Battle of Somah (1836)

A British-Indian force attacks the Ghazni fort during the First Afghan War, 1839

After 1840, the Islamic world split in two: one came under direct European domination, while the other was subject to indirect control exerted through the state apparatus and the protection systems.

European military superiority was assured, thanks to increasingly efficient armaments and improved modes of organization. Yet things were no easier. The Muslim societies being conquered resisted with a desperate energy, which turned the colonial wars into wars of terror. The final phase of the conquest of Algeria, which French painters illustrated with fiery canvases, was therefore a war of destruction. To destroy Abd al-Qadir’s emerging state, the French army ruthlessly ravaged the Algerian countryside, destroying villages, setting fire to crops and granaries, and making multiple exactions, which were denounced in vain by European, especially British, philanthropists. The French authorities denied these accusations while acknowledging sotto voce that it was not possible to be both a conqueror and a philanthropist. The human cost of the conquest was particularly high, confirming the enduring difference between European wars—which became civilized by adopting customary laws seeking to limit the toll of violence to combatants—and colonial wars, which no longer had any limits because the enemy was defined as uncivilized by nature and hence unprotected by the mechanisms limiting the effects of violence. The native peoples became the guilty party in the violence perpetrated against them, since their resistance required that they be treated in a regrettable manner.

The same was true for the Russian penetration into the Caucasus, where the Russian armies met with the fierce resistance of the Muslim mountain dwellers, assembled into Sufi brotherhoods. The Muslims acquired a brilliant war chief, Imam Shamil, who led the fight for several decades. Russian military losses were terribly high, while in many of the episodes Russian violence veered toward extermination pure and simple. Nineteenth-century Russian literature, from Pushkin to Tolstoy, bears witness to these Caucasian Wars. Muslim Caucasians by the thousands found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, the Russian advance into Siberia made the tsarist empire the close neighbor of the central Asian khanates. Encroachments immediately turned into conquests. But the Asians fought off the Russians in 1840 during their attempts to seize Khiva.

In India, the British, grown confident by the easy conquest of the majority of the subcontinent, underestimated the force of resistance of the mountain-dwelling Muslim populations in the northwest. Obsessed with the Russian threat that had materialized in central Asia, they decided to fend it off by taking control of Afghanistan. In 1838, a naval demonstration in the Gulf forced Persia to abandon any attempt at conquering (or recovering) the province of Herat. Great Britain sent in an invasion force in 1839 and seized Kabul without great difficulty, installing a sovereign under the British protectorate. It quickly became apparent that the British garrison of Kabul was isolated in a hostile region, which sank into rebellion in autumn 1840. In November 1841, the insurrection reached the capital, where the garrison became trapped. After futile and complicated negotiations, the British army evacuated the city under the worst possible conditions in early January 1842. The retreat turned into a rout, leading to thousands of dead among the British and Indian soldiers, and among the civilians accompanying them. After that disaster, the other British forces of Afghanistan engaged in terrible reprisals on the Afghan population before retreating to India.

The disaster of the first Anglo-Afghan war was partly offset in the following years by the conquest of Punjab and Sind. The last independent Indian states had managed to establish military discipline equivalent to that of the Europeans, but the British now possessed the technology for greatly superior armaments. As a result, the notorious northwestern border was established, with practically independent tribal territories and the policing operations of the Indian army. The Russian threat remained a permanent concern and influenced Afghanistan’s fate. Again in 1856, the British prevented the Persians from seizing the region of Herat.

The tsarist armies, in possession of superior means, continued their advance into central Asia. The conquest took another quarter century, but Tashkent fell on June 7, 1865. Planning to create a vassal state of Russia, the tsar decided to annex the region in 1866. The following year, it became the government-general of Turkestan. The khanate of Bukhara became a vassal state in 1868, Khiva in 1873, and the khanate of Kokand was annexed in 1876, becoming the province of Fergana. Turkmenistan was the next milestone, and the conquest was completed in 1884.

Unlike those of the Caucasus, the wars in central Asia were not very bloody. The Muslim states, weakened by internal conflicts, did not have significant military means, and the Russians had the intelligence to respect local mores and customs. At least initially, they did not seek to interfere in the internal affairs of the population.

In addition to the difficulties encountered by the conquest when it faced an unyielding population, there was the permanent risk of revolt, the most representative of these being the revolt of the sepoys of 1857, the “Great Rebellion.” The immediate pretext was the introduction of modern weapons that required their users to come in contact with fats considered to be of impure origin (beef fat for the Hindus, pork fat for the Muslims). The movement was a vast protest against the impact of colonialism, experienced as a threat to their religion and mode of life, especially since the colonial government had entered a phase of technocratic reforms. The European presence was seen primarily as a form of pollution. The movement, which began in Bengal, extended to northern India and sought to rally behind it the traditional authorities, including the last representative of the Mogul dynasty. It did not manage to find true leaders or a centralized leadership. Muslims and Hindus participated equally in the insurrection. A large part of the urban and rural world joined in. The rebels systematically massacred Europeans, including women and children. The repression was terrible. In addition to engaging in battles in which they took no prisoners, the British columns systematically burned villages and massacred the male population, to instill lasting fear. The British army made rape a regular practice. (For the rebels, rape was a sin for the one committing it and not for the victim.) The human losses counted in the hundreds of thousands. The use of terror followed the logic of deterrence, revenge, and a sense of racial superiority to be reestablished.

