* Former CIA chief eruditely debunks the bogey of Islam
JANUARY 1, 2008
Graham E. Fuller is a former vice chairman of the National
Intelligence Council at the CIA in charge of long-range strategic
forecasting. He is currently adjunct professor of history at Simon
Fraser University in Vancouver
Imagine, if you will, a world without Islam -- admittedly an almost
inconceivable state of affairs given its charged centrality in our daily
news headlines. Islam seems to lie behind a broad range of
international disorders: suicide attacks, car bombings, military
occupations, resistance struggles, riots, fatwas, jihads, guerrilla
warfare, threatening videos, and 9/11 itself. Why are these things
taking place? "Islam" seems to offer an instant and uncomplicated
analytical touchstone, enabling us to make sense of today's convulsive
world. Indeed, for some neoconservatives, "Islamofascism" is now our
sworn foe in a looming "World War III."
But indulge me for a moment. What if there were no such thing as Islam?
What if there had never been a Prophet Mohammed, no saga of the spread
of Islam across vast parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa?
Given our intense current focus on terrorism, war, and rampant
anti-Americanism -- some of the most emotional international issues of
the day -- it's vital to understand the true sources of these crises. Is
Islam, in fact, the source of the problem, or does it tend to lie with
other less obvious and deeper factors? For the sake of argument, in an
act of historical imagination, picture a Middle East in which Islam had
never appeared. Would we then be spared many of the current challenges
before us? Would the Middle East be more peaceful? How different might
the character of East-West relations be? Without Islam, surely the
international order would present a very different picture than it does
today. Or would it?
IF NOT ISLAM, THEN WHAT?
From the earliest days of a broader Middle East, Islam has seemingly
shaped the cultural norms and even political preferences of its
followers. How can we then separate Islam from the Middle East? As it
turns out, it's not so hard to imagine.
Let's start with ethnicity. Without Islam, the face of the region still
remains complex and conflicted. The dominant ethnic groups of the Middle
East -- Arabs, Persians, Turks, Kurds, Jews, even Berbers and Pashtuns
-- would still dominate politics. Take the Persians: Long before Islam,
successive great Persian empires pushed to the doors of Athens and were
the perpetual rivals of whoever inhabited Anatolia.
peoples, too, fought the Persians across the Fertile Crescent and into
Iraq. And then there are the powerful forces of diverse Arab tribes and
traders expanding and migrating into other Semitic areas of the Middle
East before Islam. Mongols would still have overrun and destroyed the
civilizations of Central Asia and much of the Middle East in the 13th
century. Turks still would have conquered Anatolia, the Balkans up to
Vienna, and most of the Middle East. These struggles -- over power,
territory, influence, and trade -- existed long before Islam arrived.
Still, it's too arbitrary to exclude religion entirely from the
equation. If, in fact, Islam had never emerged, most of the Middle East
would have remained predominantly Christian, in its various sects, just
as it had been at the dawn of Islam. Apart from some Zoroastrians and
small numbers of Jews, no other major religions were present.
But would harmony with the West really have reigned if the whole Middle
East had remained Christian? That is a far reach. We would have to
assume that a restless and expansive medieval European world would not
have projected its power and hegemony into the neighboring East in
search of economic and geopolitical footholds. After all, what were the
Crusades if not a Western adventure driven primarily by political,
social, and economic needs? The banner of Christianity was little more
than a potent symbol, a rallying cry to bless the more secular urges of
powerful Europeans. In fact, the particular religion of the natives
never figured highly in the West's imperial push across the globe.
Europe may have spoken upliftingly about bringing "Christian values to
the natives," but the patent goal was to establish colonial outposts as
sources of wealth for the metropole and bases for Western power
And so it's unlikely that Christian inhabitants of the Middle East would
have welcomed the stream of European fleets and their merchants backed
by Western guns. Imperialism would have prospered in the region's
complex ethnic mosaic -- the raw materials for the old game of divide
and rule. And Europeans still would have installed the same pliable
local rulers to accommodate their needs.
