In 'A World Without Islam,' Not Much Would Change Former CIA official and historian Graham Fuller argues that the West's fraught relationship with the Middle East is not about religion at all, but actually predates the spread of Islam. In A World Without Islam, he explains that even if the religion never existed, the world would look about the same.
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In 'A World Without Islam,' Not Much Would Change

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

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

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

It's possible to look at many of the problems the United States faces today -Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Iran - and find a common thread: Islam. Since September the 11th, some argue that we are engaged in a conflict with radical Islamists that some describe as the Long War. Former intelligence officer Graham Fuller proposes that we look at these challenges in a different way. Would the world be very different if Islam never existed? He argues that the long an difficult relationship between the West and the Middle East has less to do with religion and more to do with disputes over land, resources, politics and power.

To what degree do the conflicts in the Middle East focus on religion? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Ron Galella, the godfather of the paparazzi, joins us.

But first, Graham Fuller, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, former senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation. His new book is called "A World without Islam," and joins us now from a studio in Squamish, British Columbia.

And nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. GRAHAM FULLER (Former Chairman National Intelligence Council, CIA; Author): Hi, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And I wanted to make things clear from the beginning. Your title could be misinterpreted. You are, in no way, advocating a world without Islam.

Mr. FULLER: No. Absolutely not. I'm really focusing on the nature of struggle between the East and the West, and whether Islam plays a significant role in that.

CONAN: And you argue that, in fact, it doesn't get - a counterfactual history? Is that what you're writing here?

Mr. FULLER: Well, it's a kind of active, historical imagination. 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 it's kind of astonishing that you find deep-rooted conflicts that still exist over ethnicity, or economics, or warfare, or armies, or geopolitics or whatever; that really don't have anything to do with Islam, and indeed, existed long before Islam came into existence.

CONAN: And, in fact, there were conflicts between East and West in antiquity, before Islam existed.

Mr. FULLER: That's correct. I mean, if you look at the - the ancient Greeks fought wars with the ancient Persians for several hundred years, from about 300 - 500 to 300 B.C., struggling over the same turf. And the people who came to occupy them later, the - you know, the Byzantine Christians, fought the same wars. And then the Turkish Muslims came, and they fought the same wars. So you just find a very interesting kind of continuity of geopolitics and grievances across the region, that don't need Islam to explain it. Islam is a banner. It's great banner. Religions are great banners if you want to, you know - if you want to propagate your cause. But don't confuse the banner with the issues at heart.

CONAN: Yet, Islam was also an organizing principle of an empire that exploded out of Arabia in the 7th century, and to, well, dominate much of the world - to conquer Spain and, well, right to the gates of Vienna.

Mr. FULLER: Well, that's true. On the other hand, it was fascinating how relatively easy the Muslim conquest was. And one fascinating reason here, Neal, is that the Islamic vision of Jesus was that he was a great prophet with an all-time message for Muslims, as well, but he was not literally the son of God. This is what Christians were arguing about for hundreds of years in that part of the world, as to what was the exact nature of Jesus, and was he man or was he God, or 50/50, or all of those things. So by the time Islam came along and said, OK, this is our take on it, it was hardly a surprise. It was more sort of an administrative change of power at the top than theological.

CONAN: Yet, again, it can't be argued that the Muslim empire that took over much part of the world could ever have been possible without some organizing principle, and indeed, that principle was Islam.

Mr. FULLER: Absolutely, and I agree with you. And that's not the point that I'm arguing. I'm not arguing that Islam has not had great impact on the Middle East region and its cultures and civilization. I mean, it's had a glorious civilization in its day. But I'm arguing that the relation - the nature of conflict between the West and the East does not depend on that, and precedes Islam and would still exist if you took away - you know, I mean, for example, struggles over oil and energy in the area. If the area were Christian, would the region be any more accepting of big, Western oil companies trying to come in a trying to dominate those things? I don't think so.

CONAN: You also point out the example of the Middle East conflict, sometimes portrayed as a three-sided conflict between Christians and Jews and Muslims. Nevertheless, if you said all of those Muslims were Christian, they would have been no more accepting of the state of Israel.

Mr. FULLER: Well, that's right. And, I mean, the whole Arab-Israeli thing has nothing to do with Islam, really, because the Jews who had suffered incredible persecution in Europe, and slaughter and discrimination, and it culminating in the Holocaust, ended up migrating to Palestine to get away from all of that, and displaced Palestinians who were living there. But I don't - you know, if those Palestinians were Muslim or Christian or Buddhist, or whatever, it was still their land, there would have still been the same resentments in the struggle to regain their state.

