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 rebels by having them “strapped over the breeches of cannon and blown to pieces—preferably in sight of an Indian audience.”

Such cruelties, Polk suggests, were informed by attitudes of racial superiority and justified by arguments that Africans and Asians “feel no pain” or that “black men’s brains are different from the brains of white men.” Stereotyping had a purpose here: “The less outsiders knew about the natives—the less they believed that the natives were fellow human beings—the more likely they were to favor the use of violence.” And violence, Polk explains, was integral to an imperial project that threw together people of “different tastes, conventions, and deportment in a context of inequality.”

Not all the peoples of the ravaged South were Muslim, but Polk argues that Islamic militancy became the leading ideology of resistance that southerners used to defend their lands and societies. From western China, where “many Uyghurs have come to believe that their only line of defense against massive Chinese colonization and the destruction of their cultural identity is political activism anchored in Islam,” to Algeria, where Arabs and Berbers overcame tribal and ethnic differences in the struggle against French colonization, he recounts how Muslims have taken up arms on behalf of their faith.

One of Polk’s central aims is to revise the distorted views of Islam that many in the North have absorbed from movies and popular culture, in which Muslims tend to be “the fanatics; the sinister, dark people; the benighted natives; a mass, not individuals.” In the eyes of southerners, he reminds us, northerners who are honored and revered in their own countries are often villains. King Leopold of Belgium, who ruled Congo as a private fiefdom, was responsible for mass killing; for many in India, Winston Churchill, the great British war leader, bears responsibility for three million deaths by starvation in 1943.

The heroes in Polk’s account are instead figures like the Algerian Abd al-Qadir, a “partisan leader of the foremost rank” (as the British army officer Charles Callwell described him). Realizing he would always be “outgunned” by the French, Abd al-Qadir rallied the Arab and Berber tribes against them in the 1830s and formed a “nation in motion” that Polk compares to the guerrilla movement of Josip Broz Tito in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia a century later. Another is Umar al-Mukhtar, portrayed by Anthony Quinn in Lion of the Desert (1981), one of Hollywood’s rare sympathetic treatments of an Islamic leader. Mukhtar was hanged by Mussolini’s Fascists in 1931 in front of crowds of Libyans in the futile hope that the resistance would be crushed by the sight of his dangling corpse.


The Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was “deeply scarred” by stories of atrocities committed by the Italians, who—in the words of the American reporter John Cooley—“slaughtered herds of camels, sheep, and goats” before corralling the tribes who depended on them into concentration camps. Polk endorses Cooley’s observation that the “savage behavior by the Italian military and the subsequent seizure, settlement, and colonization of Libya’s arable pasturelands have never been forgotten or forgiven by Libyans of Mukhtar’s generation, or Qaddafi’s.”

Resistance was costly and often useless against the superior force of northern arms. “Whatever happens,” Hilaire Belloc famously remarked, “we have got/the Maxim gun and they have not.” The machine gun, however, was only half the story. Well-trained and numerous infantry troops could still be harried by tribal guerrillas, who had the advantage of local knowledge and popular support. This changed with the arrival of air power. As Polk intimates, Britain’s foremost weapon, the Royal Air Force, which saved the country from invasion in 1940, was forged in the campaign against the great Somali leader and poet Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan between 1900 and 1920.

The British—including my own grandfather, who fought against him in 1900—dismissed Hassan as a religious fanatic bent on resisting their “civilizing mission.” His real and legitimate quarrel, however, was with the Ethiopians who were encroaching on Somali grazing lands in the Ogaden. Since Christian Ethiopia had recently defeated its Italian rivals, the British assumed that Hassan’s moves against the Ethiopians were directed against themselves. The result was a conflict that lasted more than two decades, devastated the country, and claimed the lives of at least one third of its people. The consequences persist in Somalia, where local fishermen have been forced by international fishing fleets to resort to piracy. Polk calls it a “crippled society that bitterly hates the North.”

Polk writes that the air campaign in Somalia “was the action that led to the creation of the RAF” and indeed “worked so well that the RAF was given the principal role in defeating insurgents throughout the British Empire.” The RAF’s campaign against Hassan, in Polk’s words, “was copied by the Spanish and French in Morocco and the Italians in Libya and Ethiopia.”

