Professor Nazeer Ahmed
A hundred years from today, a scribe looking at world history in perspective, will write that the saga of Anglo-American dominance started with the year 1799 CE and was over by the year 2025 CE when China displaced the United States as the dominant economic power of the world.
It was a fascinating period in world history when mankind made giant strides in understanding and controlling the forces of nature culminating in landing a man on the moon. Technology created enormous wealth and made a few individuals extremely wealthy.
It was also a period when the fruits of technology were not available to all and in the midst of plenty there were oceans of poverty with millions of people going hungry every day and children starving to death.
Great ideas emerged and animated the world of man—the ideas of democracy, fraternity and women’s suffrage. Liberty and freedom were championed by the nations of Europe and America. But the very nations who championed them denied liberty and freedom to other nations, often by force of arms.
Technology bestowed upon man unimaginable power but this power was used to create nuclear weapons of such destructive capacity that they held all life on earth hostage.
It was a period of heavenly promise and devilish greed. Strides made in agricultural production and disease control held out the promise of eradicating hunger and epidemics. But excessive greed sucked up the wealth and poverty and disease remained endemic.
The scribe will write that the Anglo-Americans dominated this period in world history with a singular focus on cornering for themselves the giant’s share of the riches of the world. Every idea, however sublime or however mundane, was subservient to this goal. Religion, democracy, military power, trade, even history and sociology became tools in the hands of economic empire builders.
The scribe will also write that the Islamic world spent much of this period gazing at its own belly button, unable to get its act together and develop a satisfactory response to the challenge from the west. It remained bogged down, at loggerheads with itself over secondary and tertiary doctrinal issues, divided, tossed around, occupied, colonized and exploited from outside. Its footprint was a near zero in world affairs, its chief function relegated to that of a supplier of oil and other resources to the ever expanding consumer appetite of the industrial powers.
This was the Anglo-American saga in which first England and then America played a leading role with Russia and France in a supportive role. It is a grand attempt to capture this fascinating period of human history in a brief paper. We divide this saga into three parts: Conquest and Consolidation (1799-1914 CE), Conflict (1914-1945 CE), Decay and Disintegration (1945-2025 CE).
It was the year 1799 CE. The armies of Napoleon invaded Egypt on their way to India to link up with the armies of Tippu Sultan of Mysore and expel the British from India. However, Napoleon was defeated by a Turkish-British force in Palestine and Tippu fell in the Battle of Srirangapatam (1799 CE) dashing any hopes of a French conquest of Asia. Napoleon retreated to Europe, and in a fateful miscalculation invaded Russia, only to be defeated and annihilated by a combination of the harsh Russian winter and the resilience of the Russian army. Napoleon finally lost out at the Battle of Waterloo (1812 CE) and was expelled to the island of Corsica.
Meanwhile India fell to British armies. Within six years of Tippu’s death, the armies of the East India Company were at the Red Fort in Delhi, the seat of the once rich and powerful Mogul Empire. The plunder of India that had started with the fall of Bengal (1757) extended to the entire subcontinent. The India that had boasted 22 percent of the GDP of the world at the height of the Mogul Empire in 1700 CE was brought to its knees and reduced to penury and famine.
After the Napoleonic wars, England, France and Russia realized that there was more to be gained in cooperating with each other over colonial spoils than in fighting with each other. An entente emerged between the three powers, sometimes written, sometimes unwritten on how to divide up their colonies. Russia occupied the Caucuses and Central Asia; France extended its hold on West Africa; Great Britain consolidated its hold on India and Egypt. With the riches of India at its disposal, England embarked on its industrial revolution and used a combination of technological superiority and economic prowess to colonize vast areas of Asia and Africa.
Even China did not escape the avarice of the European powers. Britain, with the support at various times of France, Russia, Japan and Germany, waged war on China (1839-1860) to compel it to open its borders for the opium trade and unhindered preaching of Christianity. Opium, produced in northwestern India and Afghanistan was forced on China to weaken it from within. So the British and the other powers walked in, dope in one hand and the Bible in the other. It was the most blatant example of drug peddling in human history. It produced hordes of drug addicts and devastated the Chinese social, political and economic structures. Sun Yat-Sen (d 1925) tried to stem the decay but the process was scuttled by invasions from an aggressive, expansionist, imperial Japan.
