West Comes East

905-1266 AH
1500-1850 CE

BETWEEN 1500 AND 1800 CE, western Europeans sailed pretty much all over the world and colonized pretty much everything. In some lands, they simply took possession, entirely supplanting the original inhabitants: North America and Australia suffered this fate, ending up as virtual extensions of Europe.

In other areas, they left the original inhabitants in place but moved in above them as a ruling elite in control of all-important resources. Some portion of the original population ended up as their servants or slaves while the rest went on living as best they could in constricted circumstances. Such was the fate of the people in most of South America and sub-Saharan Africa.

In some places, however—most notably China and the Islamic heartland—Europeans came up against well-organized, wealthy, technologically advanced societies seemingly quite able to hold their own, and here the interaction between newcomers and natives took a subtler course. The Islamic world presented a particularly complex psychosocial drama, first, because western Europeans had a tangled history with Muslims already, and second, because they started trickling into the Muslim world just as the three great Islamic empires were rising toward their peak of power and brilliance.



Let’s be clear about one thing: the European penetration of the Muslim world never amounted to a clash of civilizations (to use a term coined in the 1990s). In this period of colonization, “European civilization” never went to war with “Islamic civilization,” and that’s one key to understanding all that followed. In fact, after 1500, western Europeans arrived in the eastern Islamic world mainly as traders. What could be less threatening? Trade is what people do instead of making war. Trade—why, it’s practically a synonym for peace!

Nor did the Europeans come in great numbers. The first European expedition to reach India by sea was led by Portuguese aristocrat Vasco da Gama and consisted of four ships and a total crew of 171 men. They arrived at Calicut on the west coast of India in 1498 and asked the local Hindu ruler if they might set up a trading post along the coast there and do a little buying, maybe a little selling. The ruler said sure. Why wouldn’t he? If these strangers wanted to buy cloth, or raw cotton, or sugar or whatever, why would he say no? His people had businesses to run! You don’t make money by refusing to sell your products.

The Europeans did encounter a flash of hostility from Muslims thereabouts a bit later, but the Muslims were interlopers themselves that far south and so the Portuguese got local Hindu support to build a little town and fort at a place called Goa. They had nothing very remarkable to trade, but they did have money to buy, and as the years went by more of them were coming along with more and more money to spend, as the gold of the Americas flooded the European economy. Goa became a permanent Portuguese implant in India.

Then more traders came along from other parts of western Europe. The French set up a “trading post” at Pondicherry and the British set up one at Madras.1 The Dutch sailed by and looked in as well. These European communities started fighting among themselves for business advantages, but the Indians paid little notice. Why should they care who won? Babur and his descendents were just establishing the Moghul empire up north, and they were the big story of the time, much bigger than a few obscure traders building little forts along the coast. And so the sixteenth century passed without Europeans making much of an impact on the Islamic world.

Then again, not all Europeans came to the Muslim world as traders. Some came as business advisers or technical consultants. In 1598, a pair of English brothers, Robert and Anthony Sherley, found their way to Persia, which was well into its “golden age” under the greatest of the Safavid monarchs, Shah Abbas. The Englishmen said they came in peace with an interesting proposition for the Persian king: they wanted to sell him cannons and firearms and they could promise technical support to back up their products—they would have their people come in and train the Shah’s people in the new weapons, teach military strategy to go with them, plus how to fix the weapons if they broke, things like that.

Shah Abbas liked what he heard. Safavid Persia lagged behind its neighbors in military technology. The Qizilbash didn’t like firearms; they were still fighting mostly with spears and swords and bows; this deficit had cost the Safavids the battle of Chaldiran, and now the hated Ottomans were trying to stop weapons shipments to Persia. Getting weapons and consultants from some distant, insignificant speck of an island west of Europe seemed like a perfect solution. The Englishmen knew their stuff, and a few of them from so far away couldn’t possibly do much harm, it seemed. And so it began: the practice of giving European advisers commanding positions in the Persian army.

It’s true, however, that not all interactions between westerners and Muslims were peaceful. The Ottoman Turks had been fighting with Christian Europeans for centuries; their western border was the frontier between the two worlds, and here the friction showed. Between battles, however, and even while pitched battles were raging in some places, a lot of trading was going on in other places, because this was not a World War II-type total-war situation. Battles were geographically contained. At the very moment that two armies were clashing one place, business-as-usual might well be going on just a few miles away. The friction had an ideological dimension left over from the Crusades, to be sure—Christianity versus Islam—but in any practical sense the battles were outbursts of professional violence between monarchs over territory. Lots of Christians and Jews lived within the Ottoman empire, after all, and some of them were in the Ottoman armies, fighting for that side, not out of patriotic fervor for the House of Othman but because it was a job, and they needed the money. This kind of fighting certainly allowed for other people to be going back and forth, buying and selling.

By the seventeenth century, it wasn’t just Venetians but also French, English, German, Dutch, and other European traders who were traveling into the Muslim world armed not with gold but with guns. These businessmen contributed to a process that slowly and inexorably transformed the mighty Ottoman Empire into the lumbering monstrosity that Europeans called the Sick Man of Europe, or sometimes—more gently but in some ways even more condescendingly—“the Eastern question.” The process was so slow, however, and so pervasive and so complex that it was hard for anyone going through the history of it all day by day to make a connection between the European encroachment and the burgeoning decay.

The first thing to note about the process is what didn’t happen. The Ottoman Empire did not go down in flames to conquering armies. Long after the empire was totally moribund, long after it was little more than a virtual carcass for vultures to pick over, the Ottomans could still muster damaging military strength.

Historians identify two seminal military defeats that spelled the beginning of the end for the Ottomans, though both went more or less unnoticed by the Turks at the time. One was the battle of Lepanto, which took place in 1571. In this naval engagement, the Venetians and their allies destroyed virtually the entire Ottoman Mediterranean fleet. In Europe, the battle was hailed as a thrilling sign that the heathen Turk was finally, finally going down.

In Istanbul, however, the grand vizier compared the loss of the fleet to the shaving of a man’s beard: it would only make the new beard grow in thicker. Indeed, within one year, the Ottomans replaced the whole lost fleet with an even bigger and more modern fleet, featuring eight of the largest ships ever to ply the Mediterranean. Within six months after that, the Ottomans won back the eastern Mediterranean, conquered Cyprus, and began to harass Sicily. Small wonder that contemporary Ottoman analysts didn’t see the battle of Lepanto as any big turning point at the time. It would take at least another century before European naval dominance would become fully evident and the significance of that dominance unmistakable.