Of those who inflicted atrocities from the sky on mainly Muslim peoples, Polk makes special mention of the Spanish prime minister Miguel Primo de Rivera, a keen advocate of air power who ordered his African Air Corps to undertake the systematic destruction of crops, markets, villages and livestock in Morocco. Poison gas was added to the mix of fragmentation and incendiary shells. The probable medical effects of gassing the Berbers are left to a brief endnote: “The Riff area still reports the highest incidence of cancer in Morocco.” A chilling photograph in mercifully poor resolution shows Spanish Special Forces displaying the decapitated heads of Riffian Berbers as trophies. The soldiers, the caption notes, “would usually cut off the heads of captives, parade them on bayonets, or carry them as souvenirs,” and often placed “piles of heads near villages to terrify the inhabitants.” It is a salutary reminder that the brutality exhibited by ISIS in its notorious online videos is far from uniquely Islamic in provenance.

European governments and the native armies they deployed are the main culprits in Polk’s dismal record of northern assault on the South, but America comes off no better. A descendent of James K. Polk—the eleventh president of the United States, who owned and traded slaves—Polk inveighs against the American colonization of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War in 1898. The long counterinsurgency campaign included the Bud Dajo massacre (March 1906) of nearly a thousand unarmed Muslim villagers who had taken refuge in an extinct volcano on the island of Jolo. A grim photograph of American soldiers posturing afterward like big-game hunters over a heap of corpses would not look out of place in a Holocaust museum. When asked by a Senate committee in 1902 if punishing families by burning crops and villages lay within the rules of civilized warfare, Brigadier General Robert Patterson Hughes, provost marshal general of Manila, replied, “Those people are not civilized.”


Polk makes clear that the behavior of the northern imperialists was primarily motivated by greed. Gold was what first lured the Portuguese down the West African coast and on to the Americas. “With Gold,” Christopher Columbus wrote in an oblique reference to pre-Reformation papal indulgences, “one can even get souls into paradise.” Britain and Holland, two great trading nations, were just as interested in plunder: paraphrasing John Maynard Keynes, Polk reminds us that by the mid-seventeenth century “piracy was the basis of English overseas trade.” The plunder of the buccaneer Francis Drake “financed the Levant Company, from which was formed the East India Company that would conquer India and destroy the Mughal Empire.”

Sayyid Qutb in prison in Egypt, where he was executed in 1966

Once industrial production replaced gold as the primary means for those in the North to acquire wealth, Polk argues, northern countries made a point of wrecking the manufacturing economies of the South. When Egypt’s nominally Ottoman ruler Mehmet Ali (1769–1849) built cotton mills and other factories and staffed them with a force of 400,00 industrial workers (“a category of workers,” Polk notes, “that hardly existed when he took power” in 1805), Britain used its leverage with the Ottoman sultan to persuade Ali to abandon his modernizing project. They claimed that his Egyptian state monopoly interfered with “free trade.”

“Britain’s Industrial Revolution was built on the destruction of India’s thriving manufacturing industries,” Polk tells us. “It has been estimated that in the middle of the eighteenth century India produced around a quarter of the world’s wealth.” Britain’s elimination of textile competition from India—“the first great deindustrialization of the modern world”—reversed the balance and forced Indians to buy British textiles instead. Master weavers were reduced to beggardom.

In Polk’s account the impact of imperialism on agriculture was just as bleak. In 1825 the Dutch killed some 200,000 Javanese—about one in fifteen of the island’s inhabitants—after a wave of protests inspired by the destruction of a Sufi saint’s tomb to make way for a road. After crushing the rebellion, “the Dutch fastened on the population a system of virtual serfdom, known in Java as cultuurstelsel.” Polk compares this regime to “the system the British imposed in Iraq” in the 1920s, which likewise “turned the tribal peoples into serfs with servitude enforced by the army and police force.” In Java, he writes:

Peasants were forced to grow crops that the government could sell abroad (particularly coffee), they were paid fixed prices and were held to fixed quotas, and they were not allowed to leave the land. For the Indonesian cultivators, the system was not only exploitative; it was lethal. Since they could not eat what they were forced to grow, they were all kept, like the Egyptian and Indian peasants, at bare subsistence, and large numbers died in famines. For the Dutch, whose economy had been damaged by the Napoleonic occupation, the opportunity to exploit Indonesia was a godsend. It is said to have furnished more than a fifth of the revenue of the Dutch government for the next thirty years.

