Islamic Imperialism: A History, by Efraim Karsh (Yale University Press, 288 pp., $30)
The week following the Muslim protests in London against the Danish cartoons—with marchers carrying signs calling for the beheading of infidels—other Muslims demonstrated to claim that Islam really meant peace and tolerance. While their implicit recognition that peace and tolerance are preferable to strife and bigotry did these Muslims personal honor, the claim regarding Islam was both historically and intellectually preposterous. Only someone ignorant of the most elementary facts could believe such a thing. From the first, Islam was a religion of pillage, violence, and compulsion, which it justified and glorified. And it is certainly not “the evident truth of the doctrine itself,” to quote Gibbon with regard for what, with characteristic irony, he called the primary reason for the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the civilized world, that explains the exponential growth of the Dar-al-Islam in its early history.
It is important, of course, to distinguish between Islam as a doctrine and Muslims as people. Untold numbers of Muslims desire little more than a quiet life; they have the virtues and the vices of the rest of mankind. Their religion gives to their daily lives an ethical and ritual structure and provides the kind of boundaries that only modern Western intellectuals would have the temerity to belittle.
But the fact that many Muslims are not fanatics is not as comforting as some might think. Consider, by way of illustration, Eric Hobsbawm, the famous, much feted, and unrepentantly Marxist historian. No one would feel personally threatened by him at a social gathering, where he would be amusing, polite, charming, and accomplished; if you had him to dinner, you wouldn’t have to count the spoons afterward, even though he theoretically opposes the idea of private wealth. In short, there would be no reason to suspect that he was about to commit a common crime against you. In this sense, he is what one might call a moderate Marxist.
But Hobsbawm has stated quite openly that, had the Soviet Union managed to create a functioning and prosperous socialist society, 20 million deaths would have been a worthwhile price to pay; and since he didn’t recognize, even partially, that the Soviet Union was not in fact on the path to such a society until many years after it had murdered 20 million of its people (if not more), it is fair to assume that, if things had turned out another way in his own country, Hobsbawm would have applauded, justified, and perhaps even instigated the murders of the very people to whom he was now, under the current dispensation, being amusing, charming, and polite. In other words, what saved Hobsbawm from committing utter evil was not his own scruples or ratiocination, and certainly not the doctrine he espoused, but the force of historical circumstance. His current moderation would have counted for nothing if world events had been different.
In his new book, Islamic Imperialism: A History, Professor Efraim Karsh does not mince words about Mohammed’s early and (to all those who do not accept the divinity of his inspiration) unscrupulous resort to robbery and violence, or about Islam’s militaristic aspects, or about the link between Islamic tradition and the current wave of fundamentalist violence in the world. The originality of Karsh’s interpretation is its underlying assumption that Islam was, from the very beginning, a pretext for personal and dynastic political ambition, from the razzias against the Meccan caravans and the expulsion of Jewish tribes from Medina, to the siege of Vienna a millennium later in 1529, and Hamas today.
Contrary to its universalistic pretensions, Karsh argues, Islam has never succeeded in eliminating political power struggles within the Muslim world, where, on the contrary, such struggles have always been murderous. Islamic regimes, many espousing in the beginning the ascetic principles of what one might call desert Islam, invariably degenerate (if it be degeneration) into luxury- and privilege-loving dynasties. Like all other political entities, Islamic regimes seek to preserve and, if possible, extend their power. They have shown no hesitation in compromising with or allying themselves with those whom they regard as infidels. Saladin, a mendaciously simplified version of whose exploits has inflamed hysterical sentiment all over the Middle East, was not above forming alliances with Christian monarchs to achieve his imperial ends; the Ottoman caliphate would not have survived as long as it did had the Sultan not exploited European rivalries and allied himself now with one, now with another Christian power.
In short, Islamic imperialism, in Karsh’s view, illustrates three transcendent political truths: the Nietzschean drive to power, Michels’ iron law of oligarchy, and Marx’s economic motor of history. Religious feeling, on this reading, is but an epiphenomenon, a mask for what is really going on.
This interpretation raises the difficult and perhaps unanswerable question of what should count in history as a real, and what as merely an apparent, motive for action. When Bernal Diaz del Castillo claims a religious motive for the conquest of Mexico, at least in part, should we just dismiss it as a sanctimonious lie to justify a more rapacious motive? That he ended up a rich man does not decide the question; and Diaz himself would have taken his material success as a sign that God smiled upon his enterprise, just as Muslims have viewed their early conquests as proof of God’s approval and the truth of Mohammed’s doctrine. (On the other hand, failure for Muslims never seems to provide proof of the final withdrawal of God’s favor, much less of his non-existence, but rather shows his dissatisfaction with the current practices of the supposedly faithful, who will return to His favor only by restoring an earlier, purer form of faith.)
Karsh seems to oscillate between believing that Islamic imperialism is just a variant of imperialism in general—imperialism being more or less a permanent manifestation of the human will to power—and believing that there is something sui generis and therefore uniquely dangerous about it.
I hesitate to rush in where so many better-informed people have hesitated to tread, or have trodden before, but I would put it like this. The urge to domination is nearly a constant of human history. The specific (and baleful) contribution of Islam is that, by attributing sovereignty solely to God, and by pretending in a philosophically primitive way that God’s will is knowable independently of human interpretation, and therefore of human interest and desire—in short by allowing nothing to human as against divine nature—it tries to abolish politics. All compromises become mere truces; there is no virtue in compromise in itself. Thus Islam is inherently an unsettling and dangerous factor in world politics, independently of the actual conduct of many Muslims.
Karsh comes close to this conclusion himself, when he writes at the end of the book:
Only when the political elites of the Middle East and the Muslim world reconcile themselves to the reality of state nationalism, forswear pan-Arab and pan-Islamic dreams, and make Islam a matter of private faith rather than a tool of political ambition will the inhabitants of these regions at last be able to look forward to a better future free of would-be Saladins.
The fundamental question is whether Islam as a private faith would still be Islam, or whether such privatization would spell its doom. I think it would spell its doom. In this sense, I am an Islamic fundamentalist. The choice is between all and nothing.