The other seminal military event took place a bit earlier with a follow-up much later. The earlier bracket was Suleiman the Magnificent’s failure to take Vienna. Ottoman forces had never stopped pushing steadily west, and in 1529 they reached the gates of Vienna, but the sultan set siege to the famous Austrian city too late in the season. With winter coming on, he decided to let Vienna go this time and conquer it the next time around. But there was no next time for Suleiman, because other issues cropped up and he got distracted—the empire was so big, after all, and its borders so long, that distractions were constantly sprouting up on those borders somewhere . The sultan never made another attempt on Vienna but his contemporaries saw no sign of weakness in this. “Conquer Vienna” remained on his to-do list always; it’s just that the man was busy. He was fighting and winning other battles, and his rule was so successful that only a blithering idiot would have suggested that the Ottomans were in decline in his day just because they had not taken Vienna. It wasn’t a military defeat, after all, just a failure to score the usual crushing victory.

And yet historians looking back can see quite clearly that Suleiman’s failure to take Vienna marked a watershed. At that moment the empire had reached its greatest extent. After that moment, it was no longer expanding. This was less than obvious at the time because the empire was still fighting someone somewhere all the time, and the news from the battlefield was often good. Maybe the Ottomans were losing battles here and there, but they were also winning battles here and there. Were they losing more than they were winning? Were they losing the big ones and winning only the little ones? That was the real question, and the answer was yes, but that was hard to gauge for people swimming through the historical moment. How does one weigh the significance of a battle? Some people raised alarmist cries, but some people always do. After all, in 1600, the empire certainly was not shrinking.

Unfortunately, however, not shrinking was not good enough for the Ottoman Empire. In truth, this empire was built on the premise of permanent expansion. It needed a constant and generally successful war on its borders for all of its complicated internal mechanisms to work.

First of all, expansion was a source of revenue, which the empire could ill afford to lose.

Second, war served as a safety valve, which vented all internal pressures outward. For example, peasants who were forced off the land for one reason or another didn’t hang around hungry and hopeless, turning into a surly rabble. They could always join the army, go on a campaign, score some booty, and then come home and start a little business. . . .

Once expansion stopped, however, all those pressures began to press inward. Those who could no longer make a living off the land for any reason now drifted to the cities. Even if they had a skill, they might not be able to ply it. The guilds controlled all manufacturing and they could absorb only so many new members. A good many of the drifters ended up unemployed and disgruntled. And there were lots of other little consequences like this, generated by no longer expanding.

Third, the classic devshirme depended on the constant conquest of new territories out of which “slaves” could be drafted for the institutes that produced the empire’s elite. The janissary had originally labored under one important restriction: they were not allowed to marry and produce heirs, a device designed to keep new blood flowing into the administration. But once the expansion stopped, the devshirme began to stagnate. And then the janissaries began to marry. And then they did what people do for their children: swing their clout to get the kids the best possible educational and employment opportunities. It was perfectly natural, but it did mean the janissaries encrusted into a permanent, hereditary elite, which reduced the vigor of the empire because it meant the experts and specialists who ran the empire were no longer drawn exclusively from those who showed early promise but also included dullards with rich and important parents.

No one linked these stagnations to the fact that Suleiman had failed to conquer Vienna decades ago. How could they? The consequences were so distantly and so indirectly related to their causes that for the general public they registered merely as some sort of indefinable social malaise that was hard to explain, the sort of thing that makes religious conservatives rail about the moral fabric of society and the importance of restoring old-fashioned values like discipline and respect for elders.

Then came the follow-up to Suleiman’s failure. In 1683, the Ottomans tried again to take Vienna and they failed again, just as they had 154 years earlier, but this time they were routed by a coalition of European forces. Technically this second battle for Vienna was also merely a failure to score a victory, but the Ottoman elite knew they had been trounced and something had gone very wrong.

It made them doggedly determined to pump up their military strength. Too easily did they assume that the might and vigor of their empire depended on troops and weapons. Against the formless forces eroding the empire, they thought to fling up a military bulwark. Pouring resources into their military, however, only imposed more expenses on a government that was already overburdened.

It was overburdened in part because European traders entering the economy had upset the delicate checks and balances in the Ottoman system. Forget the battle of Lepanto. Forget the failed siege of Vienna. Ultimately, it was traders, not soldiers, who took down the Ottoman Empire.

Let me trace some of the details. In the Ottoman Empire, guilds (intertwined with Sufi orders) controlled all manufacturing and they protected their members by locking out competition. One guild had a monopoly on producing soap, for example, while another had a monopoly on making shoes. . . . The guilds couldn’t exploit their monopoly positions to jack up prices, because the state imposed limits on how much they could charge. The state protected the public and the guilds protected their members; everything balanced, everything worked.

Then westerners came into the system. They didn’t compete with the guilds by trying to sell soap or shoes—the state wouldn’t let them. No, they came looking for stuff to buy, raw materials mainly, such as wool, meat, leather, wood, oil, metals, and the like—whatever they could get their hands on. Suppliers were happy to sell to them, and even the state smiled on this trade, because it brought gold into the empire, and how could that be a bad thing? Unfortunately, the Europeans were after the same materials the guilds needed to make their products. And the Europeans could outbid the guilds because they had the gold of the Americas in their satchels, while the guilds had only their profits, which were limited by government price controls. They could not make up the difference with volume—by producing and selling more goods, that is—because they just couldn’t get enough raw materials to increase production. With foreigners sucking those out of Ottoman territories and shipping them to Europe, artisans in the Ottoman world felt the pinch: domestic production began to fall.

Ottoman officials saw the problem and dealt with it by banning the export of strategic raw materials needed by domestic industries. But laws of this type only opened up contraband opportunities: when exporting wool is a crime, only criminals will export wool. A black market economy began to thrive; a whole class of nouveau riche black-market entrepreneurs emerged; and since they were breaking the law to make money, they had to bribe various officials to look the other way, which opened up opportunities for corruption, which spawned another class of nouveau riche “entrepreneurs”: bribe-battened bureaucrats.

So now a lot of folks had illegal cash to spend that didn’t come out of any increased productivity. It was cash funneled into the Ottoman economy by free-spending Europeans drawing down on the gold of the Americas. But what could the newly rich Ottoman citizens spend their money on? Investing in aboveboard industries was out: it would attract unwelcome attention from the state. So they did what drug dealers do in modern American society. They spent freely on extravagant luxury items. In the Ottoman world, these included consumer goods from the West, which could be had for cash paid under the table. The very trends undermining Ottoman ability to manufacture goods were providing a market for European industry and incidentally draining the gold back to Europe.

