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06:43, 21 August 2018 Tuesday
23:12, 05 August 2018 Sunday

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What is the Muslim world?
What is the Muslim world?

Islamists and Western pundits speak of ‘the West’ and ‘the Muslim world’ but such tribalism is dangerous colonial propaganda

by Cemil Aydin

On 17 May 1919 in Paris, three Indian Muslim leaders met the United States’ president Woodrow Wilson to make a case for the preservation of the Ottoman caliphate in Istanbul, and for the national self-determination of Anatolia as a homeland for Turkish Muslims. The Indians advocated for the independence of what they called ‘the last remaining Muslim power in the world’. Indian Muslim leaders speaking up on behalf of an Ottoman caliphate might appear to represent a global Muslim unity, but such a conclusion would be a mistake.

In fact, the details, arguments and ideals of the meeting reveal how incoherent and misleading the prevalent presumption is of any distinction between ‘the Muslim world’ and ‘the West’. The Indian Muslims made their case for Turkish independence by appeals to Wilson’s 14 points for peace. Their success in getting the meeting with Wilson owed much to their sacrifice as soldiers in the British army fighting and defeating the German-Ottoman alliance. Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for British-ruled India, arranged the meeting because he believed that the British empire, as the biggest Muslim empire in the world, had a moral responsibility to listen to the Indian Muslim case for the preservation of the Ottoman caliphate. All three Muslim leaders asserting their spiritual ties to the Ottoman caliph – the Aga Khan, Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Sahibzada Aftab Ahmad Khan – were loyal subjects of the British Crown. Several Indian Hindu leaders joined the meeting, making clear their solidarity with their fellow Indian Muslim brethren and their support for the Ottoman caliphate.

This conversation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 does not reveal a clash between an Islamic world and a Western world. It reveals one complex and interdependent world. Yet, consider Bernard Lewis’s influential essay in The Atlantic magazine, ‘The Roots of the Muslim Rage’ (1990): ‘In the classical Islamic view, to which many Muslims are beginning to return, the world and all mankind are divided into two: the House of Islam, where the Muslim law and faith prevail, and the rest, known as the House of Unbelief or the House of War, which it is the duty of Muslims ultimately to bring to Islam.’ Lewis left little doubt that this alleged ‘duty’ of Muslims meant violent means: ‘The obligation of holy war … begins at home and continues abroad, against the same infidel enemy.’ In spirit and substance, the Indian Muslim leaders meeting with Wilson in 1919 contradicts every single claim by Lewis. The Muslims were loyal supporters of the multi-faith British empire, cooperating with Hindus, and had fought against the Muslim soldiers of the Ottoman empire during the First World War. They did not see Westerners as any kind of enemy, and made their case for the Ottoman caliphate according to international norms about national self-determination and imperial peace.

Though he has been influential in US policy circles, Lewis did not come up with the idea of ‘a Muslim world’ distinct from a Western one. Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Western journalists and radical Islamists popularised the idea. In their view, contemporary Pan-Islamism draws on ancient Muslim ideals in pursuit of restoring a pristine religious purity. According to this account, Pan-Islamism is a reactionary movement, in thrall to ancient traditions and classical Islamic law. The peculiarities of Islam, it is always argued, compel Muslims’ religious affiliation to transcend other political affiliations. This Pan-Islamism not only survives but thrives in the contemporary world, and is a civilisational artefact deeply at odds with modern times.

Lewis might not have originated the idea of the Muslim world, but he gave it an intellectual polish, and inspired Samuel Huntington’s even more popular work, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). ‘The struggle between these rival systems [of the Islamic world and Christendom],’ wrote Lewis, ‘has now lasted for some 14 centuries. It began with the advent of Islam, in the 7th century, and has continued virtually to the present day. It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests.’

Such remains the dominant Western view of Pan-Islamism, expressed in the phrase common to punditry and journalism – ‘the Muslim world’. Yet, contrary to this dominant view of an eternal clash with the Christian West, Pan-Islamism is in fact relatively new, and not so exceptional. Closely related to Pan-Africanism and Pan-Asianism, it emerged in the 1880s as a response to the iniquities of European imperialism. Initially, the idea of global Muslim solidarity aimed to give Muslims more rights within European empires, to respond to ideas of white/Christian supremacy, and to assert the equality of existing Muslim states in international law.

The idea of an ancient clash between the Muslim World and the Christian World is a dangerous and modern myth. It relies on fabricated misrepresentations of separate Islamic and Western geopolitical and civilisational unities. Pan-Africanism and Pan-Asianism offer a better context for understanding Pan-Islamism. All three emerged in the late 19th century, at the height of the age of empire, and as counters to Anglo-Saxon supremacy and the white man’s civilising mission. Pan-Islamists in the age of empire did not have to convince fellow Muslims about the global unity of their co-religionists. By racialising their Muslim subjects with references to their religious identity, colonisers created the conceptual foundations of modern Muslim unity.

At the time, the British, Dutch, French and Russian empires ruled the majority of the world’s Muslims. Like Pan-Africanists and Pan-Asianists, the first Pan-Islamists were intellectuals who wanted to counter the slights, humiliations and exploitation of Western colonial domination. They did not necessarily want to reject the imperial world or the reality of empires. In their sensibilities, the leading Pan-Islamist intellectuals Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Syed Ameer Ali strongly resembled the Pan-Africanist W E B Dubois or the Pan-Asianist Rabindranath Tagore. Like Pan-Africanists and Pan-Asianists, Pan-Islamists emphasised that European empires discriminated against Africans, Asians and Muslims, both within empires and in international affairs. All three challenged European racism and colonial domination, and promised a better and freer world for the majority of human beings on Earth.

