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An Overview of the European Invasion of the Islamic World by Karen Armstrong

Excerpted from Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong
2000 Modern Library Edition; reprinted with permission from Random House.

The Islamic world has been convulsed by the modernization process. Instead of being one of the leaders of world civilization, Islamdom was quickly and permanently reduced to a dependent bloc by the European powers. Muslims were exposed to the contempt of the colonialists, who were so thoroughly imbued with the modern ethos that they were often appalled by what they could only see as the backwardness, inefficiency, fatalism and corruption of Muslim society. They assumed that European culture had always been progressive, and lacked the historical perspective to see that they were simply seeing a pre-modern agrarian society, and that a few centuries earlier Europe had been just as "backward." They often took it for granted that Westerners were inherently and racially superior to "orientals" and expressed their contempt in myriad ways. All this not unnaturally had a corrosive effect. Western people are often bewildered by the hostility and rage that Muslims often feel for their culture, which, because of their very different experience, they have found to be liberating and empowering. But the Muslim response is not bizarre and eccentric; because the Islamic world was so widespread and strategically placed, it was the first to be subjected in a concerted, systematic manner to the colonization process in the Middle East, India, Arabia, Malaya and a significant part of Africa. Muslims in all these places very early felt the brunt of this modernizing assault. Their response has not been simply a reaction to the new West, but the paradigmatic reaction. They would not be able to come to modernity as successfully or as smoothly as, for example, Japan, which had never been colonized, whose economy and institutions had remained intact and which had not been forced into a debilitating dependency on the West.

The European invasion of the Islamic world was not uniform, but it was thorough and effective. It began in Moghul India. During the latter half of the 18th century, British traders had established themselves in Bengal, and at this time, when modernization was still in its infancy, the British lived on a par with the Hindu and Muslim merchants. But this phase of British activity is known as the "plundering of Bengal," because it permanently damaged the local industry, and changed its agriculture so that Bengalis no longer grew crops for themselves but produced raw materials for the industrialized Western markets. Bengal had been reduced to second-class status in the world economy. Gradually as the British became more "modern" and efficient themselves, their attitude became more superior, and they were determined to "civilize" the Indians, backed up by the Protestant missionaries who started to arrive in 1793. But the Bengalis were not encouraged to evolve a fully industrialized society of their own; the British administrators introduced only those aspects of modern technology that would reinforce their supremacy and keep Bengal in a complementary role. The Bengalis did benefit from British efficiency, which kept such disasters as disease, famine and war at bay, and the population increased as a result; but this created new problems of overcrowding and poverty, since there was no option of migration to the towns, as in the West, and the people all had to stay on the land.

The plundering of Bengal economically led to political domination. Between 1798 and 1818, by treaty or by military conquest, British rule was established throughout India, except in the Indus Valley, which was subdued between 1843 and 1849. In the meantime, the French had tried to set up an empire of their own. In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Egypt, hoping to establish a base in Suez that would cut the British sea routes to India. He brought with him a corps of scholars, a library of modern European literature, a scientific laboratory and a printing press with Arabic type. From the start, the advanced culture of Europe, coming as it did with a superbly efficient modern army, was experienced in the Muslim Middle East as an assault. Napoleon's expedition to Egypt and Syria failed. He had intended to attack British India from the north, with the help of Russia. This gave Iran a wholly new strategic importance, and for the next century Britain established a base in the south of the country, while the Russians tried to get control of the north. Neither wanted to make Iran a full colony or protectorate (until oil was discovered there in the early twentieth century), but both powers dominated the new Qajar dynasty, so that the shahs did not dare to make a move without the support of at least one of them. As in Bengal, both Britain and Russia promoted only the technology that furthered their own interests and blocked such inventions as the railway, which might have benefited the Iranian people, in case it endangered their own strategic positions.

The European powers colonized one Islamic country after another. France occupied Algeria in 1830, and Britain Aden nine years later. Tunisia was occupied in 1881, Egypt in 1882, the Sudan in 1889 and Libya and Morocco in 1912. In 1915 the Sykes-Picot agreement divided the territories of the moribund Ottoman Empire (which had sided with Germany during the First World War) between Britain and France in anticipation of victory. After the war, Britain and France duly set up protectorates and mandates in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Transjordan. This was experienced as an outrage, since the European powers had promised the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire independence. In the Ottoman heartlands, Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk (1881-1938), was able to keep the Europeans at bay and set up the independent state of Turkey. Muslims in the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia became subject to the new Soviet Union. Even after some of these countries had been allowed to become independent, the West often continued to control the economy, the oil or such resources as the Suez Canal. European occupation often left a legacy of bitter conflict. When the British withdrew from India in 1947, the Indian subcontinent was partitioned between Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, which are to this day in a state of deadly hostility, with nuclear weapons aimed at each other's capitals. In 1948 the Arabs of Palestine lost their homeland to the Zionists, who set up the Jewish secular state of Israel there, with the support of the United Nations and the international community. The loss of Palestine became a potent symbol of the humiliation of the Muslim world at the hands of the Western powers, who seemed to feel no qualms about the dispossession and permanent exile of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

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