Lee P. Ruddin: Review of Dominic Green’s Three Empires on the Nile: The Victorian Jihad, 1869–1899 (Free Press, 2007)
The War Office had manipulated the press, and a cabal of ministers had subverted official policy, forcing a deep intervention in the Islamic world–[tracing] the moral decay of … foreign policy to the rise of “Semitic influence” at home.
A secular regime is toppled by Western intervention, but an Islamic backlash turns the liberators into occupiers… [where] the media accuse Western soldiers of barbarity and a region slides into chaos… This is not the Middle East of the early twenty–first century. It is Africa in the late nineteenth century.
What does “The Clash of Civilizations” truly mean? Why do Shiite insurgents call themselves the Mahdi Army? How did the Sudan end up as the Hobbesian hell–hole it is today? “The nineteenth–century origins of it all were even more dramatic and strange than today’s headlines” reads the inside flap. In Three Empires on the Nile, Dominic Green serves up a historical feast with which to digest current events–stirring the ingredients of Islamism in the stew of Eastern and Western ideas bubbling in the dying Ottoman hinterlands–rendering this book a vade mecum for those students of international history and theology.
Long before the ghastly glitterati of modern–day Islamism there was the Sudanese Mahdi–the “Expected One” (aka: Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Allah)–who raised the Arabs in pan–tribal revolt against the kafir. The Mahdist forces were eventually crushed at the Battle of Omdurman (1898), and the jihad temporarily dissolved into the desert, only to be renewed a century later. In tracing The Path to 9/11, one might start with Osama Bin Laden’s journey to the same land in the early nineties. It is argued that the Islamism of today is in many ways the spiritual inheritor of the philosophy and traditions of yesterday’s Mahdi. Indeed, this ancient tale has become a contemporary reality.
The dust–jacket of this intriguingly titled hardback enshrines a work that “unfurls” history, geopolitics and religion when recounting the tumultuous events on the island of Africa in the “poor wicked Nineteenth Century.” Green pens together a formidable narrative demonstrating acumen though never supercilious when parading a writing style that others could only dream of. Notwithstanding expertise in the history of international relations (IR), Green stays afloat in the choppy waters of IR that have swallowed up many a neophyte adventurer. Although, this should have come as no surprise given Green’s preceding work: The Double Life of Doctor Lopez: Spies, Shakespeare and the Plot to Poison Elizabeth I (here, Green sets the precedent of a tragic history of a state agent that reads like a Shakespearean tragedy).Anyhow, the original thirty year log of the region makes for an engrossing read re–creating the Sudanese campaigns with remarkable dynamism; from Britons and barbarians, profits and prophets to occupiers and occultists. In fact, it is difficult to see how the axis (history, geopolitics and religion) could be more determinedly told. Offering an alternative to those motion pictures (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “Zulu” and “Khartoum”) espousing a quaintly romantic chaos, the tragedy transports us from a death of a hero, the rise of a messiah and the fall of a government. All this leads to a Victorian arms race that put Europe on a downward trajectory, leading “the rising generation of 1898 [to become] the presiding generation of 1914.”
Among the dozens of portraits worked into this Victorian Who’s Who, Green brings to life the two characters who personify the period: the evangelist Charles Gordon and his fanatical adversary, the Mahdi. If any blemish were to be placed upon this 280–page tour de force, it would be Green’s authorial understretch and the lack of overt historical correlations with the present. Saying that, this is clearly not the intention of the thesis (and commentators will undoubtedly applaud Green’s prudence here); but rather examines an era from 1869 through 1899 that lay witness to the rise of three empires (the Egyptian tyranny of Khedive Ismail, the apocalyptic “fantasy” of the Mahdi, and the British Empire, which arrived on the African expanse “in a flurry of humanitarian concern”) and the competing demands of Great Power politics and religious fervor along the Nile. A recurring theme (the reviewer detects) is Green’s antipathy for British Prime Minster William Gladstone. This alone justifies the admission price.
