Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Islam's Imperial Dreams

OpinionJournal - Federation : Muslim political ambitions aren't a reaction to Western encroachments. BY EFRAIM KARSH : "Within twelve years of Muhammad's death, a Middle Eastern empire, stretching from Iran to Egypt and from Yemen to northern Syria, had come into being under the banner of Islam. By the early 8th century, the Muslims had hugely extended their grip to Central Asia and much of the Indian subcontinent, had laid siege to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, and had overrun North Africa and Spain. Had they not been contained in 732 at the famous battle of Poitiers in west central France, they might well have swept deep into northern Europe.

Though sectarianism and civil war divided the Muslim world in the generations after Muhammad, the basic dynamic of Islam remained expansionist. The short-lived Umayyad dynasty (661-750) gave way to the ostensibly more pious Abbasid caliphs, whose readiness to accept non-Arabs solidified Islam's hold on its far-flung possessions. From their imperial capital of Baghdad, the Abbasids ruled, with waning authority, until the Mongol invasion of 1258. The most powerful of their successors would emerge in Anatolia, among the Ottoman Turks who invaded Europe in the mid-14th century and would conquer Constantinople in 1453, destroying the Byzantine empire and laying claim to virtually all of the Balkan peninsula and the eastern Mediterranean.

Like their Arab predecessors, the Ottomans were energetic empire-builders in the name of jihad. By the early 16th century, they had conquered Syria and Egypt from the Mamluks, the formidable slave soldiers who had contained the Mongols and destroyed the Crusader kingdoms. Under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, they soon turned northward. By the middle of the 17th century they seemed poised to overrun Christian Europe, only to be turned back in fierce fighting at the gates of Vienna in 1683--on September 11, of all dates. Though already on the defensive by the early 18th century, the Ottoman empire--the proverbial "sick man of Europe"--would endure another 200 years. Its demise at the hands of the victorious European powers of World War I, to say nothing of the work of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkish nationalism, finally brought an end both to the Ottoman caliphate itself and to Islam's centuries-long imperial reach."

Mr. Karsh is head of Mediterranean Studies at King's College, University of London, and his new book, "Islamic Imperialism: A History," on which this article is based, is about to be published by Yale. This article originally appeared in the April issue of Commentary.

No comments: