Malise Ruthven

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Cru­sade and Ji­had: The Thousand-Year War be­tween the Mus­lim World and the Global North by Wil­liam R. Polk

Cru­sade and Ji­had:

The Thousand-Year War be­tween the Mus­lim World and the Global North by Wil­liam R. Polk.

Yale Univer­sity Press, 632 pp., $37.50

A com­ment by a young Mus­lim man who had stud­ied at an Amer­i­can univer­sity sets the tone for the im­pres­sively far-rang­ing Cru­sade and Ji­had. “The bot­tom line,” he tells Wil­liam Polk,

is that no Mus­lim ever tried to en­slave or slaugh­ter your peo­ple. You might think of the at­tack on the World Trade Cen­ter, 9/11, as a coun­ter­at­tack. It was ter­ri­ble and most of us are ashamed of it, but just re­mem­ber—it killed about 25 hun­dred peo­ple whereas im­pe­ri­al­ists killed at least 25 mil­lion of our rel­a­tives and tried to de­stroy our way of life and our re­li­gion. Do you care about that?

Polk, a dis­tin­guished his­to­rian, diplo­mat, and Ara­bist who served as a for­eign pol­icy ad­viser to Pres­i­dents Kennedy and John­son, does in­deed care. The asym­me­try of vic­tim­hood be­tween whites and non­whites—or north­ern­ers and south­ern­ers, as Polk prefers to call them—is a cen­tral theme in Cru­sade and Ji­had. The ti­tle is both ar­rest­ing and some­what mis­lead­ing. The ac­tual Cru­sades oc­cupy very few pages; Polk’s real sub­ject is the neg­a­tive im­pact that coun­tries of the Global North—China, Rus­sia, Europe, Bri­tain, and Amer­ica—had on those in the Global South.

Those south­ern peo­ples were mainly, but not ex­clu­sively, Mus­lim. In the Congo, “where roughly one in ten in­hab­i­tants was a Mus­lim,” Polk re­minds us,

be­tween 1884 and 1908 the Bel­gians are es­ti­mated to have killed at least twice as many na­tives as the Nazis killed Jews and Roma— some ten to fif­teen mil­lion peo­ple. They also en­gaged in sys­tem­atic rape, cut off the hands or feet of un­pro­duc­tive na­tives, and stripped the Congo of raw ma­te­ri­als.

Polk’s tone and choice of sources are some­times polem­i­cal. He un­crit­i­cally cites the In­dian diplo­mat and politi­cian Shashi Tharoor’s claim that “thanks to eco­nomic poli­cies ruth­lessly en­forced by Bri­tain, be­tween 30 and 35 mil­lion In­di­ans need­lessly died of star­va­tion” and “mil­lions of tons of wheat were ex­ported from In­dia to Bri­tain even as famine raged.” Polk doesn’t dis­cuss the other de­vel­op­ments, in­de­pen­dent of Bri­tain’s poli­cies, that con­trib­uted to In­dia’s food short­age, such as debt bondage and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, in­clud­ing flood­ing and crop dis­eases. Nonethe­less, Polk uses an im­pres­sive body of eco­nomic, mil­i­tary, and so­cial data to show how the Euro­pean peo­ples of the North have in­vaded, raped, and ran­sacked the peo­ples of the South since the com­ing of Is­lam in the sev­enth cen­tury CE. His nav­i­ga­tion is skill­ful, with short chap­ters that guide the reader through a his­tor­i­cal tra­jec­tory of great com­plex­ity across the East­ern Hemi­sphere. We move from the or­gies of piracy and plun­der com­mit­ted by the Por­tuguese on the Mal­abar coast of In­dia— where Vasco da Gama or­dered the ears, hands, and noses of some eight hun­dred Mus­lim mer­chants and sea­men cut off as a warn­ing to the lo­cal ruler—to the nine­teenth-cen­tury Bri­tish prac­tice of ex­e­cut­ing In­dian rebels by hav­ing them “strapped over the breeches of can­non and blown to pieces—prefer­ably in sight of an In­dian au­di­ence.”

Such cru­el­ties, Polk sug­gests, were in­formed by at­ti­tudes of racial su­pe­ri­or­ity and jus­ti­fied by ar­gu­ments that Africans and Asians “feel no pain” or that “black men’s brains are dif­fer­ent from the brains of white men.” Stereo­typ­ing had a pur­pose here: “The less out­siders knew about the na­tives—the less they be­lieved that the na­tives were fel­low hu­man be­ings—the more likely they were to fa­vor the use of vi­o­lence.” And vi­o­lence, Polk ex­plains, was in­te­gral to an im­pe­rial project that threw to­gether peo­ple of “dif­fer­ent tastes, con­ven­tions, and de­port­ment in a con­text of in­equal­ity.”

Not all the peo­ples of the rav­aged South were Mus­lim, but Polk ar­gues that Is­lamic mil­i­tancy be­came the lead­ing ide­ol­ogy of re­sis­tance that south­ern­ers used to de­fend their lands and so­ci­eties. From west­ern China, where “many Uyghurs have come to be­lieve that their only line of de­fense against mas­sive Chi­nese col­o­niza­tion and the de­struc­tion of their cul­tural iden­tity is po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism an­chored in Is­lam,” to Al­ge­ria, where Arabs and Ber­bers over­came tribal and eth­nic dif­fer­ences in the strug­gle against French col­o­niza­tion, he re­counts how Mus­lims have taken up arms on be­half of their faith.

One of Polk’s cen­tral aims is to re­vise the dis­torted views of Is­lam that many in the North have ab­sorbed from movies and pop­u­lar cul­ture, in which Mus­lims tend to be “the fa­nat­ics; the sin­is­ter, dark peo­ple; the be­nighted na­tives; a mass, not in­di­vid­u­als.” In the eyes of south­ern­ers, he re­minds us, north­ern­ers who are hon­ored and revered in their own coun­tries are of­ten vil­lains. King Leopold of Bel­gium, who ruled Congo as a pri­vate fief­dom, was re­spon­si­ble for mass killing; for many in In­dia, Win­ston Churchill, the great Bri­tish war leader, bears re­spon­si­bil­ity for three mil­lion deaths by star­va­tion in 1943.

The he­roes in Polk’s ac­count are in­stead fig­ures like the Al­ge­rian Abd al-Qadir, a “par­ti­san leader of the fore­most rank” (as the Bri­tish army of­fi­cer Charles Call­well de­scribed him). Re­al­iz­ing he would al­ways be “out­gunned” by the French, Abd al-Qadir ral­lied the

Arab and Ber­ber tribes against them in the 1830s and formed a “na­tion in mo­tion” that Polk com­pares to the guer­rilla move­ment of Josip Broz Tito in Nazi-oc­cu­pied Yu­goslavia a cen­tury later. An­other is Umar al-Mukhtar, por­trayed by An­thony Quinn in Lion of the Desert (1981), one of Hol­ly­wood’s rare sym­pa­thetic treat­ments of an Is­lamic leader. Mukhtar was hanged by Mus­solini’s Fas­cists in 1931 in front of crowds of Libyans in the fu­tile hope that the re­sis­tance would be crushed by the sight of his dan­gling corpse.

The Libyan dic­ta­tor Muam­mar Qaddafi was “deeply scarred” by sto­ries of atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by the Ital­ians, who—in the words of the Amer­i­can reporter John Coo­ley—“slaugh­tered herds of camels, sheep, and goats” be­fore cor­ralling the tribes who de­pended on them into con­cen­tra­tion camps. Polk en­dorses Coo­ley’s ob­ser­va­tion that the “sav­age be­hav­ior by the Ital­ian mil­i­tary and the sub­se­quent seizure, set­tle­ment, and col­o­niza­tion of Libya’s arable pas­ture­lands have never been for­got­ten or for­given by Libyans of Mukhtar’s gen­er­a­tion, or Qaddafi’s.”

Re­sis­tance was costly and of­ten use­less against the su­pe­rior force of north­ern arms. “What­ever hap­pens,” Hi­laire Bel­loc fa­mously re­marked, “we have got/the Maxim gun and they have not.” The ma­chine gun, how­ever, was only half the story. Well-trained and nu­mer­ous in­fantry troops could still be har­ried by tribal guer­ril­las, who had the ad­van­tage of lo­cal knowl­edge and pop­u­lar sup­port. This changed with the ar­rival of air power. As Polk in­ti­mates, Bri­tain’s fore­most weapon, the Royal Air Force, which saved the coun­try from in­va­sion in 1940, was forged in the cam­paign against the great So­mali leader and poet Sayyid Muham­mad Ab­dul­lah Has­san be­tween 1900 and 1920.

