Efraim Karsh: Interviewed about Islamic Imperialism

Historians in the News

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Efraim Karsh, the author of the new book Islamic Imperialism: A History. He is a professor and head of the Mediterranean Studies Programme, King’s College, University of London. He has published extensively and often served as a consultant on Middle Eastern affairs, Soviet foreign policy, and European neutrality. His books include Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923 and Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography.

FP: Dr. Efraim Karsh, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Karsh: Thank you Jamie.

FP: Tell us why you wrote this latest book on Islamic imperialism.

Karsh: Ira Gershwin wrote in July 1937, shortly after the death of his famous brother George, “The more I read the papers, the less I comprehend the world and all its capers, and how it all will end.” I had a similar feeling for quite some time, whenever reading scholarly and popular works on the Middle East and Islam, and this impression has been strongly reinforced after 9/11, when the attacks were widely portrayed as a response to America’s (allegedly) arrogant and self-serving foreign policy, particularly with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As someone who has studied the languages and history of the Middle East and Islam for decades, I knew that these views couldn’t be further from the truth and that the 9/11 attacks, and their underlying ideology, tap into a deep imperialist undercurrent that has characterized the political culture of Islam from the beginning. I also felt that, given the pervasiveness of this misconception, the nature of the foremost threat confronting the West at the beginning of the new millennium would remain largely misunderstood, and thought I should do my modest best to help set the record straight.

FP: The Left often likes to paint Muslim political ambitions as reactions to Western encroachments. What would your view be of this interpretation? What, for instance, was 9/11 about? The victims of American imperialism striking back?

Karsh: I am afraid that such perceptions have long transcended the traditional divide between left and right, representing as they do the received wisdom among many educated Westerners since the early twentieth century. In this view of things, Muslims, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, are merely objects - the long-suffering victims of the aggressive encroachments of others. Lacking an internal, autonomous dynamic of their own, their history is rather a function of their unhappy interaction with the West. Some date this interaction back to the crusades. Others consider it a corollary of the steep rise in Western imperial power and expansionism during the long nineteenth century (1789-1923). All agree that Western imperialism bears the main responsibility for the endemic malaise plaguing the Middle East to date.

In Islamic Imperialism: A History, I challenge this mega-narrative by showing that Islamic history has been anything but reactive. From the Prophet Muhammad to the Ottomans, the story of Islam has been the story of the rise and fall of an often astonishing imperial aggressiveness and, no less important, of never quiescent imperial dreams. Even as these dreams have repeatedly frustrated any possibility for the peaceful social and political development of the Arab-Muslim world, they have given rise to no less repeated fantasies of revenge and restoration and to murderous efforts to transform fantasy into fact. These fantasies gained rapid momentum during the last phases of the Ottoman Empire, culminating in its disastrous decision to enter World War I on the losing side, as well as in the creation of an imperialist dream that would survive the Ottoman era to haunt Islamic and Middle Eastern politics to the present day.

This in turn means that if, today, America is reviled in the Muslim world, it is not because of its specific policies but because, as the preeminent world power, it blocks the final realization of this same age-old dream of a universal Islamic empire (or umma). In the historical imagination of many Muslims and Arabs, Osama bin Laden represents nothing short of the new incarnation of Saladin, defeater of the Crusaders and conqueror of Jerusalem. In this sense, the House of Islam’s war for world mastery is a traditional, indeed venerable, quest that is far from over.

FP: So the conflict we are in today, is it a clash of civilizations?

Karsh: No it is not, and one shouldn’t misconstrue a struggle for world domination for a civilizational clash – which has been a far rarer phenomenon than is generally recognized. For one thing, conflicts and wars among members of the same civilization have been far more common, and far more intense, than those between members of rival civilizations. For another, more often than not, empires across the civilizational divide have pragmatically cooperated with their counterparts.

Of course, throughout history all imperial powers and aspirants have professed some kind of universal ideology as both a justification of expansion and a means of ensuring the subservience of the conquered peoples: in the case of the Greeks and the Romans it was that of “civilization” vs. “barbarity,” in the case of the Mongols it was the conviction in their predestination to inherit the earth, in the case of the British it was the “white man’s burden.” For generations of Muslim leaders it has been Islam’s universal vision of conquest as epitomized in the Prophet’s summons to fight the unbelievers wherever they might be found.

A very good example of this is the fact that Muhammad never went out of his way to convert all of the Arabian tribes to Islam, preferring instead to use their booty as a substitute for the lost taxes from which the Muslims were exempted - this is imperialistic, pragmatic, not ideological. Likewise, the Arab conquerors, bursting from the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of Islam after the Prophet’s death, were far less interested in the mass conversion of the vanquished peoples than in colonizing their lands and expropriating their wealth, resources, and labor. Not until the second and the third Islamic centuries did the bulk of these populations embrace the religion of their latest imperial masters, and even this process emanated from below in an attempt to escape paying tribute and to remove social barriers, with the conquering ruling classes doing their utmost to slow it down.

