Arab Imperialism, Islamic Colonialism

I have to stress that I was traveling in the non-Arab Muslim world. Islam began as an Arab religion; it spread as an Arab empire. In Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia—the countries of my itinerary—I was traveling, therefore, among people who had been converted to what was an alien faith. I was traveling among people who had to make a double adjustment—an adjustment to the European empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and an earlier adjustment to the Arab faith. You might almost say that I was among people who had been doubly colonized, doubly removed from themselves.

V. S. Naipaul, New York Review of Books (January 31, 1991)

Open any modem introductory book on Islam and the chances are you will find that it begins by singing the praises of a people who conquered, in an incredibly short period, half the civilized world—of a people who established an empire that stretched from the banks of the Indus in the east to the shores of the Atlantic in the west. The volume will recount in positively glowing terms a time when Muslims ruled over a vast population of diverse peoples and cultures. One can hardly imagine a contemporary British historian being able to get away with similar eulogies on the British Empire, of a time when a large part of the world was colored red in English atlases to indicate the British Empire and possessions. While European colonialism and imperialism (both being general terms of abuse by now) are blamed for every ill on earth, and something of which all Europeans are made to feel ashamed, Arab imperialism is held up as something of which Muslims can be proud, something to be lauded and admired.

Although Europeans are constantly castigated for having imposed their insidious and decadent values, culture, and language on the Third World, no one cares to point out that Islam colonized lands that were the homes of advanced and ancient civilizations, and that in doing so, Islamic colonialism trampled under foot and permanently destroyed many cultures. In the words of Michael Cook,409 “The Arab conquests rapidly destroyed one empire,and permanently detached large territories of another. This was, for the states in question, an appalling catastrophe”; or, as Cook and Crone put it, the conquests were achieved at “extraordinary cultural costs.”410

Cook and Crone describe this process of Islamization in their book already discussed earlier. Speros Vryonis in his The Decline Of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century describes how the essentially Hellenic and Christian way of life, with its bishoprics and magnificent monasteries, were destroyed by the Turkish invasions of the 1060s and 1070s—many people fled, were captured, massacred, or enslaved. Vryonis describes a similar decline in the subsequent centuries with the eventual destruction of the Byzantine Empire.411

It is sad and ironic that in Algeria, for instance, all teaching in the French language was discontinued because the French language was considered a symbol of French colonialism, an illegitimate imperial presence. It is sad since it cuts a whole generation off from the rich cultural heritage of another civilization, but also ironic since Arabic is itself an imposed language. Arab imperialism not only imposed a new language on a people whose mother tongue was Berber, not Arabic, but even convinced the same people that they were ethnically Arabs—which they were not—and brainwashed them into accepting a religion that was alien to their own religious traditions. Bowing toward Arabia five times a day must surely be the ultimate symbol of this cultural imperialism.

Muslims despise co-religionists who accept what they see as alien Western values, and yet fail to see that they themselves could justifiably be seen as “traitors” to the culture of their ancestors. In India, for example, present-day Muslims are the descendants of Hindu converts, in Iran, of Zoroastrians, in Syria, of Christians. A vast number of Muslims throughout the world have been persuaded to accept a religion that originated thousands of miles away, to read a book in a language that they do not understand, which they learn to read and write before they know their mother tongue or the national language. These Muslims learn more of the history of a people remote from them geographically and ethnically than the past of their own countries before the advent of Islam.

Another one of the unfortunate consequences of the triumph of Islam is that it has cut millions of people off from their own rich, non-Muslim heritage. As V. S. Naipaul reflected during his travels in Pakistan,

The time before Islam is a time of blackness: that is part of Muslim theology. History has to serve theology. The excavated city of Mohenjodaro in the Indus Valley—overrun by the Aryans in 1500 B.C.—is one of the archaelogical glories of Pakistan and the world. The excavations are now being damaged by waterlogging and salinity, and appeals for money have been made to world organizations. A featured letter in Dawn [a daily Pakistani newspaper] offered its own ideas for the site. Verses from the Koran, the writer said, should be engraved and set up in Mohenjodaro in “appropriate places”: “Say (unto them, O Mohammed): Travel in the land and see the nature of the sequel for the guilty.... Say (O Mohammad, to the disbelievers): Travel in the land and see the nature of the consequence for those who were before you. Most of them were idolaters.”

Naipaul goes on to quote Sir Mohammed Iqbal (1875-1938), the Indian Muslim poet who is often considered the spiritual founder of Pakistan, and a kind of posthumous “national poet.” Naipaul writes:

It was the poet Iqbal’s hope that an Indian Muslim state might rid Islam of “the stamp that Arab imperialism was forced to give it.” It turns out now that the Arabs were the most successful imperialists of all time; since to be conquered by them (and then to be like them) is still, in the minds of the faithful, to be saved.