Outside cash coming into the Ottoman system just as production was falling generated inflation: that’s what happens when you have more money chasing fewer goods. I’ve seen the same pattern in certain rural counties in northern California, where a few people are getting fabulously rich from growing marijuana. In an area with no apparent economy, you see people driving BMWs, ordinary houses start selling for a million dollars, and even bread finally costs more in suddenly gentrified grocery stores.

Whom does inflation hurt? It hurts people on fixed incomes. These days, we tend to equate “fixed income” with “small income”; we think of pensioners living on social security or welfare. In Ottoman society, there was no welfare system. Families and communities took care of their own elderly and sick. No, in Ottoman society, the people on “fixed incomes” were the salaried government bureaucrats and more particularly the salaried officials of the court—that bloated, wholly nonproductive upper class. Those “fixed income” folks were rich beyond the dreams of Croesus, but even the richest of the rich somehow feel threatened when their buying power goes down. In 1929, when the U.S. stock market crashed, some of those bankers who famously jumped out of high-rise windows were still worth a million dollars when they hit the sidewalk. How much they haddidn’t matter: it was how much less they had that got to them. Similarly, in Ottoman society, inflation made rich courtiers living on fixed salaries feel like they had to tighten their belts and this they didn’t like. They began to supplement their incomes by wielding the only instrument they controlled.

What do courtiers (and bureaucrats) control? Access to the administrative and legal workings of the state. When people have no role except to provide access, however, they have no power except to deny access. Courtiers and bureaucrats in the Ottoman Empire began to prevent instead of facilitate—unless they were given bribes. The Ottoman Empire became a paperwork nightmare. To negotiate one’s way through it, a person needed to bribe people who knew people who knew people who could bribe people who could bribe other people who knew people.

To combat this gumming up of the works, the state raised salaries, so that courtiers and bureaucrats wouldn’t feel the need to take bribes. But the state didn’t have any source of extra funds based in real productivity, especially since, with the empire no longer expanding, the state did not have the revenue that traditionally flowed into its coffers from conquest. In order to raise salaries, pensions, and soldiers’ wages, therefore, the empire had to simply print money.

Printing money spurs inflation—which puts us back where we started! Everything the Ottoman government did to stem corruption and promote efficiency only aggravated the problem it was trying to solve. Eventually, government officials gave up and decided to hire some consultants to come in and help them set things in order. The advisers they hired were management consultants and technical experts from the continent that seemed to know how: western Europe.

Perhaps some brilliant executive could have done something about the unraveling that led the Ottoman elite to this sorry state; but the very success of the empire, and the very might of its ruling family, had transformed its imperial culture and the life of its royal family in ways that pretty much precluded any new Mehmet the Conquerors or Suleiman the Magnificents from emerging. Specifically, the court had grown ever bigger, heavier, and less productive until it was like some giant deformity that the whole society was carrying on its back.

The archetypal symbol of this deformity was, perhaps, the so-called Grand Seraglio, the Sultan’s harem in Istanbul. Earlier dynasties around the Muslim world had harems, of course, but in Ottoman society, this grim institution grew to proportions never seen before, except perhaps in China under the Ming dynasty.

Thousands of women from every conquered population lived in the labyrinthine Grand Seraglio. Although steeped in an overall atmosphere of wealth and luxury, most of these women lived in cubicles within the maze. The women of the harem were supplied with cosmetics and all other supplies useful to enhancing their adornments and had no other occupation except for self-adornment: no useful work to do, no opportunity to study, no call to produce anything, nothing to rescue them from a life of meaningless boredom. They were prisoners in gem-crusted cells.

The sequestration of women had been hundreds of years in the making in the Islamic world, but even at this point, it didn’t run through the whole society, only through the upper classes. In rural areas, the casual traveler might still see peasant women working in the fields or driving animals along the roads. In urban areas, lower class women went about their business in the public bazaars, shopping for their households or hawking their handicrafts. Among the middle classes, some women owned property, managed businesses, and directed employees. But the public visibility of these women denoted the humble status of their men.

Privileged men showed off their status by keeping their womenfolk out of public life and hidden from view in the private quarters of their households. The psychology underlying this custom was (I think) the feeling that a man’s honor—which really means his ability to hold his head high among his fellow men—depended on his ability to keep any women associated with him from becoming the objects of other men’s sexual fantasies. In the end, this is what the sequestration of women boiled down to, and in such a cultural milieu, even men in the lower strata of society felt a pressure to keep their women out of sight, so they wouldn’t look bad to other men.

In the sultan’s harem, this syndrome had magnified to a staggering level. In ordinary usage, especially among western Orientalists, the word harem has a lascivious connotation to it, as if everyday life in a harem consisted of sexual frolicking from dawn to dusk; but how could this possibly have been the case? The sultan was just one man, and no other man ever even saw the women of the imperial harem except the guards, and the guards were all eunuchs. And the sultan, some may be surprised to learn, didn’t spend his leisure hours hanging around the harem, playing around with the women. One of the eunuchs had the specific job of choosing one woman for the sultan to sleep with each night, and this eunuch would escort the chosen woman secretively and properly bundled, under cover of night, to the sultan’s chamber. Sexual license and sexual repression were weirdly intertwined in this institution.2

Eunuchs could move freely between the harem and the world, and so acted as the women’s eyes and ears and hands, their means of learning about the outside world, their instruments for effecting changes out there. The sultan’s children, including his sons, grew up in the harem until they were twelve, never mingling with ordinary people or taking part in the rough-and-tumble of ordinary life until adolescence. By the time such a prince mounted the throne he was quite typically a socially dysfunctional creature whose main skill consisted of the ability to maneuver through the maze of harem intrigue.

And very high-stakes, high-intensity intrigue it was, because even though one prince may have been the heir-designate, the mothers of the many other princes did not necessarily abandon hope that their own boy would somehow achieve the throne (which would make mother a power-figure in the empire.) So the women and their progeny plotted and conspired and attempted (and sometimes succeeded at) assassinations of potential rivals until the reigning sultan died, whereupon the struggle for power moved from back-room intrigue to front-room fisticuffs. The prince who came out victorious won the throne not just for himself but for some whole faction of women and eunuchs within the harem. An Ottoman princeling growing up in this environment knew he had some small chance of ending up as the supreme master of the universe and a much larger chance of ending up dead before he reached maturity.

This system ended up producing a long line of weak, idiotic, and eccentric sultans. But this fact in itself did not account for the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire, because by the time the system ripened into its corrupt maturity, the sultan no longer ran the state. The executive powers of his position had begun to decay shortly after Suleiman the Magnificent died. In the Ottoman system, grand vizier became the power position.

