Western Influence on the Muslim Imagination.

March 27, 2013

The Crusades and European colonialism have had a widespread and lasting impact on the Muslim imagination.

For many in the West, the Crusades for the liberation of Jerusalem were a laudable moment of religious enthusiasm over the defense of Christianity. Images of the Crusades have long been used by Western media and marketing to project symbols of bravery, honor, and power. But for Muslims, the Crusades were a symbol of Western aggression where Christians sought to conquer or eradicate the Muslim world.

The Crusades have had a lasting impact.

The Crusades have had a lasting impact.

In that vein, many Muslims see colonialism and postcolonialism as another crusade. The legacy of European colonialism (foreign dominance of and Muslim subordination to European powers) is that it reversed a pattern of Muslim rule and expansion. This legacy has been long lasting, and its trend continues to threaten Muslim identity and autonomy. Why have Muslims fallen behind the West? Have Muslims failed Islam or has Islam failed Muslims? How should Muslims react? These questions remain a significant point of contention for many in the Muslim world.

The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 further complicated these questions. Muslim leaders considered Israel to be the ultimate symbol of European imperialism. Populated by Europeans brought in with European and American encouragement (at a time when Muslim countries were struggling to gain complete independence from European dominance), Israel’s borders were drawn arbitrarily and frequently cut off Arab villagers from their lands. In general, Israel found itself in an almost totally hostile environment. However, from the Israeli perspective, these Muslim attitudes were unwarranted. Israel’s view was that Muslim governments should recognize Israel and absorb the Palestinians into their own countries.

Many in the Muslim world have feared that the United States ‘war on terror’ would reproduce the dangers they faced from European colonialism in that Americans would attempt to infiltrate, dominate, and ultimately redraw the map of the Middle East once again. U.S. President George W. Bush’s use of the word crusade in a speech about the war on terrorism highlighted and propagated those fears.

Muslim responses to colonialism still form the foundations for actions that occur in the Middle East today: noncooperation, resistance, conflict, and withdrawal. Therefore, the West’s threat to Muslim identity and autonomy continues to encourage clashes and incidents within the Muslim world.

A trend toward Westernization in Muslim societies has created a growing social split. Modern secular schools matriculating alongside traditional religious madrasas produce two classes of Muslims living side by side but acquiring different worldviews and different prospects for their future. These two classes of people battle over models of political, social, and legal change. The liberal secular elites advocate emulating the West; however, resisters to Westernization often seek to follow the example of the Prophet: resistance in territory no longer under Muslim control, and fighting to defend the faith and lands of Islam (jihad). Some have tried to bridge the growing gap with a response called Islamic modernism. This answer has reawakened a sense of past power and glory while offering an Islamic alternative to completely assimilating or completely rejecting the West, but it has been both a success and failure at bringing Muslim societies together. 

Much of the Middle East remains underdeveloped and politically unstable, because most modern Muslim states are only several decades old and were carved out by now-departed European powers. For example, the creation of Pakistan and India resulted in communal warfare that left millions dead. The boundaries around Lebanon (drawn by the French) led to the Lebanese Civil War that pitted Christian and Muslim militias against each other. The country Jordan was a completely new British creation. And when the British created Iraq, the cobbled-together state (led by a Sunni ruler over a majority Shi’a population) highlighted the artificiality and fragility of the Muslim world.

Many violent radicals justify the horrors they commit by reciting a series of Muslim grievances against the West.

Historic memories of the Crusades and European colonialism get superimposed on current events. These societal memories feed resentment, anger, and deepen anti-Americanism in the broader Muslim world. Animosity towards the West is reflected in the common use of words like Zionist and infidels.

The globalization of jihad is a direct consequence of these memories. Groups that have declared war against America, like al-Qaeda, bring together many elements from Muslim history: condemnation of Western values, fears of foreign domination, militant jihad, a desire for Muslim expansion, and condemnation of any Muslim leader who forms an alliance with the West. Such groups harness these historic memories along with religion and modern technology to strike anywhere, anyplace, and at anytime. 

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with what I have written? Requests for future posts? I would love to hear from some of you.

6 Responses to “Western Influence on the Muslim Imagination.”

  1. grantbnet said

    I’d be interested to know how the Islamic world managed its middle-age expansion without imploding due to the Sunni vs Shiite conflict that seems so ever-present today. Did one side dominate that expansion? Or did those sect divisions just not really emerge until after the crusades?

  2. Steve said

    What an incredible lack of understanding and distortions to the real problem. The notion that Muslims hate the west is a big lie and a propaganda tool often used by the Nazi like Zionist movement and it’s allies, The US and western Europe, always use this as an excuse for all the injustice and hatred toward Arabs and Muslims. Simply put, if there was no Israel there would not be any animosity toward the so called West. If you examine closely what happened to the Arabs as a result to the illegal migration by European Jews and the mass expulsion of about 800000 people and the complete eradication of about 530 villages you may begin to understand the nature of the problem. When it is obvious that the US along with most Western European countries support the Zionist entity regardless, then this may be the real reason why they hate us and rightfully so. If you add to this the colonial era crime against humanity like murdering one million is Algeria, another one million or so in Libya and the recent atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan where hundreds of thousands of innocent people were killed, tortured and maimed. None of this goes far back in history. If the west practices good will toward Muslims, they will be amazed by the response towards them. But the West continues with nothing but lies, lies, lies, and more lies until everyone in the Western world is confused as hell and cannot tell fact from fiction.

    • Shabbir said

      Really, if west would behave as guided by JESUS toward Muslims, they would be amazed by intimacy of Muslims. Still I am strange with the generosity of Muslims toward the west after being tortured as the world sees.

  3. Allen, I appreciate the overview and summary of historical events that have produced and exacerbated tensions between the West and Middle East. We can only understand the root causes of terrorism by grasping the societal complexities tangled there. Only by grasping it ourselves will we be empowered to demand of our leaders wiser actions in face of it.

  4. Mike said


    This is a good overview and I don’t see you “leaning” either way. I appreciate the objectivity. I support the the state of Israel but we also must consider that there is plenty of blame to go around on both sides.

  5. Ken said

    It all depends on when you start your historical analysis.

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