Middle Eastern Academic Amnesia on Imperialism

Cairo revolt

Napoleon’s troops put down revolt in Cairo

Some years ago I attended a conference in Washington attended by Middle East Scholars –  or at least those who imagined themselves in that category. After the usual number of erudite talks by various scholars, one being a favorite  of the scholars  topics- Western Imperialism and colonialism, the moderator took questions from the audience on 3×5 cards. I wrote one  along these lines……why do we always talk about Western imperialism and never Islamist imperialism? The moderator read it, and amid titters and guffaws  from the audience,  with distaste on his face, tossed it aside.

This encapsulates in many ways my long aversion to so called American Middle East scholarship, mostly driven by ideological orientation rather than history or knowledge. Of course there are exceptions …such as Bernard Lewis and Fuad Ajami, Martin Kramer,  and others, but very few are in the classroom   and so we have an annual harvest of Middle East “experts” who go to the State Department, the CIA,. or back to the classroom to misinform and disorient the next batch  of “experts.”

Well when did imperialism begin? Apparently when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, according to the “scholars.” That is a nice convenient date to set off the European land grab over the next couple of  centuries. So what do we call the Arab invasion of Persia, Egypt, North Africa, Spain, France and later Greece, the Balkans, Austria, etc etc.? Well I think the scholars  term it bringing the New Prophectic  Message to the people, who were “thirsting “for a new religion.

It should not be forgotten that they had a religion already, of course, mostly Christian, Judaism, Zoroastrianism etc. but in due time, most of these people, like ordinary  human beings, understood which side their bread  was  buttered on, and converted to Islam;  Some at the point of a sword, but mostly  because they had common sense. But even then they weren’t at the top of the heap because non-Arab Muslim converts were termed  Muwali, better than Jews and Christians, (people of the Book) and much better than Kuffars, pagans, like Yezidis, but not quite the top drawer.

So apparently Imperialism was invented by the West in 1798 when Napoleon invaded Egypt. So say our many left leaning scholars.

Napo;ean

Napoleon. Excellent book on his conquest of Egypt is  Bonaparte in Egypt by J. Christopher Herold. His views of Egypt were not Favorable but then he was not there to rule Egypt only to stop British commerce from the India to England He did not attempt to change their religion.

So what happened to the Arab invasion of Spain and France? It was thrown back  at tours by Charles” The Hammer” Martel and his army of Franks.   Edward Gibbon  ( (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire wrote that had the Arab imperialism  ( my term not his )  succeeded, students in Oxford would be speaking Arabic. Actually in my last visit to London, in certain parts  of “Londonstan” they all spoke Arabic.

But to continue, the Arab penetration was stopped and gradually the Arabs were pushed out of Spain after almost 800 years of colonial rule. (711-1492)

But in the east The Turks of the Ottoman Empire continued the Islamist assault into Eastern Europe. They had subdued Greece, and Hungary, most of the Balkans, rounding up Serbian youth to fight battles for them as their shock troops, the famous Janissaries. Having taken Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans keep pushing their imperialistic designs further into Europe, finally after many decades of seesaw war, they were  routed at the battle of Vienna in 1683. For over 200 years the Turks had colonized parts of Western Europe until they were gradually driven out.

1684_ Vienna

Battle of Vienna

So when did “imperialism” begin and has it ended? When the Mesopotamians conquered the five cities of the Plain? When will it end. That’s an easy one. Never!

So why don’t “scholars write and talk about Arab/Iranian/ Islamic imperialism? A few have. V.S. Naipaul wrote’ ” Islam has had a calamitous effect on the converted peoples. To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say my ancestral culture does not exist, it does not matter…..”Among the Believers.  Hmmm sounds like the current cancel culture movement in our country!!!

Let’s be honest. No one has the moral high ground on the deleterious  effects of imperialism, but certainly not Islam and Arabs.

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About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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