In 'A World Without Islam,' Not Much Would Change

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Graham Fuller i

Graham Fuller is former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA. Ana Santos hide caption

toggle caption Ana Santos
Graham Fuller

Graham Fuller is former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA.

Ana Santos

What would the world be like without Islam? In A World Without Islam, former CIA official and historian Graham Fuller says it wouldn't be much different from the world today.

According to Fuller, the West's fraught relationship with the Middle East isn't really about religion — and actually predates the spread of Islam.

Fuller tells NPR's Neal Conan that he found "deep-rooted conflicts that still exist over ethnicity or economics or warfare or armies or geopolitics [that] ... really don't have anything to do with Islam, and indeed, existed long before Islam came into existence."

One of those conflicts can be traced all the way back to antiquity.

"The ancient Greeks fought wars with the ancient Persians for several hundred years, from about 500 to 300 B.C., struggling over the same turf," Fuller says. "The people who came to occupy them later, the Byzantine Christians, fought the same wars, and then the Turkish Muslims came and they fought the same wars."

Cover of 'A World Without Islam'
A World Without Islam
By Graham E. Fuller
Hardback, 336 pages
Little, Brown and Co.
List price: $25.99

In his book, Fuller says, "I try to run through a whole lot of events and take Islam out of the equation, and see what we're left with."

And what was left was the idea that the continuity of geopolitics and grievances across the Middle East doesn't need Islam to explain it. Rather, he sees Islam — and religion in general — as a banner in that Islam provided the organizing principle for the Muslim empire that took over much of the world.

"I'm not arguing that Islam has not had great impact on the Middle East region and its cultures and civilization," he says. "But I'm arguing that the nature of conflict between the West and the East does not depend on that, and precedes Islam."

Consider, for example, the struggle over oil and energy in the Middle East.

"If the area were Christian, would the region be any more accepting of big Western oil companies trying to come in and dominate those things?" he asks. "I don't think so."

Fuller says that while he finds imagining the world this way an important and informative exercise, he is in no way advocating for a world without Islam.

"I'm really focusing on the nature of struggle between the East and the West," he says, "and whether Islam plays a significant role in that."

Excerpt: 'A World Without Islam'

Cover of 'A World Without Islam'
A World Without Islam
By Graham E. Fuller
Hardback, 336 pages
Little, Brown and Co.
List price: $25.99


If nothing else, I hope this examination will cause readers to rethink the nature of East-West conflict and how Americans, in particular, regard their own foreign policies. Such a process of self-examination comes hard to superpowers; they suffer from their own particular kind of isolation and myopia: possession of great power suggests a security and certitude, an ability to ignore situations that smaller states find threatening or dangerous and that they cannot afford to get wrong. International politics is not unlike the jungle: smaller and weaker animals require acute intelligence, sensitive antennae, and nimbleness of footing to assure their own self-preservation; the strong — such as elephants — need pay less attention to ambient conditions and can often do as they wish, and others will get out of the way.

Power also brings a certain arrogance: the belief that we can control the situation, we are in charge, we can persuade or intimidate with ease — or so we think. Indeed, one senior official in the Bush administration, when asked about looming realities of the wars in the Middle East, stated without a pause, "We create our own realities." The course of events of the past decade reveals how sadly true that has been.

The problem lies in the optic we employ. Washington — perhaps as many global powers have done in the past — uses what I might call the "immaculate conception" theory of crises abroad. That is, we believe we are essentially out there, just minding our own business, trying to help make the world right, only to be endlessly faced with a series of spontaneous, nasty challenges from abroad to which we must react. There is not the slightest consideration that perhaps US policies themselves may have at least contributed to a series of unfolding events. This presents a huge paradox: how can America on the one hand pride itself on being the world’s sole global superpower, with over seven hundred military bases abroad and the Pentagon’s huge global footprint, and yet, on the other hand, be oblivious to and unacknowledging of the magnitude of its own role — for better or for worse — as the dominant force charting the course of world events? This Alice-in-Wonderland delusion affects not just policy makers, but even the glut of think tanks that abound in Washington. In what may otherwise often be intelligent analysis of a foreign situation, the focus of each study is invariably the other country, the other culture, the negative intentions of other players; the impact of US actions and perceptions are quite absent from the equation. It is hard to point to serious analysis from mainstream publications or think tanks that address the role of the United States itself in helping create current problems or crises, through policies of omission or commission. We’re not even talking about blame here; we’re addressing the logical and self-evident fact that the actions of the world’s sole global superpower have huge consequences in the unfolding of international politics. They require examination.

There is a further irony here: How can a nation like the US, which expresses such powerful outpourings of patriotism and ubiquitous unfurling of the flag on all occasions, seem quite obtuse to the existence of nationalism and patriotism in other countries? Washington never fared very well in the Cold War in understanding the motives and emotions of the nonaligned world; it dismissed or even suppressed inconvenient local nationalist aspirations, thereby ending up pushing a large grouping of countries toward greater sympathy with the Soviet Union. This was a kind of strategic blindness that viewed other nations’ interests and preferences as something that needed to be hemmed in, or isolated. We have been obtuse toward nationalism and identity issues in the Middle East and have lumped it all into the basket of "Islam."

When we do not like a foreign adversary, we tend to denigrate them in strong, sometimes nearly apocalyptic terms. One less desirable aspect of democracy is that it seems to require serious demonization of the enemy if the nation and public opinion are to be galvanized sufficiently to pay a serious price in blood or treasure at war. And the message as to why we are in confrontation or at war must be simplified enough to fit on a bumper sticker.

In today’s world, "Islam" has become that bumper sticker for America, the default cause of many of our problems in the Muslim world. In the past we have gone in to do battle with anarchists, Nazis, Fascists, communists — today it is "radical Islam." I put this term in quotation marks not because it does not exist, but because it is a broad and complex phenomenon that comes in various shapes and sizes and requires a wide array of differing responses. The term does not begin to present an accurate or useful description of the kinds of problems we face in dealing with the Muslim world. In even more simpleminded analyses, we sometimes hear that the problem is not "radical Islam" but really perhaps even Islam itself. Why do "they" hate us, why are they violent, why do they "hate democracy," why do they not accept America’s nostrums and values, why do they engage in guerrilla war or terrorism, why do they resist American policies, why will they not accept America’s best-laid plans for their futures — Islam seems to supply a ready answer.

Actually, in many senses there is no "Muslim world" at all, but rather many Muslim worlds, or many Muslim countries and different kinds of Muslims. Nonetheless it is important to acknowledge that under assault and siege from the West in both real and imagined ways, the Muslim world has come together to an unusual degree over past decades. Indeed, US policies over this time have probably done more to forge a common-minded umma — the collective international community of Muslims — than any other factor since the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

History did not begin with 9/11. Our dealings with the Middle East go back a long way. The attack on 9/11 was a violent, extremist, and outrageous act, but it was also almost a culmination of a preceding chain of events over many years. If we choose to see history beginning at 9/11 — whereby we suddenly become the sole justifiably aggrieved party, now authorized to bring vigilante justice to the world — then we will continue to do what we have been doing all along, with disastrous consequences evident to all.

Reprinted from A World Without Islam with permission of Little, Brown and Co. Copyright 2010 by Graham E. Fuller. All rights reserved.

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