Yet the ungainly court with its enormous harem did hamper the Ottoman Empire, because it cost so much and produced so little—produced in fact nothing, not even decisions. The vizier and other officials had to run the empire while carrying this court on their shoulders and keeping the damn thing fed, which made the whole operation ungainly and slow.

Between 1600 and 1800, Safavid Persia was unraveling too. The Europeans were on hand to exploit what happened, but it was the kingdom’s own internal contradictions that pulled it apart. First of all, the usual dynastic rot set in. Princes raised in too much luxury were coming to the throne dissolute and lazy. Every time one of these flawed kings died, a power struggle erupted among his survivors; whoever won the throne took over a realm debilitated by war and was generally too idle or incompetent to repair the damage, so the golden age turned to silver, the silver to bronze, and the bronze to mud.

When the Safavids first came to power they had created a distinctly Persian Islam by making Shi’ism the state religion. This was useful to the state at first, because it promoted a national coherence that made Persia strong for its size. But it alienated Sunnis within the borders, and as the throne weakened, these Sunnis turned rebellious and began to pull away.

Making Shi’ism the official state religion had another downside, as well. It gave the Shi’i religious scholars a dangerous sense of self-importance, especially the mujtahids, a title that meant “scholars so learned they have a right to make original judgments” (later these worthies were called ayatollahs). These Shi’i ulama began to claim that if Persia was really a Shi’i state, kings could rule only with their approval, because only they spoke for the Hidden Imam. Ominously, the ulama had strong links among peasants and among the merchants who made up the urban middle class. Safavid kings therefore found themselves facing a Hobson’s choice. If they sought the approval of the ulama they would be conceding ultimate authority to the ayatollahs; if they asserted their own authority as supreme, they would have to forego the ulama’s approval and in that case rule without popular legitimacy.

They opted for the latter; but kings who lack legitimacy need some other source of power to give them authority, and what could the Safavids tap? They had nothing to turn to but their armies—and by this time their armies were armed and trained and “advised” by European military experts. In short, Persia ended up with European Christians helping Safavid kings clamp down on Muslim religious scholars who were closely tied to the masses: obviously a formula for trouble.

As the eighteenth century waned, succession struggles over the throne grew ever more ferocious. Contending factions began recruiting more European military consultants and importing more European arms to gain the edge on their rivals. A time came when the power struggles failed to produce single winners. Different contenders took possession of different areas. And as Persia came apart, Sunni provinces broke away from the kingdom, and Sunni neighbors such as the Uzbeks and the Afghans broke into the kingdom to wreak terrible havoc.

When the smoke cleared the Safavids were gone. In their place, stood a new family monarchy. Nominally, this so-called Qajar dynasty ruled the shrinking country of Iran for the next 131 years. (It was still “Persia” to Europeans, but locals generally were calling the country Iran by this point, although the name did not switch at any one moment: both names go back to ancient times.) Under the Qajar kings, the disturbing trends of Safavid times became the ordinary, accepted order of things. The national armies were riddled with European advisers and officers. The ulama were chronically at odds with the throne. Repelled by foreign influences at court, these ulama set themselves up as guardians of traditional Islamic culture, to which the lower and middle classes were still wedded. The kings were generally lazy, rapacious, shortsighted, and weak. Europeans pulled the strings that made these puppets jerk and squeak in a most lifelike manner.

Europeans never invaded Persia, never made concerted war on it. They just came to sell, to buy, to work, to “help.” But there they were when things came apart. And like opportunistic viruses that lurk in the body unnoticed but flourish into illness when the immune system breaks down, the Europeans flowed into whatever cracks opened up in the fragmenting society, growing ever more powerful as the cracks grew wider, until at last they were in command.

Europeans pretty much failed to notice they were taking over Persia; and that’s partly because there was no “they.” Westerners came to Persia from various European countries, and Persians were not the enemy to them but the backdrop. The enemy, for each group of Europeans, was another group of Europeans. The British, the French, the Russians, the Dutch and others kept moving into power vacuums in Persia not so much to conquer Persia as to block other Europeans from conquering Persia. The rivalry eventually boiled down to Russia versus Great Britain, and to understand this competition, one must factor in the thunderous events happening further east, in the last of those three big Islamic Empires, the land of the Moghuls.

In the Moghul empire the core contradiction had always been Hindus versus Muslims. Akbar the Great had worked out a sort of accommodation, but his great-grandson Aurangzeb reversed all his policies, enforcing orthodox Islam rigidly, restoring discrimination against Hindus, squashing smaller religious groups such as the Sikhs, and generally replacing tolerance with repression. And yet, say what you will about the man’s narrow-minded zealotry, Aurangzeb was a titanic talent, so he not only held his empire together but extended it. The whole time, however, he was sowing the discord and tension that would erupt to ruin the empire as soon as a less capable ruler took charge.

This less capable ruler was the very next one after Aurangzeb—and the next one after him and the next one after that and so on down. In its first two hundred years, the Moghul empire had just six emperors; in its next fifty years it had eight. Of the first six, five were world historical geniuses; of the last eight, all were midgets.

During the fifty-year era of those midgets, Hindu kings called the Marathas surged again in the south. The Sikhs became a militant force. Nawabs, Muslim provincial governors, began to ignore orders from the capital and rule as independent princes. In fact, India broke up into smaller states and each state dissolved into turmoil as clashes broke out between Hindus and Muslims and others, making life uncertain for all.

Throughout this fragmentation, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the English were hovering on the edges, doing business from their trading posts along the coast. At first the Portuguese had dominated this trade. Then the Dutch had outflanked them, planting forts and trading posts in both Southeast Asia and Persia, and beating the Portuguese at sea with better ships and bigger guns. Then the French came in and held their own, and so did the English, who built a fort at Madras in 1639, acquired Bombay (now called Mumbai) a bit later when their king married a Portuguese princess (Bombay came with her as part of her dowry) and then planting a colony on the Bay of Bengal, which grew into Calcutta.

The Europeans who came to East Asia in this era represented something new and unprecedented in world history. They weren’t generals or soldiers, they didn’t come as the envoys of kings, they didn’t represent governments. They were employees of private companies, but companies of a new kind: joint stock-holding companies or, as we now call them, corporations.

