The central thesis of Efraim Karsh’s provocative new book is that Arabs and Muslims do not change their spots. Islam is a millennarian faith in which politics and religion are inextricably bound together. Although they differ in ideological approach, secular pan-Arabists and the Islamists who now oppose them hold a common imperial outlook. Apart from Kemal Ataturk, who extricated Turkey from its Ottoman imperial legacy and re-established it as a modern nation-state by effecting a separation between religion and state, Middle Eastern leaders and Islamist ideologues have remained under the spell of the same “imperial dream”. Despite the pragmatism frequently exhibited by Muslim leaders at the level of power politics, this dream remains at the forefront of the social memory or imagination of the Arab-Muslim world, nurturing irredentist fantasies from Xinjiang to Spain.
There is a good deal of truth in this largely negative picture of recent Middle Eastern history drawn by Karsh. The terrorist attacks that have destroyed so many lives in cities far removed from its conflicts – in New York, Madrid, London, Istanbul – can indeed be seen as the outcome of a frustrated will-to-power fuelled by apocalyptic fantasies based on an idealised vision of a brilliant imperial past. Since God once granted victories to Muhammad and his successors, vindicating truth on the field of history, the historical tide must turn sooner or later, restoring the Muslim world to its past glories. The more out of register this picture becomes when contrasted with the grim realities (with Muslims in the Middle Eastern heartlands being outgunned economically and often militarily by infidels), the more frustrated individuals and groups may turn to violence (including the self-destructive violence of suicide missions).
Karsh is a skilful historian with a knack for finding illuminating quotes in original source materials. He writes engagingly. His narrative is well-paced and clear. At the level of power politics, he builds an impressive case. In numerous contexts, from the first Arab empires to the current stand-off between the West and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme, it is often as not the imperial rather than the purely religious impulse that predominates, since power is the name of the game. Three of the more obvious examples he cites of would-be Islamic emperors, or Muslim leaders who succumbed to imperial impulses, are Saladin, Nasser and Arafat. Saladin, the archetypal Muslim hero, remained closely aligned with Byzantium, the leading Christian empire of the time, despite his lucky break in re-occupying Jerusalem. His aim was not so much to liberate the Holy Land from its western invaders as to build an empire at the expense of his Muslim rivals. Nasser, instead of building Egypt’s economy to improve the lives of its people, engaged his country in three disastrous wars (two with Israel and one in Yemen) in furtherance of his imperial pan-Arabist dream. Arafat, instead of building a viable Palestinian state out of the Oslo Accords, tacitly collaborated with the Islamist terrorist groups in order to further an imperial dream that must ultimately involve the destruction of the Jewish state. The charges may be debatable, but they are convincingly argued.
Karsh, however, is on much less solid ground in analysing the historical and economic foundations of the imperial dream he so accurately describes. Imperial systems, rooted in religion, were indigenous to the belt of semi-nomadic regions stretching from western China to the Atlantic, until the colonial interventions of modern times. Their powers were limited and they were in no way comparable to the industrially based empires represented by Britain, Holland, France and now the United States. The nation-state, based on the European model, is a recent implant in this vast region of conflicting tribal loyalties, disputed or unprotected frontiers and competing religious allegiances. As a religion, Islam was hugely successful in taming the predatory impulses of nomadic groups and enlisting them in the cause of what in its time became one of the world’s most brilliant civilisations.
A further problem with this book is the striking absence of any serious discussion about oil, and its role in fuelling the unrealistic and unsustainable dreams of jihadist ideologues who have been unwittingly encouraged to indulge their imperial fantasies by gas-guzzling American consumers. It is no accident that most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens. Though its claims are ambitious, this is at heart a parochial and small-minded book, the indictment of a prosecuting counsel rather than a magisterial summing-up that takes account of the broader historical perspectives.
Available at the Books First price of £17.99 (inc p&p) on 0870 165 8585 and timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst
Islamic Imperialism by Efraim Karsh, Yale University Press: The United States of Arabia a Book Review by Malise Ruthven
- By Malise Ruthven
- June 23, 2006