Move the clock forward to the age of oil in the Middle East. Would
Middle Eastern states, even if Christian, have welcomed the
establishment of European protectorates over their region? Hardly. The
West still would have built and controlled the same choke points, such
as the Suez Canal. It wasn't Islam that made Middle Eastern states
powerfully resist the colonial project, with its drastic redrawing of
borders in accordance with European geopolitical preferences. Nor would
Middle Eastern Christians have welcomed imperial Western oil companies,
backed by their European viceregents, diplomats, intelligence agents,
and armies, any more than Muslims did. Look at the long history of Latin
American reactions to American domination of their oil, economics, and
politics. The Middle East would have been equally keen to create
nationalist anticolonial movements to wrest control over their own soil,
markets, sovereignty, and destiny from foreign grips -- just like
anti-colonial struggles in Hindu India, Confucian China, Buddhist
Vietnam, and a Christian and animist Africa.
And surely the French would have just as readily expanded into a
Christian Algeria to seize its rich farmlands and establish a colony.
The Italians, too, never let Ethiopia's Christianity stop them from
turning that country into a harshly administered colony. In short, there
is no reason to believe that a Middle Eastern reaction to the European
colonial ordeal would have differed significantly from the way it
actually reacted under Islam.
But maybe the Middle East would have been more democratic without Islam?
The history of dictatorship in Europe itself is not reassuring here.
Spain and Portugal ended harsh dictatorships only in the mid-1970s.
Greece only emerged from church-linked dictatorship a few decades ago.
Christian Russia is still not out of the woods. Until quite recently,
Latin America was riddled with dictators, who often reigned with U.S.
blessing and in partnership with the Catholic Church. Most Christian
African nations have not fared much better. Why would a Christian Middle
East have looked any different?
And then there is Palestine. It was, of course, Christians who
shamelessly persecuted Jews for more than a millennium, culminating in
the Holocaust. These horrific examples of anti-Semitism were firmly
rooted in Western Christian lands and culture. Jews would therefore have
still sought a homeland outside Europe; the Zionist movement would
still have emerged and sought a base in Palestine. And the new Jewish
state would still have dislodged the same 750,000 Arab natives of
Palestine from their lands even if they had been Christian -- and indeed
some of them were. Would not these Arab Palestinians have fought to
protect or regain their land? The Israeli-Palestinian problem remains at
heart a national, ethnic, and territorial conflict, only recently
bolstered by religious slogans. And let's not forget that Arab
Christians played a major role in the early emergence of the whole Arab
nationalist movement in the Middle East; indeed, the ideological founder
of the first pan-Arab Ba'th party, Michel Aflaq, was a
Sorbonne-educated Syrian Christian.
But surely Christians in the Middle East would have at least been
religiously predisposed toward the West. Couldn't we have avoided all
that religious strife? In fact, the Christian world itself was torn by
heresies from the early centuries of Christian power, heresies that
became the very vehicle of political opposition to Roman or Byzantine
power. Far from uniting under religion, the West's religious wars
invariably veiled deeper ethnic, strategic, political, economic, and
cultural struggles for dominance.
Even the very references to a "Christian Middle East" conceal an ugly
animosity. Without Islam, the peoples of the Middle East would have
remained as they were at the birth of Islam -- mostly adherents of
Eastern Orthodox Christianity. But it's easy to forget that one of
history's most enduring, virulent, and bitter religious controversies
was that between the Catholic Church in Rome and Eastern Orthodox
Christianity in Constantinople -- a rancor that persists still today.
Eastern Orthodox Christians never forgot or forgave the sacking of
Christian Constantinople by Western Crusaders in 1204. Nearly 800 years
later, in 1999, Pope John Paul II sought to take a few small steps to
heal the breach in the first visit of a Catholic pope to the Orthodox
world in a thousand years. It was a start, but friction between East and
West in a Christian Middle East would have remained much as it is
today. Take Greece, for example: The Orthodox cause has been a powerful
driver behind nationalism and anti-Western feeling there, and
anti-Western passions in Greek politics as little as a decade ago echoed
the same suspicions and virulent views of the West that we hear from
many Islamist leaders today.
The culture of the Orthodox Church differs sharply from the Western
post-Enlightenment ethos, which emphasizes secularism, capitalism, and
the primacy of the individual. It still maintains residual fears about
the West that parallel in many ways current Muslim insecurities: fears
of Western missionary proselytism, a tendency to perceive religion as a
key vehicle for the protection and preservation of their own communities
and culture, and a suspicion of the "corrupted" and imperial character
of the West. Indeed, in an Orthodox Christian Middle East, Moscow would
enjoy special influence, even today, as the last major center of Eastern
Orthodoxy. The Orthodox world would have remained a key geopolitical
arena of East-West rivalry in the Cold War. Samuel Huntington, after
all, included the Orthodox Christian world among several civilizations
embroiled in a cultural clash with the West.