The Bri­tish—in­clud­ing my own grand­fa­ther, who fought against him in 1900—dis­missed Has­san as a re­li­gious fa­natic bent on re­sist­ing their “civ­i­liz­ing mis­sion.” His real and le­git­i­mate quar­rel, how­ever, was with the Ethiopi­ans who were en­croach­ing on So­mali graz­ing lands in the Ogaden. Since Chris­tian Ethiopia had re­cently de­feated its Ital­ian ri­vals, the Bri­tish as­sumed that Has­san’s moves against the Ethiopi­ans were di­rected against them­selves. The re­sult was a con­flict that lasted more than two decades, dev­as­tated the coun­try, and claimed the lives of at least one third of its peo­ple. The con­se­quences per­sist in So­ma­lia, where lo­cal fish­er­men have been forced by in­ter­na­tional fish­ing fleets to re­sort to piracy. Polk calls it a “crip­pled so­ci­ety that bit­terly hates the North.”

Polk writes that the air cam­paign in So­ma­lia “was the ac­tion that led to the cre­ation of the RAF” and in­deed “worked so well that the RAF was given the prin­ci­pal role in de­feat­ing in­sur­gents through­out the Bri­tish Em­pire.” The RAF’s cam­paign against Has­san, in Polk’s words, “was copied by the Span­ish and French in Morocco and the Ital­ians in Libya and Ethiopia.” Of those who in­flicted atroc­i­ties from the sky on mainly Mus­lim peo­ples, Polk makes spe­cial men­tion of the Span­ish prime min­is­ter Miguel Primo de Rivera, a keen ad­vo­cate of air power who or­dered his African Air Corps to un­der­take the sys­tem­atic de­struc­tion of crops, mar­kets, vil­lages and live­stock in Morocco. Poi­son gas was added to the mix of frag­men­ta­tion and in­cen­di­ary shells. The prob­a­ble med­i­cal ef­fects of gassing the Ber­bers are left to a brief end­note: “The Riff area still re­ports the high­est in­ci­dence of can­cer in Morocco.” A chill­ing pho­to­graph in mer­ci­fully poor res­o­lu­tion shows Span­ish Spe­cial Forces dis­play­ing the de­cap­i­tated heads of Rif­fian Ber­bers as tro­phies. The sol­diers, the cap­tion notes, “would usu­ally cut off the heads of cap­tives, pa­rade them on bay­o­nets, or carry them as sou­venirs,” and of­ten placed “piles of heads near vil­lages to ter­rify the in­hab­i­tants.” It is a salu­tary re­minder that the bru­tal­ity ex­hib­ited by ISIS in its no­to­ri­ous on­line videos is far from uniquely Is­lamic in prove­nance. Euro­pean gov­ern­ments and the na­tive armies they de­ployed are the main cul­prits in Polk’s dis­mal record of north­ern as­sault on the South, but Amer­ica comes off no bet­ter. A de­scen­dent of James K. Polk—the eleventh pres­i­dent of the United States, who owned and traded slaves—Polk in­veighs against the Amer­i­can col­o­niza­tion of the Philip­pines fol­low­ing the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War in 1898. The long coun­terin­sur­gency cam­paign in­cluded the Bud Dajo mas­sacre (March 1906) of nearly a thousand un­armed Mus­lim vil­lagers who had taken refuge in an ex­tinct vol­cano on the is­land of Jolo. A grim pho­to­graph of Amer­i­can sol­diers pos­tur­ing after­ward like biggame hun­ters over a heap of corpses would not look out of place in a Holo­caust mu­seum. When asked by a Se­nate com­mit­tee in 1902 if pun­ish­ing fam­i­lies by burn­ing crops and vil­lages lay within the rules of civ­i­lized war­fare, Bri­gadier Gen­eral Robert Pat­ter­son Hughes, provost mar­shal gen­eral of Manila, replied, “Those peo­ple are not civ­i­lized.”

Polk makes clear that the be­hav­ior of the north­ern im­pe­ri­al­ists was pri­mar­ily mo­ti­vated by greed. Gold was what first lured the Por­tuguese down the West African coast and on to the Americas. “With Gold,” Christo­pher Colum­bus wrote in an oblique ref­er­ence to pre-Re­for­ma­tion pa­pal in­dul­gences, “one can even get souls into par­adise.” Bri­tain and Hol­land, two great trad­ing na­tions, were just as in­ter­ested in plun­der: para­phras­ing John May­nard Keynes, Polk re­minds us that by the mid-seven­teenth cen­tury “piracy was the ba­sis of English over­seas trade.” The plun­der of the buc­ca­neer Fran­cis Drake “fi­nanced the Le­vant Com­pany, from which was formed the East In­dia Com­pany that would con­quer In­dia and de­stroy the Mughal Em­pire.”

