The invasion of Libya was going well, much better than anyone had expected. With ground forces outgunning resistance and attacks from the air showcasing military technology to best effect, proponents of the campaign were riding high and detractors looked woolly and pusillanimous. The prime minister of Italy, who had coaxed his country into sending troops to Libya, ridiculed one oppositional Italian parliamentarian in particular, Leone Caetani, calling him principe turco, ‘Turkish prince,’ a taunt that picked on his target’s social background. Caetani, everyone knew, was descended from the upper reaches of Italy’s aristocracy and had a reputation as a scholar of Islam. It was not hard to see what the prime minister was getting at: by attacking government policy, Caetani, whether he meant to or not, had been playing into the enemy’s hands. But when news trickled in of a successful counterattack on the expeditionary corps, early euphoria waned. Worse was to come. Worry yielded to shock on news that Italian soldiers taken captive in a small town near Tripoli, Sciara-Sciatt, had been massacred. Italy mourned over 250 casualties (the true number may have been much higher).
This was a national calamity that Leone Caetani might have exploited to settle scores. Caetani’s voice, after all, commanded attention in the political fray of the day; he was a member of parliament and son of a father who had served as Italy’s foreign secretary. But Caetani had more important things on his mind than striking back at political adversaries; writing as a scholar of Islam, Caetani came forward with an essay, every line reflecting a lifetime’s study of Islamic history and the author’s personal exposure to Islamic societies of his time, wherein he placed current events on a trajectory that began in ancient history and extends into the future. This essay was first published in Italy and reached a readership across Europe within months when it appeared in France as a book with the title La fonction de l’Islam dans l’évolution de la civilisation.
Caetani’s essay was published in 1912. It invites re-reading. Often, responses to atrocities tend to become obsolete once the circumstances that triggered them slip from sight. But with the benefit of hindsight of a full century, we can check whether Caetani’s insights have stood the test of time by placing his essay alongside Samuel Huntington’s 1992 lecture Clash of Civilisations?, which was later expanded and published as a book in 1996. In the eighty years that separate Caetani and Huntington, what has been the progress in the West’s understanding of the East? But first we need to recap the back story of Italy’s invasion of Libya in 1911. Italy’s economy in the nineteenth century did not provide enough jobs for its growing population and Italians were emigrating in numbers, mainly to the United States and Argentina. To stem the drain, policymakers in Rome latched on to what looked like a viable panacea: Italy ought to emulate Britain and France, colonial powers that had carved Cyprus and Tunisia out of the Ottoman Empire. Were Italy to conquer her neighbour across the Mediterranean, Libya, two benefits would ensue: first, Italian emigrants would be offered a destination much closer to home than the Americas, second, Italy would rank as a colonial power. In September 1911, Italy went to war, and by October 1912, Ottomans were forced to cede what became known as Italian Libya. The invasion looked like a risk that had paid off.