Fall 2006 -- BOOK REVIEW:  Islamic Imperialism: A History by Efraim Karsh (New Haven and London, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 288 pp., $30.00.

Decades of ideological corruption of scholarship in American universities have crippled us in the war against Islamic jihad.
Marxist-inspired culture criticism, made necessary by Marx’s utter failure to accurately describe and predict economic and political history and change, created a reflexive hatred of the democratic, capitalist West among many of its left-leaning intellectuals and scholars. Viewed through this Marxist-Leninist template, age-old, universal human practices of migration, conquest, and appropriation of other people’s resources are now transformed into the peculiarly Western sins of “imperialism” and “colonialism,” which are then turned into the primal crime of the West against humanity, the wicked source of all our current woes.
At the same time, postmodern approaches to history reduce all facts to mere “interpretations,” fables created to camouflage and further the West’s hegemonic aims. Rather than a search for truth, postmodern history is now an unmasking of these secret motives and the machinations of oppressive power.
Finally, noble-savage multiculturalism sentimentalizes and idealizes the non-Western “other” and his culture as superior to the soul-killing, money-grubbing, neurotic civilization of the West that has victimized him.
This mélange may be incoherent and self-contradictory, but is toxic nonetheless. Nowhere is this combination of leftist ideology, anti-Western hatred, mangling of historical facts, and intellectual incoherence more obvious than in the late Edward Said’s Orientalism—easily the most influential interpretation of the Middle East for the last thirty years, one that has shaped not just departments of Middle Eastern studies but disciplines like English and political science as well. The baneful effects of Said’s work can be seen in the way Islam has been transformed into a religion of peace and tolerance oppressed by a rapacious West, whose colonial and imperial sins have caused and justify the current wave of jihadist terrorism.
Bin Laden has not ‘highjacked’ or ‘distorted’ Islam.
Given this widespread distortion of the historical record, we should all be grateful for a historian like Efraim Karsh. Karsh is Professor and Head of the Mediterranean Studies Program at King’s College, University of London. He has authored numerous books on the Middle East, including Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East. It is a work indispensable for understanding the true history behind the current crises—one distorted by Arab propaganda and Western ideological distortions that have made Israel and mythic Palestinian “nationalist aspirations” the root cause of dysfunctions whose roots in fact predate Israel’s creation by centuries. Islamic Imperialism serves the same salutary function, restoring the historical record and describing accurately the true nature of Islam.
As Karsh documents, if one wants to find a culture driven by imperialist ambitions, Islam fits the bill much better than do Europeans and Americans, late-comers to the great game of global domination: “From the first Arab-Islamic empire of the mid-seventh century to the Ottomans, the last great Muslim empire, the story of Islam has been the story of the rise and fall of universal empires and, no less important, of imperialist dreams.” But unlike the West, where Christianity began as the persecuted victim of the Roman Empire and conceived of its own empire as a spiritual one apart from the political realm, Islam “was inextricably lined with the creation of a world empire and its universalism was inherently imperialist. It did not distinguish between temporal and religious powers.”
Muhammad could thus “cloak his political ambitions with a religious aura”—a rationalization of domination that drives the contemporary jihadists, such as Osama bin-Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini, who, like centuries of warriors before them, justify their aggression by quoting Muhammad’s farewell address, in which the Prophet laid down the injunction “to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah.’”
Karsh’s history of Islam’s rise and imperial expansion is thus valuable for restoring what once was considered an obvious historical fact: that Islam is an aggressive faith justifying and energizing violent conquest and imperialist ambitions. Islam’s “unwavering feeling of supremacy and buoyant conviction of its ultimate triumph imbued the early believers with the necessary sense of purpose, self-confidence, and revolutionary zeal to take on the region’s established empires.” Islam’s first victims recognized this fanatic energy, one still troubling the world today: “We have seen a people who love death more than life, and to whom this world holds not the slightest attraction,” some Byzantines in Egypt said of the invading Arabs. The continuity of this destructive zeal from the seventh century to the jihadists in Iraq today should disabuse us of the lie that the terrorists are created by a lack of economic opportunity, political freedom, or progress in creating a Palestinian state.
One of Karsh’s major themes, however, is that Islamic imperialism has also been the result of the more worldly ambitions of rulers and warriors to acquire wealth and power: “The Arab conquerors acted in a typically imperialist fashion from the start, subjugating indigenous populations, colonizing their lands, and expropriating their wealth, resources, and labor.” As Muhammad himself said, “Stick to jihad and you will be in good health and get sufficient means of livelihood.” It is no surprise that the Islamic warrior, driven by visions of earthly booty if he survived and eternal pleasures in paradise if he died, made such a formidable foe.
Karsh’s description of Islamic history from the perspective of its imperialist ambitions—with all the bloody consequences for the conquered that such ambitions brought in their wake—is a necessary correction to the current popular melodrama of a fanatically imperialist West attacking and oppressing a peaceful, tolerant Islamic civilization that, like Rodney King, just wanted to get along. But the most valuable part of Karsh’s history is his tracing of Islam’s imperialist dynamic through present events.
