“For Muslims, The Great War Changed Everything”


That’s Philip Jenkins’ claim in an essay explaining how the radical Islam we know today was a consequence of World War I:

When the war started, the Ottoman Empire was the only remaining Islamic nation that could even loosely claim Great Power status. Its rulers knew, however, that Russia and other European states planned to conquer and partition it. Seizing at a last desperate hope, the Ottomans allied with Germany. When they lost the war in 1918, the Empire dissolved. Crucially, in 1924, the new Turkey abolished the office of the Caliphate, which at that point dated back almost 1,300 years. That marked a trauma that the Islamic world is still fighting to come to terms with.

How could Islam survive without an explicit, material symbol at its heart?

The mere threat of abolition galvanized a previously quiet Islamic population in what was then British India. Previously, Muslims had been content to accept a drift to independence under Gandhi’s Hindu-dominated Congress party. Now, though, the Khilafat (Caliphate) movement demanded Muslim rights, and calls for a Muslim nation were not far off. That agitation was the origin of the schism that led to India’s bloody partition in 1947, and the birth of Pakistan.

How to live without a Caliph? Later Muslim movements sought various ways of living in such a puzzling and barren world, and the solutions they found were very diverse: neo-orthodoxy and neo-fundamentalism, liberal modernization and nationalism, charismatic leadership and millenarianism. All modern Islamist movements stem from these debates, and following intense activism, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was formed in 1928.

(Image: Ottoman forces preparation for an attack on the Suez Canal in 1914, via Wikimedia Commons)