History’s heavy hand is evident in the parallels between the world of my Napoleonic-era hero Ethan Gage, circa 1807, and the Islamic tumult rattling the world today.
As I read about societies Ethan might explore, from Istanbul to India, similarities are plain. Just as research for “Napoleon’s Pyramids” in 1798 Egypt reminded me of American frustration in Iraq, the fragmenting and reactionary Muslim world of Napoleon’s day reminds me of today’s Islamic fundamentalists.
In both periods, economic hardship and military defeat led to messianic and apocalyptic Islamic cults that rose and fell alongside Muslim warlords and dictators. In Napoleon’s era, the unrest allowed European powers to begin colonizing part of the Islamic world and redraw the rest, with today’s disastrous results.
A brief overview: In the wake of devastating Mongol invasions in the 1200s and 1300s, three great Muslim empires emerged.
The Ottoman Empire occupied the Balkans, the Near East, and North Africa. The Persian (Iranian) Safavid Empire was to its east, and the Mughal Empire occupied much of present-day India and Pakistan.
By 1700, all three were beginning to weaken from problems such as war and plague, plus social strains caused by trade with Europe and an invasion of new ideas. Western powers also tried to enlist the Ottomans and Persians in their strategic schemes, initiating what would become “The Great Game” of the 19th Century between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia.
In 1798, Napoleon briefly occupied Egypt and Cairo. Russia was gobbling up parts of the Persian Empire in the Caucasus. In India, the British East India Company began conquering the patchwork of provinces left from the collapse of the Mughal Empire. Richard Wellesley pushed this politically and his younger brother Arthur, the future Duke of Wellington, was military muscle. By 1803, British forces had occupied Delhi.
In roughly the same period, the Islamic world was wracked by drought and famine – climate change – and commerce was disrupted by raiding tribes. Afghanistan was a major military player, attacking India and Persia.
For Muslims, it was a period of future shock. What had been the most advanced civilization during the Middle Ages had fallen behind the West in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. European soldiers defeated Islamic forces again and again. European merchants were taking over trade. Over the next century, much of the world would be colonized and industrialized.
One inevitable response was religious. Just as Christian fundamentalist movements periodically urge a return to stricter Biblical interpretation as a solution to society’s problems, some Muslims insisted on severe interpretations of the Koran. There were uprisings and suppressions of groups with messianic leaders sometimes forecasting the end of the world, plus a growth of Sufi sects and new religious groups such as India’s Sikhs.
One of the most radical was an Arabian-Sunni fundamentalist set called Wahhabi that arose in the 1700s. It allied with a warlord named Ibn Saud, whose House of Saud would come to dominate Saudi Arabia. Scholars debate whether a similar Salafi jihad movement was the same or distinct from the Wahhabis, but both wanted a return to the “pure” Islam of its first years under Mohammad and his immediate successors.
The Wahhabis were as controversial in 1800 as ISIS is today. They conquered Mecca and Medina and sacked the sacred Karbala in 1802, looting and killing other worshippers. Other Muslims fought back. The philosophic roots of todays radicals – from some anti-Soviet jihad soldiers in Afghanistan to Al Qaeda to ISIS – has been traced by experts back to the Wahhabi ideas that arose before and during Napoleon’s day.
I’m not suggesting that European conquerors like Napoleon or Arthur Wellesley are to blame for ISIS, but rather than the modernism that has rattled the world since the 18th Century has caused all kinds of fundamentalist counter-reactions, of which ISIS is only the latest.
What to do? The British, French, and Dutch answer two centuries ago was to conquer and hold, occupying Islamic lands to control and exploit them. Two world wars, caused in part by German envy of British and French colonial power, exhausted the occupiers and ended colonization.
Today’s world sees most societies embracing modernity. East Asia, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa are examples. But radical minorities resist it. Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, for example, tried to forcibly return that nation to a medieval simplicity through genocide in the 1970s. It quickly collapsed from its own insanity, as ISIS will.
Very few Muslims seem attracted to the apocalyptic regression of ISIS, just as most Muslims rejected Wahhabi ideology in Ethan Gage’s day. But radical movements always appeal to a few fanatics looking for simplistic answers to our very complex and challenging world.
I don’t expect Ethan Gage to ever get too tangled up in a 19th Century equivalent. He wouldn’t survive. But he and his sensible wife Astiza might observe that political stability and economic opportunity are the best antidote to raiding tribes, messianic bandits, and predatory cults. In the long run, employment, environmental restoration, and education – especially for women – will probably prove more effective against radicalism than bombs.