The break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the caliphate after World War I, which signaled the overwhelming military dominance of the West, ended any chance of Islamic imperialist ambitions being realized through traditional military conquest and occupation: “The quest for Allah’s empire thus passed from the monarchs to political activists and ideologues, or Islamists as they are now commonly known, who set their sights far higher than their predecessors.” Rather than the mere regional empires and the power and wealth these brought to rulers, the Islamists “modeled themselves on Islam’s early conquerors, and aspired to nothing less than the substitution of Allah’s universal empire for the existing international system.”
Noble-savage multiculturalism sentimentalizes and idealizes the non-Western ‘other.’
Islamist theorists have made clear these ambitions, which are rooted in Islam’s history and beliefs rather than in contemporary developments like Israel’s creation or Arab nationalism. Abul Ala Mawdudi wrote in 1960 that jihad “‘would destroy those regimes opposed to the precepts of Islam and replace them with a government based on Islamic principles,’” not just in the Middle East but as part “‘of a comprehensive Islamic transformation throughout the entire world.” So too Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, an organization whose stated objectives were the transformation of Egypt via an Islamic government that would be a “springboard for universal expansion ‘until the entire world will chant the name of the Prophet.’” So too the highly influential Sayyid Qutb, also of the Muslim Brotherhood, who despaired at the infidelity corrupting not just the West but Muslim countries as well that aped Western ways in seeking temporal power rather than spiritual purity—a process Qutb sees as beginning not with European imperialism but with the Umayyad and Abbasid empires of the seventh and eighth centuries. Thus the corrupt temporal regimes must be eliminated and the umma, the community of believers, restored: “This newly resurrected entity will then sustain the struggle until the eventual ‘conquest of world domination’ and the establishment of Allah’s sovereignty on earth.”
And, so too with Hamas, the currently elected leaders of the Palestinians and a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Israelis shortsightedly indulged as a counterweight to the PLO: “Far from being an ordinary liberation movement in search of national self-determination, Hamas has subordinated its aim of bringing about the destruction of Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state on its ruins to the wider goal of establishing Allah’s universal empire.” The “question of Palestine” is a “holy war by the worldwide Islamic umma to prevent the loss of a part of the House of Islam to the infidels.” This means that there are no concessions of territory Israel can make to the bulk of Palestinian Arabs that will guarantee Israel’s security, for like the Crusader Kingdoms, its very existence is an affront to Muslims.
Osama bin Laden must be placed in this long, continuous tradition of Islamic imperialist ambitions sanctified by the faith’s universalistic pretensions. His declaration of jihad against the United States, spurred as well by his reading of America’s spiritual corruption as evidenced by its ignominious retreat from Somalia in 1993, is not, as Karsh notes, a “novelty”: “Declaring a holy war against the infidel has been a standard practice of countless imperial rulers and aspirants since the rise of Islam. Nor does bin Laden’s perception of jihad as a predominantly military effort to facilitate the creation of the worldwide Islamic umma differ in any way from traditional Islamic thinking.” The difference is that “military effort” now necessarily consists of attacks by terrorists rather than armies.
In short, bin Laden has not “highjacked” or “distorted” Islam, as Islamic propagandists and Western apologists for jihad have it, but rather has acted consistently with its traditional beliefs.
This conclusion should be sobering to us all, but particularly to Europeans who have, through a neurotic nexus of spiritual exhaustion, colonial guilt, and multicultural sentimentalism, allowed Muslim immigrants to preach a virulent hatred of the West in schools and mosques frequently subsidized by state welfare payments. The goal of Islamic global triumph “need not necessarily be pursued by the sword; it can be achieved through demographic growth and steady conversion of the local populations.”
Meanwhile, America will continue to be the jihadists’ foremost foe: “Contrary to widespread assumptions,” Karsh concludes, “these attacks [of September 11], and for that matter Arab Muslim anti-Americanism, have little to do with US international behavior or its Middle Eastern policy. America’s position as the pre-eminent world power blocks Arab and Islamic imperialist aspirations.” Thus the Islamist war “is not against America per se, but is rather the most recent manifestation of the millenarian jihad for a universal Islamic empire (or umma).” As such, its roots lie squarely in the accepted traditions of Islamic theology, history, and jurisprudence as these have unfolded with remarkable consistency for fourteen centuries, which is why bin Laden and the other jihadist terrorists enjoy such widespread support throughout the Muslim world.
Given this widespread distortion of the historical record, we should all be grateful for a historian like Efraim Karsh.
What this all means for us in our battle against the West’s most formidable historical enemy is that creating a Palestinian state, fostering democracy in the Middle East, or improving economic opportunity for young Muslims is not in the long run going to do much good: “The House of Islam’s war for world mastery is a traditional, indeed venerable, quest that is far from over.” Such spiritual imperatives are rarely bartered away for material goods. Only an overwhelming demonstration of the destructiveness that follows from pursuing those imperatives will convince those who believe them to change their minds.
The will to teach such a lesson, however, is woefully lacking among many Westerners today, partly because their understanding of Islam’s historical nature has been corrupted by the political ideologies and postmodern fads of too many modern historians. As Islamic Imperialism demonstrates, Efraim Karsh is an important exception whose voice we should all heed.


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