The first such company was born in 1553, when forty English merchants ponied up twenty-five pounds apiece to finance a search for a sea route to India. The expedition they funded found Moscow instead of India (don’t ask), but it brought home a tidy profit and when this news spread, other people clamored to buy into “the Russia Company.” Those who paid the subscription fee got slips of paper entitling them to a proportional cut of any profits the company’s future ventures earned, slips of paper they could sell to speculators if they wished (and thus the institution of the stock market was born).

Around 1600, three gigantic national versions of that first corporation were created in Europe: they were the English, the Dutch, and the French “East India Companies.” Each was a limited liability corporation with private shareholders. Each was founded for the sole aim of turning a profit on trade in East Asia in order to enrich its shareholders. Each was run by a board of directors. Each was chartered by its national government, and in each case the government in question gave its company a national monopoly on doing business in the Islamic east. The actual entities jockeying for advantage in Persia, India, and Southeast Asia, then, were these corporations.

Over the course of two centuries in India, these European corporations altered the texture of the Indian economy in ways reminiscent of what was happening in the Ottoman world. In Bengal, where the British elbowed out all other Europeans, the East India Company pretty much destroyed the Bengali crafts industry, but hardly noticed itself doing so. It was simply buying up lots of raw material at very good prices. People found more profit in selling raw material to the British than in using those materials to make their own goods. As the native economy went bust, indigenous Bengalis became ever more dependant on the British and finally subservient to them.

When the corporations first arrived in India, they competed to earn the favor of the Moghul emperor, but as the empire broke down, the favor of the central government mattered less and less. The Europeans came to realize they had better align themselves with various local rulers rising up. But they had to pick the right ones of these, because some turned out to be losers and got churned under. Guessing wrong about the subcontinent’s internal politics would cost the company money. It was tempting, therefore, to take the guesswork out of it and try to control the outcomes of local power struggles. To this end, the companies brought in private armies to help their allies. Here, as in Persia, the enemy, for each group of Europeans, was not the local population but other Europeans. In supporting their Indian allies, the European corporations were actually fighting proxy wars against one another. The Portuguese lost out early, the Dutch were eliminated next (from India, anyway—they remained dominant in Southeast Asia) and the contest for India finally came down to the British versus the French.

As it happened, the French and the British were also the finalists in the contest for North America, halfway around the world. There, a skirmish between a few dozen Europeans kicked off a chain of events that ended up making all of India a British colony. It started in the spring of 1754, when a British army major named George Washington was leading a surveying party up the Ohio River and stumbled across a French scouting party. Shots were fired, one Virginian and ten Frenchmen died, and a global conflict erupted between Great Britain and France, with most of the other European powers jumping in quickly. In North America the conflict was called the French and Indian War, in Europe the Seven Years’ War, and in India the Third Carnatic War. 3

As the name implies, the European rivals in India had already fought two proxy wars in the Carnatic region north of modern-day Madras, trying to seat their respective allies on minor thrones. The fighting, in each case, was conducted by the East India Companies of Britain and France. In 1756, the nawab of Bengal, Siraj al-Dawlah, overran the British fort at Calcutta. On a sweltering June night, someone (not the nawab; he knew nothing about it) locked up sixty-four British citizens in an airless underground prison cell. “Someone” was supposed to process them out that night and send them home, but signals got crossed and the prisoners were left in the dungeon overnight. By morning, forty-three of them were dead.

The report swiftly made its way to England. The press went crazy. They titled the nawab’s dungeon “the black hole of Calcutta.” In each retelling of the story, the dimensions of the cell shrank and the number of prisoners burgeoned, finally reaching 146, while the number of dead rose to 123. The story outraged the British public. In India, a one-time company clerk named Robert Clive, now a captain in the company’s private army, marched to Calcutta to extract revenge. He deposed the nawab, and installed the nawab’s uncle in his place. (The so-called battle of Plassey, which effected this change, consisted of Clive bribing the nawab’s bodyguards to go home and then arresting and executing the abandoned nawab.)

Even then, the British did not name themselves rulers, not even of this one provincial piece of India. Officially, Bengal remained a Moghul possession and its government remained Bengali. Clive appointed himself a mere employee of this provincial government, setting his own salary at thirty thousand pounds a year. The East India Company enshrined itself as the Bengali government’s “advisers,” nothing more. For the sake of efficiency, the company decided to go ahead and collect taxes on behalf of the Moghul government. And again, for efficiency’s sake, they decided to go ahead and spend the money themselves, directly, locally: what was the point of sending it to the capital and having it come back again? Oh, and henceforth the company’s private army would take care of security and maintain law and order. But the company insisted that it was not now governing Bengal: it was just providing needed services for a fee.

The first few years of British rule worked out poorly for Bengalis. The company left day-to-day administration in local hands and focused only on matters relevant to its business interests. In practice, this meant the (powerless) “government” was responsible for solving all problems while the (powerful) company was entitled to reap all benefits but disavowed any responsibility for the welfare of the people; after all, it was not the government. Rapacious company officials bled Bengal dry, but those who complained were referred to “the government.” The plundering of the province resulted in a famine that killed about a third of the population in just two years—we’re talking about an estimated ten million people here.4 The famine damaged the company’s interests too, however, just as a parasite suffers when the plant on which it is feeding wilts.

At this point, the British government decided to step in. Parliament appointed a governor-general for India, brought the East India Company under control, and sent troops to the subcontinent. For the next hundred years, there were two British armies in India: so-called “John company” troops who worked for the corporation and “Queen’s company” troops, who worked for the British crown. It should be noted, however, that only the officers were European. The grunts who carried the rifles and took the bullets were local recruits or draftees known as sepoys.

In Bengal, Clive set a precedent that would soon be repeated in many other states. He established that Britain had the power and right to appoint and depose rulers in any part of India where the East India Company had business interests. After 1763, this was every part of India, because France lost the Seven Years’ War and had to abandon the subcontinent.

Britain soon decreed that whenever an Indian ruler died without a male heir, the British crown inherited his territory. In this way, Great Britain gradually took direct control of many states. In others, it installed a proxy who ruled in accordance with British wishes and interests. India became a patchwork of states ruled directly or indirectly by the British, the East India Company gradually emerging as the top power in the subcontinent and the true successor of the Moghuls.

Great Britain lost its North American colonies at almost exactly the same time that it was gaining control of India. General Cornwallis, well known to American-history buffs as the man whom George Washington beat at Yorktown, was the second governor general of India and the one who really consolidated British control there. Seen only in the context of American history, Cornwallis was a loser, but the chances are that he died proud of his life’s accomplishments, because India became “the jewel in the British crown,” the country’s most precious colonial possession, and the key to its dominance around the world.