Even during the age of the crusades, the supposed height of civilizational antagonism, all Christian and Muslim rulers freely collaborated across the religious divide, often finding themselves aligned with members of the rival religion against their co-religionists. The legendary Saladin himself spent far more time fighting Muslim rivals than the infidel crusaders; while he was busy eradicating the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem he was closely aligned with the Byzantine Empire, the foremost representative of Christendom’s claim to universalism.

So, I would rather refer to the millenarian confrontation between the worlds of Islam and Christianity as a “clash of imperialisms” rather than a “clash of civilizations.” But then, while the West had lost its imperialist ambitions by the mid-twentieth century (having lost its religious messianism centuries earlier), the fuel of Islamic imperialism remains as volatile as ever, and this ambition for world domination is the primary threat confronting the West today.

FP: What real distinction is there between Islam and Islamism? For instance, which Islamic sect or school of law does not teach the jihad imperative to subjugate all others under the Islamic social order, by force if necessary?

Karsh: It seems to me that this distinction is very much a misnomer. From its rise in the early seventh century to the abolition of the caliphate in 1924 by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), Islam constituted the linchpin of Middle Eastern politics, and the term Islamism, as I understand it, refers to the desire to restore this religious-political order.

This is an ambition that has a millennial warrant, both in doctrine and in fact, and is shared by far wider audiences than the individuals and groups that are actively engaged in its pursuit, as evidenced by the proliferation (in the face of persistent repression by the authorities) of numerous religious groups and organizations throughout the Middle East and the Islamic world. As a universal religion, Islam envisages a global political order in which all humankind will live under Muslim rule as either believers or subject communities and obliges all free, male, adult Muslims to carry out an uncompromising “struggle in the path of Allah,” or jihad.

This duty has nothing to do with “Islamism.” It was devised by Muhammad shortly after his migration to Medina in 622 C.E. as a means of enticing his local followers to raid Meccan caravans, and was developed and amplified with the expansion of the Prophet’s political ambitions until it became a rallying call for world domination. As he famously told his followers in his farewell address: “I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah.’”

This goal need not necessarily be pursued by the sword; it can be achieved through demographic growth and steady conversion of the local populations by “an army of preachers and teachers who will present Islam in all languages and in all dialects.” But should peaceful means prove insufficient, physical force can readily be brought to bear. This is a vision by no means confined to “Islamists.”

This we saw in the overwhelming support for the 9/11 attacks throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, in the admiring evocations of Osama bin Laden’s murderous acts during the crisis over the Danish cartoons, and in such recent findings as the poll indicating significant reservoirs of sympathy among Muslims in Britain for the “feelings and motives” of the suicide bombers who attacked London last July.

FP: If the Left hates imperialism so much, where is it moral indignation regarding Islamic imperialism?

Karsh: There is a pervasive guilt complex among left-wing intellectuals and politicians, which dates back to the early twentieth century and stems from the belief that the West “has been the arch aggressor of modern times,” to use the words of Arnold Toynbee, one of the more influential early exponents of this dogma. This has resulted in a highly politicized scholarship (especially under the pretentious title of “post-colonial studies”) which berates “Western imperialism” as the source of all evil and absolves the local actors of any blame or responsibility for their own problems. But this self-righteous approach is academically unsound and morally reprehensible. It is academically unsound because the facts tell an altogether different story of Islamic and Middle Eastern history, one that has consistently been suppressed because of its incongruity with the politically-correct dogmas. And it is morally reprehensible because denying the responsibility of individuals and societies for their actions is patronizing. It completely ignores regional players, and instead views them, in the words of Lawrence of Arabia, as “a limited, narrow-minded people, whose inert intellect lay fallow in incurious resignation.”

FP: Christianity and Islam are very different in terms of making distinctions between temporal and religious powers, no? And isn’t this rooted in the behavior of Jesus and Muhammad?

Karsh: It is true that Christianity’s universal vision is no less sweeping than that of Islam, yet the worlds of Christianity and Islam have developed differently in one fundamental respect. The Christian faith won over an existing empire in an extremely slow and painful process and its universalism was originally conceived in purely spiritual terms that made a clear distinction between God and Caesar. By the time it was embraced by the Byzantine emperors as a tool for buttressing their imperial claims, three centuries after its foundation, Christianity had in place a countervailing ecclesiastical institution with an abiding authority over the wills and actions of all believers. The birth of Islam, by contrast, was inextricably linked with the creation of a world empire and its universalism was inherently imperialist. It did not distinguish between temporal and religious powers, which were combined in the person of Muhammad, who derived his authority directly from Allah and acted at one and the same time as head of the state and head of the church.

