Imperial Encounters

Only in the second half of the eighteenth century did the balance of power between Christian Europe and the Muslim world shift. In 1757, British forces in India defeated the most important Muslim warlords on the subcontinent, while Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 marks the beginning of the Muslim encounter with modernity. In the early nineteenth century too, the Greek revolt became a focus for romantic enthusiasm across western Europe. Between 1800 and 1914, European powers conquered and annexed almost the whole of Dar alIslam, engaging in repeated wars and suppressing many revolts and risings. In occupying India, the British dominated the largest single concentration of Muslim populations, though the empire also incorporated millions of other Muslim subjects in Africa and southeast Asia. The mainly Muslim regions of the East Indies formed the heart of the Dutch Empire, while the French annexed much of northwest Africa. Russia advanced into central Asia and the Caucasus, and the Italians, latecomers to the imperial game, absorbed Libya and Somalia. After the First World War, the British and French divided the Arab world between them, and Turkey itself came close to partition.11

These various struggles rarely defined themselves in neat religious terms, still less a simple clash of Muslim versus Christian. In nineteenth-century culture, Muslim societies acquired a romantic aura, often because of the presumed similarities between modern tribal societies and the ancient worlds of the Old Testament patriarchs. French and British artists regularly depicted Arab warriors as noble savages riding their proud steeds, as in the famous paintings of Delacroix. Europeans acquired respect for the Muslim civil servants and soldiers upon whose loyalty the empires largely depended. British, French, and Spanish empires all employed Muslim soldiers, who were seen as brave and fiercely loyal. When in the 1930s, General Franco sought to retake Spain in the name of a right-wing Catholic cause, many of his most devoted soldiers were Moros, Moroccans. Hitler's Germany used Balkan Muslim forces in its quest for a colonial empire within Europe itself, and the SS formed two Muslim divisions.12

Yet the imperial encounter also left many negative stereotypes and themes, which endured long after the empires themselves had dissolved. One was the association of Islam with subject peoples and races, from whom obedience and submission were demanded. Also persistent were ideas of Muslim fanaticism and militarism, and Edward Said correctly observed how Europeans used the Muslim world as a foil, as a dark background against which they could project their own superior values. The negative image of Islam bore many resemblances to modern stereotypes of destructive religious cults, with their brutal mindless followers, exploitative leaders, and sexual excess.

Enlightenment thinkers used denunciations of Islamic fanaticism and credulity as oblique ways of attacking aspects of Christianity of which they disapproved. Humphrey Prideaux's Life of Mahomet (1697) condemned Deists and anti-Trinitarians, while Voltaire's 1741 play Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet was an attack on all forms of religious extremism and enthusiasm. In 1776, Edward Gibbon imagined an Islamic Europe to show how far religious loyalties were a matter of historical accident, however determined ignorant clergy might be to trace the hand of providence. If the Battle of Poitiers (in 732) had turned out differently, he wrote, "the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet."

African and Asian attempts to resist colonialism bolstered images of fanaticism. British concepts of Islam owed much to demon-figures like the Mahdi who led a successful revolt in the Sudan of the 1880s, and to the dervishes the British encountered a few years later in the same territory. Already by the end of the nineteenth century, Europe's popular stereotypes of Islam included visions of charismatic bearded prophets driving their brainwashed followers to massacre infidels. When the British encountered anti-colonial resistance in Somaliland a few years later, the movement was symbolized by the religious and military leader Mohammed bin Abdullah Hassan, popularly labeled the "Mad Mullah." The nickname suggests much about European attitudes: why, apart from insanity or religious fanaticism, would a people choose to resist the blessings of imperial rule?

Much of European military history and lore was formed in conflict with Muslim populations—by the British in India, the French in north Africa, the Russians in the Caucasus, the Dutch in the East Indies, the Italians in Libya. What the British remember as the Indian Mutiny of 1857 was to thousands of its participants a jihad against the British infidel. So common and widespread was jihadi resistance against European colonialism around the world during the second half of the nineteenth century that we should be less surprised by what is often seen as the modern revival of Islamist politics and militancy. The theaters of combat were very much the same then as now, with prolonged struggles in the Sudan and the Horn of Africa, in Algeria and Morocco, India and Afghanistan, the East Indies and the Caucasus. Modern jihadis differ from their predecessors chiefly in their access to modern means of travel and mass communication, which permit the formation of international alliances and coalitions. Nor, of course, could nineteenth-century rebels count on sympathetic Muslim populations within the imperial states themselves.

Modern Muslim nations glorify the leaders of anti-colonial resistance movements, who were often motivated by Islam and the rhetoric of jihad. Perhaps the greatest of the Muslim opponents of empire was Imam Shamil, who fought doggedly against Russian expansion in the Caucasus for thirty years. He became the legendary exemplar for Muslims in the Caucasian states, and modern-day Chechen leader Shamil Basayev was named for him. In the 1920s, Omar al-Mokhtar led mujahedin resistance against the Italian occupation of Libya, becoming a hero for Libyans and others. When Palestinian Hamas support ers parade in contemporary Gaza, they commonly march down Omar al-Mokhtar Street. In modern times too, French politics and history owe much to the experience of the brutal Algerian war of 1954-1962, an experience that was arguably as traumatic in French memory as the Nazi occupation itself.13

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