Deep-seated bias mars otherwise useful study on the failure of empires

Developing Just Leadership

Zainab Cheema

Shawwal 03, 1432 2011-09-01

Book Review

by Zainab Cheema (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 7, Shawwal, 1432)

Zainab Cheema reviews Timothy H. Parsons’ The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, And Why They Always Fail, published by Oxford University Press, 2010 (480 pages, hard cover, $29.95). Scholarship on empire is a veritable industry.

Zainab Cheema reviews Timothy H. Parsons’ The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, And Why They Always Fail, published by Oxford University Press, 2010 (480 pages, hard cover, $29.95).

Scholarship on empire is a veritable industry, including both postcolonial critics of ravenous empire-building by European nations over the past 400 years, and the apologists for contemporary US empire by neo-conservatives and the Council of Foreign Relations crowd. It is an open question into what camp Timothy Parsons falls with his recently published book, The Rule of Empires, which contains a lengthy chapter on Muslim Al-Andalus.

The provocative subtitle, promising to explain why empires always fail, pitches the book to a post-9/11 audience alarmed at the Pentagon’s excesses. Parsons, a professor of African History at Washington University, at times poses as a modern-day Edward Gibbons warning the United States on the perils of modern-day empire building. The book is arranged in chapters providing cautionary tales of different empires from world history, while the conclusion (grandly titled “Imperial Epitaph”) is devoted to the Iraq War. There, he criticizes the neocon “brat pack” who spearheaded the Iraq invasion, and it seems as if the final sentence of the book is scripted especially for them: “Conquerors may self-servingly portray defeated peoples as exotic or backward, but we are all potential imperial subjects” (p.450).

In other words, change of fortune can happen at an instant, as discovered by the Inca aristocrats confronting the Spanish conquistadors and the Visigoth kings of Spain facing the armies of Tariq ibn Ziyad. However, Parsons also exposes certain biases to his subject material when he descends in the murky territory of which cases constitute “pure empire” and which do not. He characterizes the Soviet Union as an “old-style empire in denial,” noting that the USSR practiced brutal and direct authoritarian rule over its domestic population and the Eastern European blocs. However, the United States is “a hegemonic global power that its friends and enemies frequently mistook for an empire” (p.429). That is, the United States is a power that uses “imperial methods” that need reforming but is in its essence a progressive, democratic state.

Many historians of the Americas would debate that claim. The US may not have openly acknowledged its empire, but the fact that it has over 800 military bases over the globe impels one to call a spade a spade. Parsons also ignores the import of the Monroe Doctrine, in which President James Monroe declared Latin America a US stomping ground and warned European powers to back off. This indicates a preference for the official narrative of US power even as he sympathizes with the “unfortunate” sufferings of the Latin Americans, African Americans, and other ethnic groups (including the Iraqis).

He makes similar leaps of faith for the British empire: one of the starkest historical examples of greed is characterized as an empire by accident that came about after the British Crown nobly set out to deal with its unruly adventurers like Robert Clive. In the chapter on British rule over India, he writes about British “liberalism, utilitarianism, the advances of the early industrial revolution, free trade, and English justice… protected Indians from the kind of abuses” that Mesoamericans suffered under Spain. In other words, the British empire was somehow “better” and “more humane” than Spanish empire, ignoring the mass famines and desperation on the subcontinent caused by British policies. His sympathy for Anglo-American power fits with his marked tendency to apologize for contemporary US excesses.

Parsons’ misinterpretations of US and British power are hardly auspicious for the book’s various case studies — Roman rule of Britain, Muslim Spain, Britain’s East India Company, British rule over Kenya, and Vichy France under the Nazis. The book’s most instructive chapter is on

al-Andalus because it seems rather out of place. Why devote a chapter to Muslim Spain when the rest of the book reads like the annals of modern European colonialism and its self-acknowledged blueprint, Rome? If Parsons wants to convince his readers that his knowledge of empire stretches beyond European history, there are far more appropriate case studies with respect to time and historical context: the Japanese rape of Nanking during WWII, for instance.

Parsons situates the Muslim Spain chapter just before the case history of Spain’s vampiric devouring of Mesoamerican peoples and wealth, in his quest to paint al-Andalus as a brutal Arabian invasion bent on enslaving “native” Iberians for their own interests. Muslim Spain is widely acknowledged in US academia as a cosmopolitan flowering of culture, science, and sociability in a time when Europe lay in the Dark Ages. However, it also presents the greatest challenge in European historical memory of its claims of military and ideological hegemony. In The Rule of Empires, al-Andalus becomes the object of the author’s orientalist anger. Parsons grudgingly acknowledges the protection offered to Jews and Christians under the caliphs but sneers, “Although these rules seem reasonably tolerant, there is no disguising the imperial nature of caliphal rule” (p.78).