CONAN: But there are, as you know, those who will argue that Islam is a fundamentally violent religion that calls on forced conversion, among other things.

Mr. FULLER: Well, that, I think you know, is really very inaccurate. Forced conversions - there's a law - there's a line in the Quran explicitly saying that no force in religion. So - but this is not to say that various religions at many - at various times in history have not broken their own commandments. Certainly Christian armies, Muslim armies, other armies have done the same. But, essentially, that is not considered to be a correct form of Islam.

CONAN: One of the great tensions between the East and West to this day are those series of military expedition known as the Crusades. Do you think Europeans would have been eager to be traveling to that part of the world had not the Holy Land been held by what they regarded as infidels?

Mr. FULLER: Well, yeah. That's really a fascinating question, because I think the Crusades, in our eyes in the West, are the sort of preeminent example of cultural conflict. But, you know, it's interesting that Jerusalem fell to Muslims sometime in the 7th century, and it was only about 500 years later that suddenly, they decided in Europe to have Crusades over the whole thing. And this was when Europe found itself with mercenary armies that had used to be fighting against German barbarians and others, for years were marauding all over the place, and the pope needed to get all of this energy and - out of the way. So there were economic and there were political and there were cultural and social reasons for that Crusade to start.

But hey, we talked about Islam as a banner. Christianity was a glorious banner for what ended up being an invasion of the East, establishment of city-states run by Christians, and even the sacking of Christian Constantinople itself at that time. So, you know, you can easily take Islam out of that and find pretty similar events.

CONAN: And indeed, in the course of human events, you argue that had Islam not been there, the Western, in their interests - or what they regarded as their interests - would have found something else to crusade about.

Mr. FULLER: Yeah. I mean, you know, when you start moving outside of Europe for areas to conquer, you can only go east to Russia, and Europeans did. Or they could go south and east to the Middle, and that's why this area has been a classic grounds of clash between East and West. But I think Western, you know, expansionism, the whole colonial and imperial movements in the 18th, 19th century, all of that would have gone on. Europeans didn't care whether they were invading and taking over Christian countries, Buddhist countries, Muslim countries, whatever. They went there and colonized and ran them and created huge legacies of resentment and sparking wars of national liberation.

So nothing special - specially religious there, except again, Islam was a great banner for many Muslims who were struggling against French or English or Dutch or other forms of foreign European imperialism.

CONAN: And you focus on the Western depredations into Islamic lands. Nevertheless, this does cut both ways.

Mr. FULLER: Yes, but I think if you the number of times when you find Eastern armies coming into the West, I mean, the Ottoman Empire got up to the gates of Vienna at one point and were repulsed, and they were in Spain for a very long period of time - by the way, which was one of the high points of Christian-Jewish-Muslim cooperation, very high civilization.

But apart from that, it was mostly the other way around. The West by then was getting much stronger and able to send its armies there. And, you know, Neal, in terms of violence, it's interesting to consider, the really most hideous killings of human beings in the history of humanity took place in the 20th century and largely driven by Europeans, who started World War I, World War II, picked these conflicts all around the world, Marxism and Leninism, Hitler, Stalin, you know, not even any religion in all of this, was - much of it, it was atheist imperial drive in which millions, you know, maybe up to 100 million people killed in all of those events. So...

CONAN: Including some in the Middle East, though both conflicts, the Middle East was something of a sideshow.

Mr. FULLER: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the Europeans carried their war to the Middle East and wanted various states to line up with them against the Germans or against later in the Cold War against the Russians.

But, you know, you're hard put to find anything remotely in the annals of Islam that show the numbers of people butchered, as were butchered by the 20th in the 20th century by Western Europeans.

Now, look, I'm not saying that Western Europeans are inherently more evil. Not - they are not. Nobody is inherently more evil. But they created and developed and perfected the weapons of mass destruction going back hundreds of years which gave them an advantage in the ability to impose their authority absolutely on most of the rest of the world. And that's still true.

CONAN: Industrialize the means of mass killing.

Mr. FULLER: Exactly.