Once in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion re­placed gold as the pri­mary means for those in the North to ac­quire wealth, Polk ar­gues, north­ern coun­tries made a point of wreck­ing the man­u­fac­tur­ing economies of the South. When Egypt’s nom­i­nally Ot­toman ruler Mehmet Ali (1769–1849) built cot­ton mills and other fac­to­ries and staffed them with a force of 400,00 in­dus­trial work­ers (“a cat­e­gory of work­ers,” Polk notes, “that hardly ex­isted when he took power” in 1805), Bri­tain used its lever­age with the Ot­toman sul­tan to per­suade Ali to aban­don his mod­ern­iz­ing project. They claimed that his Egyp­tian state mo­nop­oly in­ter­fered with “free trade.” “Bri­tain’s In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion was built on the de­struc­tion of In­dia’s thriv­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­tries,” Polk tells us. “It has been es­ti­mated that in the mid­dle of the eigh­teenth cen­tury In­dia pro­duced around a quar­ter of the world’s wealth.” Bri­tain’s elim­i­na­tion of tex­tile com­pe­ti­tion from In­dia— “the first great dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion of the mod­ern world”—re­versed the bal­ance and forced In­di­ans to buy Bri­tish tex­tiles in­stead. Mas­ter weavers were re­duced to beg­gar­dom.

In Polk’s ac­count the im­pact of im­pe­ri­al­ism on agri­cul­ture was just as bleak. In 1825 the Dutch killed some 200,000 Ja­vanese—about one in fif­teen of the is­land’s in­hab­i­tants—af­ter a wave of protests in­spired by the de­struc­tion of a Sufi saint’s tomb to make way for a road. Af­ter crush­ing the re­bel­lion, “the Dutch fas­tened on the pop­u­la­tion a sys­tem of vir­tual serf­dom, known in Java as cul­tu­urs­telsel.” Polk com­pares this regime to “the sys­tem the Bri­tish im­posed in Iraq” in the 1920s, which like­wise “turned the tribal peo­ples into serfs with servi­tude en­forced by the army and po­lice force.” In Java, he writes:

Peas­ants were forced to grow crops that the gov­ern­ment could sell abroad (par­tic­u­larly cof­fee), they were paid fixed prices and were held to fixed quo­tas, and they were not al­lowed to leave the land. For the In­done­sian cul­ti­va­tors, the sys­tem was not only ex­ploita­tive; it was lethal. Since they could not eat what they were forced to grow, they were all kept, like the Egyp­tian and In­dian peas­ants, at bare sub­sis­tence, and large num­bers died in famines. For the Dutch, whose econ­omy had been dam­aged by the Napoleonic oc­cu­pa­tion, the op­por­tu­nity to ex­ploit In­done­sia was a god­send. It is said to have fur­nished more than a fifth of the rev­enue of the Dutch gov­ern­ment for the next thirty years.

Polk’s end­notes not only ex­hibit the range of his re­search (and his de­light in Ara­bic po­etry) but also yield en­tic­ing au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal el­e­ments that he mod­estly con­signs to some fifty dense pages in tiny font. As dusk falls in the Ara­bian desert, Polk en­chants his Be­douin hosts by recit­ing from “one of the great pre-Is­lamic po­ets.” In a note to a chap­ter on Arab na­tion­al­ism, he men­tions the three-hour-long con­ver­sa­tion he had with the Egyp­tian leader Ga­mal Ab­del Nasser “on the im­pli­ca­tions for Egypt of his de­ci­sion to in­ter­vene” in Ye­men. Speak­ing “on be­half of the US gov­ern­ment” (as a mem­ber of the Pol­icy Plan­ning Coun­cil in the State Depart­ment), Polk told Nasser that the rea­sons he might have for in­vad­ing Ye­men were com­pa­ra­ble to those that “led us into the dis­as­trous Viet­nam War.”

Fi­nally, Pres­i­dent Nasser asked, “You don’t think I will win this war, do you?” I replied, “No, Mr. Pres­i­dent, I do not.”

