Breaking Glass

The Revolt of Islam

In 1899, Winston Churchill expressed his concern about the “militant and proselytizing faith” of Islam.  “Were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science,” he said, “the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”  His contemporary, Lord Cromer, administered Egypt as an energetic modernizer: How else, he worried, could he prevent the deadly danger of the “political regeneration of Mohammedism”?

It’s not difficult to understand why British observers at that moment thought that Islam posed a political danger; only in 1898 had British forces destroyed the messianic revivalist movement led by the Mahdi in the Sudan.  Yet, from a modern perspective, such fears seem overblown.  Now we know, or think we know, that the political revival of Islam would be a much later phenomenon, dating perhaps from the post-1973 boom in Saudi oil wealth and Wahhabi proselytizing, and from the 1979 revolutions in Iran and Afghanistan.  Only by a real stretch (it seems) could modern Islamic militancy be traced back much further, perhaps to the foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928.  What on earth was Churchill talking about?

In reality, Islamic revolutionary and military movements had flourished around the world for at least a...

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