The British victory can be attributed first and foremost to tools emerging from the industrial revolution: steam-powered riverboats, the electric telegraph, the beginnings of a railroad network. The central years of the nineteenth century (1840–1860) witnessed the establishment of European domination, now founded on the technological progress under way and no longer merely on the capacity to mobilize resources, as in the late eighteenth century. Without that transformation, it is likely that the British would have been expelled from India.

From that time on, they isolated themselves even more from Indian society. All-white troops were maintained permanently, with a monopoly on artillery. The British preserved the princely Indian states to earn their goodwill. The East India Company was abolished in 1857, along with the fiction of continuity with the Mogul Empire.

Beyond their impact on literature and art, the violence that characterized the wars in Algeria, the Caucasus, and Afghanistan would leave lasting marks. A century and a half later, these fractures and wounds can still be found in relations between the Muslim world and Europe.

The combined role of archaic social structures (tribes, brotherhoods)—which the social transformations under way in the great Muslim states did not destroy—the bellicose traditions of peoples who refused to be subjected to a tax-imposing and oppressive state, and the terrain and climate, inhospitable to the European invaders, allows us to better understand the scope of that resistance. It took the form of a local jihad conducted by war chiefs, who emerged during the first battles. The modern Muslim state seemed much more vulnerable and yet, in bowing to indirect control, it managed to endure by learning to change. The resistance of the archaic societies facilitated that task, since, by virtue of its costs, that resistance tended to deter adventures of conquest.

War favored the acquisition of knowledge. The military needed interpreters, the first mediators with the conquered population, but these intermediaries sometimes proved inadequate. In the Algeria of the conquest, “Arab bureaus” were established, instruments for administering and learning about the indigenous society, whose structures had to be identified and the legal rules governing it defined. A culture of officers and administrators of “native affairs” was thus set in place. Orientalists were called on to assist in translating the classics of Muslim law or the discourse that Muslim societies elaborated about themselves. Ibn Khaldn was therefore translated into the European languages, since he provided an explanation for the tribal and clan system and its role in history.

The constitution of a colonial science followed. It had practical and concrete aims but tended to archaize the societies, both by referring to bodies of law several centuries old, which were once again applied, and by projecting a European medieval image on the conquered peoples. In the imaginations of the conquerors, tribal and brotherhood chiefs from Afghanistan, the Caucasus, and the Maghreb were the counterparts of the feudal grandees of Europe between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. Until the end of colonization, the colonials paradoxically aspired to be the bearers of civilization and progress, yet at the same time they were resistant to that progress, rediscovering with pleasure, in the conquered East, the world that no longer existed in Europe.

Even as European society became more democratic, increasingly leveling social conditions and continuously expanding political participation, the colonizers’ values became more regressive. In the colonial world as in the vanishing Old Regimes, everyone had to know his place: the colonial master had to be just and the native loyal, touchstone values that were no longer current in the Europe of the industrial revolution. Victorian England, where the medieval frame of reference became omnipresent precisely because that society had become urban and industrial, moved the furthest in that direction. France, more bourgeois and more rural, identified to a greater extent with Rome. The ideologues of the French Revolution had had the Germanic invasions in mind, whereas those of the conquest of Algeria saw it as a new Gaul, which French civilization would Romanize.

By the 1850s, the medieval frame of reference proposing ethnic separation had become dominant in English policy, with a vindication of the archaic rebels’ premodern authenticity. The French, by contrast, were oriented toward a notion of Romanization, that is, of assimilation. But they did not have the capacity to realize their program fully, creating instead the monstrosity that was colonial Algeria, both a part of the metropolis and a realm where the laws of conquest were applied with extraordinary severity. With the formation of a European settlement colony and the concerted repression of the native population, the old schema of the struggle between the races, beloved of European historiography in the previous centuries, found its most absolute realization, just as the British presence in India perfectly expressed the concept of military despotism.

The fate of the Muslim Mediterranean was thus clearly defined in the mid-nineteenth century. It consisted, first, of a Balkan peninsula, where the nationality principle took root to the benefit of the Christian populations; second, of North Africa, destined to fall completely under the yoke of direct colonial domination; and third, of a central Arab-Anatolian entity that would preserve its nominal independence but that it would be imperative to reform.


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