Feminists are far from the only so-called left-wing or liberal group to betray their own basic principles out of a bizarre admiration for Islam, whether its history, its values, or its self-proclaimed victimization. Real liberals believe in human rights, women's rights, racial equality, free speech, and more, rejecting extremism on both the right and left. However, the left in the UK and elsewhere seems to have abandoned those principles and betrayed the very people they had previously supported.
This willingness to indulge even the most anti-liberal beliefs and behaviour finds many of its roots in the general disdain that many so-called left-wingers and liberals seem to feel for Western democracy, human rights and individual freedom. This disdain, however, does not explain why so many people -- often decent people -- are drawn to defend Islam, Islamic patriarchy, Islamic discrimination against women, or violence in the name of Islam, especially when such defence is obviously anti-liberal in the extreme. Examples are not hard to find, for instance feminists who urge Muslim women to submit to the veil and abandon their rights as free women in favour of Muslim men and their power over them.
What possesses so many Westerners to regard Islam, Islamic religion, Islamic law, and Islamic intolerance through rose-tinted spectacles that obscure the obvious and blind observers from seeing what is in front of them?
Another of the most notable examples is the virtually universal attitude toward imperialism. We might all agree that imperialism is a thing of the past and that, for the most part, it has brought considerable suffering on indigenous peoples who found themselves under British, French, Belgian, Spanish or Portuguese rule. No country in the modern West would seek to bring back an imperial system that, mercifully, was dealt a death blow by the First and Second World Wars. This change, however, does not prevent Marxists and others of a similar ilk from claiming that imperialism continues to this day, through the power exerted by strong nations in the West such as Israel or the U.S. Even the United Nations has been condemned as "a tool of imperialism".
Mystifyingly, however, I have never known a liberal to say a bad word about a more prevalent and arguably more damaging imperialism: Islamic imperialism. From the year 632 until 1918, there have been many more Muslim empires than European ones.
The first extensive Islamic empire was the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750), which extended from the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) to what is now Northern India and Pakistan's province of Sindh. At its height, it was the largest empire in the world and remains the fifth largest in history.
The Umayyads were replaced by the 'Abbasids (750-1258), who ruled a similar extent of territory, including Sardinia, Sicily, and southern Italy. A succession of such empires controlled territories from North Africa to India. The most extensive of all was the long-lasting Ottoman empire (1299-1918), the possessions of which rivalled those of the largest of all empires, that of Great Britain. Here is a rough list of the Ottoman dominions:
Algeria, Tunis, Tripoli (Libya), Egypt, Western Arabia, Syria (a vast area), Mesopotamia (Iraq), Anatolia (Turkey), Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Rumelia, Wallachia, Hungary, Poland, Transylvania, Moldova, Bessarabia, Crete, Cyprus, Crimea, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Daghestan, al-Hasa (in eastern Arabia).
Broadly speaking, the Ottoman empire lasted longer and covered more territory than even the long-lived (1415-1999) Portuguese empire in South America, Africa, India and farther east. European empires may have been – and often were -- despotic, carrying out ethnic cleansing; genocides, such as Spain's and Portugal's in South America, as well as general brutality to the natives. Those are all causes for censure.
In addition, frighteningly high numbers of Hindus were massacred in India by Muslim rulers. A Sikh writer declares that the assault amounted to "the biggest holocaust in World history":
With the invasion of India by Mahmud Ghazni about 1000 A.D., began the Muslim invasions into the Indian subcontinent and they lasted for several centuries. Nadir Shah made a mountain of the skulls of the Hindus he killed in Delhi alone. Babur raised towers of Hindu skulls at Khanua when he defeated Rana Sanga in 1527 and later he repeated the same horrors after capturing the fort of Chanderi. Akbar ordered a general massacre of 30,000 Rajputs after he captured Chithorgarh in 1568. The Bahamani Sultans had an annual agenda of killing a minimum of 100,000 Hindus every year.
The Belgian Indologist Dr. Koenrad Elst wrote that:
- "There is no official estimate of the total death toll of Hindus at the hands of Islam. A first glance at important testimonies by Muslim chroniclers suggests that, over 13 centuries and a territory as vast as the Subcontinent, Muslim Holy Warriors easily killed more Hindus than the 6 million of the Holocaust. Ferishtha lists several occasions when the Bahmani sultans in central India (1347-1528) killed a hundred thousand Hindus, which they set as a minimum goal whenever they felt like "punishing" the Hindus; and they were only a third-rank provincial dynasty. The biggest slaughters took place during the raids of Mahmud Ghaznavi (ca. 1000 CE); during the actual conquest of North India by Mohammed Ghori and his lieutenants (1192 ff.); and under the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526).... The Moghuls (1526-1857), even Babar and Aurangzeb, were fairly restrained tyrants by comparison. Prof. K.S. Lal once estimated that the Indian population declined by 50 million under the Sultanate, but that would be hard to substantiate; research into the magnitude of the damage Islam did to India is yet to start in right earnest."