With the vast resources of the subcontinent on tap, Great Britain could finance further colonial adventures in Africa and elsewhere around the globe. Naturally, therefore, it was very touchy about any threats to its jewel. And just such a threat did begin to emerge as the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth: the threat posed by an expanding Russia.

When the Turks conquered Constantinople, they plunged Orthodox Christianity into a crisis. Constantinople had been “the New Rome” and the heart of the (Orthodox) Christian world. Without a heart, how could the faith live on? The grand duke of Moscow stepped into the breach. This man, Ivan the Third, declared his capital “the Third Rome,” the new heart of Orthodox Christianity. His grandson Ivan the Terrible took on the title of Caesar, thereby claiming the imperial tradition of ancient Rome. (In Russian, of course, his title was pronounced “czar.”) Between 1682 and 1725, one of the czars, Peter the Great, built a formidable army and began carving out an empire east of Moscow. By 1762, when Catherine the Great of the Romanoff dynasty came to power, this empire extended way beyond the Caspian Sea, beyond the Ural Mountains even, deep into Siberia, stretching across all the lands north of India, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor.

Catherine soon gave notice that Russia would not only push east; it might push south as well. Catherine’s armies engaged the Ottomans in a bid to take the Black Sea coast and drive the Turks out of Europe. Fighting the Ottomans was all very well, but the British could not have the Russians coming south into Persia or worse, down into the mountains inhabited by the Afghan tribes, for that would put the Russians within striking distance of the jewel in the British crown. For many centuries, in fact, the Hindu Kush mountains and the Persian highlands had served as a staging area for conquests of India. British leaders decided they must block Russian advances everywhere along this front. And so the Great Game began.

“The Great Game” was the term invented by British novelist Rudyard Kipling for the struggle between Great Britain and Russia to control the territory stretching between the Russian Empire in the north and the British Empire in the south. Everything that had once been Safavid Persia, everything that is now Afghanistan, much of what is now Pakistan, and all the territories covered by the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrghizistan, and Tajikistan—all of this was the arena in which the Great Game was “played.”

It wasn’t really a game, of course, and “play” is a misnomer. But it wasn’t really a war, either. Occasional battles broke out, and a few massacres, an atrocity here and there, but the Great Game consisted mostly of plotting, pushing, conspiring, maneuvering, manipulating, politicking, bribing, and corrupting people in the region mentioned. The adversaries were the two great European powers, and the people who lived in these lands, virtually all of them Muslims, were merely the chess pieces, the game tokens.

In Iran, the Qajar kings entertained a hope of reempowering their country by importing European technology and know-how. But whom should they get it from? They had such a choice of Europeans! Russian envoys were pressing in eagerly here, British envoys and businessmen were pressing there. The French, the Germans, the Swedes, and others were in there too. The Qajars had little power versus the Europeans, by whom they were wholly owned. They might have carved out some independence by playing one set of Europeans off against another but the kings of Iran saw different opportunities here, opportunities to enrich themselves by selling monopoly contracts to the Europeans and pocketing kickbacks. Essentially, they auctioned off their economy to foreigners.



One particularly audacious concession gave German-born British citizen Baron Julius de Reuters the exclusive right to build streetcar lines and railroads in all of Iran, the exclusive right to mine its minerals and log its forests, and the right to build and operate the country’s national bank. He got all this in exchange for a cash payment to the shah and the promise of some small future royalties paid to the national treasury. A storm of opposition erupted, which might have made no difference in itself except that Russia lined up with this opposition for reasons of its own. Under this pressure the shah buckled and canceled the deal. By the terms of the contract he had signed, however, Iran now had to pay Baron Reuters a forty-thousand-pound penalty. Fortunately (for the shah), this didn’t come out of his pocket but out of the Iranian treasury. Thus, the country (and its taxpayers) had to pay a British lord an immense sum to build nothing—and the deal did leave him with a controlling interest in the new Iranian national bank.5

This sort of thing happened again and again, each deal putting cash in the pockets of a corrupt king and his relatives and giving a European company or government control over some aspect or other of the Iranian economy. If the deal was rescinded as it sometimes was, this always cost Iranian taxpayers some huge sum in penalties. Iranian citizens knew quite well what was happening, but could do nothing about it. Weak as they were, the Qajar kings had plenty of power over their own people: they could still put their subjects in prison, torture them, execute them.

From the European point of view, however, the country being sliced and diced and consumed was only the spoils: the great question was which European country would get to do the consuming and which would end up with a strategic advantage for further exploitation. Since the two chief adversaries were pretty evenly matched, Britain and Russia eventually divided Iran up into zones of influences, with Russia securing the right to dominate and plunder the north and Great Britain the right to do the same in the south. This agreement more or less solidified the country’s northern and southern borders and marked a line east of which all bets were off, a line that became Iran’s border with Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the Great Game was playing out in that wild territory to the east as well, the Hindu Kush mountains and the plains north of them. Here, in the early eighteenth century, a tribal chieftain named Ahmad Shah Baba had united the unruly Afghan tribes and carved out one of those sprawling empires that unfurled periodically into India. Ahmad Shah’s empire was to be the last of these, however, because his successors had to deal with a new reality: the two mighty European imperial powers pressing in from north and south. The Russians kept sending spies and agents into Afghan territory to press for alliances with the king or with any of the rival chieftains who might overthrow him. The British did the same.

Twice, Great Britain invaded and tried to occupy Afghanistan, in order to block out the Russians, but each time the Afghans drove the British back out. The first Anglo-Afghan war ended in 1841 with the Afghans massacring the entire British community and its army as it tried to flee the country. (A British army came back briefly, however, to set fire to the Grand Bazaar in Kabul and burn up everyone in it.)

The British were still licking the wounds they had suffered from their first invasion of Afghanistan when a conflagration erupted in India. It began in 1857 with a revolt among the foot soldiers known as sepoys. British officers had ordered these men to grease their bullets with a mixture of beef tallow and pig lard, and the order didn’t sit well. The vast majority of sepoys were either Hindus or Muslims. To the Hindus, cows were sacred so greasing bullets with their tallow felt like sacrilege. To the Muslims, pigs were ritually unclean beasts, and greasing bullets with their fat felt repulsive.