Polk’s endnotes not only exhibit the range of his research (and his delight in Arabic poetry) but also yield enticing autobiographical elements that he modestly consigns to some fifty dense pages in tiny font. As dusk falls in the Arabian desert, Polk enchants his Bedouin hosts by reciting from “one of the great pre-Islamic poets.” In a note to a chapter on Arab nationalism, he mentions the three-hour-long conversation he had with the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser “on the implications for Egypt of his decision to intervene” in Yemen. Speaking “on behalf of the US government” (as a member of the Policy Planning Council in the State Department), Polk told Nasser that the reasons he might have for invading Yemen were comparable to those that “led us into the disastrous Vietnam War.”

Finally, President Nasser asked, “You don’t think I will win this war, do you?” I replied, “No, Mr. President, I do not.”

After the Six-Day War of 1967 Polk drafted a peace treaty, but President Johnson didn’t want to talk to the Egyptian government. Three years later, “at the request of [Israeli] Prime Minister [Golda] Meir,” he and Nasser negotiated the armistice that ended the so-called “war of attrition,” just before Nasser’s death in September 1970.

One of the strengths of Crusade and Jihad is the way Polk locates modern jihadist movements in the longue durée of world history. Islamic militancy, in the account he gives here, might well be called “the revenge of the South.” Rather than seeing jihadists as marginal elements at the extreme end of the Islamic spectrum, he regards their ideology as a fundamental, if questionable, part of the Islamic mainstream.

In his brief overview of classical Islam before the northern incursions, Polk emphasizes the centrality of figures such as Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (780–855) and Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328), who inspired both the Arabian Wahhabi tradition and the radical Islamist outlook of Sayyid Qutb, the highly influential Muslim Brotherhood intellectual executed by Nasser in 1966. Both Hanbal and Taymiyya rejected a range of beliefs and practices—including those associated with Sufism or contact with non-Muslims—as “un-Islamic.” They believed that truth was only to be found in the Koran and the Prophet’s example (sunna). Both were imprisoned by pragmatic rulers for their views.

In his discussion of Sufism, a tradition often regarded as quietist, Polk explains how even this mystical movement that surged in the aftermath of the Mongol conquests converted to militancy. “At first,” he writes, Sufism

was taken as a means of avoidance. By plunging into ritual, often a sort of trance, the believer could achieve a state of union with the spiritual world and…put aside anxieties and dangers because he had become convinced that the material world, with all of its pains and pleasures, was just a chimera.

Adherents of Sufism often moved from quietism to activism in places where foreign incursions on Islamic lands were most threatening. “Paradoxically,” as Polk puts it, “as individuals learned how to withdraw, they gained the capacity to intervene. By liberating believers from the world, Sufism also enabled them to fight for it.”

In this way Imam Shamil—leader of the Naqshbandi Sufi order in the Caucasus, whose members “considered themselves orthodox Muslims but espoused tolerance and accommodated themselves to local traditions”—was able to marshal the villagers against the Russians by converting the Sufi structure of a spiritual elite, headed by himself as imam, into an effective military force under his leadership. In a passage that tells us as much about modern Islamic militancy in places such as Syria as it does about nineteenth-century Chechnya, Polk records that Shamil had his own mother publicly flogged when, at the behest of some Chechen leaders, she suggested that he abandon the struggle. (He insisted it was God’s will that she be punished; but “after five blows,” Polk tells us, he stepped in and “said he would take the rest of the punishment himself.”)

But the honing of spiritual militancy, however necessary for resistance, has a distorting effect on the religion from which it derives. The deity commanding the struggle becomes “stern and unyielding rather than loving and forgiving.” The study of sacred writing turns into “thoughtless, rigid education based on the rote memorization of texts”—the sort of education that provides groups like the Taliban with “men who unquestioningly do what they are told to do.”

Jihadist ideology, in Polk’s view, has gained strength and influence in reaction to US policies—for instance, the American response to what he calls Saddam Hussein’s “catastrophic” invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Under the “politically harsh but socially advanced” rule of Saddam, Polk writes, in language that some might consider somewhat rosy given his gassing of Kurds and other atrocities, Iraq “became the most modern nation-state in the Arab world; its people…the best educated, healthiest and longest living of all the Arabs.” Yet under the sanctions that followed the invasion of Kuwait half a million Iraqi children are said to have died—“more than the number killed in the bombing of Hiroshima.” When asked about that figure, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.” Polk comments:

Had such a remark been made about the deaths of children in Europe or America, it would have drawn universal condemnation; made about Iraqi children, it drew almost no attention in the American media. Nor would similar comments or similar actions against Afghan children draw condemnation. But such comments and such actions were widely reported and commented on throughout the Muslim world.

