Jihad Watch Board Vice President Hugh Fitzgerald discusses European and Arab colonialism:
Oft-repeated is the canard that the ills and failures of the Muslim world are the consequence of Western colonialism. This claim calls for scrutiny.
The Europeans re-entered the Middle East only in 1798, when Napoleon came to Egypt — one of his generals, Kleber, stayed behind and becane the hero of Heliopolis, where he defeated the Turks (Incidentally, a certain well-heeled hotel, one that former Lebanese presidents and Arafat himself liked to stay in, in a very particular suite, when being put up by the Ministere des affaires etrangeres, is to be found in Paris on the Avenue Kleber). Kleber died in May, 1800, a month before Suvorov (a less-successful general), and was succeeded by General Menou, a French convert — convenience? deep belief? — to Islam.
For many hundreds of years the Arabs of the Middle East and North Africa were subject to rule, varying in the degree of its immediacy and power, by the Ottoman Turks. Even before 1517, when the Ottoman Turks conquered, the Mamelukes, who were of Turkic stock, ruled Egypt. It was the Europeans who largely freed the Arabs from Turkish rule.
The vast peninsula of Arabia (renamed after the Al-Saud family) was never subject to European colonial rule. In fact, the British made it a rule to use only naval power to do two things in the Persian Gulf: to end the Arab slave trade in black Africans, and to establish some modicum of peace between the constantly warring tribes — including stamping out piracy, for this threatened their route to India and the East. And that was it. There were a few British garrisons later established, chiefly at the entrepot of Aden, and on side of the Gulf as well. There was no settlement by Europeans, nothing to exploit, no “colonization” in the Middle East itself (I’ll get to North Africa in a minute). As for Syria-Lebanon and Iraq, the only pressure from the first was that of the European powers, chiefly France, to protect the local Christians from Muslim mistreatment. The French Mandate over Syria lasted for all of a quarter-century. It was not “colonial” in nature; there was no exploitation of the locals, but rather it became a net expense for the French. So too was the British Mandate in Mesopotamia, which lasted for a mere dozen years, from 1920 to 1932 (and when the British left, the Arabs promptly started massacring the Assyrians, though they had given assurances that they would not).
What about Egypt? Egypt was given, for the only time in its modern history, or perhaps ever, an example of a relatively honest and efficient civil service under Lord Cromer. This did not amount to colonialism. Indeed, it created the conditions which allowed for the development of the Egyptian economy and the rule of law, while keeping corruption to a minimum. It constituted the best-ruled period in modern Egypt’s history. And when that ended in 1922, the effects did not disappear but lingered, even unto the final fall of Farouk in 1952 — when the colonels not only removed the ancien regime, but promptly “nationalized” all the property owned by the Greeks, the Jews, the Italians, and others who had lived in Egypt for generations.
As for Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria — well, in Libya everything that was built that is worth noting either was left by the Romans, or was built by much later craftsmen from the Italian peninsula who arrived early in the last century. If that constitutes “colonialism” — and compare the rule under Italy with that under either King Idris or Khaddafy — few people would not have welcomed such a fate.
In Morocco and Tunisia, the French stayed as colonial powers for all of 40 years (roughly 1912 to 1952, give or take a year or two). Forty years, out of 1350 years of Islamic rule. Yet some would have us believe that when the French came and built hospitals and universities and offered the gift of the French language, and therefore of French literature, French rationality, French everything, that this was a terrible thing, a thing to be deplored. Nonsense.
What about Algeria, the only place in all of what is wrongly called “the Arab world” that really did have a colonial presence for more than a few brief decades? The French, like the Americans and others, had tried to stamp out the attacks on their shipping: for centuries Christian-owned vessels and seamen were the object of attack from North Africa. The Americans managed to prevent attacks on their ships by a firm display of force. But when they left, the French continued to suffer. Finally, in 1830, they seized Algiers. And they remained in Algeria until 1962, for 132 years. There, as elsewhere, they built hospitals and schools. They created, from land that had not been correctly tilled or mostly not tilled at all, thriving agriculture — including vineyards. There is not an educated Berber or Arab today who does not compare favorably the state of Algeria under the French with the monstrous things that happened after the victory of the FLN, and its continuous misrule by the army and corrupt generals who, however, are models of decency and deportment compared to the F.I.S. and other Islamist groups (see Michael Willis, “The Islamist Challenge to Algeria.”)
Arab Muslims suffered far less from European colonialism than did any other people in the soi-disant Third World — far less than those in sub-Saharan Africa, in Central and South America, and in Asia. Indeed, it might be argued, and has been by many non-Arab ex-Muslims, such as Anwar Shaikh (in his “Islam: The Arab Imperialism”), that the most successful imperialism or colonialism of all time, has been that of the Arabs themselves, who used Islam as a vehicle for arabization, especially of the cultural and linguistic kind: the taking of Arab names and false Arab lineages, using 7th century Arab customs as a model for all time, being required to read one’s holy books in Arabic, and so on. That is what the Berbers are keenly aware of, and the Kurds, and the black African Muslims in Darfur.
It was the Arabs from Arabia who settled themselves in, and laid down the law to, every non-Arab and non-Muslim people they conquered. Even so, it took quite a while to become a majority in these lands. In Egypt, for example, the Christian Copts, the original Egyptians, were still a majority in the first part of the 13th century. But then a campaign of persecution, murder, and forcible conversion began, and within a short period they were reduced from more than 50% of the population to about 10% — their proportion today.
Let us discuss the thousand years, and more, of Arab “colonialism” in the Berber lands, in sub-Saharan Africa, in Persia, or of the arabization that accompanied islamization, even if that islamization was conducted by non-Arabs, in Hindustan, in the East Indies (look at what happened to the Hindus and the Buddhists who once made up the population of that vast archipelago), and everywhere else that islamization, a vehicle for Arab cultural and linguistic imperialism, takes place. When John Smith becomes Abdallah Smith, and Richard Jones becomes Muhammad Jones, and an entire past is jettisoned so that what some people in 7th century Arabia are reported to have said and done becomes a guide to existence, that is a greater imperialism than the easy-to-get-rid-of political kind. For it destroys one’s own sense of one’s past, or one’s link to one’s ancestors. With Islam, you begin as if anew, and the pre-Islamic or non-Islamic past is no longer of symathetic interrest. That successful Arab colonialism shoud be compared to the almost complete absence of “colonialism” in the classic sense, anywhere that Europeans ruled over Arabs and Muslims (the real colonialism was practiced elsewhere, with results not nearly as malign as depicted in the press today) — save for the one exception of Algeria. And that exception lasted all of 132 years, and the state of Algeria since the French left has been, in every respect, far worse than it was when they were present.
Yes, French rule in North Africa, and especially in Algeria, in comparison to what preceded it, or what came after, can be seen more clearly now that both that European “colonialism” — and the “de-colonialism” that ended it — have been gone for a half-century. And what one realizes is that the French presence, not only the building of roads and buildings, the hospitals and schools, but the cultural gift of the French language and literature and possibilities of free inquiry and thought, represented in those lands a brief, but lucid interval of Western civilization.