Islamic Imperialism: A History

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.


  1. It is not possible to “make Islam a matter of private faith rather than a tool of political ambition”, because Islamic theology is intertwined with Islamic ethnicity. In other words, who they are as a religion is who they are as a people. If you think about it, the Muslims of today are simply doing what the Jews of Jesus’ day did. Remember, the Jews of Jesus’ day also had a theology that was very ethnic in character? This ethnic theology was the basis for their political understandings. It is also what drove them to “take the kingdom by force” if necessary. Hence the Zealots. So when you see today’s Islamic people you get an idea of what kind of people Jesus was preaching to when He said, “Love”, “Forgive”, “Have mercy”, “bless”, and “give”. By implication you also get an idea of the hatred He must’ve encountered when the people realized that He wasn’t there to launch or head Judaic Imperialism!

  2. That’s as may be. Karsh’s point, however, seems to be essentially directed to the Middle Eastern leaders: “It’s time to stop using religion as a tool, because you’ve only created trouble for yourselves in the persons of these jihadists which have been led on by your approved propaganda.” He hasn’t described the rather serious consequences of not doing so: world disfavor of a religion linked intimately with such violence (which we see already occurring, however slowly, though gaining momentum), the discredit of all supporters of jihad, and ultimately, the loss of Islam as a respectable world religion, because of these ties to an impossible and violent imperialism, in an age when the rest of the world has already learned and given up on imperialism and the violence associated with its spread and maintenance.

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