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Islam and the West: - Part II

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   )


The First World War resulted from a failure of the Entente Powers, Russia, France and Great Britain to accommodate German power. The War caught the Turks unprepared. Nonetheless, the Ottomans, ruled at the time by the Young Turks, plunged headlong into it, in part to recover the European territories lost in 1911, and in part by the lure of gold offered by Germany. The combatants expected a short, quick conflict but the Great War dragged on and its outcome was not certain until America entered into the fray in 1917.

Even as Russia pulled out of the War after the Bolshevik Revolution (1917), the British and the French, plotted to carve up the Middle East for themselves and impose as one writer has called it, “A Peace to end all Peace”. The British made conflicting promises, first to the Arabs, and then to the Jews in Palestine. In 1918, as Germany collapsed, and the Ottoman armies retreated into Anatolia, British aims in the Middle East became apparent.

The first was the dissolution of the Khilafat, or at least its movement from Istanbul to the Hejaz where it could be under a more compliant ruler. Second, it was to control the land routes to the Indian Empire. And third, it was to redraw the map of the Middle East so that no single political entity could stand up to European pressures and its resources could be exploited for the European economic engines.

The Turks were the first to be tested by the evolving European designs. Prodded and assisted by England and France, and not so secret compliance of the United States, the Greeks invaded Turkey, claiming Izmir and the entire Western coast of Anatolia as a historical part of their empire. Pillaging the land as they went, the Greek armies advanced deep into Turkey and were finally stopped at the Battle of Ankara in 1922. Mustafa Kemal, later to be called Kemal Ataturk, emerged as the hero of the war. When the Greeks were driven back, Ataturk was able to negotiate a homeland for the Turks, which included Istanbul but none of the former European or Middle Eastern territories. Considering the Khilafat to be a burden the Turks could no longer carry, he engineered the dissolution of the Khilafat (1924) and launched Turkey as a secular nation state. With the issue of the Khilafat settled, the British turned their attention to Hejaz.

In 1927, the armies of Emir Saud of Najd invaded Hejaz and drove out the family of the Sheriff of Mecca. In 1932 the desert kingdom thus consolidated was renamed Saudi Arabia. The puritanical Wahhabi brand of Islam was now in possession of the cities of Mecca and Medina and from here it was to radiate its influence across the globe. This outcome was in tune with the British - and later, American - vision of the Middle East. The far-reaching consequences of the puritanical influence of a Saudi Hejaz on the Islamic world, and indeed on the rest of the globe, are only now beginning to be understood.

The respite between the two World Wars saw the emergence of independence movements in many of the Islamic countries. India, Indonesia, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Algeria and Nigeria all saw an upsurge of nationalistic fervor. But it was too early for these independence movements to succeed. Europe had been wounded in the First World War but it was not spent. It took another World War, and a far more destructive one at that, before the West would relent. The Second World War was a continuation of the First. It sought to redress the heavy burden imposed on Germany at the conclusion of the First World War. Excessive debt payments and the onset of the Great Depression (1929) radicalized Germany and brought Hitler to power (1933). Hitler repudiated the capitulation treaties signed at the end of WWI and sought lebensraum for all German-speaking people under the Nazi umbrella. Great Britain and France at first humored Hitler, but when he advanced on Czechoslovakia to annex the German-speaking Czech territories, they declared war on Germany. Millions died in the ensuing mayhem. Millions were tragic victims of war, disease, hunger and Nazi genocide. Hitler’s megalomania drove him to invade Russia and brought about his own demise as well as the destruction and occupation of his homeland.

Throughout WW II the Great Western powers had two objectives: one, to protect their empires, and two to prevent the emergence of Germany (and Japan) as a dominant world power. But the War so exhausted the European powers that they had no stomach to continue holding onto their colonies against a rising tide of native nationalism. In India Gandhi had galvanized the Indian masses and the British could not contain the Indian nationalist movement nor defeat it militarily should Gandhi have lost control of the masses. The Islamic world that had made a substantial contribution to the Allied war effort expected to be rewarded with independence and help in reconstruction. In India, Muhammed Ali Jinnah had galvanized a large portion of the Muslim masses. Indonesia was seething with incipient armed struggle. Egypt had enough of British protection and expected the Suez Canal to revert to its control.

