Unpacking the Islam/imperialism binary that’s become so popular with theorists

First of all, this issue is so frustrating because you have to isolate what people mean when they talk about these two terms.

To start with, imperialism & colonialism: the French and British had colonial endeavours in the Middle East, and particularly North Africa, during the imperial era. Algeria was a French colony. Libya was colonized by the Italians. Aden was a protectorate of the British. Napoleon invaded Egypt, but his military endeavour failed.  The British occupied Egypt from 1882 and oversaw the Suez Canal, until they were ousted in 1956. Of course there was also the British Raj (but then, that’s not the Middle East), and most of what the British did around the Arab Gulf had to do with protecting the interests of the Raj — the Gulf was more incidental to British imperial interests, comparatively.

But here’s what gets left out of a lot of these discussions: Britain and France were actually two separate powers, often playing off an empire which was not European at all, that is, the Ottoman Empire!

The Ottoman Empire existed for centuries (since 1299), and for much of its existence, it was ascendant in most of what we now call the Middle East. At times, the European powers allied with the Ottomans. At times, they allied with Arabs against the Ottomans. Arabs were under Ottoman suzerainty, including the sharif of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. The decline of Ottoman power and thus rising poverty and lapses of social cohesion is one factor my book on Saudi Arabia (author, James Wynbrandt) lists as contributing to the rise of a religious revival “back to fundamentals” movement in Arabia, led by the ultra-conservative cleric, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

These movements have occurred throughout the history of Islam — for instance, at the end of the Arab-Persian-Turkish Islamicate Golden Age following early Arab imperialism, the conservative cleric al-Ghazali so successfully attacked neoplatonic Hellenistic philosophy that it was never again as popular among Arab scholars. Now, of course, you can look at these religious revival movements, and their analogues in Judaism and Christianity, and ask whether these religions will just forever have be plagued by conservative tendencies, or whether they can transcend them and be totally universally reformed and progressive everywhere somehow — myself, I’m rather dubious, but that’s beside my main point, at least here.

There was actually quite a bit of fornicating and boozing going on in Arabia, some of which was just a matter of “polite society” looking away (Samaritans ignoring the Philistines, as it were) and some of it was a matter of Muslims of the more cosmopolitan Hijaz feeling somewhat special (and thus above the laws) due to their proximity to Islam’s birthplace. There were red light districts. Alcohol was sold near the Kaaba.

Abd al-Wahhab, horrified by all the fun these people were having, aggressively went after the culprits, as well as all the people who combined elements of ancestral worship, animism, and other forms of “idolatry” in their practice of Islam (which was pretty common — I mean, a lot of the more nomadic Arabs weren’t literate and hadn’t read the Qur’an and were basically just doing whatever they pleased).

Al-Wahhab made a pact with the al-Saud family. Saud would conquer tribes militarily, and al-Wahhab would indoctrinate them into his very conservative form of Sunni Islam. As has been discussed before, monotheism, and particularly aggressive and conservative forms of monotheism, is a powerful tool of social control. It united much of Arabia before in Muhammad’s era. Through the military conquests of the al-Saud family, it united much of it again, but not without quite a bit of significant opposition.

One major source of opposition was the Ottoman Empire itself. Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Egyptian viceroy to the Ottomans, underwent a campaign into the Arabian interior, and later sent his son, Ibrahim. Some were happy that the Ottomans repelled the Wahhabis, who had been attacking sites like Karbala (a Shi’a stronghold) in present day Iraq, but the Ottomans ended up being so brutal in their suppression of the Wahhabis (Muhammad Ali’s son, Isma’il, actually sent the ears of those he killed back to Cairo because there were too many heads to send them all) that many in Arabia preferred Wahhabis to the Egyptians & Ottoman power.

So where did the Europeans come into these affairs? Well, the European colonial powers were pretty much opportunists and would shift alliances wherever it seemed like it’d be beneficial for them to do so. At first, the British tried to ally with Muhammad Ali against the Wahhabis, but he wasn’t actually having it. During WWI, some Arabs fought against the Ottomans and allied with the British — hence, T.E. Lawrence’s campaign with the Arabs against the Turks. And when the USA entered the picture, those in Arabia actually generally preferred to work with the US because it didn’t have a history of imperialistic endeavors in the region, relative to the British.

But I think the biggest imperial effect of the Western powers came after WW I, when the Sykes-Picot agreement, created in secret between the French and British, carved up the Arab world and betrayed promises made by the Europeans to the Arabs, as well as the Balfour Declaration, and the Zionist movement for the state of Israel. You also have quite a bit of Western interference and manipulation in terms of secret coups (like the 1953 coup in Iran, in which the CIA played a role) and market forces (ARAMCO, Anglo-Persian Oil, US-Saud alliance based around oil), followed by an era of Cold War conflicts.

More than anything, it’s this last era which people mean when they talk about imperialism and Islam in the Middle East, even though these conflicts aren’t so much imperialism/colonialism proper (the US has no empire/colonies in the Middle East; the violent clusterfuck of Israeli policy is endorsed by the US, however) as militarism with an imperialistic bent (the whole “spreading democracy” bullshit). You may say I’m splitting hairs, but in order to deal with these forces, I think it’s important to be as specific as possible and eschew sensationalism.