History, in the Pakistan school books I looked at, begins with Arabia and Islam. In the simpler texts, surveys of the Prophet and the first four caliphs and perhaps the Prophet’s daughter are followed, with hardly a break, by lives of the poet Iqbal, Mr Jinnah, the political founder of Pakistan, and two or three “martyrs,” soldiers or airmen who died in the holy wars against India in 1965 and 1971.

This contempt for the pagan past remains to limit the historical imaginations of most Muslims, to narrow the intellectual horizons. Certainly at the beginning, the sciences of Egyptology, Assyriology, and Iranology were the exclusive concerns of European and American scholars. It was left to the dedicated Western archaeologists to recover and give back to mankind a part of its glorious past.

Resistance to Arab Imperialism and Islam

The Arabs of the time just prior to Islam had no time for religion:412 “Religion of whatever kind it may have been generally had little place in the life of the Arabs, who were engrossed in worldly interests like fighting, wine, games and love.” Watt characterizes their way of life as “tribal humanism.” Thus it is not surprising that in the early “believers” or “converts” there are some who outwardly confess their belief but have no inclination in their heart toward Islamic morals and dogma and show no understanding of what Muhammad meant by and taught about “giving oneself to God.”413 The desert dwellers, that is, the Bedouin Arabs, were even less inclined to accept the new creed. Some of them, for example, from the tribes Ukl and Urayna, accepted Islam but, feeling uneasy living in a city, asked Muhammad if they could return to their former habitat. Muhammad gave them a herd and a herder and let them leave Medina; but on leaving Medina they killed their herder and reverted to unbelief. The Prophet exacted “a cruel revenge.”

Most Bedouins were not at all attracted by Islam, and in return they were despised by the city Arabs who had accepted it. As Goldziher pointed out, “there are countless stories, unmistakably taken from true life, which describe the indifference of the desert Arabs to prayer, their ignorance of the elements of Muslim rites, and even their indifference towards the sacred book of God itself and their ignorance of its most important parts. The Arabs always preferred to hear the songs of the heroes of paganism rather than holy utterances of the Koran.”414

But the Arabs themselves found the asceticism of Islam in respect to food and wine irksome in the extreme. Many refused to give up wine despite punishments. Goldziher describes the situation in this manner:

Traditions from the earliest days of Islam show us that amongst the representatives of the true Arab character there were people who valued freedom, to whom the new system, with its condemnation and punishment of free enjoyment, was so repulsive that they preferred to leave that society altogether, when it intended to impose upon them the din [religion, i.e., Islam] in earnest, rather than to lose their freedom. Such a man was Rabi’a b. Umayya b. Khalaf, a much respected man, famous for his generosity. He did not want to relinquish wine-drinking under Islam and even drank during the month of Ramadan. For this [the Caliph] Umar banned him from Medina, thereby making him so bitter against Islam that he did not wish to return to the capital even after Umar’s death, though he had reason to believe that Uthman [the third Caliph] would have been more lenient. He preferred to emigrate to the Christian empire and to become a Christian.415

Arab Racism

The myth of Islamic racial innocence was a Western creation and served a Western purpose. Not for the first time, a mythologized and idealized Islam provided a stick with which to chastise Western failings.416


One of the fundamental reasons for the periodic revolts in the history of Islam has been what Goldziher417 calls “the increasing arrogance and racial presumption” of the Arabs. Islam unequivocally teaches the equality of all believers, all Muslims (of course, non-Muslims are another matter altogether) before God. The Prophet himself was at pains to instill into the minds of the Arab tribes that from now on Islam, rather than tribal affiliation, was to be the unifying principle of society. However, tribal rivalries continued well into Abbasid times, feuds and competitions lingered long after Islam had condemned them. Tribes were unable to settle their differences and had to be grouped separately in war too, separate quarters, separate mosques.

Perhaps the most destructive and bloody rivalry was the one that existed between the northern and southern Arabs. After the Arab conquest of Andalusia, “these tribal groups had to be settled in different parts of the country in an attempt to prevent civil wars, which occurred nonetheless.” Mustafa b. Kamal al-Din al-Siddiqi writes in the year 1137 A.H.: “The fanatical hatred between the Qaysite [northern Arab] and Yemenite [southern Arab] factions continues to this day amongst some ignorant Arabs, and even now wars between them have not ceased, though it is well known that such actions belong to those of the Jahiliyya and are forbidden by the Prophet.”418

Even within tribes belonging to the same group, some tribes considered themselves far superior to another, to the extent of refusing intermarriage.