Whereas Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, Muhammad used God’s name to build an earthly kingdom. Having fled from his hometown of Mecca to Medina in 622 C.E. to become a political and military leader rather than a private preacher, Muhammad spent the last ten years of his life fighting to unify Arabia under his rule. Had it not been for his sudden death, he probably would have expanded his reign well beyond the peninsula. Even so, within a decade of Muhammad’s death a vast Arab empire, stretching from Iran to Egypt and from Yemen to northern Syria, had come into being under the banner of Islam in one of the most remarkable examples of empire-building in world history. Long after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the abolition of the caliphate in the wake of World War I, the link between religion, politics, and society remains very much alive in the Muslim and Arab worlds.

FP: Can you tell us a bit about Muslim anti-Semitism? It originates in Muhammad's massacre of the Medina Jews, no?

Karsh: It has long been a staple of anti-Israel propaganda that Arabs and Muslims have never had anything against Judaism or Jews but only against Zionism and Zionists. After all, did not Muslims treat their Jewish minorities far better than their European counterparts? Did not Arabs and Jews coexist harmoniously for centuries prior to the advent of the Zionist movement?

This idyllic picture is at odds with the historical record. True, persecution of Jews in the Islamic world never reached the scale of Christian Europe. But that did not spare them from centuries of legally institutionalized inferiority, humiliating social restrictions, and the sporadic rapacity of local officials and the Muslim population at large. In pre-Zionist Palestine itself, Arab peasants, revolting in the 1830s against a military conscription imposed by Egyptian authorities, took the occasion to ravage the Jewish communities of Safed and Jerusalem, and when Arab forces arrived from Egypt to quell the insurrection, they slaughtered the Jews of Hebron in turn. A century later, in June 1941, following an abortive pro-Nazi coup in Iraq, the Jews of Baghdad were subjected to a horrendous massacre in which hundreds perished. And so on and so forth.

The truth of the matter is that, for all their protestations to the contrary, Arabs and Muslims have never really distinguished among Zionists, Israelis, and Jews, and often use these terms interchangeably. Indeed, the fact that Arab and Muslim anti-Zionism has invariably reflected a hatred well beyond the “normal” level of hostility to be expected of a prolonged and bitter conflict would seem to suggest that, rather than being a response to Zionist activity, it is rather a manifestation of longstanding prejudice that has been brought out into the open by the vicissitudes of the Arab-Israel conflict.

Where does this prejudice come from? Though modern, ideological anti-Semitism is an invention of 19th-century Europe, the ease and rapidity with which the precepts of European anti-Semitism were assimilated by the Muslim world testify to the pre-existence of a deep anti-Jewish bigotry. This bigotry dates to Islam’s earliest days, and indeed to the Prophet Muhammad himself.

Upon migrating to Medina, Muhammad sought to woo the local Jewish population by emphasizing the similarity between his incipient religion and Judaism and adopting a number of religious Jewish practices and rituals. As these gestures failed to impress the Medina Jews, the embittered prophet turned against Medina’s three Jewish tribes with great ferocity - expelling two of them from the city and dividing their properties among the Muslims, while executing the third tribe’s six-to-eight hundred men and selling the women and children into slavery.

Reflecting Muhammad’s outrage over the rejection of his religious message by the contemporary Jewish community, both the Qur’an and later biographical traditions of the prophet abound with negative depictions of Jews. In these works they are portrayed as a deceitful, evil, and treacherous people who in their insatiable urge for domination would readily betray an ally and swindle a non-Jew; who tampered with the Holy Scriptures, spurned Allah’s divine message, and persecuted His messenger Muhammad just as they had done to previous prophets, including Jesus of Nazareth. For this perfidy, they will incur a string of retributions, both in the afterlife, when they will burn in hell, and here on earth where they have been justly condemned to an existence of wretchedness and humiliation.

Given the depth of this anti-Jewish bigotry, it is hardly surprising that some of the hoariest and most bizarre themes of European anti-Semitism, such the “blood libel,” that medieval fabrication according to which Jews use Gentile blood for religious ritual, or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a virulent anti-Semitic tract fabricated by the Russian secret police at the turn of the 20th century, becoming household items on the Arab and Muslim mass media.

FP: What really lies behind the Arabs’ rejection of the Jewish state? For some reason I have a feeling it has very little to do with concern for the Palestinians.

Karsh: It is easier to unite people through a common hatred than through a shared loyalty, hence anti-Zionism has always been the core principle of pan-Arab solidarity. As early as 1945 the senior British official in Egypt was reporting back to London that the only thing holding the newly formed Arab League together was shared opposition to Zionism. However, you are correct to assume that the Arab states have never had any real stake in the “liberation of Palestine.”