Anyhow, my detour about Wahhabism earlier was to illustrate that particularly conservative forms of Islam were alive and well in the Middle East prior to Sykes-Picot and prior to the Cold War and the resulting militarism. But just as people usually refer to several different forces when they talk about imperialism in the Middle East, there have been different movements associated with Islam, and when people talk about imperialism creating radical Islam, the movements to which they refer — as near as I can tell — are the political organizations focused on asymmetrical warfare, or what people in the states would call terrorist cells. The Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and now ISIS. The term Islamism has been proposed for these movements, and it’s useful shorthand, but it gets pretty messy when you consider that they’re not really some kind of umbrella movement, but rather several different movements, with some at times being enemies to one another.

So, what caused these radical movements? Islam? Imperialism?

Well, imperialism definitely did fuel plenty of reactionary backlash in the Middle East. And the noble warfare ideology of jihad in Islam does lend a divine sort of framework to forms of aggression and resistance or perceived resistance (perceived insofar as — does anyone think ISIL is really liberating people?). Though there are other factors you can bring up. Modernity itself, and the speed with which it’s overtaken the region, has played a role. And a lot of these movements have reacted against Arab nationalism of a more secular variety (look at Sayyid Qutb & the Muslim Brotherhood). And of course, to my mind, one of the biggest driving forces has been the radicalizing power of wars. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization (formed 1988-1989) was created by Arab volunteers who had battled the Soviets in the Afghan civil war. Palestinians suffering Israeli occupation have radicalized and resisted via asymmetrical warfare. Hezbollah was created in Lebanon in reaction to the Israeli invasion. ISIS itself didn’t really come onto the scene until the wars in Iraq and Syria destabilized the region and gave room to pivot and take power. These aren’t state actors (much as ISIS is trying to be… and who knows, at this rate), and these aren’t empires. These are reactions — against imperialism, market forces, yes, but also against modernity and its perceived secular decadence, AND against states themselves (& state borders), and they are filtered through a pre-existing conservative climate (salafi/Wahhabi).

So, I guess if you want to be simplistic, it’s “both/and,” with a judicious helping of other shit.

Now, if you want to get even more complicated, you can ask about the line between Wahhabism and these newer movements. Conservative, after all, isn’t the same as violent. Your racist uncle at Thanksgiving isn’t necessarily an abortion clinic bomber, but is he (ideologically speaking) a slippery slope to an abortion clinic bomber (or, at least, providing the atmosphere in which such a person is excused, a la Bill O’Reilly)? And that’s why Saudi Arabia has fallen under a lot of criticism. Since its basis as a state is linked to Wahhabism, and since it has spend large sums on setting up madrassas to school kids in Wahhabi doctrine, there are many Muslims who feel the royal family has helped unleash groups like al-Qaeda, and has to eat some blame for this.

This gets really messy. Saudi Arabia is and Wahhabi here is, I think, somewhat analogous to preachers who went to Uganda and said how evil queers are, only to try to wash their hands of the resulting legislation, or Bill O’Reilly talking about what a “baby killer” George Tiller was before he was murdered by a fanatic, or conservatives in the Southern US trying to pull some love the sinner, hate the sin anti-queer bullshit — these examples are merely approximate, but I think you see what I’m driving at. The state is an ally of the US and firmly repudiates the kinds of Islamist groups I’m talking about, but many Muslims take this repudiation as being similar to the examples I gave of conservatives who stirred up an ideologically brutal climate, only to disclaim the bloody results. Plus, Saudi Arabia as a state is pretty terrible for all kinds of human rights violations (in its basic laws, Shi’a genocides, rights of women, labour laws, public beheadings) — just that it operates as a recognized polity/state.

NOW, I certainly left a lot out of this analysis. I didn’t go that much into South Asia (Pakistan, mainly), North Africa, or the parallel Islamist cells in other parts of Africa like Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. I didn’t talk too much about other schools of Islam or other reform movements, the Iranian revolution, Indonesia, or the eternal clusterfuck that is the Balkans and what Russia called the “Central East” states, i.e. Chechnya. For that matter, I didn’t even really discuss all the different Arab nationalist movements, like Hussein’s Ba’ath party or Gamal Abdel Nasser or the brutal (but secular) Syrian regime. The fact is, the topic is just too fucking big. But that’s the point I’m trying to make. You can’t boil something this complex down into cheap soundbites, and when you try, you end up with ridiculous generalizations.

So, here is the last thought I want to leave you with. And bear with me, because this is difficult to articulate. But, if you find yourself pulling out this binary, what exactly are you trying to achieve with it?

For those of you (hawkish, right-wing minded sorts) who think Muslims are, as a category, suspicious elements, are you brazenly advocating profiling or segregation or — what, exactly? And for those of you who believe that Muslims who do radicalize & join ISIS (or al-Qaeda, etc.) are true and honest freedom fighters motivated sheerly by injustice towards Palestinians & reacting against imperialism — are you, I don’t know, advocating this? Saying “well, I’m not advocating it, but it’s just a thing” and shrugging your shoulders?

You see, this is why I’m reacting impatiently to this sort of discussion: it doesn’t go anywhere. You reach intolerable conclusions like Muslims are inherently radicals or radicals are inherently freedom fighters, and then you’re either a simpleminded bigot or a bizarre apologist, depending. And yes, I’m aware that Leftists who take the latter stance will sometimes distance themselves from the implications of their rhetoric, but they still give plenty of credence to the rhetoric of reactionaries themselves.

I have a few ideas for a possible alternative framework, but that may require a few more posts.

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