Traditions attributed to the Prophet were fabricated and “misused for racial rivalry.”As the Arabs conquered more and more territories, the appointments to the most important offices did not satisfy the two rival tribes and were the cause of bloody civil wars. As Goldziher says, the racial rivalry of the first two centuries of Islam shows the lack of success of the Muslim teachings of equality among the Arabs.


We come now to another sphere where the Muslim teaching of the equality of all men in Islam remained a dead letter for a long time, never realised in the consciousness of Arabs, and roundly denied in their day to day behaviour. [Goldziher p. 98]

After their spectacular conquests, the Arabs were unwilling to concede equality to the non-Arab converts to Islam, despite Islamic doctrine that expressly forbade discrimination. But for the Arabs there were the conquered and the conquerers, and there was no question of the Arabs giving up their privileges. “Non-Arab Muslims were regarded as inferior and subjected to a whole series of fiscal, social, political, military, and other disabilities.”419 The Arabs ruled as a “sort of conquistador tribal aristocracy,” to which only “true Arabs” could belong, a true Arab being one who was of free Arab ancestry on both his father’s and mother’s side. The Arabs took concubines from the conquered peoples, but their children by these slave women were heavily discriminated against and were not considered full Arabs.

The Arabs practiced a kind of apartheid toward the non-Arab Muslims: “The Arabs looked upon [the non-Arab Muslims] as aliens and, regardless of what class they belonged to, treated them with scorn and contempt. They led them into battle on foot. They deprived them of a share of the booty. They would not walk on the same side of the street with them, nor sit at the same repast. In nearly every place separate encampments and mosques were constructed for their use. Marriage between them and Arabs was considered a social crime.”420


To the Muslims—as to the people of every other civilisation known to history—the civilised world meant themselves. They alone possessed enlightenment and the true faith; the outside world was inhabited by infidels and barbarians. Some of these were recognized as possessing some form of religion and a tincture of civilisation. The remainder—polytheists and idolaters—were seen primarily as sources of slaves.421

The Koran accepts the institution of slavery and recognizes the essential inequality of master and slave (suras 16.77; 30.28). Concubinage is permitted (suras 4.3; 23.6; 33.50-52; 70.30). The Koran also enjoins kindness towards slaves, and the liberation of a slave is considered a pious act. The Prophet himself took many prisoners during his wars against the Arab tribes; those that were not ransomed were reduced to slavery.

Under Islam, slaves have no legal rights whatsoever, they are considered as mere “things,” the property of their master, who may dispose of them in any way he chooses—sale, gift, etc. Slaves cannot be guardians or testamentary executors, and what they earn belongs to their owner. A slave cannot give evidence in a court of law. Even conversion to Islam by a non-Muslim slave does not mean that he is automatically liberated. There is no obligation on the part of the owner to free him.

In the early years of the Arab conquests, vast numbers of slaves were acquired by capture; “the use of this labor enabled the Arabs to live on the conquered land as a rentier class and to exploit some of the economic potential of the rich Fertile Crescent.”422 But as the conquered peoples began to be given protected status, this source of slaves began to dry up, and Arabs looked farther afield for their supply of slaves. Certain vassal states were annually forced to supply hundreds of male and female slaves as part of a tribute.

Arabs were deeply involved in the vast network of slavetrading—they scoured the slave markets of China, India, and Southeast Asia. There were Turkish slaves from Central Asia, slaves from the Byzantine Empire, white slaves from Central and East Europe, and black slaves from West Africa and East Africa. Every city in the Islamic world had its slave market.

From the moment of their capture to the time of their sale, hundreds of slaves were forced to put up with degrading and inhuman conditions, and hundreds died of exhaustion and disease. The “lucky” ones became domestic servants, while the unlucky ones were exploited to the maximum working in the salt mines, draining the marshes, working in the cotton and sugar plantations.

Though the practice was expressly forbidden by Islam, the female slaves were hired out as prostitutes. Otherwise, of course, they were at the entire sexual disposal of their master. In the words of Stanley Lane-Pool:

The condition of the female slave in the East is indeed deplorable. She is at the entire mercy of her master, who can do what he pleases with her and her companions; for the Muslim is not restricted in the number of his concubines. ... The female white slave is kept solely for the master’s sensual gratification, and is sold when he is tired of her, and so she passes from master to master, a very wreck of womanhood. Her condition is a little improved if she bear a son to her tyrant; but even then he is at liberty to refuse to acknowledge the child as his own, though it must be owned he seldom does this. Kind as the Prophet was himself toward bondswomen, one cannot forget the unutterable brutalities which he suffered his followers to inflict upon conquered nations in the taking of slaves. The Muslim soldier was allowed to do as he pleased with any “infidel” woman he might meet with on his victorious march. When one thinks of the thousands of women, mothers and daughters, who must have suffered untold shame and dishonour by this license, he cannot find words to express his horror And this cruel indulgence has left its mark on the Muslim character, nay, on the whole character of Eastern life.

