I’ve just finished Efraim Karsh’s latest book, Islamic Imperialism: A History (Yale University Press, 2006). As usual, he’s done an excellent job in lucidly presenting some very complicated history, while simultaenously correcting popularized misconceptions or false history based in propaganda. From the foundations of Islam through to the present day, he argues that the driving force in conflicts involving Islamic entitities have not been based in the “clash of civilizations” per se, but rather in the clash of imperialisms. He ends on this note:
Political cooperation, however, has not meant accepting Western doctrines or values, as the events of September 11, 2001, amply demonstrate. Contrary to widespread assumptions, these attacks, and for that matter Arab and Muslim anti-Americanism, have little to do with US international behavior or its Middle Eastern policy. America’s position as the pre-eminent world power blocks Arab and Islamic imperialist aspirations. As such, it is a natural target for aggression. Osama bin Laden and other Islamists’s [sic] war is not against America per se, but is rather the most recent manifestation of the millenarian jihad for a universal Islamic empire (or umma). This is a vision by no means confined to an extremist fringe of Islam, as illustrated by the overwhelming support for the 9/11 attacks throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds.
In the historical imagination of many Muslims and Arabs, bin Laden represents nothing short of the new incarnation of Saladin. The House of Islam’s war for world mastery is a traditional, indeed venerable, quest that is far from over. 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 imperialist 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.