Islamic Imperialism: A History
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.
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.
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