In discussions of the lot of women under Islam, there is a tendency to forget almost entirely the fate, treatment, conditions, and the very limited rights of the female slave.


I wonder what Russians would make of the fact—if they are at all aware of it—that their greatest writer, Pushkin, had black Ethiopian ancestry. Similarly, what do Arabs make of their black, normally Ethiopian, poets, known as the “crows of the Arabs”? There were several Arabic poets during the pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods who were either pure Africans or of mixed Arab and African parentage. It is clear from their poetry that they suffered racial prejudice and even, to a certain extent, developed a kind of self-hatred and self-pity: laments and apologies of the kind, “I am black but my soul is white,” “Women would love me if I were white” are frequent in their poetry. We might mention the names of Suhaym (d. 660), Nusayb ibn Rabah (d. 726), a contemporary of Nusayb, al-Hayqutan, and Abu Dulama (d. ca. 776) as the most eminent of these “crows.” Black slaves had even lower status in early Muslim society. In the words of Lewis, “In ancient Arabia, as elsewhere in antiquity, racism—in the modern sense of the word—was unknown. The Islamic dispensation, far from encouraging it, condemns even the universal tendency to ethnic and social arrogance and proclaims the equality of all Muslims before God. Yet, from the literature, it is clear that a new and sometimes vicious pattern of racial hostility and discrimination had emerged within the Islamic world.”424


Slavery in the Islamic world continued, astonishingly enough, well into the twentieth century. According to Brunschvig,425 “black slaves of both sexes continued to be imported into Morocco until well into the twentieth century, with some pretence at secrecy since the open traffic from Timbuktu and public sale had become impossible.”

There is enough evidence to show that slavery persisted in Saudi Arabia and the Yemen up to the 1950s. Slavery was so deeply rooted in these countries that abolition was a very slow process. It was due to foreign influence that the process began at all. Islam, as Brunschvig points out, has never preached the abolition of slavery as a doctrine; and the “fact, brought out in the Kuran, that slavery is in principle lawful, satisfies religious scruples. Total abolition might even seem a reprehensible innovation, contrary to the letter of the holy Book and the exemplary practice of the first Muslims.”

In more recent times, workers from Southeast Asia employed in domestic service, in the Arab Middle East, or Saudi Arabia have been treated as slaves—with their passports taken away, often forbidden to leave the house (even locked in their rooms). According to a report in the French magazine, L Vie (no. 2562, 6 Oct. 1994) 45,000 young black Africans a year are still kidnapped and reduced to slavery—as servants in the Gulf States and the Middle East.

Anti-Arab Reaction


Taking their name from verse 13 of sura 49, which teaches the equality of all Muslims, the Shu’ubiya was a party that objected to Arab arrogance and even exalted the non-Arab over the Arab whom they thoroughly despised as barbarians from the deserts of Arabia. This party reached its greatest influence during the second and the third Muslim century. Under the Abbasid caliphs, certain Persian families sought the restoration of Zoroastrian customs—a clear indication that Islam meant very little to educated, upper-class Persian circles. For example, the general of the Abbasid caliph al-Mutasim (833), Khaydhar b. Kawus, also known as Afshin, was very active and militarily successful in the religious wars against Christians and “heretics” like Babak—in short, he was an early Islamic hero. And yet it is clear that he:

was so little a Muslim that he cruelly maltreated two propagandists of Islam who wished to transform a pagan temple into a mosque; he ridiculed Islamic laws and ... ate meat of strangled animals (a horror to Muslims), and also induced others to do so by saying that such meat was fresher than that of animals killed according to the Islamic rite.... He ridiculed circumcision and other Muslim customs, and paid no attention to them.... He dreamed of the restoration of the Persian empire and the “white religion,” and mocked Arabs, Maghribines, and Muslim Turks.426

As Goldziher says, Afshin is but a typical example of how many non-Arabs joined the Muslim cause for material advantages, all the while hating the Arabs for having destroyed their national Persian independence and ancestral traditions, and dreaming of repaying the rebuffs they had suffered for centuries.427

There were many ways of countering the contempt in which the Arabs held various non-Arab groups. These defensive tactics are of intrinsic historical interest, but they are also very important in that many contemporary thinkers, particularly, as we shall see later, Berber intellectuals, see them as a way of escaping Arab imperialism, and even Islam itself, forever.

