God on Our Side

Pictures from History/Bridgeman Images
The Algerian military and religious leader Abd al-Qadir, circa 1870

A comment by a young Muslim man who had studied at an American university sets the tone for the impressively far-ranging Crusade and Jihad. “The bottom line,” he tells William Polk,

is that no Muslim ever tried to enslave or slaughter your people. You might think of the attack on the World Trade Center, 9/11, as a counterattack. It was terrible and most of us are ashamed of it, but just remember—it killed about 25 hundred people whereas imperialists killed at least 25 million of our relatives and tried to destroy our way of life and our religion. Do you care about that?

Polk, a distinguished historian, diplomat, and Arabist who served as a foreign policy adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, does indeed care. The asymmetry of victimhood between whites and nonwhites—or northerners and southerners, as Polk prefers to call them—is a central theme in Crusade and Jihad. The title is both arresting and somewhat misleading. The actual Crusades occupy very few pages; Polk’s real subject is the negative impact that countries of the Global North—China, Russia, Europe, Britain, and America—had on those in the Global South.

Those southern peoples were mainly, but not exclusively, Muslim. In the Congo, “where roughly one in ten inhabitants was a Muslim,” Polk reminds us,

between 1884 and 1908 the Belgians are estimated to have killed at least twice as many natives as the Nazis killed Jews and Roma—some ten to fifteen million people. They also engaged in systematic rape, cut off the hands or feet of unproductive natives, and stripped the Congo of raw materials.

Polk’s tone and choice of sources are sometimes polemical. He uncritically cites the Indian diplomat and politician Shashi Tharoor’s claim that “thanks to economic policies ruthlessly enforced by Britain, between 30 and 35 million Indians needlessly died of starvation” and “millions of tons of wheat were exported from India to Britain even as famine raged.” Polk doesn’t discuss the other developments, independent of Britain’s policies, that contributed to India’s food shortage, such as debt bondage and natural disasters, including flooding and crop diseases.

Nonetheless, Polk uses an impressive body of economic, military, and social data to show how the European peoples of the North have invaded, raped, and ransacked the peoples of the South since the coming of Islam in the seventh century CE. His navigation is skillful, with short chapters that guide the reader through a historical trajectory of great complexity across the Eastern Hemisphere. We move from the orgies of piracy and plunder committed by the Portuguese on the Malabar coast of India—where Vasco da Gama ordered the ears, hands, and noses of some eight hundred Muslim merchants and seamen cut off as a warning to the local ruler—to the nineteenth-century British practice of executing Indian…

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