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Book Review

'Imperialist' Islam history a warning to the West

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Islamic Imperialism book cover

"The story of Islam has been the story of the rise and fall of universal empires and, no less important, of imperialist dreams," Efraim Karsh writes in the introduction to his book, Islamic Imperialism, A History (Yale University Press, 2006).

While some of Karsh's assertions at times seem over the top-such as suggesting that Hitler's Third Reich was an example of Christendom's "imperial ambitions"-he does paint a disturbing picture for the west, and the U.S. in particular.

Karsh eschews the view that 9/11 was the result of a radical Islamic reaction to U.S. policies and instead contends it is emblematic of a quest for empire that dates back to the seventh century A.D.

Karsh makes his case, in part, by describing a thread between Muhammad in the seventh century to Osama bin Laden today, quoting their identical assertions that they will "fight all men until they say there is no God but Allah."

He also points to an imperialistic distinction between Christianity and Islam.

"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," he claims. "The birth of Islam, by contrast, was inextricably linked with the creation of a world empire and its universalism was inherently imperialist."

Karsh continues, "Whereas Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, Muhammad used God's name to build an earthly kingdom."

After reviewing the struggle between East and West during the crusades, Karsh spends a good deal of time describing Islamic imperialism during the 1,300-year Ottoman Empire.

He says the period of empire building and decline not only sought to expand Islam's holdings in the Middle East, but in the entire known world. The Ottoman extended at one point as far west as Austria.

Karsh also states that Islam's imperialist tendencies have their roots in similar empire building that took place among the ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian cultures.

"Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it is the Middle East where the institution of empire not only originated, but where its spirit has also outlived its European counterpart," Karsh writes.

In particular, he notes those empires not only conquered lands but removed residents from those areas or enslaved them.

Yet it is a stance that may not be entirely fair to Islam.

Yes, its Middle Eastern predecessors were the first to build empires, but that's possibly because civilization originated in those "fertile crescent" countries.

In other words, Middle Eastern nations were the first to build empires but, then again, they were among the first civilizations.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Karsh says the years since have seen the "rise of the Arab imperial dream" in seeking a return to an Islamic empire.

"Unlike other parts of the world, where the demise of empire during the 20th century has invariably led to the acceptance of the reality of the modern nation-state, the contemporary Middle Eastern state system has been under sustained assault since its formation in the wake of World War I," Karsh writes.

As an example of the desire to rebuild a world empire, he notes that "to this day many Arabs and Muslims unabashedly pine for the restoration of Spain and consider their 1492 expulsion from the country a grave historical injustice, as if they were Spain's rightful owners and not former colonial occupiers of a remote foreign land, thousands of miles from their ancestral homeland."

Karsh further asserts that the perpetrators of the March 2004 bombings in Madrid, Spain noted that a "root cause" of the attack was Islam's loss of Spain in the 15th century.

Closer to home, here in the United States, Karsh says that the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks are not a backlash against U.S. policies.

America's position as the pre-eminent world power blocks Arab and Islamic imperialist aspirations. As such it is a natural target for aggression, Karsh cautions.

He says that Osama bin Laden and other Islamists' war is not against America, but is instead the most recent manifestation of the desire for a "universal Islamic empire".

As proof, he claims that the 9/11 attacks were met with widespread approval in the Middle East.

Karsh suggests the solution to this quest for empire-and the dissolution of the West that would follow-lies with the Arab states themselves. He contends they need to "reconcile themselves" to being individual nations and "forswear pan-Arab and pan-Islamic imperialist dreams."

Karsh closes by stating a better future for the Middle East and the world depends on Arab countries making Islam "a matter of private faith rather than a tool of political ambition."

Islamic Imperialism, A History provides an interesting and thorough overview of the history that led up to the 2001 terrorist attacks. It does so with a cautionary viewpoint for the West, and that's probably a good thing.

However, for a 2006 publication date, it's surprising and disappointing Karsh does not address the impact of the Iraq war or how it could perhaps fan what he says are traditional Arabic and Islamic claims of Western imperialism.

Any recommendation of the book must also be qualified by noting Karsh's background.

As described in the "About the Author" sidebar, Karsh was born and raised in Israel and was a research analyst for the Isreal Defense Forces. All of which makes it understandable for readers to question Karch's objectivity in his writing and theories on Islamic imperialism.

That doesn't mean Karsh is biased, but it's a background that readers deserve to have access to if they're going to buy his book.

By the way, Karsh's background is not described in the book, not in the preface nor on the inside of the cover.

Perhaps the lack of author background information was an oversight, a noble attempt to present the material on its own merits or a way to help book sales.

But whatever the reason, the information should have been printed somewhere in the book.

After all, most readers at some point will look for author information when reading a book

And, after all, given Karsh's well-researched history on "Islamic imperialism", it seems only appropriate that the book provide a bit of history about the author.

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