Primer on Islamic imperialism

One of the alleged sins held against the West by Islamic radicalism - which has declared war on us through Osama bin Laden's fatwa issued in 1998 in London - is imperialism: the imperialism of the Dutch, the British and the French from the 17th to the 20th centuries.  (For some reason, Russian imperialism in Central Asia gets a pass - so far.)  Israel is allegedly an outpost of European imperialism. 

The original western imperial enterprise in the radical Islamic narrative was the Crusades.  The First Crusade began in 1095.  The Crusades were undertaken to reclaim the Holy Land for Christendom.  Reclaim it from whom?  From the Muslims.

But Mohammed died in Medina in 632 as ruler of the Hijaz, the northwest section of Arabia along the Red Sea which includes the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.  But if they controlled the Hijaz in 632, what were the Muslims doing in Jerusalem in 1100? 

Of course, they were there by conquest!  They were they by virtue of Islamic imperialism - the extension of the Land of Islam (Dar al-Islam) by holy war: jihad (notwithstanding the other meanings of this term).

Let's review.  Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was a warrior and ruler who conquered Mecca and the Hijaz from his base in Medina.  Following The Prophet's death in 632, Islam was spread by Arab and Muslim conquest.  There are Muslims who are not Arabs, but the first phase of expansion was Arab expansion.  The ruler of the Muslim world, the successor to Muhammad, was the Caliph - "the shadow of God on earth." 

The Caliph was both the religious and political head of the Muslim world which, unlike the Christian world, draws no distinction between the two.  In North Africa and the Middle East, the lands that the Arab Muslim world expanded into were controlled by the Byzantine Empire, the successor to the Roman Empire, with its capital at Constantinople.  These were Christian lands.  To the East, between the Middle East and India, was the Persian Empire with a different religious tradition.

At the death of Muhammad in 632, the realm of Islam consisted of northwest Arabia.  To the north and west is Christian Byzantium, to the east is Persia.  Neither of these are Arab; neither of them are Muslim.  But within 100 years, the territory from Persia to Spain is controlled by Muslim Arabs.  How did this happen?  Egypt, for instance, was not in 632 an Arab country.  It was of a different ethnic stock and had been in existence for 3600 years!

What happened was conquest, one of the most impressive in history.  Here is a very brief timeline:

  1. 630 - Muhammad conquers Mecca from his base in Medina.
  2. 632 - Muhammad dies in Medina.  Islam controls the Hijaz. 
  3. 636 - conquest of Syria.  Victory in battle over the Byzantines gives Syria and the surrounding lands, all Christian - including Palestine and Iraq - to the Caliph. 
  4. 636 - 642 Persia conquered by the Muslims. 
  5. 642 - conquest of  Egypt.  The Arab/Muslim conquest moves west along North Africa into hitherto non-Arab/non-Muslim lands. 
1st Muslim invasion of Europe: from the West
  1. 711 - Tariq (after whom Gibraltar is named: the Rock of Tariq - Gib al-Tariq) invades Spain.  The Muslim conquest moves into Europe. 
  2. 718 - conquest of Spain complete.  
  3. 732 - Muslim invasion of France is stopped at the Battle of Poitiers (also called the Battle of Tours).  This is regarded as one of the turning points in world history.  The Franks, under their leader Charles Martel (the grandfather of Charlemagne), defeat the Muslims and turn them back out of France.

Thus, in exactly 100 years, from the death of The Prophet in 632, to 732, the Arab/Muslim realm has extended from the Hijaz, a province in Arabia, to encompass Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Persia, Egypt, the North African littoral, Spain and, temporarily, part of France.  The first European interaction with Islam is with Islam in the role of a conquering army, and, in the case of Spain, one that comes to stay.  Spain becomes a Muslim colony.  Over several hundred years, Spain is reconquered - the reconquista - for Christendom.  The last Moors are expelled in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella.

In the 1300's, the Turks take over leadership of the Muslim world from the Arabs.  They establish the Ottoman Empire with its capital at Christian Constantinople after conquering it in 1453.  The Muslim world under Ottoman leadership begins incursions into Europe from the East.

