Yes, the West has fought the Muslim world for centuries. But Islam must accept much of the blame for today's bloody chaos
By historian Max Hastings
20 June 2014
Islam is to blame: The unpalatable truth is that most of the Middle East’s troubles derive from adherence to a medieval culture that recoils from innovation, promotes religion far beyond its proper place in mankind’s affairs, and institutionalises the oppression of women.
For the Western world — and the sane and peace-loving elements of the Muslim one — it is a terrifying spectacle to behold some of the most populous nations in the Middle East dissolving into bloody mayhem.
Iraq is only the most conspicuous example of an arc of violence that extends through Syria to Egypt, Libya and Nigeria, with eruptions on the Muslim coast of Kenya and as far east as Indonesia.
Pushing south towards Baghdad, the black-clad forces of ISIS take pleasure in posting internet videos of mass executions. In Nigeria, Boko Haram kidnap more than 200 schoolgirls, who may never be seen again.
For the Western world - and the sane and peace-loving elements of the Muslim one - it is a terrifying spectacle to behold some of the most populous nations in the Middle East dissolving into bloody mayhem. The black-clad forces of ISIS take pleasure in posting internet videos of mass executions
In Syria, rebels affiliated to Al Qaeda behead those who oppose them. And in Kenya, the memories are still fresh of the blood-soaked slaughter of shoppers at the Westgate mall in Nairobi last year.
As we attempt to understand how we have come to such a pass in the 21st century, the obvious question is how such hellish forces have been unleashed, and whether blame can justly be apportioned.
Many of us reject the notion, once advanced by David Cameron, that most of the modern world’s troubles derive from British follies. I shall explain later why most of the failures of today’s Muslim world are rooted in its own culture, rather than in our past misdeeds.
In Kenya, the memories are still fresh of the blood-soaked slaughter of shoppers at the Westgate mall in Nairobi last year. Above, a child runs to safety at the shopping centre
But, in responding to the horrors in Iraq, we should acknowledge how basely the West in general, and the British in particular, have sometimes behaved towards the peoples of the Middle East — and how ill-fated our armed interventions invariably prove.
Like countless other tourists, in happier times I visited and marvelled at the Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, built in Syria between Homs and Tripoli during the early 13th century. It became the greatest medieval fortification in the world, but a local historian called it bitterly ‘a bone in the throat of Muslims’. What on earth, he demanded, did those ‘soldiers of Christ’ think they were doing there?
Throughout the 12th century, the flower of European chivalry — the European knights’ image of themselves — battled to seize and then hold the ‘Holy Places’ of Palestine. In truth the Crusaders were brutes, whose conduct was far more barbarous than that of their Muslim foes, who taught them to wash.
The most celebrated Saracen, Saladin, became a byword for justice, humanity and generosity at a time when our own King Richard ‘the Lionheart’ ordered 2,500 captives to be butchered in cold blood, while his men roasted alive a Muslim captive before the walls of Acre.
The Crusaders were brutes, whose conduct was far more barbarous than that of their Muslim foes, who taught them to wash. Above, Orlando Bloom in the film Kingdom Of Heaven
When Saladin captured Guy of Jerusalem — the French ruler of what was then a Crusader state — after the great 1187 Muslim victory at the Horns of Hattin, he set free the king in exchange for a promise that he would quit Palestine. Guy broke his oath immediately, on the basis that it was only given to an infidel. Despite this, the Crusaders were soon evicted from Palestine.
For six centuries thereafter, the Middle East saw little of Westerners. But what Napoleon started with his 1798 expedition to Egypt, the British continued through the 19th century as the frontiers of empire advanced and the Suez Canal eventually became a vital link to India.
I grew up, like most of my generation, regarding Kitchener’s 1898 expedition up the Nile to Khartoum to conquer the Dervishes and avenge the 1885 murder of General Charles Gordon as a splendid imperial romp.
But today one asks, yet again: why on earth were we there?
The British were supposedly establishing order and crushing the slave trade. But Winston Churchill, as a young cavalry officer, recoiled in disgust from the treatment of thousands of Muslim wounded left to die on the battlefield of Omdurman.
Though the Muslim commander, the self-proclaimed Mahdi, was a brutal jihadi, Kitchener showed himself no better when he sought to have the dead Dervish leader’s skull turned into an inkwell, until sternly checked by Queen Victoria.
The most notorious in the long list of British betrayals of Muslims took place during and after World War I.
As the cost of the struggle soared, the belligerent governments became desperate for booty to justify it. In 1916, the French and British made a deplorable secret bargain, the Sykes-Picot agreement, to partition between them most of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.
Thus it was that, four years later, the French grabbed Syria and Lebanon while the British took oil-rich Iraq and prestigious Palestine, with a political stranglehold on the rest of the Middle East.