Every despised group pointed to its own glorious pre-Islamic past to counter Arab contempt. The Persians obviously did not have to exaggerate or invent a past to show the antiquity and sophistication of their civilization. The Nabataeans tried to do the same. The Nabataeans were an ancient Arab people mentioned as early as the seventh century B.C. A Nabataean alchemist, Ibn Wahshiyya,428 “moved by grim hatred of the Arabs and full of bitterness about their contempt of his compatriots, decided to translate and make accessible the remnants of ancient Babylonian literature preserved by them in order to show that the ancestors of his people, so despised by the Arabs, had had a great civilization and had excelled in knowledge many peoples of antiquity.” The so-called translation, “Nabataean Agriculture,” is now thought to be Ibn Wahshiyya’s forgery. Similarly, the Copts of Egypt wrote books “which described the deeds of the ancient Egyptians with a bias against the Arabs.”

In general the achievements of the non-Arabs in all fields are constantly emphasized: “The Shu’ubites do not fail to mention arts and sciences which were given to mankind by non-Arabs: philosophy, astronomy and silk embroidery, which were practised by non-Arabs whilst the Arabs were still in a state of deepest barbarism, while everything that Arabs can be proud of is centred in poetry; but here too they are outdone by others, notably by the Greeks.” The games that were invented by non-Arabs, chess and nard, are also mentioned. What have the Arabs to set against such refinements of civilization in order to make good their claim to glory? “In the face of this they are but howling wolves and prowling beasts, devouring one another and engaged in eternal mutual fighting.”429


Perhaps the rebellion of the Khurramis gave the Abbasid rulers more cause for concern than any other. The Khurramis represented a social and religious movement that was derived from Mazdakism and came into prominence in the eighth century. Whatever the nature of this movement in the eighth century, when Babak Khurrami (or Korrami) took over its leadership in the early ninth century, he turned it into an anti-Arab, anti-caliphal, and to a certain extent an anti-Muslim revolt. Popular dislike of Arab rule increased the number of his followers in Azerbaijan, but there were Khurramis in many other cities and regions such as Tabarestan, Khorasan, Balk, Isfahan, Qom, and Armenia. Babak successfully resisted the Abbasid forces for nearly twenty years, emerging victorious time and again from battles conducted in narrow mountain passes. Finally the Caliph al-Mutasim appointed al-Afshin (see previous section) as commander, and within two years Babak had been captured. In 838, Babak was publically humiliated and then executed in an extremely cruel fashion on the orders of al-Mutasim.

The Khurrami movement seems to have continued into the ninth century, and there is evidence of a cult of Babak as late as the eleventh century.

Pre-Islamic Glories

It was not until the nineteenth century once again that a Muslim country took an interest in her pre-Islamic past. In 1868, Sheikh Rifa al-Tahtawi, the Egyptian man of letters, poet, and historian, published a history of Egypt, giving full attention to her pharaonic past. Up to then, of course, histories of Egypt had begun with the Arab conquests. Al-Tahtawi sought to define Egyptian identity in national and patriotic terms—not in terms of Islam, or Pan-Arabism. Perhaps for the first time in Islamic history, someone tried to see his country as having a “living, continuing identity through several changes of language, religion, and civilization.”431

The reason Sheikh Rifa’s achievement is so important is that for the first time since the early days of the Shu’ubiyya, someone dared to challenge the official Muslim dogma that pre-Islamic times were times of barbarism and ignorance and unworthy of consideration. He dared sing the praise of pagan Egypt; he dared give voice to the thought that there were, after all, alternatives to Islamic civilization, that civilizations can and did take different forms. If this process of historical education were to continue in other Muslim countries—after all, Iraq and Iran can also boast of a magnificent pre-Islamic past—it would lead to a much-needed broadening of the intellectual life, a deeper tolerance for other ways of life, a simple expansion of historical knowledge that has remained so limited and narrow. Greater knowledge of the pre-Islamic past can only lead to the lessening of fanaticism. If pharaonic and later Christian Egypt were seen to be equal sources of pride, then would not the Copts be accepted as fellow Egyptians, instead of being the persecuted minority in their own ancestral land that they actually are? Would we not get a truer Algerian identity, asks Slimane Zeghidour, if we acknowledged our common and varied past—Berber, Roman, Arab, French? (Telerama 1, July 1992) The ideas of change and continuity will also have to become a part of the Muslim’s consciousness if Muslim societies are to move forward—this will only occur with the recognition of the pre-Islamic past, and a just appraisal of the period of European colonialism.