Consider, for example, the pan-Arab invasion of the newly proclaimed state of Israel in 1948. This, on its face, was a shining demonstration of solidarity with the Palestinian people. But the invasion had far less to do with winning independence for the indigenous population than with the desire of the Arab regimes for territorial aggrandizement. Transjordan’s King Abdullah wanted to incorporate substantial parts of mandatory Palestine into the greater Syrian empire he coveted; Egypt wanted to prevent that eventuality by laying its hands on southern Palestine. Syria and Lebanon sought to annex the Galilee, while Iraq viewed the 1948 war as a stepping stone in its long-standing ambition to bring the entire Fertile Crescent under its rule. Had the Jewish state lost the war, its territory would not have fallen to the Palestinians but would have been divided among the invading Arab forces.

At a secret meeting in September 1947 between Zionist officials and Abdel Rahman Azzam, secretary-general of the Arab League, the latter warned the Jews of Arab efforts: “We succeeded in expelling the Crusaders, but lost Spain and Persia, and may lose Palestine.” In other words, he rejected a Jewish right to statehood not from concern for the national rights of the Palestinian Arabs but from the desire to fend off a perceived encroachment on the pan-Arab patrimony.

The eminent Arab-American historian Philip Hitti described the common Arab view to an Anglo-American commission of inquiry in 1946: “There is no such thing as Palestine in history, absolutely not.” A similar view was voiced by the Jerusalem newspaper al-Wahda (Unity), mouthpiece of the Arab Higher Committee, the effective “government” of the Palestinian Arabs, which in the summer of 1947 advocated the incorporation of Palestine (and Transjordan) into “Greater Syria.” So did Fawzi Qauqji, commander of the pan-Arab force that invaded Palestine in early 1948. He expressed the hope that the UN partition resolution of November 1947 “will oblige the Arab states to put aside their differences and will prepare the way for a greater Arab nation.”

During the decades following the 1948 war, the Arab states manipulated the Palestinian national cause to their own ends. Neither Egypt nor Jordan allowed Palestinian self-determination in the parts of Palestine they had occupied during the 1948 war (respectively, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). Palestinian refugees were kept in squalid camps for decades as a means of whipping Israel and stirring pan-Arab sentiments. “The Palestinians are useful to the Arab states as they are,” Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser candidly responded to an inquiring Western reporter in 1956. “We will always see that they do not become too powerful.” As late as 1974, Syria’s Hafiz Assad referred to Palestine as being “not only a part of the Arab homeland but a basic part of southern Syria”; there is no evidence to suggest that he had changed his mind by the time of his death on June 10, 2000.

FP: Are Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi good Muslims?

Karsh: I don’t know how devout they are in private, but their vision of international affairs as a permanent “striving in the path of Allah” until the attainment of world domination is far more akin to that of the Prophet than Westerners tend to realize. It is not for nothing than bin Laden is widely lionized by Muslims and Arabs as the incarnation of a new Saladin.

FP: Will Europe may come under Islamic domination by the end of the twenty-first century?

Karsh: It really depends on whether Europeans will awake to reality and recognize the real nature of the threat confronting them. Thus far, this hasn’t happened, though some recent developments, such as last year’s French riots or the violence attending the Danish cartoons, have acted as (admittedly modest) wakeup calls.

Only last month Mu’ammar Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, predicted the imminent Islamization of Europe. “We have 50 million Muslims in Europe,” he stated in a public speech aired on al-Jazeera television. “There are signs that Allah will grant Islam victory in Europe - without swords, without guns, without conquests. The fifty million Muslims of Europe will turn it into a Muslim continent within a few decades.” “Allah mobilizes the Muslim nation of Turkey, and adds it to the European Union,” he went on. “That’s another 50 million Muslims. There will be 100 million Muslims in Europe.”

While this prediction will probably be dismissed by many as a delusional gloating of an eccentric leader, the truth of the matter is that to this day many Muslims and Arabs unabashedly pine for the reconquest of Spain and consider their 1492 expulsion from the country a grave historical injustice waiting to be undone. Indeed, as immigration and higher rates of childbirth have greatly increased the number of Muslims within Europe itself over the past several decades, countries that were never ruled by the caliphate have become targets of Muslim imperial ambition. Since the late 1980s, Islamists have looked upon the growing population of French Muslims as proof that France, too, has become a part of the House of Islam. In Britain, even the more moderate elements of the Muslim community are candid in setting out their aims. As the late Zaki Badawi, a doyen of interfaith dialogue in the UK, put it, “Islam is a universal religion. It aims to bring its message to all corners of the earth. It hopes that one day the whole of humanity will be one Muslim community.” To deny the pervasiveness and tenacity of this imperialist ambition is the height of folly, and to imagine that it can be appeased or deflected is to play into its hands.

FP: Dr. Efraim Karsh, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

Karsh: Thank you Jamie. It was a pleasure.

Read entire article at Jamie Glazov at frontpagemag.com

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