s be perfectly clear about this. Efraim Karsh is a Jew, even a Zionist. He is Professor and Head of the Mediterranean Studies Programme at King’s College, U of London. The book is published by Yale. Karsh has an impressive CV – but he is biased.
Biased? Well, he takes a strong position and would be aligned with the conservative side of politics, or at least favoured by them. He is also noted for his critique of the group known as the ‘New Historians’, a group of left leaning Israeli academics who have published highly critical histories of Israel. Karsh accuses them a bad history and of deliberately misreading the primary sources. His critique returns to the primary sources to prove the misrepresentation. The thing about this is that both the left and right distort history to fit their ideological inclinations. What we ought to be concerned about is the truth and I would suggest that both sides have bits of the truth. The question is really about the integrity of the historian and their ability and desire to seek the truth even when it is uncomfortable.
Karsh seems to make some very valuable points and so, knowing his position, I’m prepared to pay attention.
‘Islamic Imperialism’ doesn’t pull any punches. As far as Karsh is concerned Islam has always had, and still has, aggressive imperialist ambitions. The root cause of resentment in the ME is a frustrated imperialist ambition. Islam believes it is and must be superior and it is humiliated that it is not.
The book is a history of the Islamic imperialist project, from Mohammed to bin Laden. He starts the book with a series of quotes – a thematic repitition from Mohammed to bin Laden.
“I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘there is no god but Allah” Mohammed’s final address, 632.
“I shall cross this sea to their islands and pursue them until there remains no one on the face of the earth who does not acknowledge Allah.” Saladin, 1189
“We will export our revolution throughout the world…until the calls ‘there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger’ are echoed all over the world.” Khomeini, 1979
“I was ordered to fight the people until they say there is no god but Allah, and his prophet Mohammed.” Osama bin Laden, 2001.
The original is a well known hadith, it is not found in the Koran. As hadith it is not followed by every Muslim, but it is clear that many understand what this hadith commands – endless jihad until all of humanity converts to Islam. This is the essence of Islamic imperialism, the drive to conquer the globe. Not all Muslims are involved in this project but enough have always been inspired by this ideal for it to be a persistent problem.
The book is an examination of the nature of this imperialist ambition and it contains some surprises.
I did not know that the early caliphs did not want conquered people to convert. If they converted they had to be treated equally and could not be taxed. The argument was put forward that to ensure the future flow of wealth back to the Muslim Arab tribes conversion should be resisted. If this isn’t imperialism then what is? Furthermore, there was a special category of non-Arab converts who were treated differently to Muslim Arabs, the ‘Mawali’. Mawali could not marry Muslims and had to pay special taxes. In short, they were discriminated against.
The positive Muslim spin is that all subject people freely converted to Islam. The reality seems to somewhat different. Many groups did not begin converting for at least two centuries and then slowly, as a way to avoid the discrimination against non-Muslims. The Mawali system was eventually reformed but it’s existance contradicts the positive spin put on the early Muslim conquests. Yes, they really did it for gain.
The other interesting point Karsh makes (I haven’t read it all yet) is that the British originally supported a pan-Arab state as the best outcome of the collapse of the Ottoman empire. He argues that the breaking up of the region into smaller states, the main cause of resentment today, was actually the result of Arab duplicity. The common story is that the British and French betrayed the Arabs. Karsh says that it was not a ‘betrayal’ but a necessary response to the failure of the Arabs to meet their part of the bargain. In fact Karsh says that the Arabs betrayed the British, dealing with the Turks behind their backs.
Again we see the ‘persecution’ narrative raise its ugly head. Just as the Meccans and Jews ‘betrayed’ Mohammed the British and French ‘betrayed’ the Arabs. Looked at in another way the Meccans and Jews were protecting their interests against an madman and aggressor and the British and French were protecting their interests against a duplicitous ally. The problem was that Sharif Hussein al Hashemi, the Arab leader, had imperialist ambitions of his own. As it turned out the British ended up handing Jordan and Iraq to Hussein’s two sons. Jordan is still in the hands the Hashemites but the other son was overthrown in Iraq (and then Syria). What would have happened if the British had given the Hashemites the whole of the Arabian penninsula? Peace and prosperity?
Karsh argues that the real reason for the situation in the ME is the internal rivalries. Dictators exist because only strong leaders can keep a lid on the tribal and sectarian differences, which have always erupted when the leadership is weakened. The violence we see in Iraq now was not ’caused’ by the invasion, it was latent, what the invasion did was simply lift the lid off the pressure cooker.
I’ll share one last quote from Dr Yusuf Qaradawi regarded as a leading Islamic scholar. He is talking about the hadith where Mohammed is asked which city will be conquered first, Hirqil (Constantinople) or Romiyya (Rome). History shows that Constantinople was conquered by Islam and Qaradawi says:
“The other city, Romiyya, remains and we hope and believe that it too will be conquered. This means that Islam will return to Europe as a conqueror and victor, after being expelled from it twice – once from the South, from Andalusia (Spain), and a second time from the East, when it knocked several times on the door of Athens”.
Karsh argues that whilst Christianity had its own (obvious) imperialist ambitions it has finally surrendered them. Islam has not. (Although I think Karsh neglects to mention that Christian imperialism has been revived amongst American evangelicals). Islamic imperialist ambitions are a fundamental aspect of the Islamic narrative. Al Qaeda is simply the latest manifestation of the eternal jihad.