Much to its credit, England was the first to realize the futility of holding onto its empire by military means. India and Pakistan gained their independence in 1947. The Dutch and the French were more reticent. The Dutch reoccupied the Indonesian isles only to be driven out by the Indonesian nationalist army. The French hung onto Indo-China longer and suffered a humiliating defeat in 1954 from the Communist guerillas at Dien Bien Phu. American obsession with communist takeovers during the John Foster Dulles era (1952-56) led to its intervention in Vietnam with tragic consequences for both America and Vietnam.

Not that Great Britain, and for that matter Holland and France, were willing to forego their domination of Asia and Africa. The days of overt colonialism were over but new mechanisms and new institutions were created to keep the former colonies in check and continue the exploitation of their resources. The World Bank and the IMF stepped in where the colonial bureaucrats had left off. Multinational corporations expanded their reach, backed by the power of their governments. The result was a new world order in which the myth of independence was preserved while the substance of neo-colonialism remained intact.

This observation may be illustrated by the experience of Persia (modern Iran) in the early 1950s. Persia emerged from the two World Wars, an impoverished nation under the thumb of the Russians and the British. The Russians occupied the Northern third of Persia, while Anglo-Indian troops controlled the South. The critical importance of oil was realized during the hostilities and the control of this vital resource became a primary objective of postwar policies in the former colonial powers. Iran’s oil resources were controlled by the Anglo Iranian Oil Company while the US controlled those of Saudi Arabia. The host country received but a fraction of the total oil revenues. Between 1913 and 1951, Iranian oil fetched $3 billion of which 80% went to the oil companies while the Iranian government received 20%.

The National Front Movement, a mixture of liberals, nationalists and moderates, emerged as the most potent political party in Iran after WWII. It had as its platform the nationalization of Iran oil resources and the reformation of the political and economic processes in the country. Its populist leader, Dr. Mohammed Musaddaq, rode a popular tide of nationalist sentiment and was elected the Prime Minister of Iran in 1951. When the Iranian Majlis nationalized the oil industry, it touched off a major political storm in London and Amsterdam. Musaddaq was labeled a communist, and the Western mass media joined in the chorus. The spectacle of terrorism was raised. A modern observer may compare today’s headlines with what was written about Musaddaq in 1951. In an article by correspondent Clark, the Times reported, “Premier Mohammed Musaddaq’s remarkable 90-0 vote in the Majlis ...was not achieved without his stealthy, ever-present partner - incipient terrorism”. The more history changes, the more it repeats itself!

The United States, seeing an opportunity to weaken British influence in Iran, while increasing its own, at first appeared to be even-handed in the crisis but when nationalization did occur, it joined up with the British to engineer a coup. A boycott was imposed on Iranian oil and Iranian exports were banned. With its economy in shambles, and chaos reigning in its financial markets, Dr. Musaddaq could not hang onto power. He was overthrown and the conservative faction in the country headed by the Shah was brought back to power. The ensuing contracts for Iranian oil signed by the new government gave 40% of the oil to American companies, while the British and the Dutch retained the other 60%.

This was the first foray of American foreign policy into the politics of Iran. It created an unspoken rivalry between the British and the American oil interests, which was in part responsible for the convulsions of 1978. In Iran, it left a bitter legacy which was reflected in part, in the volcanic eruption of the Iranian Revolution.

The experience of Iran has been repeated many times over in the Islamic world, sometimes in similar forms and sometimes different. We have already mentioned the Iran eruption of 1978. In Algeria, moderate Islamists tried to gain local power through the electoral process. When it became apparent that they might win, the elections were cancelled and a bloody civil war erupted. In Indonesia, the results of a lifetime of economic progress were wiped out by the sleazy dealings of currency speculators (1998). In Chechnya, a freedom struggle has been suppressed with bloody vengeance. The Bosnian Muslims were subjected to systematic genocide for three years before the West reacted. The list is long. In each case, foreign intervention has precluded the peaceful and gradual emergence of moderate Islamic forces, which could chart their own course through history.

When peaceful evolution is suppressed, frustration is bred. It is like a kettle. A safety valve for the steam prevents a blowout. The West has shown neither the foresight nor the inclination to let the world of Islam evolve from within. Interference rather than negotiation has been the rule. The result is a deep distrust of the West and a growing conviction in the Muslim world that the current conflicts in the Islamic world are not just for its booty, but for the very soul of Islam. What is needed is for the ocean to negotiate with the volcano, so that islands with lush green may emerge from its very womb, adding to the fauna of mother earth, and human civilization may advance, not in conflict but in cooperation. In a changing world where China and India are emerging as global powers to reclaim their historical roles, and the West is waging a rearguard action to stay where it is, nothing less would make sense. 

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