Certainly, there were political excesses associated with the Umayyad caliphate, which was a hereditary kingship that swerved from the prophetic model of governance. However, it seems that Muslims honored the Qur’anic injunctions for just war, which contributed to their military successes. “[T]he Umayyad victory was impressive,” notes Parsons reluctantly, “[b]y comparison, it took the Romans nearly two centuries to conquer Iberia” (p.86). Elsewhere, he notes that empires are most successful where a population disgruntled under an unjust ruler is open to allying with an incoming army. Tariq ibn Ziyad’s lightning speed in “conquering” Andalusia comes from the matrix of strength and faith in his men, and from the psychological advantage they gained with the population from the example set by their conduct under arms.

The chapter’s objective is to present al-Andalus as a European-style empire (which commits the unpardonable sin of governing Europeans). Parsons represents Muslim Spain as an evangelical Islamic conquest in which the Arabs forced Islam on the indigenous population, enslaved Jews and Christians as dhimmis, and oppressed women. In doing so, his arguments rely on conjecture, guesswork, and highly-colored language rather than facts. When describing relations between Muslim Andalusians and their non-Muslim Iberian wives for example, he tries to suggest that the women were sexual slaves rather than partners, graphically referring to them having sex with their Muslim husbands.

This applies to his other observations. “Given a choice,” he writes, “caliphal officials probably would have preferred not to convert their subjects, for they were much easier to govern and exploit while they remained non-Muslims” (p.78). There is no supporting evidence for such claims — no official statements, figures, or quotes. It is merely an attempt to explain away the fact that the Andalusian caliphs did not pressure their population to convert, which indicates that some Islamic political principles were active even in their kingship. (Ironically, the tolerance and openness accelerated the Iberians’ conversion to Islam — historian Richard Bulliet estimates that the Spanish Muslim population jumped from 8 to 70% between the 9th and 11th centuries). The chapter is rife with similar statements, also punctuated by words like “probably,” “perhaps,” and “most likely,” that chart the potholes in Parson’s scholarship.

Despite Parsons’ efforts at comparison, there seems to be a clear difference between al-Andalus and the Spanish conquest of Latin America, where the options given to the Inca, Mayans and Aztecs by Francisco Pizzaro and his ilk were conversion to Catholicism or genocide. The chapter on Spanish rule in Peru is an affecting read with the sheer volume of facts attesting to Spain’s brutal destruction of Mesoamerica. The adventurers and clerks under Hernando Cortes, Pizarro, and others brutally massacred the Mesomericans, forced them to convert to Christianity, and raped their women. Aristocratic Inca women hanged themselves by their hair, and Inca men killed the women in their families in order to save them from Spanish brutalization.

In 1511, Dominican friar Antonio Montesinos gave a bitter sermon to the Spanish nobles of Latin America: “Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? Why do you so greatly oppress and fatigue them, not giving them enough to eat or caring for them when they fall ill from excessive labors, so that they die or rather are slain by you, so that you may extract and acquire gold every day?”

The Rule of Empires can provide concrete proof of exploitation under the Spanish, Romans, Nazis, British and French, but it markedly resorts to assumptions and guesswork offered in the Andalusian context. The discrepancy interferes rather than advances Parsons’ efforts to present Muslim Spain as another example of European empire. Another example is Parsons’ effort to argue that Muslims enslaved the indigenous Iberians, where the only proof he can provide is a slave uprising in Basra. It seems that Parsons perceives Islam as a homogenous entity, so of course anything happening in one corner of the Muslim world must be happening in the other. Perhaps this is why orientalists feel that it is possible to dispense with historical analysis and concrete research when writing about the Muslim world.

Parsons inadvertently provides other counter-examples to his picture of “Islamic imperialsim” in al-Andalus. He describes the concept of convivencia, the productive cultural exchange that occurred in Andalusia based on the Islamic legal prescription of different religious communities living together. Convivencia has attracted significant scholarship over the decades as a unique platform of tolerance as the foundation of a cosmopolitan, highly developed culture without which Europe’s own Renaissance would not have occurred.

For Parsons, the problem with al-Andalus remains the existential danger that it posed for Europe. He includes a quote from Edward Gibbons, who dramatically warned about the consequence if Muslim rule had expanded further: “[An] Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet” (p.72).

Grouping al-Andalus with some of the most graphic chapters of European violence, Parsons illustrates how limited any historical perspective retains when it refuses to venture outside of its own context. The Rule of Empires wants to provide an object lesson to a post-9/11 United States about the unsustainability of the excesses of power. What Parsons is unable to understand is that the just exercise of that power is impossible without the generosity of insight that could allow one to perceive a panacea in other historical experiences to the race-based domination that has afflicted Europe through the centuries.

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