Crusade and Jihad: The Thousand-Year War Between the Muslim World and the Global North by William R. Polk; Pub: Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 2018, 656 pages. Price: $25.44 Hbk.
The vast, musty library of Western Orientalism contains marvels and works of genius as well as tawdry and tendentious trash. But as the late Edward Said famously explained, Western discourse on the Muslim “other,” whether of high or low quality, is largely self-referential, inhabiting a space built by imperialists and colonizers, and filling that space not with objective truth-seeking, but with the kind of knowledge whose real aim is power and domination. While a few Western scholars have completely broken with Orientalist praxis — Marshall Hodgson, Muhammad Asad, and René Guénon come to mind — they are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Since the Islamic Awakening began during the run-up to 1400ah (the 1970s CE), and especially since September 11, 2001, any Western author writing on Islam knows, consciously or unconsciously, that virtually all of the key institutions — the publishing houses, universities, governments, mass media, think tanks, internet monopolies, and so on — not only operate in a climate of opinion hostile to Islam and Muslims, but are dominated by Zionists who are waging all-out war against the religion and people of Islam. Given that framework, anyone who wishes to operate within it has a limited range of choices. Those who seek to write about politics and history know that the public has been conditioned to believe, as Donald Trump famously said, that “Islam hates us.” So, one can pretend to explicate “the roots of Muslim rage” as Bernard Lewis and his neoconservative followers have done; or one can try to temper or revise the Zionist caricature with modest doses of historical fact. Though no scholar who seeks a mainstream audience, academic or otherwise, can even dream of telling the whole truth about the crimes of Zionism, the larger story of Western imperialist aggression against Muslim-majority lands is not entirely off-limits. A reasonably accurate and comprehensive retelling of that sad history may be found in William R. Polk’s Crusade and Jihad: The Thousand-Year War Between the Muslim World and the Global North.
Polk, who taught Arabic at Harvard and the University of Chicago and has held policy positions in the US government, begins with a concise summary of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the early Islamic expansion. Evincing little interest or insight into the spiritual-metaphysical basis of the prophetic call to truth and justice, the author focuses rather simplistically on the socio-historical dimension (p. 20), “As (the Islamic qawm) grew in numbers and strength, it advanced across Arabia like an avalanche: as clan A converted or was forced to join, it increased the weight and power of the Islamic group. Clan B, caught between the advancing Muslims and its traditional rivals, had little choice… Islam swept across Arabia as group after group submitted. In fact, the basic meaning of ‘Muslim’ is ‘one who submits’” (in reality, of course, Islam means submission to God, not to a qawm).
Polk also offers a few other dubious interpretations. He suggests that Shi‘i Islam is Zoroastrianism in disguise, and compares Abi Muslim, the general who led the Abbasid revolution against the Umayyad dynasty, to Abi Bakr al-Baghdadi of Da‘ish (one of his many overestimates of the significance of the Western-manufactured bogeymen Da‘ish and al-Qaeda). But despite the occasional questionable interpretation, Polk’s 50-page synopsis of the origin and spread of Islam is reasonably concise and accurate, even if uninspired.
The bulk of Polk’s book — almost 500 pages worth — addresses the past 500 years of the Global North’s depredations across the entirety of the Muslim-majority lands, emphasizing the more recent portions of that period. And it is here that Polk offers a valuable antidote to the toxic discourse on “Muslim rage” dished out by the likes of Bernard Lewis and the neocons, whose downplaying of the horrors of Western imperialism amounts to “Islamic Holocaust denial.” Polk, unlike Lewis’ ilk, addresses the gory details of the North’s plunder and massacre of Muslims, a seemingly endless tale of atrocities stretching from Europe and North Africa across the Eurasian supercontinent to South Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Sadly, that tale of war crimes has not yet ended.
As Polk writes (p. 160), “The march of the Northern armies into the South was both unstoppable and universal — France into Algeria in the 1830s, Britain into India from the late eighteenth century until it made India into part of the British Empire in 1858; Russia into Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Crimea in the 1850s and 1860s; and China into the khanates of the Tarim Basin and the Uyghur state in the 1860s.” Some highlights, or lowlights, include descriptions of:
• Napoleon in Egypt: “In one reported case French soldiers utterly destroyed a town of about twelve thousand people. As the French observer Vivant Denon wrote, villagers were lucky if only a ‘few of their wives and daughters’ were raped” (p. 75–76). Quoting al-Jabarti: “The French trod in the Mosque of al-Azhar with their shoes, carrying swords and rifles. Then they scattered in its courtyard and its main praying area (maqsura) and tied their horses to the qibla. They treated the books and Quranic volumes as trash, throwing them on the ground, stamping on them with their feet and shoes. Furthermore, they soiled the mosque, blowing their spit in it, pissing, and shitting in it” (p. 78).