- "Apart from actual killing, millions of Hindus disappeared by way of enslavement. After every conquest by a Muslim invader, slave markets in Bagdad and Samarkand were flooded with Hindus. Slaves were likely to die of hardship, e.g. the mountain range Hindu Koh, 'Indian mountain', was renamed Hindu Kush, 'Hindu-killer', when one cold night in the reign of Timur Lenk (1398-99), a hundred thousand Hindu slaves died there while on transport to Central Asia. Though Timur conquered Delhi from another Muslim ruler, he recorded in his journal that he made sure his pillaging soldiers spared the Muslim quarter, while in the Hindu areas, they took 'twenty slaves each'".
One might have thought that historical facts such as these would provoke human-rights activists to put the Muslim empires into the same category as the later European ones. Not a word of it. Nor do liberals mention another issue that should be close to their hearts: the Islamic slave trade.
Slavery has been an integral part of Islamic practice from the start. It is scripturally endorsed, embedded in shari'a law, and has been practiced from the seventh century until today. The slave trade was notably carried on by Arab merchants across the Sahara and brought Africans to North Africa. Liberals rightly condemn the European slave trade and its impact on North America; they – again rightly – act to eliminate modern slavery through trafficking – which is estimated to involve some 40.3 million people worldwide by 2016. It is almost unheard of, nevertheless, for people on the left also to speak of the Islamic (mainly Arab) slave trade.
The educational website History World, for instance, has a substantial account entitled "History of Slavery", in which it describes the use of slaves in Babylon, Greece, Rome, the European Middle Ages, and the Portuguese and triangular (chiefly the Transatlantic) slave trades. Yet it only mentions Islamic slavery in passing, despite its having lasted far longer than the European and American versions. Here are the three short paragraphs the site devotes to the subject, all of which appear to argue that supposedly Muslim slavery was not altogether a bad thing:
- Slavery is an accepted part of life in Arabia during the time of Muhammad, in the 7th century, and the Qur'an offers no arguments against the practice. It merely states, particularly in relation to female slaves, that they must be well treated. In general that has been the case compared with the barbaric treatment of slaves in some Christian communities.
- Meanwhile the Muslim habit of using slaves in the army has led to one unusual result - in itself an indication of the trust accorded to slaves in Middle Eastern communities.
- In 1250 the slave leaders of the Egyptian army, known as Mamelukes, depose the sultan and seize power. A succession of rulers from their own ranks control much of the Middle East, as the Mameluke dynasty, for nearly three centuries.
This article also does not mention the three centuries of the Barbary Slavers: North African Muslims who went out as pirates into the Mediterranean to capture ships from European countries and take crews and passengers as slaves to be sold in the markets of Tunis, Algiers and other towns. Barbary pirates ventured as far as England and Ireland, where they would raid coastal villages, and carry residents off. Professor Robert Davis writes:
- "The fishermen and coastal dwellers of 17th-century Britain lived in terror of being kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in North Africa. Hundreds of thousands across Europe met wretched deaths on the Barbary Coast in this way".
As late as the early 19th century, the new US Navy fought two wars against the Barbary States, bringing the piracy to an end.
Edward Moran's 1897 painting, depicting the burning USS Philadelphia at the Battle of Tripoli Harbor, during the First Barbary War in 1804. (Image source: U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection/Wikimedia Commons)
Fantasies about the benign effects of slavery under Islam or, more widely, the tolerance enjoyed by non-Muslims living in the Muslim empires are still widespread. Muslims themselves insist that Islam is the most tolerant religion, and many progressives take this on board without much knowledge of the facts. Classroom, a website devoted to education, illustrates the naivety of excessively open-minded Westerners. In an article, "How Muslim Empires Treated Religion", Laura Leddy Turner writes:
- From Muhammad's founding of Islam and his unification of the Arab tribes in the seventh century, Muslims were instructed to practice respect towards other religions. This tolerance was essential to ensure peace and stability in Medina and throughout Asia Minor, as these lands were populated by Jews, Christians and other faiths. Most of the Islamic empires established in this region upheld the tradition of religious tolerance, although conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims was frequent.
