Impacts of Colonialism on Muslim World


The political penetration of colonialism, following the economic infiltration, forever altered the course of history of Muslim lands. Physical, human and economic exploitation of the colonized lands hold keys to the history of colonialism. The cardinal point of the colonists’ policy was to exploit the resources of the colonized lands and in order to materialize this desire; they denied the indigenous people, towards the extreme end, the privilege of the control over their own lands. Generally, the colonial era lasted less than a century, but it forever changed all aspects of geography, economy, social relations, and politics in the areas that it ruled.

In the conquered territories, subject peoples were left in their professions and the cultivation of the soil, occupying an inferior status regarded as a kind reserve for the benefit of the colonists. As the colonial powers consolidated their position near and around Muslim territories, commercial infiltration led eventually to political penetration. In fact, Muslims lands were too clouded with internal disturbances to repulse the Colonists’ advances. To the internal forces of corruption and decay were added external forces in the eighteenth century when French, British, Germans, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and eventually Russians started their quest for ‘spheres of influence’ and began to cast covetous eyes on Muslim lands.

Conditions of Muslims at the advent of Colonialists

Muslims were divided into various factions, usually at odds with one another and each faction was animated solely by the desire of grasping all possible wealth and influence. In art and architecture, in philosophy, in medicine, in science and literature, in government, the colonized subjects (of course, Muslims) had less to teach and more to learn. At the advent of the colonists, Muslim world presented the spectacle of division and impotence.

Impacts-of-Colonialism-on-MThe evil economic situation of the Muslim lands was aggravated by the selfish and unwise policies of the rulers. Not only the sultans (from Ottomans to the Mughals) but the whole oligarchy was more or less corrupt.

Political discourses prevailing predominantly on Muslim world, like that of Ottoman, Mughal, etc., were essentially military and dynastic in character and in organization. The main objective sought for their rule was not so much the welfare of its subjects as the welfare of the state personified by the sultan ¾ caliph or king.

Muslim culture in its entirety was a striking blend of diverse and disparate elements like the subjects, encircled under the single orbit of Ottoman empire, were, in fact, a conglomeration of nationalities ¾ Arabians, Syrians, Iraqis, Egyptians, Berbers, Kurds, Armenians, Slavs, Greeks, Albanians ¾ with diverse creeds, language and ways of life.
Algeria was the first of the Arab states to be detached from the Ottoman Empire. This was done in 1830 when French troops landed on its shores. Eighteen years later the country was declared French territory as an integral part of France. In India, predominantly under Muslim rule, colonists established their firm foothold in 1757 that later in 1857 extended nearly towards whole of the Indian Subcontinent. Similar was the fate of other Muslim countries (except Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan that at least retained nominal sovereignty) however with varied length of colonial domination.

Impacts of Colonialism

By the mid-1970s most Muslim territories, from Sub-Saharan Africa to Southeast Asia, had gained independence from colonialism and constituted either independent Muslim states or parts of independent non-Muslim states. Still, the legacy of colonialism continued to shape and reshape their polities, economies, and societies. The impact of colonialism went far beyond the relationships of economic and political imperialism and has survived in the forms taken by state ideologies, political visions, and institutions of the new states. The impact of colonialism was circumspect, but it was nevertheless pervasive. It was a manifestation of the series of continued events between a past from which the new states sought to distance themselves and a present in which they should thrive for the continuity of their independent existence.

The character of the Colonists throughout the Muslim world is marred with the charges of using the native government as a façade, failure to take cognizance of the rising national spirit, discouragement of the use of native language, depreciating the native currency “by tying it to the imperial currency, playing one party or sect against another and resorting to repressive measures involving espionage, imprisonment and exile.”

Colonists made their starting point the theory that in the colonized areas none but the Christian religion should ever be tolerated. To this end, Christian missionaries offered an utter disregard for other religions and established a firm foothold on Muslim lands. Educational institutes, built up all around the colonized states preliminary served as a medium to facilitate conversion into Christianity. In fact many of the institutes like Syrian Protestant College (now the American University of Beirut), the Lazarist Mission in Damascus etc., were in nature of missionary characters. This dual form of exploitation on the part of Colonists was bound to stir among the Muslims the feelings of hatred and of opposition to Western ways that still characterize conservative Muslim minds.

Before the political penetration of the colonialism, it is evident through preliminary cultural contacts of the Muslims with the West that Muslims offered very liberal relaxations to the European traders. Some Muslim rulers like Muhammad Ali of Egypt went beyond that and sent student missions to be trained in Europe. Muslim lands were fertile enough to allow the cultivation of cultural, artistic, scientific, literary and military contacts with the Europeans. Muslim world generally proved hospitable to the cultural migration from the West. In fact, up to the fourteenth century, distinction between East and West was more artificial than real.  However all this changed drastically when Europeans inclined to forcefully subjugate natives, deny them of the privileges of citizenship, deprive them of the control of their own lands, all with the superior technology and strategy of warfare.

Colonialism-Muslim-World1Colonialism led to a substantial outflow of financial resources. According to Bertocchi and Carnova, eminent researchers whose work gave an insight of the consequent effects of the Colonialism, “Most of the colonial surplus was extracted by the metropolitan countries (in the form of interest payments on loan, repatriated profits, salaries and pensions) and this by reducing the indigenous capital accumulation process, had a negative effect on the colonies’ growth prospects. Direct exploitation also included taxes, tariffs, restrictions on trade and foreign investment, forced labour, and even enslavement of the indigenous population.”

One of the most problematic legacies of colonial domination resulted from the instrumentalization of ethno-linguistic and/or religious cleavages. It was common to identify ‘martial races (and thereby, non-martial races) and recruit from among them the soldiers/mercenaries for the colonial army.  Indian army of British was clearly segregated on the basis of religion and caste membership. Groups allied with the colonialists were given privileged access to education and therefore to the administration.

Consequent upon the Colonists’ tactics of playing one sect or party against another was the deep fragmentation of the Muslim society that still clouds socio-political spectrum of the Muslim world and has dissipated, virtually, every chance of economic co-operations among them. These divisions are widely operative and somehow serve as battle cry of the new order.

Illegitimate creation of Israel by dividing Palestine brought political Zionism in close contact with the Arab part of the Muslim world that generated feelings of solidarity among Muslims, specifically Arabs and contributed to bringing those parts closer together and found expression in the Pact of the League of Arab States (now Arab League), signed in Cairo in March 1945. The pact indicates a firm intention to promote cooperation among member states in matters relating to education, trade and communication. Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip may also be seen as the last and only ongoing colonial relationship in Muslim lands.

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