From Baghdad to Baghdad
Professor Nazeer Ahmed
Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
7102 W. Shefford Lane
Louisville, KY 40242, USA
(Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is the Director of the American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, located at 1160 Ridgemont Place, Concord, CA 94521. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is a thinker, author, writer, legislator and an academician. Professionally he is an Engineer and holds several Patents in Engineering. He is the author of several books; prominent among them is "Islam in Global History." He can be reached by E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org )
It was the height of World War I. In the summer of 1917 divisions of Indian troops, under command of their British officers, landed in what is today Kuwait and moved up the banks of the River Euphrates. It was not the first British attempt to invade and capture Iraq. The forces of the Caliph and his German allies had soundly beaten an earlier attempt in 1915. This time, the British had come well prepared and had brought in overwhelming forces as well as heavier armor. There were sharp and bloody firefights near Basra, and later near Nasariah. A sizable portion of the Indian army, which was recruited those days from areas between Delhi and Peshawar, was Muslim. Legend has it that during some of these engagements, the Indian troops shot over the heads of the defending Turks. Notwithstanding the stiff opposition, the Anglo-Indian forces were victorious and entered Baghdad in the fall of 1917.
Eighty-six years later history repeated itself. Coalition forces, advancing from Kuwait, overwhelmed the forces of the dictator Saddam, and in a blitzkrieg, captured the ancient city of Baghdad. The names of the old towns along the Euphrates, Basra, Nasariah, Najaf, Karbala, celebrated in songs by the Indian soldiers who had fought in the first Great War, reappeared in the newspapers. And Iraq was once again an occupied country.
From Baghdad to Baghdad, it was a time span of four score and seven years. Much water has flowed through the Tigris and the Euphrates during those years. The world went through major convulsions. Old empires disappeared and new ones were born. The people of the region, like much of the Islamic world, experienced their share of triumphs and sorrows. But after all that was said and done, the situation in the ancient land of Iraq was back to square one.
In this series of articles, we will briefly survey the historical events that shaped the Islamic world in those decades. Like an untrained swimmer treading water, or perhaps like a bullock tied with its yoke to a circular grindstone, the Islamic world treaded on the waves of history in circles of wasted energy, but in the end, found itself back where it started.
The reasons for this outcome were both external and internal. Here we present an outside-looking-in perspective. In the next article, we will take an inside-looking-out view.
The First War resulted in the defeat, dismantling, dismemberment and occupation of the Ottoman Empire. The Muslim heartland, which had escaped the boots of the Europeans for two hundred years found itself squarely under their heels. The Arabs were betrayed and their homelands colonized. The Turks fought a bloody war of independence and won the right to a homeland. The Khilafat, an institution that had endured for thirteenth hundred years, was abolished by the Turks themselves. On the face of it, the subjugation of the Islamic world was complete. Except for Anatolia, and perhaps Iran, all other regions of the world inhabited by Muslims found themselves under the rule of one European power or the other.
But the peace that was imposed by the victorious entente powers Britain, France and Russia upon Germany did not last. The unfinished business of the World War I brought on Hitler’s war in the 1930s. Only this time it was much more bloody and murderous and it sucked in Japan and China as well. The Islamic realm found itself dragged into this continuing conflict without its consent. North Africa, Malaya and Indonesia became major combat zones. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers from Muslim lands were forcibly drafted into the armed forces of the colonial forces. Thousands perished.
The Second World War destroyed whatever sap the European colonial powers had retained after World War I. England and France were bled white by Hitler’s armies, and had little stomach left to continue the colonial venture. The British, masters at the political game, sensed correctly that their time was up, partitioned India, packed up and left before the nonviolent freedom struggle of India turned violent. Without the Indian army at its disposal, the British Empire was like a body without a spine. It collapsed. The results were so obvious during the Suez crisis of 1956; England, minus its Indian empire, was a tiger without teeth. It had to give up its hold on Egypt and the canal. The Dutch Empire in Indonesia, a satellite of the British Empire, collapsed. The French attempted to hold onto Vietnam until 1954 but suffered a humiliating defeat. With the withdrawal or eviction of European powers, Pakistan (1947), Indonesia (1948), Egypt (1956), Malaysia (1960), Nigeria (1960) gained their independence in rapid succession. The French tried to hold on to Algeria but a determined and costly war gained Algeria its independence in 1964.
It appeared for a brief moment that the age of colonialism was over. Much of the Third World had gained its political independence. With the emergence of the United States as a dominant world power, hopes were up that at last the age of liberty and justice had dawned. The newly independent nations basked in their freedom. Some, taking advantage of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, sought to leverage their freedom of operation even further. The Bandung Conference, which gave birth to the non-aligned movement led by Sukarno of Indonesia, Nehru of India and Nasser of Egypt, was an example.
