The Ottoman Empire itself was a colonial entity, creating the illusion of cultural unification under the rubric of Islam. Yet beneath the surface uniformity, there were vast differences in ethnicity, worldview, and beliefs. The weakening of the Ottoman Empire toward the end of the modern era created opportunities for European colonial powers to divide and conquer, ruling mainly from afar but also imposing the modern nation-state construct as the new normative vision for geo-political entities. Many Islamic nation-states did, and continue to, see their membership in a broader nation of Islam as trumping nationalism.
However, the method by which colonial European powers managed former Ottoman colonies has determined much of the 21st century's political landscape. There were also vast differences in methods and policies toward Islamic colonies, as France, Britain, and Italy had different political agendas. This can be seen throughout Africa and the Middle East, even today. Esposito points out that the British had a highly honed and well-organized system of colonial rule, which it had been developing over the course of several centuries. The British created "symbiotic" relationships between pre-established local elites and the colonial governments, thereby fomenting class tensions but making it seem like those tensions were endemic (p. 587). The British understood that it was important to retain local customs and systems of hierarchical relationships, and also could take advantage of the existence of monarchies that had already been in place by using them as sort of puppet governments. British colonial policies paved the way for rampant corruption and social unrest, which continued decades and generations after decolonization.
France had a less organized, systematic, and effective approach to its colonies. Moreover, France mismanaged some of its colonies deemed unimportant to France. Yet France retained control, either tacit or explicit, throughout the Maghreb. Some of France's colonies were ruled with traditional centralized systems; whereas others relied on local governments. France treated some colonies, like Algeria, as part of France, but others as mere mandates, like Syria. France's role was generally as protectorate. Like the British, the colonial relationship was largely exploitative and used to further the economic ends of the ruling elite in both the colony and the motherland. Italy had yet a different approach to colonial rule, by ignoring economic and political institutions and imposing its own arbitrary rule.
The main issues guiding European colonial policy toward former Ottoman colonies were centered on economic gain. In fact, the political agendas would be largely based on a long-term vision on how to manage colonies to maximize their benefits to the colonial power. There were some political considerations that often trumped economic decisions, though. For example, there would often be a political vacuum, presenting risks to social stability. The need for social stability led to strategic political alliances, and the strengthening of ties between the colonial powers and the indigenous elite. Rule of force often proved to be a political weapon, leading to the unfortunate consequence of decades and decades of tyrannical rule. The political parties that were established during the colonial era in some cases still exist. In many, if not most, cases, the types of governments and institutions that were established during the colonial era were unsympathetic to the emergence of democracy. Oligarchy was common, as the European powers forged strategic economic alliances. When oligarchies merged with religious fundamentalism, a paternalistic system ensued. The current realities and the popular uprisings are responses to the legacy of colonialism. Colonial powers often used their colonies as political tools, to assert legitimacy and glean regional power and control that could have a bearing on domestic and foreign policy in Europe.
The repercussions of colonial rule in former Ottoman colonies, and thus throughout much of the Muslim world, are extensive and pervasive. However, the repercussions are also diverse, depending on both the nation-state in question and on the former colonial power and its approach to colony management, economic growth, and politics. Some of the arguably positive repercussions include the entrenchment of social and political, as well as economic institutions that have promoted globalization and economic integration. A strong judicial and legislative system mirroring European models has provided the institutional framework to allow political and economic unification.
However, in many cases, these institutions have been looked up on with great suspicion as remnants of a colonial past as well as the imposition of law from domestic tyrants. The need for more organic or grassroots political, social, and economic institutions has revealed itself in popular uprisings as well as the embrace of fundamentalism. Social control, such as the installation of local police and law enforcement, is another important legacy of colonial governments and an important way for those governments to ensure social stability in the colonies. In the post-colonial nation-states in the Islamic world, many of these institutions continue to provide essential services to citizens. Thus, the tensions and challenges of post-colonial remnants are how to carve out national and cultural identity, within the framework of Islam, while also remaining globally viable.
The film begins with footage of Cairo streets during the call to prayer, showing how well integrated Islam is with daily life in diverse countries and cultures around the world. Because of the way the film focuses on modern life and culture, it presents an accurate vision of the religion. Islam is a system of thought and law, a lens to envision culture and a worldview that can be all encompassing. While underscoring the core theology and cosmology of the religion, and its historical tenets too, the film also remains true to Islam itself even while presenting the religion to a potentially majority non-Muslim audience.
The film has the potential to undo many of the misunderstandings and prejudices about Islam that exist in American society. One reason for this is the credibility of the producers of the film. Viewers are more likely to trust a PBS production than say, a Fox production. Second, the film is lengthy. It is difficult to discuss a religion with as much influence on history and culture in a short time span, which is why the documentary is divided into two distinct parts. Because the film is long, the filmmakers are able to explore multiple dimensions and domains of the religion. This would not be possible in a shorter film. Finally, the film has the potential to undo many of the misunderstandings and prejudices about Islam because it is an objectively constructed documentary. The filmmakers are sure to frame Islam in terms of the historical contributions of the religion, especially during times in which Christian society was comparatively more backward. Social and intellectual progress characterized Islam for centuries, and it is important for viewers to remember that European culture was strongly influenced by Islam especially in Spain, but elsewhere as well.
This film supplements my personal understanding of Islam, by providing a visual and audible dimension to what I have read. It is one thing to read about the call to prayer, and quite another to hear it. Likewise, it is one thing to read about the construction of major mosques and religious icons around the world, and another thing to visualize them as they are presented on the screen. The narration is also clear and succinct, phrased in ways that are intelligent but easy to understand and lacking technical jargon that some scholarly readings have.
The film avoids too much projection on Christianity or assumptions about the comparisons between the two religions. However, it is impossible to talk about the history of Islam without also talking about the history of Christianity. So many decisions made in both Islam and Christianity were made in reaction to one another. Similarly, Islam grew out of the same religious font of Christianity, and both share a link to the Book of the Bible. Strong monotheism and an…