A World Without Islam
Same place, same problems
By Steven Martinovich
Games of "What if?" have always been popular in discussions of geopolitics so it's little surprise that since September 11, 2001 experts have engaged in all sorts of exercises looking at alternate paths of history when it comes to the West and Islam. Unfortunately most stay relatively safe by exploring civilizational clashes or key battles which could have changed the course of history had they gone another way. Few, however, have gone to the next step of wondering what would have happened had one side simply not existed.
Graham E. Fuller, former vice president at the CIA's National Intelligence Council, does exactly that with A World Without Islam. The book posits the question: Would relations between the West and the Middle East be any different today had a Meccan merchant not received divine revelation from the angel Gabriel in a cave near Mount Hira? While the concept is a terribly interesting one, Fuller unfortunately saddles his effort with an overload of politically correct sensitivity and "blame the West first" mentality which turned what could have been a worthy entry into the geopolitical canon into somewhat disappointing result.
Fuller's thesis is essentially that it is millennia of Western behaviour and actions which have resulted in acrimony from the Middle East, not any inherent anti-Western attitudes present in Islam or Arabic culture. In fact, many in the Middle East greatly admire the West, and specifically the United States, for what it has managed to accomplish in so many fields. Fuller argues that Western Christianity – namely the Roman Catholic Church – and later imperialist adventuring fomented hostility from the Middle East. Invasion, how religious differences have been "resolved" and interference in internal politics are at the root our difficult relationship with the Middle East today.
To prove his case Fuller goes back millennia to explore the testy relationship that the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity labour under even today. From the beginning the Roman Catholic Church argued it had the exclusive right to determine Christian doctrine and attempted to assert that authority through attempted diktat and occasionally battle. That aggressive approach, writes Fuller, pushed the Eastern Orthodox Church to distance itself from Rome and eventually become a hostile competitor for souls, achieving success in Eastern Europe, Russia and – at least before the arrival of Islam – the Middle East.
In fact, argues Fuller, had Islam never existed the Middle East today would likely be the preserve of the Eastern Orthodox Church as it was before Muhammad changed the course of history. Given the still testy relations between Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy, Fuller believes that the Middle East would still be in opposition to the West, merely under the cross instead of the crescent, thanks to Rome's historic antagonisms. There are still plenty of Orthodox Christians angry with Rome over the Crusader siege of Constantinople in 1203, and blame the West for the eventual loss of the Byzantine Empire to the forces of Islam.
A World Without Islam the moves past that with more recent history, arguing that the colonialism of the European powers and relatively recent American economic and political exploitation also create underlying issues that affect our relations with the Middle East. Fuller argues that our continued support of unpopular leaders in nations like Saudi Arabia and the ongoing war against terrorism contribute to poor relations, that though Islam may be a factor, it is perceived Western arrogance and interference that do more damage.
Fuller argues at one point that he is not attempting to "create a balance sheet of all that is good and bad on both sides," an apt statement since his account of history and current day issues is so one-sided that to state otherwise would have been a gross distortion. Though he is correct when he argues that "many of the events that we associate with Islam are actually social and political impulses shared by most other cultures," he never seriously explores the failings of the Middle East that unique to that region.
At one point he compares the modern "Islamic mind" to those of early Christians, implicitly arguing that those modern minds have learned little from the other's history. Although Fuller may have not wanted to touch that hot button issue, there are plenty of Arabic and Islamic scholars who have lamented that their culture – or perhaps more appropriately cultures – spend more time trapped in the past then the present. That unfortunate fact has retarded the social, economic and political growth of the Middle East and its difficult to argue that its entirely the West's fault. Yet Fuller doesn't even spend a single sentence exploring that side of the balance sheet.
No less difficult to grapple with is how Fuller would have the West proceed in dealing with the Middle East. He believes that the United States should simply act is if Islam doesn't exist when it comes to formulating Middle East policy, that the "vast majority of issues in the region be dealt with and resolved without recourse to Islam as an explanation or operating factor." It is an interesting prescription given that Fuller has spent the proceeding 300 pages arguing that Islam is the chief organizing influence in the Middle East. He's likely correct but his effort doesn't entirely support his conclusion.
Doubtless these criticisms read as a fatal indictment of A World Without Islam but there is plenty of merit to Fuller's effort. Though we may not like to admit it, long-forgotten historical events do play a role in the modern world and they are one key in knowing why others are suspicious of us. And although it seems like religion is the fuel that created the conflagration we'd desperately love to put out, he rightly points out that secular extremism has done far more to spill blood then any religious war has. The key to resolving our differences, he argues in the end, is to simply recognize the people across the table aren't so different from ourselves.
Steven Martinovich is the editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.
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