Have you ever wondered how the West rose to power, from the dark ages of isolation, to global dominance?
Or how the Muslim world from a position of power, prominence and dominance has sunk into a dark age, divided, impoverished, destitute and unstable?
Did you know today's world can be traced back to the conquest of Constantinople by Ottoman Muslims in 1453?
I've been thinking about this to make sense of the violence and conflict we are seeing globally, of terrorism and extremism, to make sense of why Islam is such a big issue that we hear about it almost every day in the media from politicians, rarely anything good, almost always something bad.
This event created a series of unintended consequences that changed the world. It's an intriguing story... so let's begin.
European Dark Ages
Constantinople sat on the silk trade route - the largest economic artery of the time. Ottoman control of the silk trade route after its conquest in 1453 led European monarchs to seek sea trade routes to the Far East avoiding Ottoman territory.
In 1492 the Spanish monarchy funded Columbus to find a sea route to the Far East. Instead of finding India, Columbus discovered the Americas. I say discovered in the most loosest sense of the word as the Americas had already been discovered and indeed were teeming with people. The Incas, Mayans, Aztecs and the Arawaks.
But Columbus had something else in mind. This is what he writes about the Arawaks.
"They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance…"
"With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want." (Howard Zinn - A people's history of the United States)
Columbus' aim was clear: to enslave the people and force them to dig for gold. On his second expedition he was given seventeen ships and more than 1200 men for this purpose.
An eyewitness, Bartolome de Las Casas, tells about the treatment of the natives at the hands of the Spaniards.
"Our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then…"
Colonisation of the Americas
This frenzy in the early proto-capitalist states of Europe for gold, slaves, for commodities, spurred the growth of a new money economy rising out of feudalism; the genocide of the indigenous populations was a mere means to an end.
The economic model of colonisation that emerged from the discovery of resources and creation of plantations using the natives as slave labour was so profitable it was adopted in the colonisation of Australia, New Zealand, India, Africa and Asia. Only the Muslim heartlands avoided this fate with the Ottomans preventing colonialist powers entering.
The birth of Capitalism
Colonisation had two major effects in Europe. First it gave birth to a new wealthy class who found the feudal system did not serve their interests. Europe was ruled by absolute monarchies that were often at war with one another. Wars were expensive, funded through taxation. Political titles began being exchanged for the taxes allowing a new class to see the workings of power.
This was the start of the problems... Imagine you have a lot of wealth but the king keeps wanting more for his religious wars as Europe went through reformation with kings and prices challenging the church's grip on power - what do you do?
The Whigs broadly represented the interests of the merchants, traders and bankers and the Tories represented the interests of the monarchy and gentry.
Similar revolutions took place in the Americas in 1775, France in 1789 and across Europe bringing a new economic class to power, controlling lands, armies and populations. Now this new economic class had political power.
Next, this wealthy class not only wanted to keep their money, but they wanted to increase their wealth. Searching for projects to invest in sparked and funded the industrial revolution (1760 - 1840).
A backlash of socialist and communist movements sprang up, seeking to remove the evil of capitalism - most famously Karl Marx writing his magnum opus Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto critiquing capitalism. Across Europe writers critiqued social conditions of the working class from Charles Dickens in Britain, Victor Hugo in France and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in Russia.
The industrialists petitioned Parliament to pass the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 resulting in a mass of government subsidised wage dependant paupers whose capitalist employers were freed from the burden of paying subsistence wages.
Now you can see the shift from feudal monarchical power structures to capitalism, from here it is but a hop and a skip to the postmodern era...
Germany had been a divided set of states, united under Bismarck in the late 19th century. Germany then started to seek a piece of the colonial pie, updating its armies and navies competing with the British. This led to military and economic tensions between Britain and Germany and were major causes of the First World War.
Destruction of the Caliphate
Although it was essentially a European war, it sucked in the Ottoman Caliphate on the side of Germany. Turkish nationalists had hijacked the Ottoman Caliphate in a coup in 1908 and formed an alliance with Germany with the onset of the war. It was subsequently attacked from all directions by the allies and their colonies with millions of troops before it was defeated. In 1924 the 1300-year institution of the Caliphate was dismantled.
The Muslim territories were carved up between the European powers, Muslims finally falling from being a global power to dozens of fragmented third world states, economic arteries bleeding to death with Sykes Picot borders, resources extracted and looted by colonial powers, tyrant regimes and bloated governments imposed and expensive oversized militaries and security apparatus created to suppress the masses into subservience.
A century of decline and decadence set in, a new dark age. Anyone resisting these changes militarily were labelled terrorists, any activist speaking against them was termed an extremist, arrested and tortured. Western academics and nationalists propagated myths alleging the cause of decline was internal rather than external - unpicked and rejected by contemporary research.
Even after nationalists sought and achieved "independence" from colonialism, little changed, as Europe retained control.
Their treatment was little different to that received by previous colonies; the native American Indians depicted and stereotyped in Hollywood "Cowboy and Indian" movies as savages. Muslims are depicted as terrorists if they respond with violence, extremists is they speak up against oppression.
An alternative historic narrative is often presented by Western elites and nationalists known as Whig historiography where the past is presented as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy. The rise of the West is seen as the secularisation of state, removal of religion from power, enlightenment and modernity, with the rise of science and rationalism that allowed the West to prosper. Whilst this narrative has a grain of truth, it omits much of the historical narrative as to the discovery of the new world and its sources of capital that allowed the West to achieve the progress it has.
The global conflict today is about colonised nations that are trying to liberate themselves. Their nationalist struggle for independence never achieved true independence, colonialism merely morphing into neo-colonialism. A new style of colonialism where local elites operated on behalf of their colonial masters whilst the processes of extraction of resources, control of trade routes, profitable markets remained the same.
In a fascinating account, Professor Sampie Terreblanche lists several fortuitous reasons for the rise of the West, enabling global colonialism and capitalism, key amongst them:
I've presented a side of Western European history that can largely be seen as the exploitation and manipulation of the majority through a democratic Parliament that is engineered to hugely favour a small aggregate of elite capitalists.
In sum, the West has become the cave of the 40 thieves, full of wealth, the rest of the planet is plundered and oppressed.
Blair Worden, The English Civil Wars
David Stannard, American Holocaust
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States
Edward Said, Orientalism
Immanuel Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism
Michael Braddick, God's Fury, England's Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars
Sampie Terreblanche, Western Empires
Vali Nasr, An Oxford History of Islam
Suraiya Faroqhi, The Ottoman Empire
Suraiya Faroqhi, Approaching Ottoman History
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