DURING A LONG SPELL IN CAIRO in the 1870s, some years before the British slipped Egypt into their pocketbook, the Islamic thinker and polemicist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani found himself under attack from his Egyptian critics. They felt he was being overly suspicious of British intentions. An earlier generation of Egyptians had been bewildered by the appearance of Napoleon when he sailed into Alexandria in 1798, eager for an Oriental adventure on par with the British one in India. Back then, Napoleon’s talk of “liberty” and “all men being equal in the eyes of God”, struck these Egyptians as sacrilege, if not outright nonsense. By the time al-Afghani arrived in Cairo, however, huge swathes of the Asian and Arab world (he lumped them together as ‘Easterners’) had come to respect the power wielded by these small European states. Accordingly, they began to question the weakness of their own political and religious customs and entertain the idea of abandoning them altogether to embrace the Western model.
But al-Afghani had good reason to be suspicious. In 1856 his religious studies had brought him to India and the swift, exterminating violence with which the British crushed the Rebellion the following year had profoundly affected him. He feared that English interference in Egyptian financial affairs was merely a prelude to British rule not only in Egypt but in the entire Muslim world. In his writings he looked to put the East on a new political footing, drawing on the wellsprings of a shared faith in Islam. (In India he invoked Hindu religious and legal texts with equal dexterity.) Accordingly, al-Afghani informed his Egyptian critics that they had been snookered. They had read too many English history books. Such books were “marked by the hands of English self-love, with the pens of conceit and the pencils of deception, and inescapably they do not report the truth and do not report reality”.
The West has always had a rousing story to tell about itself. The most gifted popular historians of the West continue tirelessly to produce variations on the imperial narratives of Edward Gibbon, Thomas Macaulay and Winston Churchill, celebrating the rise of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, and the civilising and heroic mission of the imperial project. Biographies and memoirs of presidents and prime ministers, admirals and generals, implicitly echo these enshrined themes of high-minded action and vigilant forward thinking. Indeed entire lives are lived, diaries and letters written and preserved, with such heroic models in mind, like replicating strands of DNA. Oftentimes these stories are even projected directly to one’s subconscious by Hollywood. (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer was Adolf Hitler’s favourite.)