Those events were of profound symbolic importance. From the beginning of the nineteenth century onward, the heartlands of Islam were no longer wholly controlled by the rulers of Islam. They were under direct or indirect influence or, more frequently , control from outside, from different parts of Europe, or, as they saw it, Christendom. It was only then that the previously unknown name “Europe” began to be used in the Muslim Middle East—a change of terminology more than of connotation.
The dominant forces in the lands of the Muslims were now outside forces. What shaped their lives was foreign actions and decisions. What gave them choices was foreign rivalries. The political game that they could play—the only one that was open to them— was to try to profit from the rivalries between the outside powers, to try to use them against one another. We see that again and again in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth and even into the beginning of the twenty-first century. We see, for example, in the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War how Middle Eastern leaders played this game with varying degrees of success.
For a long time, the contenders competing for domination were the rival European imperial powers—Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Italy. In the final phase in the twentieth century, these rivalries acquired an explicit ideological content—in World War II, the Allies versus the Axis; in the Cold War, the West versus the Soviets. On the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” it was natural for people under foreign rule or domination to turn to the imperial—and later, also ideological—rivals of their masters. Pro-Nazi and later pro-Soviet factions, with sometimes the same leaders, among the subject peoples of the British and French empires illustrate this well. Interestingly, there seem to have been no corresponding pro-Western movements among the Muslim peoples subject to Soviet rule. The Soviets, even on the eve of their collapse, were much more adept at both indoctrination and repression than the more open empires of the West.
That game is now over. The era that was inaugurated by Napoleon and Nelson was terminated by Reagan and Gorbachev. The Middle East is no longer ruled or dominated by outside powers. Middle Easterners are having some difficulty in adjusting to this new situation, in taking responsibility for their own actions and their consequences. I remember being asked by an Iranian lady , bitterly critical of the government in her country , why “the imperialist powers had decided to impose an Islamist theocratic regime on Iran.” But some are beginning to take responsibility now, and this change has been expressed with his usual clarity and eloquence by Osama bin Laden.
With the ending of the era of outside domination, we see the reemergence of certain older trends and deeper currents in Middle Eastern history, which had been submerged or at least obscured during the centuries of Western domination. Now they are coming back again. One trend consists of the internal struggles—ethnic, sectarian, regional—between different forces within the Middle East. These had of course continued, but were of less importance in the imperialist era. Now they are coming out again and gaining force, as we see from the current clash between Sunni and Shi‘a Islam, on a scale without precedent for centuries.
Another change more directly relevant to our present theme is the return among Muslims to what they perceive as the cosmic struggle between the two main faiths, Christianity and Islam. There are many religions in the world, but as far as I know there are only two that have claimed that their truths are not only universal (all religions claim that) but also exclusive: that they—the Christians in the one case, the Muslims in the other—are the privileged recipients of God’s final message to humanity, which it is their duty not to keep selfishly to themselves, like the followers of ethnic or regional cults, but to bring to the rest of humanity, removing whatever obstacles there may be on the way . This self-perception, shared between Christendom and Islam, led to the long struggle which has been going on for more than fourteen centuries and which is now entering a new phase. In the Christian world, now at the beginning of the twentyfirst century of its era, this triumphalist attitude no longer prevails, and is confined to a few minority groups. In the world of Islam, now in its early fifteenth century , triumphalism is still a significant force, and has found expression in new militant movements.