Ms Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law. She has obviously never read a word of the Qur'an or the Hadith, or studied the history of Islam in any depth or she would not write such nonsense. Many religions can display intolerance towards non-believers, often in defiance of scriptural values (as in Christianity), but Islam in particular seems to stand out for a hatred for non-Muslims, and for other Muslim sects not like theirs, that is still practiced. Under Islamic law, Jews and Christians are forced live by a separate set of laws designed to remind them they are merely lower-class, "tolerated" residents, called dhimmis, and that they have to pay a "protection" tax merely to preserve their lives and keep their homes, synagogues or churches.
If they refuse to do so, they may be killed and their property confiscated. All other "disbelievers" are considered pagans, who may be killed with impunity if they do not convert to Islam on the spot. Tolerance?
A favourite focus for praise of life under Islamic rule is, of course, the Jewish and Christian experience under Umayyad rule in the Iberian peninsula, covering most of Spain and what, in 1128, became Portugal – a territory best known as Andalusia (from the Arabic al-Andalus). A host of articles and lectures have described Islamic Spain as a haven of tolerance and civilization, representing a gold age in European history. Akbar Ahmed, for example, holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University's School of International Service in Washington, DC and served as the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. Writing in the Huffington Post, he states that:
- At its height, Andalusia produced a magnificent Muslim civilization — religious tolerance, poetry, music, learned scientists and scholars like Averroës, great libraries (the main library at Cordoba alone had 400,000 books), public baths, and splendid architecture (like the palace complex at the Alhambra and the Grand Mosque of Cordoba). These great achievements were the result of collaboration between Muslims, Christians and Jews — indeed the work of the great Jewish Rabbi Maimonides was written in the Arabic language. It was a time when a Muslim ruler had a Jewish chief minister and a Catholic archbishop as his foreign minister. The Spanish had a phrase for that period of history — La Convivencia, or co-existence.
While there may be some truth in this, it is in most respects a gross exaggeration that whitewashes the realities of life there for all non-Muslims. This exaggeration was in some measure contradicted by Edward Rothstein, writing (somewhat surprisingly) in the New York Times in 2003, in an article entitled, "Was the Islam Of Old Spain Truly Tolerant?":
- As many scholars have argued, this [idealized] image is distorted. Even the Umayyad dynasty, begun by Abd al-Rahman in 756, was far from enlightened. Issues of succession were often settled by force. One ruler murdered two sons and two brothers. Uprisings in 805 and 818 in Córdoba were answered with mass executions and the destruction of one of the city's suburbs. Wars were accompanied by plunder, kidnappings and ransom. Córdoba itself was finally sacked by Muslim Berbers in 1013, its epochal library destroyed.
- Andalusian governance was also based on a religious tribal model. Christians and Jews, who shared Islam's Abrahamic past, had the status of dhimmis -- alien minorities. They rose high but remained second-class citizens; one 11th-century legal text called them members of "the devil's party." They were subject to special taxes and, often, dress codes. Violence also erupted, including a massacre of thousands of Jews in Grenada in 1066 and the forced exile of many Christians in 1126.
More recently, and in much greater detail, Darío Fernández-Morera, an associate professor in Spanish and Portuguese at Northwestern University has published a ground-breaking study, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (2016). We have to hope that it, and future studies from a similar perspective, will help dispel the fog of ignorance that surrounds what life was really like under Islamic imperialism.
Dr. Denis MacEoin (PhD Cambridge) formerly lectured in Arabic and Islamic Studies and has written numerous books, articles, and encyclopedia entries on Islam, including aspects of Iranian Shi'ism.
 For more on this, see What's Left? How the Left Lost its Way: How Liberals Lost Their Way, by Nick Cohen, one of Britain's leading journalists.
 For the most up-to-date study, see Efraim Karsh, Islamic Imperialism: A History, Yale University Press, 2006
 It is hard to know on what this "general" claim is based.
 There is decent literature on the Barbary Slave Trade because it relates directly to Europe. An excellent modern study is Robert Davis's Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 (New York, 2003). There are fewer studies of the general Islamic trade, but a useful introduction is Bernard Lewis's Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry, new ed., Oxford University Press, 1992. In this, Lewis "examines the romantic myth of the Middle East as a racial utopia".