In historical hindsight, the independence of the emancipated colonies was a myth. Control of global resources continued in the hands of the western powers; only the process changed. The center of gravity of power shifted from London and Paris to Washington, but the thrust of Western economic and political dominance continued unabated.
With the death of overt colonialism, new mechanisms were needed to perpetuate Western dominance. There emerged the post-war world order based on economic control and financial dominance. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were established as the central props for the emerging world order. The process was based on economic aid with strings attached, which ensured continuing financial flows from the poorer parts of the world to the richer parts. In the second half of the twentieth century, trillions of dollars flowed from the poor regions to the rich as interest payments for “aid”. Much of the “aid” was tied to the sale of armaments. Hence, it became necessary to refine the process of divide and rule and of regional controlled tensions. Palestine-Israel, Biafra-Nigeria, Zimbabwe, India-Pakistan, Chechnya, Serbia emerged as hot spots, which continued to drain precious resources towards armaments. The inability or unwillingness of local powers to settle mutual disputes abetted and encouraged this process.
The fatal error of the Islamic world in the twentieth century was a failure to realize the true nature of the Western civilization, which is driven by the principle of economic centration. In plain English, it means that the processes at work in the West, and by inference in a world dominated by the West, ensure that wealth and power accrue to an ever-smaller elite. In the twentieth century, the Islamic world produced many great thinkers and men of political action. These included Jamaluddin Afghani, Mohammed Abduh, Kemal Ataturk, Sukarno, Nasser, Boumedienne and a galaxy of men in the subcontinent. They achieved lofty heights in the realm of thought and action and their legacy sustained a century. But if there could be a common critique of their legacy, it is that they showed an insufficient grasp of the central force that propels Western civilization.
There was a flash of such understanding in the tobacco revolution of Persia in 1906 but it died out as fast as it was born.
To be fair, the economic engine of the West did face strong headwinds in Asia and South America. The example of Musaddaq of Iran illustrates this observation. He tried, in the 1930s, to free himself from the stranglehold of the oil companies and bargain his way towards a more equitable partnership. But the oil companies would have none of that. His attempts were a failure. Subsequent efforts made immediately after the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, in historical hindsight, smack of opportunism. They had no long-term vision to sustain them. The Saudis and the Sheikhs of the Gulf have played at this game but their relationship to the oil companies has always been like that of a pigmy and a giant. The Algerians tried the political route. Believing the slogans of democracy, some of the right wing Islamic parties built up a social-economic infrastructure and in the 1980s tried to compete in the local elections. But alas! The West has shown very little understanding or tolerance for democratic forces within Muslim lands. The Algerian effort was allowed to degenerate into a bloody civil war that is still going on.
The relatively stable world order that had emerged after WWII was shattered with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The Soviets were impoverished by their armaments race with the United States and had to choose between bread and the gun. The defeat of the Soviet armies in Afghanistan put the last nail in the coffin of the Soviet Empire. The 1990s saw the emergence of a unipolar world, revolving around a single axis running through Washington, DC. America’s economic, political and military power on the globe was unchallenged.
Meanwhile, the economies of the former colonies, including the Islamic world, continued to stagnate and in some cases went into reverse gear. Pakistan, which had made its appearance with so much promise broke up in 1971 and ended the century as a bankrupt nation. Turkey and Egypt were basket cases. The rapid strides made by Indonesia, Malaysia and the “Pacific Tigers” was throttled by a currency crisis engineered by speculators. The Saudis, with all their oil wealth, ended up as a major debtor nation thanks to their bankrolling the Iraqi war (1978-85) on Iran and the Gulf War of 1991. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, it was one sorry spectacle, a mass of humanity, roughly one fifth of the human race, in a doleful economic state, caught in the debt trap, unable to extricate itself, sustained by bailouts from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Only China, because of its size and homogeneity, for three decades insulated from global economic currents by its communist ideology, and its revolutionary leadership after WWII, has so far managed to escape the juggernaut of Western bankers.
The modus operandi between the Islamic world and the world’s sole superpower, the United States, however one-sided it might have been, was shattered by the criminal attack on the World Trade Center. The events of 9/11 have provided a field day for Islam-bashers and Muslim-haters worldwide. An enraged America has turned its attention in vengeance to Islamic extremism. In the process, millions of poor people have suffered, and the innocents have paid the price for the acts of criminals. Afghanistan and Iraq have become battlegrounds. The intense heat of a blazing sun bakes much of the Islamic world today and individuals and nations alike are scurrying to hide from this intense gaze.
From Baghdad to Baghdad, it has been one full circle spanning close to a century. The sum total of much of Muslim political effort in this period adds up to naught. In the next article, inshallah, we will present an inside looking perspective on this sorrowful state of affairs.
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