The deliberate ignoring of the pre-Islamic past has had a subtler corrupting influence on the peoples of the Muslim world. As Naipaul put it, “the faith abolished the past. And when the past was abolished like this, more than an idea of history suffered. Human behavior, and ideals of good behavior, could suffer.” Everything is seen through the distorting perspective of the “only true faith.” Human behavior is judged according to whether it has contributed to the establishment of this one “truth”—truth, courage, and heroism, by definition, can only belong to “our side.” The period before the coming of the faith was to be judged in one way,” and what lay outside it was to be judged in another. The faith altered values, ideas of good behavior, human judgments” (New York Review of Books, 31 Jan. 1991). The fact that this “true faith” was established with much greed and cruelty is overlooked or excused—cruelty in the service of the faith is even commendable and divinely sanctioned.

This perverted division of the world into the faithful and the infidel has had a disastrous effect on the perception of even nominally secular-minded Arab intellectuals, who, as we shall see, transfer all responsibility for the lamentable state of the Middle East onto the West.

European Imperialism

It is true that the French invaded Algeria, but so did the Arabs and Turks before them. It is true that they colonized the country and appropriated large tracts of land, but so did the Arabs and Turks before them. The French were no doubt guilty of great misdeeds, but were theirs greater than those of their predecessors? In the time of the French there were undoubtedly oppression and poverty, but was the Algeria of the corsairs, or the one which came into being in 1962, an exemplar of freedom, prosperity and justice? How many Algerians, one wonders, are now sighing for the days of the French, such as they were.

Kedourie, Times Literary Supplement, 10 July 1992

That Algeria before the French arrived in the 1830s was “uncivilised” by any reasonable definition is certain.

Hugh Thomas432

No Indian with any education and some regard for historical truth, ever denied that, with all its shortcomings, British rule had, in the balance, promoted both the welfare and the happiness of the Indian people.

Nirad Chaudhuri433

One only hopes that a deeper historical understanding will extend to the period of European imperialism. Let us look at the example of India. After the first heady days of independence in 1947, Indian historians poured out “nationalist” histories that found no redeeming features in the British Empire. Later, every ill, every failure, every shortcoming of the new country in the 1960s and 1970s was ultimately traced back to the satanic period of the British presence, to past British exploitation. Almost fifty years later, more mature judgments give a more balanced picture of the benefits that the British conferred on India. Here is how radical humanist, Tarkunde434 sums up the British contribution:

It is one of the myths created by the imagination of Indian nationalists that prior to the establishment of British rule India was a culturally and economically advanced country and that its material and moral degradation was caused by foreign domination. Even a cursory look at Indian history would show the baselessness of this supposition. If India were indeed an advanced country, it could not have been conquered so easily by a handful of traders coming over a distance of nearly 6000 miles in wind-driven wooden vessels. India was then a country of despotism, injustice and near anarchy, and the bulk of the people welcomed the law and order established by British rule. Although British rule in India ceased to have any progressive potentiality by about the beginning of the present century, its initial impact on the country was highly beneficial. Due to the exhilirating contact with the spirit of freedom, rationalism and human dignity represented by British liberal thought, a belated Renaissance began to develop in India. It took the shape of a movement against religious superstition and in favor of such social causes as abolition of Sati, legalisation of widow remarriage, promotion of women’s education, prevention of child marriages and opposition to the custom of untouchability.

Parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, and nature of that law are some of the legacies of the British. The Arabs showed very little interest in the history and culture of the conquered peoples. The British in India, by contrast, gave back to all Indians—Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist—their own culture in a series of works of monumental intellectual dedication, works that are a moving testimony to disinterested intellectual inquiry, scientific curiosity, works that in many cases have not been surpassed by modem research. Imperialists like Lord Curzon saved many of India’s architectural monuments, including the Taj Mahal, from ruin.

I have taken India as an example, but as Kedourie and others have shown, European imperial rule, in general, with all its shortcomings, ultimately benefited the ruled as much as the rulers. Despite certain infamous incidents, the European powers conducted themselves, on the whole, very humanely.