CONAN: And we're talking with Graham Fuller about his most recent book, "A World Without Islam." When we come back from a short break, we'll be taking your phone calls. What would we wanted to find out what you think about the thesis. Would the world be different, largely different, if Islam had never existed? 800-989-8255. Email us, And also you can join the conversation at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We'll also be talking with Graham Fuller about the implications of his thesis for U.S. foreign policy going into the future. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking with Graham Fuller about his book, "A World Without Islam." You can dig in to what Fuller describes as the immaculate conception theory of crises abroad in an excerpt from his book at our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

You can also join the conversation. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email is Let's go to Drew. Drew's on the line with us from Richmond.

DREW (Caller): Hi. I was just wondering if you guys could discuss the legacy of colonialism in the Middle East, specifically the (unintelligible) agreement and how the borders that were drawn weren't necessarily sustainable to the Middle -people of the Middle East and weren't drawn regarding their best interest.

CONAN: Graham Fuller, a situation that not only pertains to the Middle East but to much of Africa as well.

Mr. FULLER: Exactly. I mean, this is one of the many legacies. I think Drew put his finger right on it. One of the many legacies of Western imperialism was not only to conquer and occupy and control most of the rest of the world for long periods of time but to redraw the boundaries, and that is - those are that has created problems and legacies we're still living with.

I mean, the Arab world in particular was divided up very, very artificially, along lines that were more reflective of agreements between British and French interests than they were with the populations who lived there or the ethnic or tribal makeup of it.

So that is what the region is still studying(ph) - somewhat artificial states, and then run by dictators who were established by the West who are perceived as pro-Western and pliable to Western interests.

So that's still a burning issue and has not changed in a number of Middle Eastern countries today.

CONAN: And I'm not going to argue with that, but to go back just a little bit further, it's important not to overlook the effect of the previous empire in the region, that's the Ottomans.

Mr. FULLER: Well, that's true. The but - and it's interesting that the major region in which opposition came to the Ottoman Empire was in the Balkans, and that was an area that was largely Christian, either Orthodox or Catholic, and they didn't get along, by the way, particularly well.

But in terms of the broader Muslim world, there was not a great deal of revolt. There were periodic dissatisfactions, but most Muslims felt that they were part of a greater empire, Muslim empire, one of the biggest in history. So they were fairly content to be part of it.

Later on nationalism developed. You had Arab nationalism, Turkish nationalism. These are Western ideas that I'm not sure have really helped the region to unify when you have ethnic groups at each others' throats.

CONAN: Drew, thanks very much for the call.

DREW: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Let's go next to this is Pete, Pete with us from Cleveland.

PETE (Caller): Good afternoon.


PETE: Just a quick question. You know, as far as, you know, the conflicts, would the world be different without Islam? You know, I don't believe so. Religion is religion.

But that being said, we're currently in, you know, two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan. We're trying to stop threats against the United States from the Muslim world. You know, out of all the programs I've heard on this topic, the Middle East and everything that goes along with that, no one's ever asked the question or answered, you know, why is there such disdain from that part of the world towards the United States, and what would we as the United States have to do to get that part of the world or the people behind, you know, the attacks and what they want to do to us to leave us alone?

Mr. FULLER: Well, that's a great question, and I think most Muslims would say leave us alone, because history I mean, I think we in the U.S. tend to think of history as beginning with 9/11. But there's a long, long history, even of the U.S. - I'm not talking about just European but of U.S. involvement in the region as well that goes so that would be seen as a blank check for anything that Israel wants to do in the region, would be seen as seizure of oil, propping up of dictators, supporting anybody that's anti-American, overthrowing regimes.

There's a long list of all of this. So the region would say stay out of our area, leave us alone, let us try to build our own states. But now, it wasn't it's not only just intervention, it's warfare with, you know, hundreds of thousands of people being killed, creating resentments, rage.

It's supporting the most extremist elements. Now, this is a God-given event for Osama bin Laden, who saw these wars as the quickest way to get, to win support of the local population in this so-called struggle against American imperialism.

So the short answer is - rather than us telling them to get out of our face, they would be telling us the same, get out of our area. Leave us alone.

PETE: If we were to leave Iraq and Afghanistan and purchase their oil on the free market but still maintain our support of Israel, would that be a means to an end, or is it the fact that, you know, we, you know, we just stand behind Israel, kind of like the 51st state, that causes all the problems?

Mr. FULLER: Well, I don't think it's the existence of Israel. I mean, almost nobody at this point, no rational people in the Middle East, are saying that Israel doesn't exist or shouldn't exist. But they do want a settlement of the Palestinian problem and occupation of Palestine that's been going on since 1967.