European colonial officers began to worry about a potential Muslim revolt when they saw how the modern technologies of printing, steamships and the telegraph were creating new links among diverse Muslim populations, helping them to assert a critique of racism and discrimination. Yet there were no Pan-Islamic revolts against colonialism from the 1870s to the 1910s. The alleged threat of Pan-Islamism made its first notable appearance in the West during the First World War, in part because the Ottoman and German empires promoted it in their war propaganda. Yet there was no Muslim revolt during the First World War when hundreds of thousands of Muslim soldiers served British, French and Russian empires. During the Second World War, Pan-Asianism was associated with the Japanese empire’s promises to liberate the coloured races of Asia from white hegemony. And in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat, the historic decolonising of Africa raised the profile of Pan-Africanism among European concerns.

By the 1960s, with the fading of the colonial world and its replacement by a world of independent nation-states, the political projects of Pan-Islamism, Pan-Africanism and Pan-Asianism had almost disappeared. They had, however, won many of the intellectual battles against racism, defeated colonial arguments of white supremacy, and helped to end European imperial rule. Disappointments about the failure of Africa, Asia and the Muslim world to become comparable in equality and freedom to the West also contributed to the declining status of the pan-nationalisms. By the 1980s, African and African-American intellectuals grew more pessimistic about the key Pan-Africanist dream of gaining racial equality for black people in the modern world, and making the whole of Africa prosperous and free. The Pan-African vision of uniting newly independent, weak African nations to create the necessary synergy of a federative global power and give them both liberty and prosperity has not materialised. Although there is still an international organisation – the African Union – it is ineffective, and far from achieving the goals of Pan-Africanism. The hopes of the Pan-Africanist generation, from Dubois to Frantz Fanon, for a future decolonised Africa remain a lost project for the next generation.

The first Pan-Islamists were highly modernist proponents of the liberation of women and racial equality

On the other hand, with multiple great powers such as China, India and Japan, the decolonised Asia of today would have made the early 20th-century Pan-Asianists proud. Yet 20th-century Pan-Asianism took a complex course. Japan’s exploitation of Pan-Asianism to rationalise its colonial occupation of China and Korea left many supporters feeling betrayed. Independent India’s foreign policy under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru showed a commitment to some Pan-Asian principles, which retained popular appeal at the Bandung Conference of 1955. This meeting of 29 Asian and African states, comprising more than half the world’s people, was the last major expression of Asian solidarity, and was later subsumed by Cold War rivalries and nation-statebuilding projects.

Pan-Islamism has also proceeded in a series of fits and starts over the past century. From Turkey and Egypt to Indonesia and Algeria, the idea of Muslim intellectualism and global Muslim solidarity empowered 20th-century nationalist leaders and movements. By the mid-1960s, the majority of the world’s Muslims had gained freedom from European colonial rule. The Turkish Parliament had abolished the Ottoman caliphate back in 1924, and by the 1950s that caliphate was almost forgotten.

Nearly a fifth of the way into the 21st century, however, Pan-Africanism and Pan-Asianism seems to have vanished but Pan-Islamism and the ideal of Muslim world solidarity survives. Why? The answer lies in the final stages of the Cold War. It was in the 1980s that a new Muslim internationalism emerged, as part of a rising political Islam. It was not a clash between the primordial civilisational traditions of Islam and the West, or a reassertion of authentic religious values. It wasn’t even a persistence of early 20th-century Pan-Islamism, but rather a new formation of the Cold War. A Saudi-US alliance began promoting the idea of Muslim solidarity in the 1970s as an alternative to the secular Pan-Arabism of the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose country allied with the Soviet Union. Any ideas of an ‘Islamic’ utopia would have floundered if not for the failures of many post-colonial nation-states and the subsequent public disillusionment of many Muslims.

The notion that Pan-Islamism represents authentic, ancient, repressed Muslim political values in revolt against global Westernisation and secularisation was initially a paranoid obsession of Western colonial officers, but recently it comes mainly from Islamists. Western pundits and journalists have erred in accepting at face value Islamist claims about Islam’s essential political values. The kind of Islamism that’s identified with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood or Ruhollah Khomeini’s Iran did not exist before the 1970s. None of the Indian Muslims meeting Wilson, nor the late Ottoman-era caliphs, were interested in imposing Sharia in their society. None of them wanted to veil women. On the contrary, the first Pan-Islamist generation was highly modernist: they were proponents of the liberation of women, racial equality and cosmopolitanism. Indian Muslims, for example, were very proud that the Ottoman caliph had Greek and Armenian ministers and ambassadors. They also wanted to see the British Crown appointing Hindu and Muslim ministers and high-level officials in their governments. None would have desired or predicted the separation of Turks and Greeks in Ottoman lands, Arabs and Jews in Palestine, and Muslims and Hindus in India. Only the basic form of early 20th-century Pan-Islamism survives today; the substance of it has, since the 1980s, transformed completely.

The fact that both Lewis and Osama bin Laden spoke of an eternal clash between a united Muslim world and a united West does not mean it is a reality. Even at the peak of the idea of global Muslim solidarity in the late 19th century, Muslim societies were divided across political, linguistic and cultural lines. Since the time of prophet Muhammad’s Companions in the seventh century, hundreds of diverse kingdoms, empires and sultanates, some in conflict with each other, ruled over Muslim populations mixed with others. Separating Muslims from their Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and Jewish neighbours, and thinking of their societies in isolation, bears no relationship to the historical experience of human beings. There has never been, and could never be, a separate ‘Muslim world’.

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