One day a whole regiment of sepoys refused to load their guns. The officer in charge took decisive action: he put the whole lot of them in prison, whereupon riots exploded all over town. Apparently, it never occurred to the British that issuing bullet grease made of beef and pig fat might offend their sepoys. This cluelessness reflected the cultural gulf between the British officers and their foot soldiers, a gulf that had not existed before Europeans arrived, even though Indian armies were frequently composed of many different ethnic and religious groups jammed together, Muslim Turks fighting alongside Muslim Persians fighting alongside Hindi-speaking Hindus and others. These groups quarreled and bristled at each other, but each knew who the others were: they interacted. In Moghul military camps, their languages blended into Urdu, a single new language derived from Hindi, Persian, and Turkish (Urdu literally means something like “soldier-camp lingo” in Turkish). In the British-led Indian army, no new language emerged. English didn’t blend with any of the local languages because the British officers and their men moved in separate strata.

With their bullet-grease gaffe, the British achieved the goal that had eluded Akbar the Great: they united the Muslims and Hindus. The sepoy rebellion expanded into the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857-1858, during which both Hindus and Muslims attacked British settlements all over India. Muslim activists called the mutiny a jihad, and their well-organized assaults suggested that the bullet-grease issue had merely been the spark: a great deal of preparation had gone into the mutiny.

A great deal of preparation and yet not nearly enough, because British troops crushed the rebellion quickly and then went on a rampage of their own, plundering Indian cities for about a month, hauling frightened locals out of their homes and massacring them in the streets. In at least one case, they had native prisoners line up along a pit and shot them in groups of ten so that when they died they would fall conveniently into the hole, which made burying them easier.6 British historian Sir Charles Crosthwaite depicted the victorious campaign as a British Iliad, calling it the “epic of the Race.”

Once the mutiny had been totally quelled, the British abandoned all pretense, sent the pitiful last Moghul monarch into exile, and relegated the East India Company to private status. The crown took charge of India directly. The ninety-year period of direct British rule that ensued was called “the Raj.”

British leaders regarded India as the “jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown” and guarded it even more jealously than before. In 1878, detecting new Russian interest in Afghanistan, they tried to occupy Kabul again. Once again, however, they miscalculated the difficulties of occupying a mountainous territory inhabited by so many hostile and mutually antagonistic tribes. It wasn’t that the land was hard to “conquer,” as Europeans understood the term conquest. Great Britain easily marched into the capital, put its own compliant nominee on the throne, and appointed an “envoy” to direct him. In most contexts, this would have been conquest. But the British found that bending Afghan leaders to their will did them little good. The leaders they bent simply broke off in their hands and ended up as their dependents, not their tools, while the tribal people they were supposedly the rulers of operated in the hills as leaderless guerillas. The second Anglo-Afghan War took a nasty turn when the British envoy Cavagnari was killed and ruinous urban battles broke out; in the end the British were forced to pull back to the subcontinent again.

In the wake of this second Anglo-Afghan war, the Russians and British decided the territory ruled by the Afghan tribes cost too much to occupy and agreed to make the whole place a buffer zone between their empires: the Russians would not come south of the Oxus River, if the British would agree not to push north of an arbitrary line in the desert drawn by British diplomat Mortimer Durand. The territory between these lines became Afghanistan. Afghan kings, who might have conquered widely in the past, now focused on conquering deeply instead—conquering each tribe, each little valley, until this no-man’s-land gradually came under the tenuous control of a central government headquartered in Kabul.

But of course, the Russians never really abandoned their hope of pushing on down to a port on the warm waters of the Indian Ocean; and the British never dropped their suspicion of Russian intentions; so the “Great Game” went on.

West of the Great Game, another drama unfolded throughout the nineteenth century, another extension of European politics playing out in the Muslim world. Here, the major players were Great Britain and France and the tokens they fought over were the provinces of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. To the Europeans, the core narrative was the struggle for power in Europe among the developed nation-states there. What happened in Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, and the rest of North Africa was just the relatively unimportant eastern part of the greater drama—just . . . “the Eastern question.”

The Eastern question gained particular urgency in the wake of the French Revolution, a revolution that frightened all the royal families of Europe, since its ideas denied the legitimacy of them all. The monarchies therefore united to crush the revolutionaries. They assumed this would be easy since the revolution had thrown France into such turmoil, but to the shock of all concerned, revolutionary France proved about as easy to conquer as a nest of angry hornets.

To make matters worse, out of the revolution came Napoleon Bonaparte, whose leadership instantly vaulted France to world-conquering might. Great Britain led the forces arrayed against Napoleon, and one episode of the struggle between these two sides took place in Egypt.

Western histories report that Napoleon went to Egypt in 1798 with an army of thirty-four thousand, Lord Nelson followed him there, the French lost a naval battle to the British in the Nile, Napoleon abandoned his army and sneaked home to stage a coup d’etat that made him the sole ruler of France and stronger than ever; and the war went on.

But what about the Egyptians? Who were they? What part did they play? Did they welcome Napoleon? Help him? Did he have to conquer them? Did they play any part in the battle between France and Britain? Who did they side with? What happened after the Europeans left? Western histories don’t address these questions much, focusing mainly on the clash of Britain and France. It’s almost as if the Egyptians weren’t there.

But of course they were there. When Napoleon arrived, Egypt was nominally still a province of the Ottoman Empire. Napoleon, however, engaged the main Egyptian armies in the shadow of the pyramids and destroyed them in less than a day! All the rest was mop-up until the British arrived, whereupon the real battles began—and they were between Europeans. The British fleet sank most of Napoleon’s ships in the Nile. He held on as “ruler” of Egypt for a year, but the plague ravaged his troops and order dissolved in the country he ruled as rebels attacked not so much French troops as any local authority. The British sent in more expeditions and convinced the Turks to attack Egypt too. Napoleon responded by sweeping into Syria and massacring thousands of people in the city of Jaffa. Finally he went back to Europe, but Egypt was a shambles by then. An Ottoman army officer soon took advantage of the turmoil to seize power. This man Mohammed Ali, a Turk born in Albania, declared himself “governor” of Egypt, as if he were acting only on behalf of the sultan in Istanbul. Everyone knew, however, that he was no governor but an independent power, a new king whom no one could deny.

Mohammed Ali saw how easily Napoleon cut his way into Egypt, and he was impressed. He decided he had better bring Egypt into line with whatever Europeans and especially the French were doing so that no new Napoleon and no new Lord Nelson could march in like a bunch of gang-bangers and treat Egypt like a grade-school playground.

But what was Napoleon’s secret? Well, Ali knew that Napoleon had stripped the French clergy of power, shut down church schools, and built a secular school system to replace it. Mohammed Ali decided to do the same thing in Egypt. He cut state funding for the ulama. He cut funding for the charitable foundations, the religious schools, and the mosques. He ordered all religious foundations to produce titles for the lands they owned, and of course they couldn’t do it, since their ownership went back to early medieval times, three or four empires ago. So Ali’s state took their lands. Egypt still had a class of elite mamluks entrenched as the country’s tax farmers, but Ali saw that in Europe the state collected taxes directly. So Mohammed Ali invited the leading tax-farming mamluks to dinner and had them massacred. Then he launched a crash program to build modern roads, modern schools, and the like. This was all a foretaste of a pattern that was to be repeated many times in the next century.