Af­ter the Six-Day War of 1967 Polk drafted a peace treaty, but Pres­i­dent John­son didn’t want to talk to the Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment. Three years later, “at the re­quest of [Is­raeli] Prime Min­is­ter [Golda] Meir,” he and Nasser ne­go­ti­ated the armistice that ended the so-called “war of at­tri­tion,” just be­fore Nasser’s death in Septem­ber 1970.

One of the strengths of Cru­sade and Ji­had is the way Polk lo­cates mod­ern ji­hadist move­ments in the longue durée of world his­tory. Is­lamic mil­i­tancy, in the ac­count he gives here, might well be called “the re­venge of the South.” Rather than see­ing ji­hadists as mar­ginal el­e­ments at the ex­treme end of the Is­lamic spec­trum, he re­gards their ide­ol­ogy as a fun­da­men­tal, if ques­tion­able, part of the Is­lamic main­stream. In his brief over­view of clas­si­cal Is­lam be­fore the north­ern in­cur­sions, Polk em­pha­sizes the cen­tral­ity of fig­ures such as Ah­mad Ibn Han­bal (780– 855) and Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328), who in­spired both the Ara­bian Wah­habi tra­di­tion and the rad­i­cal Is­lamist out­look of Sayyid Qutb, the highly in­flu­en­tial Mus­lim Brother­hood in­tel­lec­tual ex­e­cuted by Nasser in 1966. Both Han­bal and Taymiyya re­jected a range of be­liefs and prac­tices—in­clud­ing those as­so­ci­ated with Su­fism or con­tact with non-Mus­lims—as “unIs­lamic.” They be­lieved that truth was only to be found in the Ko­ran and the Prophet’s ex­am­ple (sunna). Both were im­pris­oned by prag­matic rulers for their views.

In his dis­cus­sion of Su­fism, a tra­di­tion of­ten re­garded as qui­etist, Polk ex­plains how even this mys­ti­cal move-

ment that surged in the af­ter­math of the Mon­gol con­quests con­verted to mil­i­tancy. “At first,” he writes, Su­fism

was taken as a means of avoid­ance. By plung­ing into rit­ual, of­ten a sort of trance, the believer could achieve a state of union with the spir­i­tual world and . . . put aside anx­i­eties and dan­gers be­cause he had be­come con­vinced that the ma­te­rial world, with all of its pains and plea­sures, was just a chimera.

Ad­her­ents of Su­fism of­ten moved from qui­etism to ac­tivism in places where for­eign in­cur­sions on Is­lamic lands were most threat­en­ing. “Para­dox­i­cally,” as Polk puts it, “as in­di­vid­u­als learned how to with­draw, they gained the ca­pac­ity to in­ter­vene. By lib­er­at­ing believ­ers from the world, Su­fism also en­abled them to fight for it.” In this way Imam Shamil—leader of the Naqsh­bandi Sufi or­der in the Cau­ca­sus, whose mem­bers “con­sid­ered them­selves or­tho­dox Mus­lims but es­poused tol­er­ance and ac­com­mo­dated them­selves to lo­cal tra­di­tions”—was able to mar­shal the vil­lagers against the Rus­sians by con­vert­ing the Sufi struc­ture of a spir­i­tual elite, headed by him­self as imam, into an ef­fec­tive mil­i­tary force un­der his lead­er­ship. In a pas­sage that tells us as much about mod­ern Is­lamic mil­i­tancy in places such as Syria as it does about nine­teenth-cen­tury Chech­nya, Polk records that Shamil had his own mother pub­licly flogged when, at the be­hest of some Chechen lead­ers, she sug­gested that he aban­don the strug­gle. (He in­sisted it was God’s will that she be pun­ished; but “af­ter five blows,” Polk tells us, he stepped in and “said he would take the rest of the pun­ish­ment him­self.”)

But the hon­ing of spir­i­tual mil­i­tancy, how­ever nec­es­sary for re­sis­tance, has a dis­tort­ing ef­fect on the re­li­gion from which it de­rives. The de­ity com­mand­ing the strug­gle be­comes “stern and un­yield­ing rather than lov­ing and for­giv­ing.” The study of sa­cred writ­ing turns into “thought­less, rigid ed­u­ca­tion based on the rote mem­o­riza­tion of texts”—the sort of ed­u­ca­tion that pro­vides groups like the Tal­iban with “men who un­ques­tion­ingly do what they are told to do.”