• The French invasion of Algeria: “Large areas were confiscated, officially in reprisal for resistance, and the inhabitants were either killed or driven away… Area by area, the Algerian population was driven off of virtually all usable agricultural land” (p. 89). The Algerian Muslim population, literate and prosperous before the French invasion, was ruined as the French “moved to reduce the level of literacy. After a century of French rule, about three of every four Algerians were illiterate even in Arabic, few had stable jobs, and almost none had well-paying employment” (p. 91). The French counterinsurgency from 1954 to 1962 killed “at least half a million Algerians” (p. 322).
• The British rape of India, including the 1857 massacres in which “tens or hundreds of thousands — no one knows the number — were shot or hanged. Whole villages were burned even when the inhabitants had nothing to do with the revolt. Contemporary accounts graphically and often happily describe torture and murder” (p. 104). “The number of Indians who were flogged rarely fell below 20,000 and in one year reached 75,223” (p. 247). “In the second half of the (19th) century, under direct British rule… India suffered twenty-four famines in which it was thought that twenty million people, or nearly one in ten Indians, starved to death. Today it is believed that the total may have reached almost twice that number, about thirty-five million” (p. 249). “In the Great Killing (of over one million Indians in 1947)… most of the casualties were Muslims, killed by Hindu mobs…” (p. 256).
• The Russian destruction of Chechnya: “Eventually, the Russian invaders drove an estimated one million men, women, and children, or one in four or five inhabitants, out of their homeland… many drowned at sea or died of starvation or other causes along the way” (p. 113).
• The Italian annihilation of Libya: “When counterinsurgency (against freedom fighter ‘Umar al-Mukhtar) failed, the Italians turned to genocide. Between 1911 and 1940 they killed nearly two-thirds of the population of Cyrenaica” (p. 137).
• The Dutch “killed about 300,000 ‘rebels’ between 1835 and 1840” in Java (p. 521). Their atrocities in Aceh, Indonesia “would kill a hundred thousand Muslims” (p. 155),; according to historian J.I. Hans Bakker “tens of thousands of Achenese guerilla fighters, at least 30,000, and very likely as many as 100,000, died in battle or as a result of diseases like cholera and malaria.” The Acehnese ‘ulama’ were exterminated thanks to the undercover work of the Orientalist professor Christiaan SnouckHurgronje disguised as “Hajji Abdul Ghaffar”: “His activities were kept secret for half a century. Many other self-proclaimed ‘experts,’ and some real scholars on native movements, would follow in his footsteps. He is one of the reasons why Muslims are often suspicious of orientalists” (p. 150).
• Another reason to look askance at orientalism: “One of the spectacles (the British and French), along with other Europeans and Americans, most enjoyed was the display in zoos of captured natives, sometimes placed in the same cages as animals” (p. 203).
• British post-WWI massacres in Iraq: Quoting Col. T.E. Lawrence writing in August 1920, “We have killed about ten thousand Arabs in the rising this summer.”
• “Appalling” systematic murder, rape, and torture by Indian occupation forces in Kashmir (p. 272).
• The 1980s Russian war on Afghanistan “killed about a million Afghans and drove about three million out of the country” (p. 297) — a feat the Americans are replicating or surpassing today.
• The continuous Zionist massacre of Palestinians who are deemed “not really human. The killing of Palestinians was referred to by the Israeli military as ‘mowing the lawn’” (p. 413).
• Chinese crimes: “The Qing Qinlong emperor went all the way: he opted for genocide. At his command, Chinese forces utterly destroyed the successors of the Ziongnu, the Zunghar…” (p. 420). “Having killed off the Zunghars, the Qing moved non-Han minority groups… and non-Muslim Han Chinese into what had been Zungharistan” (p. 426). A slow-motion genocide against the Uyghurs continues today.
• American atrocities in Iraq (p. 335–346), the Philippines (p. 439–450), Somalia (p. 451–461), and elsewhere.
Alongside this sad litany of oppressions and atrocities of Northern aggressors, which ranges far beyond what I have sketched above, Polk devotes several chapters and passages to the many Muslim currents of thought, and resistance movements, that have arisen in response. Though he overestimates salafi-takfiri groups, underestimates Islamic Iran, and utterly fails to comprehend the false-flag dimension of the post-9/11 Global War on Islam, Polk is correct in forecasting that Islamic resistance to genocidal oppression will continue to rise — and that the Global North should turn away from its failed obsession with military-security solutions, and instead devote itself to diplomacy based on equality and respect for each others’ mutual humanity.