Of course, many of the the European conquests were achieved at the expense of Islam. The nature of Muslim dogma ill-prepared the Muslims for defeat:

Political success vindicated Islam, and the course of world history proved the truth of the religion. Muslims fought to extend the bounds of Islam and humble the unbelievers; the fight was holy, and the reward of those who fell was eternal bliss. Such a belief, which the history of Islam itself seemed to establish beyond doubt, inspired in Muslims self-confidence and powerful feelings of superiority. Hence, the long series of defeats at the hands of Christian Europe could not but undermine the self-respect of the Muslims, and result in a far-reaching moral and intellectual crisis. For military defeat was defeat not only in a worldly sense; it also brought into doubt the truth of the Muslim revelation itself.435

In this context, it is not surprising that Muslim intellectuals, with one or two exceptions, have been inculcating in the Muslim masses a hatred of the West that can only, in the long term, lead to a retardation of the acceptance for the need for reform, for change, for the adoption of human rights, for the rule of law—in short, for all those ideas that originated in the West, and that are considered the defining characteristics of Western civilization.

It is a depressing fact that during the Gulf War almost every single Muslim and Arab intellectual sympathized with Saddam Hussein, because, we are told, “he stood up to the West.” In this explanation is summed up all the sense of Islamic failure, and feelings of inferiority vis-à-vis the West. The Muslim world must indeed be in a dire way if it sees hope in a tyrant who has murdered literally thousands of his own countrymen—Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, Muslims, and Jews. These same intellectuals seem incapable of self-criticism, and still the old battles are being fought—“them” and “us,” the Crusades all over again. Every ill, every failure in the Muslim world is still blamed on the West, Israel, or some Zionist conspiracy. As Kanan Makiya436 so courageously pointed out,

Old habits die hard. They die hardest of all among people who have made it their duty to awaken pride in self and a sense of collective identity by blaming all ills on some “other”—a foreign agency or “alien” culture outside the community one is trying to extol, and often more powerful and dynamic. The painful thing to observe is the unrelenting stridency of the Arab intelligentsia’s attempt to blame every ill on the West or Israel. The language gets more unreal, hysterical, and self-flagellating, the less the Arab world is actually able to achieve politically and culturally in modem times.

The modern Arab intellectual is influencing Arabs to define themselves negatively: “he is who he is because of who he hates, not because of who he loves or is in solidarity with.” Inevitably, the same Arab intellectual and his impressionable audience glorify some mythical past, some Golden Age when “one Muslim could singlehandedly defeat one hundred infidels.” “His people would be glorious, his state would be all-powerful, but for the machinations of the imperialists (or the Great Satan, which amounts to the same thing).” As Kanan Makiya says, how about trying some self-criticism for a change, a point also made by Fuad Zakariya: “our cultural task at this stage is to take the bull of backwardness by the horns and criticize ourselves before we criticize the image, even if it is deliberately distorted, that others make of us.”437

Berber Nationalism

The Berber-speaking peoples have been living in North Africa since prehistoric times. “Proto-berbers” have been settled in North Africa since 7000 B.C. The Berbers had some contact with Carthage, but on the whole led independent lives, divided into rival tribes. Occasionally a leader of genius succeeded in uniting these tribes into an impressive empire. Masinissa (238 B.C.-148 B.C.), son of Gaia, king of the eastern Numidian Massyles, was brought up at Carthage, and fought on the side of the Carthaginians against the Romans. But he joined the Romans, and his cavalry played a decisive part in the famous victory of the Romans at Zama (202 B.C.) Masinissa was now able to create a kingdom comprising the whole of Numidia, uniting all the Berber tribes.

My purpose is not to give a history of the Berbers, but merely to adumbrate the existence of a complex and rich civilization, that had its own languages, script, and history before the arrival of the Arabs. This sketch will prepare the background for the views of modern Berber intellectuals who reject Arab imperialism and Islam.

After Masinissa, the successive empires of the Romans, Vandals, and the Byzantines were equally unable to tame the independence of the Berbers. Nor did the first arrival of the Arabs in any way affect the independence of the Berbers. Okba b. Nafi, the Muslim general, tried without success to subdue these wild tribes. In fact, one of their leaders, Kusaila, was able to surprise and kill Okba and three hundred of his men at Tahuda in 683. As with many of the early Arab tribes, the Berbers slowly converted to Islam, not from deep religious conviction but rather from material self-interest, in the hope of winning booty. With the help of the Berbers, some of whom, ironically are glorified as “Arab heroes”—Berbers like Tariq ibn Zaid, who began the conquest of Spain—the Arab generals completed the conquest of North Africa.

But, just as with the non-Arab Muslims in Persia and Syria, the Berbers were offended at being treated as inferiors by the Arabs, and complained that they were not getting a fair share of the booty. Inevitably, they rose in revolt against the Arabs, who suffered a series of spectacular defeats. The eleventh and twelfth centuries saw the establishment of two Berber dynasties, the Almoravids (1056-1147) and the Almohads (1130-1269), and even the later Marinids were also descendants of Berber tribes.

