When Lothrop Stoddard (1883-1950) is still recalled, it is as a prominent racist who had a major but malign influence on the budding field of international relations, who acted as theoretician for the Ku Klux Klan, and who contributed the concept of Untermensch (sub-human) to the Nazis.
Stoddard, however enjoyed a high and favorable profile during the 1920s. He had earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University and traveled widely. President Warren Harding praised him and F. Scott Fitzgerald obliquely referenced him in The Great Gatsby.
Stoddard also wrote a prescient 1921 study, The New World of Islam, a survey of 250 million Muslims "from Morocco to China and from Turkestan to the Congo." Despite his consuming racism, Stoddard impressively recognized trends underway in Islam. As Ian Frazier observed in the New Yorker, "Whatever his philosophy and methods, his guesses sometimes proved out."
His book had a substantial impact on public opinion, including on such notable figures as the German strategist Karl Haushofer, the Lebanese pan-Islamist Chekib Arslan, the Indian scholar S. Khuda Bukhsh, and Indonesia's President Soekarno. So, despite Stoddard's well-deserved ignominy, his New World of Islam is well worthy of scrutiny on its centenary.
Stoddard wrote at a moment when Muslim power and wealth were at their nadir: 1½ centuries of Western territorial expansion, 1764-1919, had just ended, leaving about 95 percent of Muslims under non-Muslim overlords. Independence movements were just beginning. Middle East oil had yet to be discovered. It was also the moment when, thanks to the catastrophe of World War I and the profound self-doubt it prompted, Europe's prestige and influence began a steep, century-long decline.
Stoddard calls the initial rise of Islam "perhaps the most amazing event in human history" and (consonant with his racist outlook) praises its progress so long as Arabs led the way but condemns its backwardness under the rule of "dull-witted" Turks. As "the refined, easygoing Saracen gave place to the bigoted, brutal Turk, ... chauvinist reactionaries" took over. The Muslim world "sunk to the lowest depth of its decrepitude" in the eighteenth century; "the life had apparently gone out of Islam, leaving naught but a dry husk of soulless ritual and degrading superstition behind."
The Muslim world "sunk to the lowest depth of its decrepitude" in the eighteenth century, writes Stoddard.
Meanwhile, Europe discovered ocean routes, established economic hegemony, and exploited its power as "mistress of the world" to indulge in "recklessly imperialistic policies." Its conquests of Muslim-majority lands prompted a massive "flood of mingled despair and rage" against the West. This response then fashioned the new world of Islam in Stoddard's title. The "great Mohammedan Revival" began with the Wahhabis in eighteenth-century Arabia and entailed a "profound ferment" and a "stirring to new ideas, new impulses, new aspirations. A gigantic transformation is taking place whose results must affect all mankind." This process was well underway by 1921: "The world of Islam, mentally and spiritually quiescent for almost a thousand years, is once more astir, once more on the march."
In part, this march means modernizing, that is transplanting "Western ideas and methods" to Muslim-majority countries. In part, it means expanding: "everywhere except in Europe, Islam began once more advancing portentously along all its far-flung frontiers." In part, it means pursuing pan-Islamic ambitions to unify Muslims under a single ruler, the caliph.
Western influence created profound tumult: "Fathers do not understand sons; sons despise their fathers." Stoddard accurately anticipated that "a generation (perhaps a decade) hence may see most of the Near and Middle East autonomous or even independent."
He offers contradictory predictions. Writing just as the Muslim liberal age began shuddering to a close, he over-optimistically foresees the probable "ultimate triumph of the liberals." More accurately, he expects that what he calls pan-Islamic nationalism (and what today we call Islamism) may "become a major factor which will have to be seriously reckoned with" because of its deeply anti-Western outlook.
Thus did the infamous Stoddard see the shape of what was to come, 55 years before it was recognized in 1976 by Bernard Lewis. Stoddard could do so because, at a time of rampant philosophical materialism and economic determinism, he took ideas seriously, even religious ones. He correctly understood Islam as the permanent force it is.
That remains an excellent lesson for today's analysts. Do not try to reduce causation to interests. Beliefs and passions count at least as much. Let us see how your – and my – analysis holds up in 2121.
Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum.