It is a moot point, but across the wars in the Middle East, Islamism has probably killed more Muslims than any other people. It is a tragedy with no end in sight.
Twenty-first century has just gone past its first fifth. By this time, the 20th century had been through a World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, not to mention the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. By contrast, the present century opened with 9/11 and the encounter with Islamist terrorism has shaped global politics ever since. There is a perpetual war in the Middle East, from Iraq and Syria reaching Iran and Afghanistan.
The Cold War ended last century. Now it seems all the Great Powers are engaged in a war against Muslims worldwide. Russia has its Chechnya, China its Uighurs. France has sustained multiple terrorist attacks this century on civilians. US President Donald Trump is hostile to Muslims worldwide and has just declared his displeasure against Iran. We could, though not very likely, yet end up with a world war in the second fifth of this century.
Why has this happened? Why has the 21st century become so blatantly anti-Muslim? Let’s go back to 1920. The oldest Empire in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, fell and with it came the end of Islam’s global domination after 1,200 years. The Western world was no longer threatened by Islam on its eastern front.
The remainder of the 20th century was spent sorting out the problems created by the collapse of Western European empires. The end of the Austrian empire unleashed nationalism, the Russian gave birth to Bolshevism. The German empire broke up to birth fascism. It took up to 1991 to sort out Bolshevism. In the meantime, maritime Western empires dissolved. The transfer of Hong Kong to China ended the British Empire.
But the one Empire whose problems were left unresolved was the Ottoman. Its territory was carved up during the First World War by Britain and France in a secret treaty and territories were given names and governments – Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon etc. These remained informal colonies of Western powers. Turkey alone emerged a Republic.
After the Second World War, the Arab countries became nominally independent kingdoms. When Israel was created by a UN Resolution, these Arab kingdoms tried and failed to win a war against Israel in three attempts. By 1973, despair had set in. Pan-Arabism had lost its appeal as had Arab Socialism. The people turned to religion as a consolation. The oil-rich Saudis spread Wahhabism. Iran imploded and the Shah was replaced by the Ayatollahs. The Sunnis and Shias now had oil-rich States capable of encouraging orthodox Islam and each other. The Iran-Iraq war was one of the bloodiest.
Islamism is the political movement which was born as a response to the crisis, but it is Janus-faced. Islamist political movement has fought to disestablish Muslim governments across the Middle East. It was recruited by the Americans to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, which gave birth to the Taliban and al- Qaeda. It is a moot point, but across the wars in the Middle East, Islamism has probably killed more Muslims than any other people. It is a tragedy with no end in sight.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 26, 2020 under the title “The anti-Muslim century”.