Ji­hadist ide­ol­ogy, in Polk’s view, has gained strength and in­flu­ence in re­ac­tion to US poli­cies—for in­stance, the Amer­i­can re­sponse to what he calls Sad­dam Hus­sein’s “cat­a­strophic” in­va­sion of Kuwait in 1990. Un­der the “po­lit­i­cally harsh but so­cially ad­vanced” rule of Sad­dam, Polk writes, in lan­guage that some might con­sider some­what rosy given his gassing of Kurds and other atroc­i­ties, Iraq “be­came the most mod­ern na­tion-state in the Arab world; its peo­ple...the best ed­u­cated, health­i­est and long­est liv­ing of all the Arabs.” Yet un­der the sanc­tions that fol­lowed the in­va­sion of Kuwait half a mil­lion Iraqi chil­dren are said to have died—“more than the num­ber killed in the bomb­ing of Hiroshima.” When asked about that fig­ure, Sec­re­tary of State Madeleine Al­bright said, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.” Polk com­ments:

Had such a re­mark been made about the deaths of chil­dren in Europe or Amer­ica, it would have drawn univer­sal con­dem­na­tion; made about Iraqi chil­dren, it drew al­most no at­ten­tion in the Amer­i­can me­dia. Nor would sim­i­lar com­ments or sim­i­lar ac­tions against Afghan chil­dren draw con­dem­na­tion. But such com­ments and such ac­tions were widely re­ported and com­mented on through­out the Mus­lim world.

It is lit­tle won­der, then, that the deaths of Iraqi chil­dren fea­tured promi­nently in the pro­pa­ganda of Is­lamist ide­o­logues such as al-Qaeda’s Abu Musab al-Suri and in Osama bin Laden’s re­cruit­ment videos, which showed Iraqi ba­bies wast­ing away from mal­nu­tri­tion and lack of medicine.

Polk is far from naive about the an­ti­im­pe­ri­al­ist move­ments that emerged in re­sponse to the North’s crimes against the South. Their suc­cesses, he ar­gues, have in some cases been as dis­as­trous as im­pe­ri­al­ism it­self:

Al­most with­out ex­cep­tion, the lead­ers of na­tion­al­ist move­ments have dis­ap­pointed those who had fought for free­dom .... Achieve­ment of power be­came an end in it­self. And, ab­sent both a vig­or­ous public and func­tion­ing civil in­sti­tu­tions, lead­ers, like medieval armies, were more in­tent on loot­ing the camps of the de­parted than on con­tin­u­ing their cam­paigns. The more suc­cess­ful they were, the fur­ther they moved from the ideals that had mo­ti­vated their strug­gle.

Cru­sade and Ji­had is a pow­er­ful work of ad­vo­cacy, but it should not be seen as a fi­nal judg­ment on the legacy of the North’s deal­ings with the South. As Christo­pher de Bel­laigue showed in his book The Is­lamic En­light­en­ment: The Strug­gle Be­tween Faith and Rea­son, 1798 to Mod­ern Times (2017), im­pe­ri­al­ism from the time of Napoleon also brought sci­en­tific and med­i­cal ad­vances that found a “nat­u­ral con­stituency” among Mus­lim elites and ben­e­fited their so­ci­eties.* At the same time, although the mod­ern­iz­ing move­ments that brought ad­vances in lit­er­acy, tech­nol­ogy, and ed­u­ca­tion may have been stim­u­lated by the chal­lenge of im­pe­ri­al­ism, they also had deep roots in Is­lamic tra­di­tion. Ex­treme ver­sions of Is­lamist re­sis­tance to per­ceived “West­ern” ed­u­ca­tion by groups such as Boko Haram in Nige­ria com­mand the head­lines, but the Is­lamic world’s ac­com­mo­da­tion to as­pects of mod­ern West­ern life may have been far­ther­reach­ing, if less vis­i­ble, than these re­ac­tions against it.