Three Empires on the Nile: The Victorian Jihad, 1869–1899 offers a tour d’horizon pertaining to the history of East/West relations allowing the reader to reinterpret the past in light of the present to unearth previously disregarded connections. John Dumbrell, Professor in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University (UK) succinctly posits that, “We are pre–programmed to look for parallels and connections.” It is across the Atlantic however and to Harvard’s heavyweight historian, Niall Ferguson that we locate the midwife to Dumbrell’s thinking. Without doubt, it was through the revered revisionist’s tasty serving of both Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World and Colossus: the Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2003 & 2004 respectively) that we are first introduced to such a history of the present; labelling the butchering of General Charles Gordon “a Victorian 9/11.” The corollary to such thinking is the hyper–stacked shelves of similarly–titled scripts. Michael Asher’s Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventure is just one–whose paperback arrival was two months prior to Green’s. Forthcoming also is Daniel Allen Butler’s The First Jihad: Khartoum, and the Dawn of Militant Islam.
A couple of points stand out for reflection.
Great Power conspiracies apart (Semitic or l’intrigue Brittanique) it was Khedive Ismail’s dream of returning Egypt–“the Kingdom of paradox”–to its rightful place in the world that kick–started the architectural plans for a canal and not European jingoism. Ismail, a spendaholic was under pressure from the Ottomans and desperately needed to sell off his private shares in the Suez Canal Company to loosen the noose. With Disraeli’s purchase came the expiration of Britain’s laissez–faire distaste for entanglement. This caused immeasurable anger leading to accusations that the Khedive had sold Egypt to the Christians. Similar arguments persist today of Muslim leaders selling out to the West. Aside, Ferguson’s tome, The House of Rothschild, is conspicuous by its absence. Not only that, Ferguson’s story of British–occupied Egypt in Empire–supplemented by a comparative analysis with today’s American–occupied Iraq, is an asset surprisingly not touched upon here. That said, Green energetically explicates the Machiavellian realpolitik of Egyptian politics flanked by Ottoman “theological artillery” and the Dual controllers’ (in Britain and France) economic stranglehold.
The father of modern Islamic politics, Sheikh Said Jamal ed–Din al–Afghani, “Began carving… a modern political ideology from traditional Islam, adapting the weapons of the West to create a weapon for confronting the West”; for instance utilizing the infidel telegraph system, cheap steam and rail travel that could spread “the spirit of insurrection” and even the English language!
Fast–forward a century or so to the latest wannabe Prophet and we see a remarkable resemblance to the plans of previous enemies of the West. After employing our own aircraft to commit mass murder, al–Qaeda not only takes advantage of the 24–hour satellite news network but continues to abuse internet communications to propel and globalize their jihad. Time may not have linked Afghani and Afghani–based Bin Laden but a shared belief in their “theological mandate [obligating the] rhetoric of world domination” sure does. Afghani’s protégé Rashid Rida inspired Hassan al–Bana to found the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; whose alumni have included Sayyid Qutb and Ayman al–Zawahiri: AQ’s number 2.
The masthead of UK periodical History Today is most apt: “What Happened Then Matters Now.” In sum, Green is to be commended for a scholarly effort that traverses the road of history with politics. This will undoubtedly feature on reading lists come the new semester.
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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007
To contend that:”. when indeed the true reasons may actually be leaders wanting to pursue their own ideals as a counterweight against the West." indicates a deep ,well entrenched almost congenital ignorance and total physical and cultural detachment( willful, conscious estrangement ?) from real life in Moslem countries.
If any thing it is the "leaders” that do their best, to no avail, to mimic western ways and hope to have their own "western style" domains through endless marketing of western ways and presumed ideals.
Saiful Ullah - 4/17/2007
Perhaps you deeply misunderstood my comment. My comment implied leaders of Islamist movements be it historical or at present, who from what I know have no Western traits nor "mimickings".
As for the reality of Muslim leaders trying to reinact Western ideals in their own countries, be that as it may in perhaps regions like South Asia, I don't think autocratic regimes fall under the rubric of a "Western style domain".
Saiful Ullah - 4/16/2007
Ruddin once again offers an interesting and insightful review, this time commenting on the parallels between Islamist revolutionaries in the past and their wannabe protegés in the present.
I find it most interesting that despite geographical differences between Islamist movements, that their hostility towards the West seems to be sugarcoated with a spiritual agenda when indeed the true reasons may actually be leaders wanting to pursue their own ideals as a counterweight against the West.