Islamic Imperialism

Following on from my last post, here is an old review of Islamic Imperialism: A History, by Efraim Karsh (2006). Originally published in Lobster 51 (Summer 2006).


For anyone who believes that ‘imperialism’ is an exclusively Western phenomenon, that Islam has only been the victim of it, and that 9/11 was simply a reaction to that (‘blowback’), this book will come as a bit of a shock. Karsh argues that aggressive imperialism was implicit in Moslem teaching from the very beginning, that Islam was in fact, and remains, far more imperialistic than the West has generally been, and that it was this that inspired the Al-Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, rather than any resentment against American aggression towards Moslem countries. In other words, 9/11 would have happened even without those US bases in Saudi Arabia. Islam is the aggressor, America (and Britain, and everyone else) the victims. The imperial boot is on the other foot.

One part of me welcomes this, as a useful corrective to lazy ways of regarding ‘imperialism’ (generally by Leftists), as synonymous – simply – with white oppression of ‘the other’. As well as showing that ‘others’ could do it too (obvious to any historian), and that Moslems did it rather effectively in the 7th-8th and 13th-18th centuries, this book also punctures a number of common assumptions about the strength of the ‘imperialisms’ that were supposedly ranged against Islam, particularly the Crusades – a very different creature in reality than they have become in Moslem mythology – and the ‘partition’ of the Middle East between the Western powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Karsh is certainly right to say that the latter was usually reluctant, influenced as much by local factors (weakness, power-struggles) as by the will of the European imperialists, and that those imperialists, far from displacing the old Ottoman Empire, were in fact for many years the main thing holding it up. He’s also justified, in my view, in highlighting the atrocities – genocides, other massacres, ethnic cleansings, tortures – that came in the train of many Moslem-inspired expansionary movements well into the twentieth century, which were at least as gross as those perpetrated by European and American imperialisms – maybe worse – and should give pause to those who hold that Islam is always a tolerant religion – towards Jews, for example. This makes salutary reading. If we are against imperialism, we should deplore it wherever it appears.

What I’m less happy with are two things. One is the book’s rather cavalier way with the word imperialism, used here to cover anything from pan-Arabism, through foreign conquest, to religious proselytism. The second is its very one-sided account of recent events in the Middle East, so that, for example, the CIA’s and MI6’s covert toppling of Mossadeq in Iran in 1953 is only mentioned in passing, and the Zionists’ seizure of Palestine on the grounds that they had lived there 2000 years before – a classic case of colonialism, surely, whatever the excuses for it might be – is not even problemetized, let alone some of the extreme measures some of them resorted to along the way. Much is made of the fact that there had been no Palestinian or any other kind of Arab ‘nation’ before then; but then the same could be said of virtually any of Europe’s colonies anywhere in the world. Nationalism in third world countries was nearly always a product of colonialism. Karsh seems to be arguing that if there was no genuine ‘Arab nationalism’ around, then the appeal to it must have been a cover for what were ‘imperialist’ ambitions really; but that doesn’t necessarily follow. I was also unconvinced by his ‘evidence’ that what Osama Bin Laden is really bent on is world domination. I was prepared to believe this, but the quotation he gives to back it up – where Bin Laden refers back to Muhammed’s migration from Mecca in 622 – doesn’t seem a clincher to me. Of course there are numerous examples of Moslem zealots saying this kind of thing, right back to the prophet’s own time (‘I was ordered to fight all men until they say “There is no god but Allah”’); but to connect all these together and claim they represent the main tradition of Islam, and the only cause of today’s troubles, is – it seems to me – ahistorical. You could do much the same for Christianity (though it might be more difficult to find a direct quote from Jesus himself to start it off).

There may be other flaws in the book too, which I’m less competent to pronounce on. The account Karsh gives of the Prophet’s own life and teachings is deeply unattractive – to me, at any rate; so much so that I wondered whether it might not run the risk of falling foul of new legislation about arousing religious hatred. (It certainly aroused mine.) I have no idea whether this is fair. This is clearly going to be a highly controversial book, possibly because of its faults and omissions, as well as the intrinsic sensitivity of the topic. It’s a shame that it reads so partially and one-sidedly, for the central phenomenon it describes – Islamic ‘imperialism’ – needs to be acknowledged and confronted.

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One Response to Islamic Imperialism

  1. Chris Murray says:

    Karsh has certainly always held a clear agenda


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