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Islamic Imperialism: A History


Review: Islamic Imperialism: A History
(December Review, 2006)

Islamic Imperialism: A History
by Efraim Karsh (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2006)

Review by Leif Torkelsen

Many scholars tend to see the West acting upon indigenous people in other parts of the world, without paying much attention to the agency of those people themselves. Efraim Karsh attempts to counter-act this trend with this book. It is a serious attempt to understand Middle Eastern geopolitics from the perspective of the inhabitants, through an analysis of the role of Islam within the region's political culture. The author's thesis is that an appreciation of the millenarian imperatives of Islam is essential to understand the geopolitical dynamic of the region, as well as the region's relationship with the larger world. The result is a compelling, albeit incomplete, portrait of politics in a region of long-standing strategic importance.

Of the major world religions, three have been distinguished by ambitious proselytizing: Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. All of these religions also periodically augmented their missionary agenda with military conquest and the rise of Islam is intimately connected with military and spiritual conquest. Mohammed himself served as a religious, political and military leader. This experience, Karsh argues, served to distinguish Islam from all other major religions in its imperialistic attitudes, as only Islam has its genesis in armed conflict.

With the conquest of Arabia, the armies of Islam swept forth and established the vast, but short-lived, Umayyad caliphate. For Karsh, the establishment of the new caliphate was an unabashedly imperialist venture, "in which Islam provided a moral sanction and a unifying battle cry rather than a driving force." (22) Karsh argues that the Umayyads' policy of religious toleration originated from selfish motives, as their empire was run strictly for the benefit of the Arab conquerors who were more interested in tribute than spreading the new faith.

Even subject peoples who converted to Islam were relegated to the status of second-class citizens, known as Mawali. So jealously guarded were the privileges of the new Arab elite, and so at odds with the egalitarian aspects of Islamic theology, that they eventually provoked a violent reaction from the Mawali, who overthrew the Umayyad caliphate and replaced it with the Abbasids. However, this victory unleashed centrifugal forces that were to rend the political landscape of the Middle East until the rise of the Ottoman Turks.

In the book, Karsh identifies a handful of archetypal Islamic leaders. These archetypal leaders are distinguished by their conscious and skillful manipulation of Islamic political culture. This political culture is schizophrenic in nature, characterized by a dichotomous blend of pan-Islamic unity and acute regional identities. Traversing the two concepts remains the high wire act of Middle Eastern politics. In this context, the modern nation-state functions as a dilapidated halfway house between the two antipodes of Islamic political culture.

The language of Islamic expansionism subsequently provided the rationale for the last of the great Islamic empire-builders, the Ottomans. By the early 16th century, they had unified much of the Islamic world and had acquired the title of caliph. However, they ultimately succumbed to the intrinsic centrifugal forces of the region, becoming the "Sick Man of Europe" by the 19th century. However, Karsh argues vehemently against portraying the declining Ottoman Empire as a victim. Instead, he describes a clever and aggressive policy by the sultans to manipulate the Western powers to Ottoman advantage.

The fall of the Ottoman Empire restored the Arabs to political dominance in the Middle East. While much has been made of the "betrayal" of the Arabs at Versailles, the full extent of their territorial demands was extreme. However, it is in this context, Karsh argues, that one must understand the Arab rejection of the Jewish right to statehood. The competing territorial claims of the Zionists were being recognized by the Western powers just as the pan-Arabist claims were being rejected. Zionism was, in effect, a direct challenge to the Arabs' territorial ambitions. Accordingly, the rejection of the Jewish state on principle has consistently been of greater concern to Arab governments than the actual welfare of the Palestinian Arabs.

For Karsh, the archetypal modern Arab leader was Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser skillfully blended the competing demands of Egyptian nationalism and pan-Arabism. Egypt was portrayed as the savior of the Arab world, while other Arab countries were castigated as artificial "imperialist stooges" of the West. He attempted to supplant the religious aspect of regional political culture with its secular twin, socialism. The formation of the United Arab Republic in 1958, a nominal political union between Egypt and Syria, was Nasser's high-water mark.

There are three significant events in recent Middle Eastern history, according to Karsh, which represent the dawn of a new era in pan-Islamicism. The first was the triumph of radical Islam in Iran in 1979. The second was the demise of pan-Arab secularism with the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War. The third event was the failure of the Oslo peace accords. For Karsh, the Oslo agreement is perhaps most symbolic of the relationship between the West and the Islamic world. Arafat's speeches before, during and after the peace made it abundantly clear that he had no intention of honoring any peace with Israel. However, Western leaders chose to ignore this, preferring to cling to their own idealized vision of diplomacy. For the West, the Palestinian issue is a "root cause" of the Middle East's problems, whereas it is merely one symptom of the larger struggle between Islam and non-believers to most Arab observers.

In a certain sense, Karsh's thesis presents very little that is new. Nonetheless, that should not distract from the elegant simplicity and clarity of Karsh's argument. The problem with Karsh's book is that its evidentiary base is simply too narrow to sustain his thesis. Karsh overwhelmingly relies on diplomatic history to make its case without presenting a more thorough investigation of Islamic theology, its "honor culture," or an explanation of the failure of secular thought in the Islamic world.

Karsh's book is timely, and it represents a valuable addition to our understanding of the Islamic world. It provides a succinct model of Islamic political culture in its geopolitical context. Most importantly, however, the book restores agency to the peoples of the Middle East. Contrary to popular belief, non-Western peoples are not simply an inert mass, responding only to external pressures from the rapacious West. Instead, they are active participants in forging their own political destinies. In this vein, Karsh persuasively argues that the see-saw of Middle Eastern politics has tilted decisively towards a very aggressive pan-Islamicism.


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