I mean, this is over 40 years now. This one of the longest occupations ever. But apart from that, if we could get that problem settled fairly and not simply taking Israel's side, then I think slowly, bit by bit, you'd find the area definitely calming down.

There's all kinds of ways in which we could spend a fraction of the money that's being spent on losing wars to improve, you know, health, schooling, education, all of these things which I think would transform the area.

CONAN: Pete...

PETER: Why can't, why can't...

CONAN: Pete, we want to give somebody else a chance. Pete, we want to give somebody else a chance. Thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

Here's an email from Jason in San Francisco: The issue is not conflict with Islam as an abstract. The issue is a religious belief system that actively promotes suicidal attacks on noncombatants as a path to heaven.

Mr. FULLER: Well, again, this is an issue that has come up a great deal. There is the Quran prohibits suicide. There is debate among Muslims, among radical Muslims, as to whether suicide in the name of national defense is legitimate or not.

But what's really fascinating here, Jason, is that suicide bombing is a really, really recent event. There had been no suicide bombings against the U.S. really until the war in Lebanon, when the U.S. Marines went in in the 1980s.

The suicide bombing then was brand new to Iraq. That had never begun until the American invasion there. And then only in recent years have we begun to see it in Afghanistan. So we're talking about something really new in the history of Islamic fighting.

And just let me finish that point by quoting Yasser Arafat, who used to be the head of the Palestinian PLO, who said, you know, if you guys will sell us F-16s, we'd be happy to give up the suicide bombing, but since we don't have any better weapons, then that's the only thing we've got to go with to fight our war of national liberation.

CONAN: Let's go next to, this is Alan(ph), Alan with us from Savannah.

ALAN (Caller): Good afternoon. What is the relationship in the world where there is a conflict between extremist and moderate people, clans and nations within Islam, and how does that affect us in the United States, being caught in the middle of this civil war, particularly around oil?

A second, minor question: Whatever happened to the word Muslim? I never hear it said anymore. Thank you for your work.

CONAN: Thank you.

Mr. FULLER: Sure, Alan. First of all, on the question of moderates, I think polls and even just, you know, people like myself or anybody else who goes out and travels in the Middle East rapidly sees the huge number, overwhelming majority of Muslims are moderate in their views, moderate in their interpretation of Islam. They have Christian neighbors. They all, anyway, accept Jesus as a great prophet.

But the problem is when you have Western armies, American armies in the region, this is a hugely radicalizing force. It plays into the hands of the radicals.

So I would argue that the region has become more superheated, more hysterical, more painful and radicalized than probably - God knows since when in history.

So that's why I'm advocating, I think, the withdrawal of American military forces and Western military forces, as the beginning steps of letting things calm down.

You know, I mean, radicals always prosper under terrible conditions. Radicals prosper under war and starvation and hardship and all of these things. When life gets better, moderates tend to do well, and I don't think we will be in the middle. I think people are happy to sell their oil, as long as it's at free-market prices and not at the sort of bargain-basement prices that the West tried to impose on them earlier.

On the world Muslim, Muslim, interesting point. I guess it's part of the modern era in which we're trying now - all countries, all languages are trying to call people by the names that they prefer. We don't say Peking anymore. We say Beijing, because the Chinese prefer that. Muslims prefer Muslim, and that's the way they say it in most Muslim languages, so we're accommodating.

CONAN: How popular were this views when you were vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA?

Mr. FULLER: Well, interestingly, I mean, as you know, we didn't have wars in which American - a huge American force and military presence was overseas. They were just beginning. I left the CIA 25 years ago. But it was just beginning in the early '80s, when you began to have the first suicide bombings against the Marine barracks.

But I think people generally understood that you were really asking for trouble if you were to send large military forces in there. There's deep resentment against American military bases. That, actually, was Osama bin Laden's first claim and cause, was to get American troops out of what he called the holy lands of Saudi Arabia. So those issues do matter a lot, and I think most of us who were professionals in the area knew of these sensitivities. But then it all got blown away after 9/11.

CONAN: Bases that were installed at the invitation of the Saudis after Saddam Hussein, a Muslim, invaded Muslim Kuwait.