Polk ex­plains with eru­di­tion and sym­pa­thy how ef­fec­tively fig­ures like Sayyid Qutb have used the­o­log­i­cal cur­rents de­rived from fig­ures such as Ibn Han­bal and Ibn Taymiyyah to mar­shal re­sis­tance against north­ern im­pe­ri­al­ism by ap­peal­ing to an an­ti­ra­tional, di­vinely or­dained form of le­gal moral­ism. For these the­olo­gians, ac­tions are good or bad only be­cause God so com­mands them; God does not com­mand them be­cause they are good. Polk does not ex­plain, how­ever, that the ra­tio­nal­ist spirit in Is­lam, known as mu‘tazil­ism (mean­ing “with­drawal,” af­ter its early

*See my re­view in these pages, June 22, 2017. pro­po­nents “with­drew” from a the­o­log­i­cal de­bate) can fi­nesse the con­flicts that arise be­tween moder­nity and tra­di­tion to­day, for ex­am­ple on cru­cial is­sues sur­round­ing gen­der and demo­cratic le­git­i­macy.

The ra­tio­nal­ist the­ol­ogy of mu‘tazil­ism—side­lined by the four main Sunni le­gal tra­di­tions and hated by most ji­hadis and by other Is­lamic “fun­da­men­tal­ists,” in­clud­ing the Saudi Wah­habis—was adopted by the Shias, who stressed in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity along­side the idea that God is ob­li­gated to re­ward the good. When he dis­cusses Is­lam’s mi­nor­ity tra­di­tion, Polk em­pha­sizes the hi­er­ar­chi­cal and mes­sianic char­ac­ter of the Shia cler­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment, which he at­tributes to the in­flu­ence of Zoroas­tri­an­ism, a re­li­gion that long pre­dates Ju­daism and Chris­tian­ity, and over­looks the ra­tio­nal­ist char­ac­ter of its the­ol­ogy. Yet it is ar­guably this as­pect of Shi­ism, along with the in­sti­tu­tional power of the clergy, that en­abled it to har­ness the power of the state af­ter the Ira­nian rev­o­lu­tion in 1979.

Polk does, how­ever, rightly ac­knowl­edge some more re­cent achieve­ments on Iran’s part: help­ing the US against the Tal­iban in Afghanistan, “in­ter­dict­ing the drug trade from Afghanistan to Europe,” and con­clud­ing a nu­clear deal with six world pow­ers in 2015. He points out that if the shah, Amer­ica’s ally, had sur­vived, “Iran would have long since ac­quired nu­clear weapons . . . . It was Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini who stopped the nu­clear pro­gram, and it was Khome­ini’s suc­ces­sor Ali Khamenei who fi­nally made it pos­si­ble to re­solve the nu­clear is­sue in 2016.” That res­o­lu­tion is now in jeop­ardy af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump reim­posed US sanc­tions on Iran in May, un­der­min­ing Ira­nian pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani by aban­don­ing Amer­ica’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the deal and leav­ing the other mem­bers of the in­ter­na­tional group (China, France, Ger­many, the Euro­pean Union, Rus­sia, and the UK) to nav­i­gate dan­ger­ous wa­ters with­out the US.

In­stead the US has cho­sen to align it­self with Saudi Ara­bia and its Gulf al­lies, where, un­like in Iran, the pre­vail­ing the­o­log­i­cal tra­di­tion is hos­tile to the ex­er­cise of rea­son, though re­forms may be pushed through by royal edict. This now ap­pears to be the strat­egy of Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man, the Saudi crown prince whose am­bi­tious plan, named VI­SION 2030, aims to wean his coun­try off oil and in­cludes the in­tro­duc­tion of West­ern-style public en­ter­tain­ments—such as con­certs, movies, and op­eras—of a type op­posed by the Wah­habi re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment. It also in­cludes re­plac­ing for­eign work­ers with Saudi ones, although this would mean that Saudis would have to take on a spec­trum of work—from me­nial tasks like chauf­feur­ing to tech­ni­cal re­search at the high­est lev­els—that the re­li­gious bias in their ed­u­ca­tion has left them ill equipped to per­form.

This is a pre­car­i­ous strat­egy and could eas­ily gen­er­ate a re­li­gious back­lash if the prince fails to de­liver on his prom­ises for a mod­ern econ­omy. In the long term only the mu‘tazilite tra­di­tion, with its deep roots in Is­lamic phi­los­o­phy, can hope to re­solve the con­flict Polk has so ably traced be­tween re­li­gion and pol­i­tics in to­day’s frac­tured Is­lamic world.

The Al­ge­rian mil­i­tary and re­li­gious leader Abd al-Qadir, circa 1870

Sayyid Qutb in prison in Egypt, where he was ex­e­cuted in 1966

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