All this sudden development bankrupted Egypt, and Mohammed Ali had to borrow money to keep his government afloat. He borrowed it from European bankers, of course, who insisted that European financial advisers be allowed to monitor the various agencies of Mohammed Ali’s government, just to oversee the work and make sure the money was not being misused.

Meanwhile, the Ottomans were getting nervous about Mohammed Ali, who was asserting some claims to Syria. They were already too weak to curb him on their own, so they asked the British for help. The British said they would lend a hand if the Ottomans would only sign a treaty allowing Europeans certain privileges on Turkish soil. They organized a consortium of European nations to come in on the treaty, a coalition of the willing, so to speak, and when the dust settled, Mohammed Ali was safely confined to Egypt, but Europeans were powerful players throughout the Levant. Now, only “the Eastern question” remained to resolve, the question being: which European nation would be responsible for “protecting” which part of the eastern Mediterranean?

Egypt was the richest prize, so both France and Britain cozied up to rulers here. Mohammed Ali legally established his family as dynastic rulers of Egypt, power passing to his sons, grandsons, and so on down, and in the next few decades, these governor-kings of Egypt, these khedives as they were called, gave Britain a concession to build a railroad in Egypt; then mollified France with a rich contract to build the Suez canal; then placated the indignant British by giving them the right to build and own the Egyptian national bank, squeezing kickbacks out of each transaction for themselves—you see where this is going.

Meanwhile, Mohammed Ali’s descendants decided Egypt’s future lay in cotton. Textile manufacturing was the first enterprise to be industrialized in Europe, so the market for cotton became voracious, and the Nile Valley grew excellent cotton. Around 1860, the price of cotton on the world market suddenly soared. The khedive of that moment, a spend-thrift playboy of the Eastern world named Ismail, got starry-eyed with dreams of wealth for himself and his country. He borrowed enormous sums of money from European bankers to industrialize Egypt’s cotton industry overnight: he bought cotton gins and other such machinery at enormous expense, money he figured Egypt could easily repay since it would be selling cotton forever.

But the rise in cotton prices was a mere blip caused by the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, which choked off cotton exports from the southern states there and forced English textile factories to look elsewhere for thread. As soon as the U.S. Civil War ended, the price of cotton dropped and Egypt was ruined. Now, the bankers and financial advisers flooded into the country in earnest. Every Egyptian government official ended up with a European adviser of his very own. The Eastern questions still remained—both France and Britain stood poised to achieve total dominance in Egypt.

Britain seemed to have the edge, however, which made France all the more determined not to lose the edge it had further west. In the period of France’s revolutionary turmoil, two Algerian Jewish families had sold 8 million francs’ worth of grain to France to feed its armies. When Napoleon fell and France reverted to monarchy, France disavowed that debt. The Ottoman governor of this province met with the French consul, Pierre Duval, to demand an explanation. Duval told him France did not discuss money with Arabs. The governor slapped Duval in the face with . . . a fly swatter. What a blow to French honor! L’Affaire de Mouche-Swatter (the “affair of the fly swatter”) made it into the French press, and nobody laughed. More insults were exchanged and tensions went on rising. As it happened, there was a struggle under way in France just then between monarchists and liberals. The monarchists who held power saw domestic political advantage in a quick, successful military adventure. Napoleon had proven how easily Arabs could be defeated in Egypt, and so, in 1830, France invaded Algeria.7

The venture proved as quick and successful as any Frenchman might have hoped. The governor fled to Naples, leaving his fortune behind and his country leaderless. France hauled about 100 million francs out of Algeria, about half of which made it to the French treasury. The rest disappeared into the pockets of the soldiers and officers who invaded the country.

With its government gone, Algeria was a power vacuum, and you know how nature abhors those things. Instead of setting up a proxy or puppet, France decided to incorporate Algeria into its national structure as three new provinces. In other words, the French treated Algeria not as a colony but as part of France. A “joint stock” company was set up to sell land to French citizens who would immigrate to these new provinces and help “develop” them.

Even here in Algeria, which France out and out invaded, the foreigners flooding in as immigrants didn’t fight a war with the natives. They just bought up 80 percent of the land, fair and square, and set up a whole new economy that didn’t compete with the native economy so much as ignore it. Algerian Arabs remained free to plant what they wanted on whatever land they retained, ship what they grew to Algerian ports if they could afford the freight charges, and sell their products in world market if they could find any buyers, which they couldn’t. Or if they preferred, they could leave the land and move to the cities and start businesses, if they had the capital—which they didn’t—and if they could get a business license from French officials, which for various good and legal reasons, they often couldn’t.

So the Arabs of Algeria ended up buying and selling to each other in the old traditional ways while the bulk of the country, absorbed as it was into the European and world markets, did business in streamlined, super-productive modern ways.

If any Algerian had been asked whether he opposed or supported selling 80 percent of the country to French buyers, he would surely have said he opposed it. If anyone had been faced with that decision, he would almost certainly have decided no. But no one ever had a chance to decide whether to sell off 80 percent of the country. Each landowner who sold property to “the French” was only deciding whether to sell his one piece of land to this one buyer. It was quite possible to oppose selling 80 percent of the country to foreigners while seeing persuasive reasons to sell one particular bit of it to one particular foreigner.

Over the next century, the French community in Algeria grew to seven hundred thousand French citizens. They came to own most of the land and considered themselves native Algerians, since they were born on Algerian soil and most were the children of parents born there. Inconveniently, some 5 million Arabs happened to be living there as well and no one could fathom where they had come from or what they were doing there. They didn’t seem to have any function, and whatever they subsisted on, it was an almost completely separate economy from the one the French Algerians were involved in.

By 1850, Europeans controlled every part of the world that had once called itself Dar al-Islam. They lived in these countries as an upper class, they ruled them directly or decided who would rule, they controlled the resources, they dictated the policies, and they circumscribed the daily lives of their people. In places such as Egypt, Iran, and India, there were clubs that the native people could not enter because they were Egyptian or Iranian or Indian. Europeans had achieved this dominance without any grand war or broadscale assault. The Europeans were scarcely even aware that there had been a struggle and that they had won. But Muslims noticed, because it’s always harder to ignore a rock you’re under than a rock you’re on.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!