It is little wonder, then, that the deaths of Iraqi children featured prominently in the propaganda of Islamist ideologues such as al-Qaeda’s Abu Musab al-Suri and in Osama bin Laden’s recruitment videos, which showed Iraqi babies wasting away from malnutrition and lack of medicine.

Polk is far from naive about the anti-imperialist movements that emerged in response to the North’s crimes against the South. Their successes, he argues, have in some cases been as disastrous as imperialism itself:

Almost without exception, the leaders of nationalist movements have disappointed those who had fought for freedom…. Achievement of power became an end in itself. And, absent both a vigorous public and functioning civil institutions, leaders, like medieval armies, were more intent on looting the camps of the departed than on continuing their campaigns. The more successful they were, the further they moved from the ideals that had motivated their struggle.

Crusade and Jihad is a powerful work of advocacy, but it should not be seen as a final judgment on the legacy of the North’s dealings with the South. As Christopher de Bellaigue showed in his book The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times (2017), imperialism from the time of Napoleon also brought scientific and medical advances that found a “natural constituency” among Muslim elites and benefited their societies.* At the same time, although the modernizing movements that brought advances in literacy, technology, and education may have been stimulated by the challenge of imperialism, they also had deep roots in Islamic tradition. Extreme versions of Islamist resistance to perceived “Western” education by groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria command the headlines, but the Islamic world’s accommodation to aspects of modern Western life may have been farther-reaching, if less visible, than these reactions against it.

Polk explains with erudition and sympathy how effectively figures like Sayyid Qutb have used theological currents derived from figures such as Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyyah to marshal resistance against northern imperialism by appealing to an antirational, divinely ordained form of legal moralism. For these theologians, actions are good or bad only because God so commands them; God does not command them because they are good. Polk does not explain, however, that the rationalist spirit in Islam, known as mu‘tazilism (meaning “withdrawal,” after its early proponents “withdrew” from a theological debate) can finesse the conflicts that arise between modernity and tradition today, for example on crucial issues surrounding gender and democratic legitimacy.

The rationalist theology of mu‘tazilism—sidelined by the four main Sunni legal traditions and hated by most jihadis and by other Islamic “fundamentalists,” including the Saudi Wahhabis—was adopted by the Shias, who stressed individual responsibility alongside the idea that God is obligated to reward the good. When he discusses Islam’s minority tradition, Polk emphasizes the hierarchical and messianic character of the Shia clerical establishment, which he attributes to the influence of Zoroastrianism, a religion that long predates Judaism and Christianity, and overlooks the rationalist character of its theology. Yet it is arguably this aspect of Shiism, along with the institutional power of the clergy, that enabled it to harness the power of the state after the Iranian revolution in 1979.

Polk does, however, rightly acknowledge some more recent achievements on Iran’s part: helping the US against the Taliban in Afghanistan, “interdicting the drug trade from Afghanistan to Europe,” and concluding a nuclear deal with six world powers in 2015. He points out that if the shah, America’s ally, had survived, “Iran would have long since acquired nuclear weapons…. It was Ayatollah Khomeini who stopped the nuclear program, and it was Khomeini’s successor Ali Khamenei who finally made it possible to resolve the nuclear issue in 2016.” That resolution is now in jeopardy after President Trump reimposed US sanctions on Iran in May, undermining Iranian president Hassan Rouhani by abandoning America’s participation in the deal and leaving the other members of the international group (China, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia, and the UK) to navigate dangerous waters without the US.

Instead the US has chosen to align itself with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, where, unlike in Iran, the prevailing theological tradition is hostile to the exercise of reason, though reforms may be pushed through by royal edict. This now appears to be the strategy of Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince whose ambitious plan, named VISION 2030, aims to wean his country off oil and includes the introduction of Western-style public entertainments—such as concerts, movies, and operas—of a type opposed by the Wahhabi religious establishment. It also includes replacing foreign workers with Saudi ones, although this would mean that Saudis would have to take on a spectrum of work—from menial tasks like chauffeuring to technical research at the highest levels—that the religious bias in their education has left them ill equipped to perform.

This is a precarious strategy and could easily generate a religious backlash if the prince fails to deliver on his promises for a modern economy. In the long term only the mu‘tazilite tradition, with its deep roots in Islamic philosophy, can hope to resolve the conflict Polk has so ably traced between religion and politics in today’s fractured Islamic world.