Remembering Islamic Empires: Speaking of Imperialism and Islamophobia

Article excerpt

We Muslims used to give full rights to the Jews, and they were all in the government offices. And their Hebrew language was allowed at that time. So we in Islam we are not--I give you the Qur'anic ayat that Allah tell the human beings not to kill each other, despise each other--so we are not here to kill anybody. We have to respect.

(Tawheed Rahman, 10 February 2007) (1)

In some interviews with Muslim-identified anti-war activists, conducted as part of a wider project on resistance to the war on terror and contemporary Islamophobia, I found conversations about the present taking unprompted historical turns. Tawheed Rahman, who identifies as British, Bangladeshi and Muslim, got onto the subject of what he called a 'long, long, long history' when asked about Western foreign policy in the Middle East. (2) This had two main strands: one telling of injustices against Muslims, the other celebrating the Islamic past. Much has been written about the former, which has its epicentre in Palestine/Israel, and is by turns depressing, humiliating and infuriating for those who recite it. I shall focus instead on a different kind of history, which Rahman finds more positively inspiring and empowering. As quoted above, he referred to Islamic civilisation in ninth and tenth-century Andalusia, paying particular attention to the cosmopolitanism and tolerance said to prevail there. These sentiments were echoed by Asad Khan, a coordinator for Stop the War Coalition in Bury, a town in northwest England, who spoke with pride of Islamic colonisation and civilisation, which he contrasted with the barbarism and violence that came before, and resumed with Christian rule:

Well you have to go back to the origins of Islam, and Islam arrived in Arabia and I mean those people, without generalising you know, there was a lot of barbarism there, girls being buried alive for example and Islam was a welcome and refreshing change to that which is why it became popular. People often say that Islam was spread by the sword. Any Muslim who has studied history and the Qur'an will tell you that that is a complete and utter lie. (Asad Khan, 22 June 2007) (3)

Islamic empires have been remembered and celebrated not only by Muslims, but also by others who have sought to stand with or speak for them. For example, the CEO of Hewlett Packard, speaking in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, appealed to history in a bid to contest emerging anti-Muslim sentiments.

   There was once a civilization that was the greatest in the world.
   It was able to create a continental super-state that stretched from
   ocean to ocean, and from northern climes to tropics and deserts.
   Within its dominion lived hundreds of millions of people, of
   different creeds and ethnic origins. While modern Western
   civilization shares many of these traits, the civilization I'm
   talking about was the Islamic world from the year 800 to 1600. (4)

Carly Fiorina's message was that Americans could identify with Muslims --resist the urge to cast them as outsiders and irreconcilable others--if they understood their parallel histories. This is a very particular take on American values and Islamic histories, both seen from the perspective of a capitalist corporate board room in the dynamic technology sector. Others in the United States and other Western countries inevitably have different angles on national belonging and Western culture, and their appeals to Islamic histories reflect this. Whereas Fiorina spoke of invention and power, many European Muslims and non-Muslims alike speak, instead, of tolerance. Before exploring how and why they have done so, it is necessary to frame this discussion within broader debates about uses of history and memories of empire.

While some of those who deploy histories and memories of Islamic empires do so against specific forms of prejudice and injustice, others approach these problems as the symptoms of something structural: a colonial present, ordered around Islamophobia and global power relations between North and South, West and East. …