2nd Muslim invasion of Europe: from the East

  1. 1453 - Muslim Turks conquer Christian Constantinople and make it the seat of the Caliphate
  2. 1456 - Muslims conquer Athens
  3. 1478 - Serbia, Bosnia, Crimea come under Ottoman control
  4. 1480 - Otranto in Italy taken by the Ottomans
  5. 1529 - Vienna besieged by the Ottomans
  6. 1683 - Battle of Vienna.  The Turks are defeated by the Polish king Jan Sobieski leading a combined Polish-Lithuanian army.  This is the high-water-mark of Turkish/Muslim conquest of Europe from the East.

1683 is an important year because after that the Muslim Empire had no further military successes over the West.  Thus, while this date seems lost in the mists of time to most Westerners, it remains a vivid memory in Islamic history because it marks the beginning of a downward slide in military fortunes that ended with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by the British and French in World War I, the occupation of Muslim lands by the European states, and finally the abolition of the Caliphate itself by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) in 1924.

But in the 1980's, something important happened.  When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the U.S. decided that it would support the native Afghan resistance, the mujahedeen.  This resulted in a massive arms support operation by the CIA funneled through the Pakistani intelligence service the ISI.  Thus, the American hand was concealed from the mujahedeen.  When, particularly with the help of the Stinger missile, the Russians were defeated by the mujahedeen, this represented in their own eyes a victory of Islamic forces over those of a modern state - indeed, a superpower - something not seen since the 17th century in the Muslim world.  Here was a model to be built on.

  1. 1979 - Soviet Union invades Afghanistan
  2. 1988 - Soviet Union leaves Afghanistan, defeated by the Muslim mujahedeen.  A victory for Islam over the "West."  
  3. 1991 - Soviet Union disintegrates.  Who can say that its defeat by the Muslims was not its mortal blow?   

3rd Muslim invasion of Europe: from the South

And now we find ourselves confronted by a third Muslim attack on the West - a third "invasion of Europe" (if "Europe" is expanded to include North America) by an expansionary Muslim philosophy - by Islamic radicalism.  The first Muslim attack was from the West in the 700's; the second was from the East in the 1400's - 1600's; the third began with the defeat of the Soviet Union in 1988 in Afghanistan and its subsequent collapse and is in the form of mass immigration.

The philosopher and economist Thomas Sowell instructs us to ask "as compared to what?" when evaluating and criticizing human enterprise.  It is pointless to compare human enterprise to some abstract ideal that has never existed.  As Sowell points out, if the standard is set high enough, anything will fail. 

Was the British Empire - the archetype of Western imperialism - a bad thing?  As compared to what?  As compared to the Muslim Empires?  As compared to them, the British Empire was a model of enlightenment.  The Muslims pride themselves on their tolerance of minorities.  But that tolerance came at the cost of dhimmitude - second-class citizenship and payment of tributes.  The British Empire was, yes, established by force, but it was not sustained only by force.  It was also sustained by consent.  And it left behind a number of the freest, richest, most liberal countries on earth.  As compared to the Muslims, the British look pretty good.

But it is not the point of this paper that Arab/Muslim imperialism was an evil, or at least was not a unique evil.  It was a human enterprise with its strengths and weaknesses.  Muslim culture at its highest was high indeed.  The Muslims preserved and passed on the Greeks.  The Arabs developed Arabic numerals, and invented the number zero (or the next best thing, recognized the significance of the Indians having done so), the basis of modern mathematics.  Algebra is an Arabic word: al-gebera.  Muslim letters, science, medicine and architecture were at the highest level of achievement. 

But so are our own.  We can't have a double standard here - being impressed by the achievements and conquests of Arab/Muslim civilization but at the same time embarrassed by the even more impressive achievements and conquests of the West.  If conquest is something to be embarrassed by, if it is a moral disqualification, then the Arab/Muslims are at the head of the line; Europe is well back on the list!  And whatever the achievements of medieval Muslim culture, and they were many, they are in the past.  There are few achievements today, and none to compare with those of the West. 

Yes, one can certainly ask about spiritual achievement.  If the Muslims wish to live in the 8th century, nobody is stopping them.  Just as nobody stops the Amish from living in the 18th century.  But if the standard is living in the 21st century, then it is clear that the West is a superior culture in all respects for that - in comfort of living, in science, in medicine, in human rights, in the rights of women to name just a few. 

We are in a fight for our lives against Islamic radicalism.  We cannot unilaterally disarm ourselves morally because of some imagined slights offered to Muslim culture by the West.  Yes, we are the stronger, but that was not always so.  When Muslims were the stronger, they prided themselves on their conquests and their cultural and political dominance, which still shape the world we live in.