In This Article European Imperialism

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals

Islamic Studies European Imperialism
Michael B. Bishku
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0023


Historically, the term “imperialism” refers to a process whereby countries that were militarily more powerful or technologically more developed took possession of territories—usually overseas but sometimes adjacent to the more powerful country—in order to exploit that territory’s resources or strategic location. In certain cases, permanent settlers were sent along with administrators; those territories were either considered to be an integral part of the mother country or were eventually given local self-government or independence. In the process, there could also be a conveyance of European institutions, such as parliamentary government or a unifying language. “Colonies” (territories directly administered politically) or “protectorates” (territories where foreign affairs and defense matters were controlled by the colonial power but that might have some local autonomy) were recognized by other colonial powers as formal parts of the controlling country's “empire.” Algeria, Mauritania, and Libya were colonies, for example, whereas Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt were protectorates. Thus, the word “colonialism” may be used interchangeably in many cases with the word “imperialism.” There were also other territories that had no formal connection with an “empire” but were nonetheless within the colonial power’s “sphere of influence.” Between the two world wars, another administrative unit, called the “mandate,” was organized under the League of Nations (the predecessor of the United Nations) to allow “mandatory powers” (the victors in World War I) to prepare former colonies of the defeated powers—or territories in the case of the Ottoman Empire—for eventual independence. This was the case for Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. In effect, mandate status was the continuation of colonialism or imperialism under the guise of liberalism. Some of these “mandates” became “trusteeships” under the United Nations following World War II, when there was another transfer of colonies of the defeated states. At that time, Libya was granted independence, and Palestine was partitioned under the auspices of the United Nations. In the early 21st century, in the midst of the age of “globalization,” the term “neocolonialism” refers to Western countries’ indirect economic or cultural domination of independent states, as well as their political influence over these states, especially in the so-called Third World, which includes much of the Islamic world.

Introductory Works

The colonial powers in the Islamic world (defined as predominantly Muslim-populated territories) included Great Britain in Egypt, Sudan, northern Somalia, coastal parts of the Arabian Peninsula (including Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and what was formerly called South Yemen), Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, the Indian subcontinent (including modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan), Malaysia, and Brunei; France in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Syria, Lebanon, and Djibouti; Italy in Libya, Eritrea, and eastern Somalia; the Netherlands in Indonesia; Russia in Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Dagestan, and Central Asia (including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan); and Spain in northern Morocco and the western Sahara. Iran and Afghanistan were at times in Great Britain’s or Russia’s respective spheres of influence, while Russia tried unsuccessfully during the 20th century to extend its control over the Chinese-dominated province of Xinjiang in Central Asia. Although Germany did not have any colonies in the Islamic world, it had military connections with the Ottoman Empire that eventually led to Ottoman participation in World War I as part of the Central Powers, which also included Austria-Hungary, and the demise of that Middle Eastern empire. Later, during the Third Reich, the Nazis sought to either undermine or occupy territories of the British and French empires in the Middle East and North Africa. Most of the colonial powers’ activities in the territories mentioned took place from the mid-19th century, when the last European nation-states became centralized, until the mid-20th century, when the process of decolonization was in full swing. Most introductory works on imperialism focus primarily on the British Empire and secondarily on the French Empire, while scant attention is given to the Italians and the Dutch. The Spanish and the Russians, who had an overland (as opposed to an overseas) empire, are neglected in these studies. The political, economic, social, and cultural motivations of the European powers are discussed, as are their policies, which could differ depending on geographical region or the reactions of the subjected peoples. The articles in Sela 1999 offer succinct overviews of the imperial activities of Britain, France, and Russia and should be read together with the general entry on colonialism. Casanova 1993 emphasizes economic arguments and neocolonialism, whereas Tinker 1993 deals primarily with the political, cultural, and social motivations of the European states. Porter 1994 offers the most comprehensive survey of the dynamics and historiography of empire building, but it unfortunately ends its coverage with the outbreak of World War I. Kiernan 1982, meanwhile, covers a larger time frame but concentrates on the military aspects of imperialism and colonial politics.

  • Casanova, Pablo González. “Imperialism.” In The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World. Edited by Joel Krieger, 410–414. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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    A useful brief introduction to imperialism, but heavy on the explanation of economic arguments and neocolonialism.

  • Kiernan, V. G. From Conquest to Collapse: European Empires from 1815 to 1960. New York: Pantheon, 1982.

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    Concentrates on the military aspects of imperialism and colonial politics.

  • Porter, Andrew N. European Imperialism, 1860–1914. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994.

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    A concise survey of the dynamics of empire building as well as the historiographical literature of political, economic, and social natures of European imperialism.

  • Sela, Avraham, ed. Political Encyclopedia of the Middle East. New York: Continuum, 1999.

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    See, in particular, “Britain, British Interests and Policies” (pp. 182–186), a brief survey of Great Britain’s involvement in the Middle East since the 16th century; “Colonialism” (pp. 194–197), a brief survey of the colonies, protectorates, and spheres of influence of the European powers in the region; “France, French Interests and Policies” (pp. 257–262), a brief survey of France’s involvement in the Middle East since the Crusades; and “Russia, Russian and Soviet Interests” (pp. 638–646), a brief survey of Russia’s and the Soviet Union’s involvement in the Middle East since the 18th century.

  • Tinker, Hugh. 1993. “Colonial Empires.” In The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World. Edited by Joel Krieger, 156–157. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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    Should be read together with Casanova 1993, as it deals primarily with political, social, and cultural motivations.

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