Berber belongs to the Afro-Asiatic (or the Semito-Hamitic) family of languages. At present, some two or three hundred Berber dialects are spoken by a total of approximately 12 million peoples in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Chad, Burkina Faso Niger, Mali, and Mauretania. The main dialects in Algeria are Kabyle and Shawia; Shluh, Tamazight, and Riff in Morocco; Tamahaq (Tamashek) or Tuareg in various Saharan countries. The oldest inscriptions in a Berber language date back perhaps to 200 B.C., and are written in Tifinag, which is still used by the Tamahaq speakers.


Kateb Yacine (1929-1989), the Algerian writer, was the most famous intellectual to reject the cultural imperialism of Islam and Arabic, and to defend staunchly the language of his ancestors, Berber. He developed religious skepticism early: “I first went to Koranic school, but I didn’t like religion, in fact, I took a dislike to it,” recalls Yacine, “especially when they used to smack the soles of our feet with a ruler to make us learn, without understanding anything of it, the Koran. At French school, our teacher was like a second mother to us, I had one who was extraordinary, someone who knew how to interest us, she made us want to go to school” (Le Monde, 31 Oct. 1989). In a by-now famous interview on Radio Beur (a station specially for French of Algerian descent), Yacine scandalized everyone by declaring that he was neither Muslim nor Arab, but Algerian. Then in 1987, in an interview for the journal Awal, Yacine vented his deep aversion to Islam: “The Algeria Arabo-Islamic is an Algeria against herself, an Algeria alien to herself. It is an Algeria imposed by arms, for Islam does not develop with sweets and roses, it develops with tears and blood. It grows by crushing, by violence, by contempt, by hatred, by the worst humiliation a people can support. We can see the result” [Le Monde, 20 May 1994, p. 5]. He expressed the hope that one day “Algeria” (“a touristic term”) would be called by its true name, Tamezgha, the country where Berber (Tamazight) is spoken.

Yacine had nothing but harsh words for the three monotheistic religions that, in his view, had caused nothing but unhappiness in the world: “These religions are profoundly evil (‘nefastes’) and the unhappiness of our people comes from there. The unhappiness of Algeria started there. We have talked of the Romans and the Christians. Now let us talk of the Arabo-Islamic connection: the longest, the hardest, and the most difficult to combat.”

Just before his death in 1989, Yacine wrote a passionate preface to a book of songs by Berber singer Ait Menguelet. Yacine begins his preface with a reference to the 1980 banning in Algeria of a conference on ancient Kabyle poetry, a banning that resulted in riots as Berbers defended their ancestral language. Kateb Yacine went on to complain that just as they were once forced to learn French in the hope of creating a French Algeria, the Algerians are being forced to learn Arabic and forbidden to speak their mother tongue, Tamazight or Berber: “Algeria is a country subjugated by the myth of the Arab nation, for it is in the name of Arabization that Tamazight is repressed. In Algeria and throughout the world, there is a belief that Arabic is the language of the Algerians.” But it is Tamazight that is the country’s first language, and that has lasted despite centuries of foreign domination.

Our armed struggle ended the destructive myth of French Algeria, but we have succumbed to the power of the even more destructive myth of Arab-Islamic Algeria. French Algeria lasted 104 years. Arab-Islamic Algeria has lasted thirteen centuries! The deepest form of alienation is no longer the belief that we are French, but the belief that we are Arabs. There is no Arab race and no Arab nation. There is a sacred language, that of the Koran, used by the rulers to prevent the people from discovering their own identity.

Many Algerians believe themselves to be Arabs, deny their origins, and consider their greatest poet Ait Menguellet, who writes in Berber, a foreigner (Le Monde, 3 Nov. 1989).

Berber Identity in Algeria, 1994

In April 1994, a series of marches commemorated the “Berber Spring” of 1980 when the Berbers rioted in favor of their language. They were organized by a number of Berber cultural groups who insist on their Berber identity: “We want,” said one of the founders of Rassemblement pour la culture et la democratie (RCD), “the recognition of a second national language [i.e., Berber], and a different identity to that of an Arabo-Islamist one, that is a demand for pluralism. It’s the Berber Cultural Movement that is the origin of the first Human Rights League in Algeria, and of democracy.”

These reform-minded Berbers see no compatibility between the ideas of the Islamists and democracy and human rights. The Berbers believe it is their “duty to oppose the installation of fascism,” not wishing to see their country sinking into “barbarism” (Infomation, 20 April 1994).

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