Mr. FULLER: That's correct, but bases were there before then. And there was a special agreement made that under these - with the clerics of Saudi Arabia that, under very special circumstances, non-Muslim troops are allowed to come in to help kill other Muslims. And this was seen on a strictly temporary basis. But then the U.S. decided to stay on after that war was long over and, indeed, expand its bases there.

Most people don't like to have foreign bases. I mean, how would we feel if there were Chinese bases or, you know, Pakistani bases or Brazilian bases on American soil, with their troops wandering around and having diplomatic immunity from anything they did? It just doesn't sit well.

CONAN: We're talking with former intelligence official Graham Fuller. His book is "A World without Islam."

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

Let's go next to Mir(ph), Mir with us from Myrtle Beach.

MIR (Caller): Yes. Mr. Fuller, my question is what is your theory on if Islam didn't exist, would 9/11 still have happened?

Mr. FULLER: Well, that's - you know, when we get into these what if questions, it's hard to get specific answers. But I do struggle with that issue a little bit in the book and argue that if you still keep all of these other grievances - the colonialism, the imperialism, the support of foreign - the support of dictators that are not - that are hated by the region, efforts to control oil, seize oil, control the price of oil, to invade, to overthrow regimes we don't like, the whole Arab/Israeli problem and ignoring that issue, one after another after another. I think you would easily imagine some kinds of radicals in the region deciding to strike back.

I mean, as I say, history just doesn't begin with 9/11. So, suddenly, by - I mean, all of us who were sort of living in the area, working in the area knew that these pressures were building - the anger, the resentments, pressures, all of this were building. It was really only a matter of time before something snapped and they started taking the war to us. But that was the first time it happened, and that was an incredible shock. And for us, history began with 9/11 - but not out there, it didn't.

CONAN: Mir, thanks for the call. Let's go next to Barat(ph), Barat with us from Oakland.

BARAT (Caller): Yes. Mr. Fuller, when you were talking about humanity and the amount of atrocities committed by the crusaders, you should also reveal(ph) the fact that the Muslims came to India and they massacred and killed millions over there. The very one(ph), Hindu Kush Mountains, where they are fighting right now, comes from the term used by the Muslims to describe the millions of Hindus who died there. So there is a lot of things that you are not mentioning.

I mean, I'm not saying this is right or wrong. I'm not a Hindu fanatic, by any means. But if we're talking about history, we have to say that - you know, we have to tell the whole truth, because I quote to you, in India, there are great cities that were pillaged for six months by Muslim hoards and (unintelligible) and looted and raped and whatever you can think of the crusaders - these guys did in India. I think your listeners should know that there is a lot of history behind the animosity towards Muslims even today in India and Pakistan, as you guys know.

Mr. FULLER: Yeah. Well, you raised some really important points there. First of all, do remember the thesis of the book. I'm talking about how much Western relations would be different with the Middle East if there were not an Islam. When you get into the history of Islam and the whole region, then, of course, we are talking about differing religions that have been the flags of empires, including Persia, Persian empires, which were under Zoroastrianism and then other - and Islam and Nestorian Christianity and all of these things.

But you're right. I mean, I think every ethnic group or religious group in much of the world can point to some very ugly incidents in their history when foreign armies came in and killed and pillaged. But it's interesting to note that in most of the areas where Muslim - Islam, by the way, is spread mostly through trade and missionaries through a long, softening-up process rather than it was by the sword. In the early days of Islam, Arabs didn't want other people to convert to Islam because they wanted these privileges for themselves. That has long been changed.

But sure, we have to remember, too - and you know, sir, as well as anyone that the fusion of Hindu and Muslim culture in India is one of the high points of Indian history, the Mogul dynasty. I mean, the Taj Mahal, the food, the poetry, the music, all of the stuff that came from this fusion that sometimes had tensions, but also was a very, very close coexistence of Hindu and Muslim in that area. So it's a complex story.

CONAN: Barat, thanks very much for the phone call. Thank you.

And, Graham Fuller, we wanted to thank you for your time.

Mr. FULLER: My pleasure, Neal. It's great to have a chance to air these issues.

CONAN: Graham Fuller joined us from a studio in Squamish, British Columbia. His book is "A World without Islam." And he's former vice-chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Next up, paparazzo Ron Galella managed to capture iconic photos of celebrities such as Jackie Onassis and Marlon Brando during his 50-year career. Now, the lens turns on him in a new documentary "Smash His Camera." If you'd like to talk with the famous paparazzo, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: We'd like to hear from photographers. Has Ron Galella influenced your work?

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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