The Dutch, not to be left out of the colonial party, carved out for themselves an empire based on Java and the Indonesian islands, while the French subjugated Indochina. The Dutch empire was a satellite empire of the British and was sustained through British support. Together, the European empires built up an interconnected web that shrouded the entire globe.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic a new power rose up, proclaiming the equality of man, emphasizing the sanctity of individual liberty, building itself up on the energies of waves of immigrants while benefiting from the enormous profits from the Atlantic slave trade. The vast North American continent was its turf, its enormous agricultural potential its wealth. The vast plains beyond the Mississippi beckoned the immigrants who stretched out, obliterating the native Indians who stood in their way. By the beginning of the twentieth century, America was the largest economic power on earth.
Standing in the way of European expansion, vaulting the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, stood the Ottoman Empire, nominally Islamic but including a large number of European Christian subjects. Its location was its vulnerability, its decaying institutions its weakness. In the tug of war of real politic, the Ottomans lost out to the European powers. Caught between the Russian hammer from the north and the Anglo-French anvil to the south, the Ottomans lost Algeria (1840 CE), Egypt (1978 CE), Libya (1910 CE), the Balkans (1911 CE) and finally their Middle Eastern heartland (1917-1918 CE).
Overshadowing the rise of European empires was the rises of the credit economy. Wars were expensive and the warring monarchs often turned to the bankers to borrow and bankroll their imperial adventures. The industrial revolution and the growing global markets required liquidity and the merchants were forced to borrow to finance their growing operations. The bankers deftly used such occasions to elbow out the merchants and extract concessions from the sovereigns including the right to print and circulate their notes (paper money) and guarantee their convertibility. By 1825, the major economies of Europe had surrendered their monetary policies to a small body of Europe based bankers who had the right to control the supply of money and the availability of credit. It took a little longer for this control to extend to Germany (1871-85) and the United States (1913).
Britain gradually surrendered its dominant position in manufacturing to other nations. The United States captured the southwest in the Mexican wars (1846-48), survived the civil war (1861-65) and consolidated its continent sized economy interconnected by coast to coast railroads, emerging as the dominant economy of the world. In the Far East, imperial Japan invaded and occupied the Korean peninsula and Chinese Manchuria, building up a strong military. And in Central Europe, Germany, unified under Bismarck, industrialized itself, rapidly eclipsing the productive capacity of Great Britain.
The First World War began as a series of miscalculations by the European powers. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which appealed to fellow Orthodox Russia. When Russia entered the fray as an ally of Serbia, Germany declared war on Russia. Fear of German dominance brought Great Britain and France into the war. They, in turn, dragged in their colonies with them.
The Ottoman Empire was a hesitant partner in the Great War. Militarily weak, mauled in the Balkan wars by the combined armies of Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria, divided by a recent revolution of the Young Turks who had overthrown the monarchy, the Ottomans entered the war out of their desire to recover their Balkan territories and the lure of 1billion gold kroner from Germany.
The war was a disaster for the Ottomans. The empire was dismembered, divided up between Britain and France by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1919 CE. So arbitrary and outlandish were the partitions that the resulting peace has been called “A peace to end all peace”. Britain occupied Palestine and promulgated the Balfour Declaration (1917 CE) for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Turks fought a desperate War of Independence to drive out invading armies from Greece (1922-24) and carve out a homeland for themselves. Turkey transformed itself from a monarchy to a secular, national state and abolished the Khilafat (1924 CE).
Germany lost the Great War. The victorious allies imposed such harsh reparation terms that within a decade it pulled the German economy to its knees and brought Hitler to power. Hitler’s war was a continuation of the First World War. Imperial Japan, after it had occupied eastern China, attacked Pearl Harbor which hurled the United States headlong into the conflict. The War ended with the devastation of Europe, Japan and China, the killing of over thirty million civilians, the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.
The two World Wars so weakened the European colonial powers that they could no longer hold onto their colonies. India and Pakistan won their independence in 1947. The Dutch, aided by the British navy, tried to hold onto to their Indonesian colonies but lost the war (1947-48). The French went back into Vietnam but were driven out after the surrender of Dien Bien Phu (1954). The American tried to pick up the pieces after the French only to be humbled and expelled (1975). The days of colonization in Asia were over.
The Second World War unleashed political forces of galactic proportions in Asia. The communists led by Mao Tse Dung drove out the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek and founded the People’s Republic of China (1949 CE). The Revolution turned the Chinese society upside down. Centuries of neglect was forcibly overcome. Rule by the warlords gave way to rule by the peasants. Dope addicts were exterminated. China built a strong army and fought the Americans to a stalemate in a protracted war on the Korean Peninsula (1950-53).
Oil was discovered in Iran in 1908 and has since dictated the history of the Middle East and North Africa.
Oil changed the way work was performed and machines operated. It could be used in place of coal on board ships, in railroads, automobiles and industrial engines. Subsequent oil finds in Arabia catapulted it from the back waters of history into the center of the world stage. Other significant finds were made in Iraq, Libya, Qatar, the Gulf sheikdoms, Kuwait and later in Indonesia and Nigeria. Oil was the black gold of the twentieth century and global geopolitics revolved around a mad scramble for the control of oil production and distribution. Muslim lands, long thought of only as desert sand dunes, suddenly came alive and became the object of political maneuverings and military control.
The Second World changed the balance of power in the world. The Soviet Union emerged as the strongest military power on the Eurasian continent while the United States, its industrial machinery strengthened by the war, emerged as the richest and the most powerful country in the world accounting for almost forty percent of the world’s productive capacity. A cold war emerged between the socialist soviets and the capitalist Americans giving some room for the newly emerging countries to play off one against the other for political or military advantage.
The socialist Soviet Union found itself arrayed against the capitalist west. A vigorous confrontation ensued. Ultimately, it collapsed under the weight of its own centralized bureaucracy, a victim of structural inefficiencies inherent in a centralized system.
The United States emerged from the Second World War with its productive infrastructure unscathed. In 1945 it produced almost 40 percent of the world’s goods and services. It soon found itself in conflict with a socialist world headed by the Soviet Union, and it fought major wars in Korea and Vietnam. Victorious in the cold war in the 1980s, it was the sole superpower for over a decade. But it neglected its industrial base and overextended itself, borrowing money to fight long and inconclusive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Internally, excessive greed sapped the system, accentuated by deregulation which gave rise to speculative and fraudulent markets in derivatives, the supply of cheap money and the resultant housing bubble, plus a tax code that favored the rich. It spent more than it took in and found itself in a financial ditch. A hundred years from today a scribe will write that without the kind of vision and grand leadership required at this historical juncture to reinvent itself, the United States wasted its existential potential and foreswore its tryst with destiny as the land of the free, picking unnecessary fights with third rate countries or inventing props like Islamic terrorism to keep its population distracted.
Meanwhile, a resurgent China reformed its economy and taking its lessons from Japan and the West, industrialized itself. It soon dominated the world with its productive engine and became the global creditor nation. Other nations such as India and Brazil also benefited from the information revolution brought on by the internet and became principal players on the global stage.
The end of colonization after World War II did not necessarily mean economic independence. Many of the newly independent countries found themselves dependent on the rich countries, often their former colonial masters, for development funds. The World Bank and the International Monetary fund were established by the banking elite, presumably to provide stability to the world financial structure and provide development assistance to the poorer countries. They did some good but often their demands for structural reform resulted in increased poverty and deprivation in the world’s poorest countries. The result was increased concentration of the riches of the world in the hands of a few and the impoverishment of billions. It created a few more billionaires and billions of poor.
It was in this world that Islam played its role, as a faith practiced by one quarter of the human race. But its adherents could not come together to evolve a coherent and unified response to the changing dynamics in the world, or have a decisive impact on the struggle of man. This world spent most of its time fighting off the aggressive onslaught of the west or coming to terms with the tensions within its own social and religious fabric.
It is a grand attempt to capture this fascinating period of human history in a brief paper. We will savor a taste of it through Muslim eyes, taking as milestones four discrete events: the Tobacco Revolution of Persia (1906), Musaddeq and Iranian Oil (1954 CE), the Suez Canal Crisis (1956 CE) and the Iraq and AfPak wars (1979-2014 CE). These events are points of departure, reference points that provide a useful record of the complex interactions between the Anglo-Americans and the world of Islam.