Frontiers were fixed that suited the administrative convenience of the imperial powers, heedless of the tribal and religious loyalties — and divisions — of their inhabitants. As we have witnessed this week, the poisoned fruits of those decisions are still being plucked today.
In October 1956, after Egypt's President Nasser nationalised the Suez canal (above), Prime Minister Anthony Eden triggered one of the most cynical and clumsy plots in history to snatch it back
Many more perceived Western betrayals followed: the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 — which led to the brutal displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arabs — to assuage European guilt about Hitler; the imposition of regime change in Iran, where the Shah was levered into power in 1953; and, of course, the Suez disaster.
In October 1956, after Egypt’s President Nasser nationalised the canal, Prime Minister Anthony Eden triggered one of the most cynical and clumsy plots in history to snatch it back.
The British and French persuaded the Israelis, bribed with arms deliveries, to invade Egypt. The old imperial powers could then dispatch an amphibious task force, supposedly to protect the canal.
Eden lied and lied — to the House of Commons, to the British people and, most dangerously of all, to the Americans.
After President Eisenhower pulled the plug on the Anglo-French invasion, the historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote: ‘The moral for British governments is clear. Like most respectable people, they make poor criminals and had better stick to respectability. They will not be much good at anything else.’
Tony Blair and George W. Bush should have heeded this counsel in 2003, when their deceits matched those of Eden, to justify the wickedly fraudulent decision to invade Iraq.
Saddam Hussein’s tyranny was hardly an earthly paradise. But the consequence of the Western intervention was to transfer responsibility for this vast and divided nation from its own people to Washington.
In General Colin Powell’s unforgettable warning to Bush against invading: ‘It will be pottery barn rules: you break it, you own it.’
This long catalogue of Western blunders and, indeed, crimes against Muslims today provides the nations of the Middle East with a trunkload of grievances. And yet those same grievances obscure recognition of their own responsibility for their modern predicament.
I said at the outset that, while we must recognise our follies — if only to avoid repeating them, as some Western leaders wish to do — we should also reject most of the blame for the poverty and chaos of much of the region.
Asia suffered as much from imperialism as did the Muslim world, yet now booms.
The unpalatable truth is that most of the Middle East’s troubles derive from adherence to a medieval culture that recoils from innovation, promotes religion far beyond its proper place in mankind’s affairs, and institutionalises the oppression of women.
Young Winston Churchill wrote in his splendid 1899 history book The River War: ‘How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy . . . there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries.
‘The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.
‘Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities . . . but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.
I recently read both the Koran and the Bible from cover to cover, and can assure you that the latter is more bloodthirsty
‘No stronger retrograde force exists in the world.
‘Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytising faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science . . . the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.’
These were intemperate Victorian words, but who can say that they are entirely inappropriate today?
Compare Churchill’s remarks with those of a modern Gulf businessman from Dubai, whom the travel writer Jonathan Raban quizzed about Arab oil wealth.
The Dubaian rejected any delusion that this constitutes genuine prosperity: ‘Rich is education . . . expertise . . . technology. Rich is knowing. We have money, yes, but we are not rich. We are like the child who inherits money from the father he never knew.
‘He has not been brought up to spend it.
‘He has it in his hands; he doesn’t know how to use it . . . is a country rich that cannot make a brick, or a motor car, or a book?’
Muslims may justly say that their religion is not inherently violent: I recently read both the Koran and the Bible from cover to cover, and can assure you that the latter is more bloodthirsty. Evangelical Christians are almost as much of a menace to wise American governance as are Muslim jihadis half a world away.
On the whole, however, the Christian religion has adapted to modernity while most Muslim societies have failed to do so, whether by creating an educated mass workforce or producing scientific or technological genius.
The jihadis advancing on Baghdad, fighting in Syria, bombing their co-religionists in Kenya, kidnapping schoolgirls in Nigeria — and those who murdered the U.S. ambassador in Libya two years ago — offer only violent anarchy.
Their desire to promote a new caliphate, ruled by sharia law, reflects a rejection of the West rooted in a pitiful inability to compete with the West in any constructive fashion. Glorious death represents their highest aspiration.
The relative success of such fundamentalism is a measure of the despair pervading many Muslim societies.
The lessons of history are that we Westerners can do little to change the course of events in the Middle East, and are ill-advised to try.
Meanwhile, here at home we must fight with every weapon in our hands — legal, cultural and educational — to prevent the curse of Islamist militancy from spreading its wholly pernicious influence within our own societies.
What they do within their own regions of the world, it must be their affair to resolve, with such modest support as we can give. But there can be no compromise with such warped doctrines here, in the sorry name of multiculturalism.
Read more: MAX HASTINGS: Yes, the West has fought the Muslim world for centuries. But Islam must accept much of the blame for today's bloody chaos | Mail Online
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