Today, the U.S. occupation of Iraq would be no more welcome to Iraqis if
they were Christian. The United States did not overthrow Saddam
Hussein, an intensely nationalist and secular leader, because he was
Muslim. Other Arab peoples would still have supported the Iraqi Arabs in
their trauma of occupation. Nowhere do people welcome foreign
occupation and the killing of their citizens at the hands of foreign
troops. Indeed, groups threatened by such outside forces invariably cast
about for appropriate ideologies to justify and glorify their
resistance struggle. Religion is one such ideology.
This, then, is the portrait of a putative "world without Islam." It is a
Middle East dominated by Eastern Orthodox Christianity -- a church
historically and psychologically suspicious of, even hostile to, the
West. Still riven by major ethnic and even sectarian differences, it
possesses a fierce sense of historical consciousness and grievance
against the West. It has been invaded repeatedly by Western imperialist
armies; its resources commandeered; borders redrawn by Western fiat in
conformity with its various interests; and regimes established that are
compliant with Western dictates. Palestine would still burn. Iran would
still be intensely nationalistic. We would still see Palestinians resist
Jews, Chechens resist Russians, Iranians resist the British and
Americans, Kashmiris resist Indians, Tamils resist the Sinhalese in Sri
Lanka, and Uighurs and Tibetans resist the Chinese. The Middle East
would still have a glorious historical model -- the great Byzantine
Empire of more than 2,000 years' standing -- with which to identify as a
cultural and religious symbol. It would, in many respects, perpetuate
an East-West divide.
It is not an entirely peaceful and comforting picture.
UNDER THE PROPHET'S BANNER
It is, of course, absurd to argue that the existence of Islam has had no
independent impact on the Middle East or East-West relations. Islam has
been a unifying force of a high order across a wide region. As a global
universal faith, it has created a broad civilization that shares many
common principles of philosophy, the arts, and society; a vision of the
moral life; a sense of justice, jurisprudence, and good governance --
all in a deeply rooted high culture. As a cultural and moral force,
Islam has helped bridge ethnic differences among diverse Muslim peoples,
encouraging them to feel part of a broader Muslim civilizational
project. That alone furnishes it with great weight. Islam affected
political geography as well: If there had been no Islam, the Muslim
countries of South Asia and Southeast Asia today -- particularly
Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia -- would be rooted instead
in the Hindu world.
Islamic civilization provided a common ideal to which all Muslims could
appeal in the name of resistance against Western encroachment. Even if
that appeal failed to stem the Western imperial tide, it created a
cultural memory of a commonly shared fate that did not go away.
Europeans were able to divide and conquer numerous African, Asian, and
Latin American peoples who then fell singly before Western power. A
united, transnational resistance among those peoples was hard to achieve
in the absence of any common ethnic or cultural symbol of resistance.
In a world without Islam, Western imperialism would have found the task
of dividing, conquering, and dominating the Middle East and Asia much
easier. There would not have remained a shared cultural memory of
humiliation and defeat across a vast area. That is a key reason why the
United States now finds itself breaking its teeth in the Muslim world.
Today, global intercommunications and shared satellite images have
created a strong self-consciousness among Muslims and a sense of a
broader Western imperial siege against a common Islamic culture. This
siege is not about modernity; it is about the unceasing Western quest
for domination of the strategic space, resources, and even culture of
the Muslim world -- the drive to create a "pro-American" Middle East.
Unfortunately, the United States naively assumes that Islam is all that
stands between it and the prize.
But what of terrorism -- the most urgent issue the West most immediately
associates with Islam today? In the bluntest of terms, would there have
been a 9/11 without Islam? If the grievances of the Middle East, rooted
in years of political and emotional anger at U.S. policies and actions,
had been wrapped up in a different banner, would things have been
vastly different? Again, it's important to remember how easily religion
can be invoked even when other long-standing grievances are to blame.
Sept. 11, 2001, was not the beginning of history. To the al Qaeda
hijackers, Islam functioned as a magnifying glass in the sun, collecting
these widespread shared common grievances and focusing them into an
intense ray, a moment of clarity of action against the foreign invader.
In the West's focus on terrorism in the name of Islam, memories are
short. Jewish guerrillas used terrorism against the British in
Palestine. Sri Lankan Hindu Tamil "Tigers" invented the art of the
suicide vest and for more than a decade led the world in the use of
suicide bombings -- including the assassination of Indian Prime Minister
Rajiv Gandhi. Greek terrorists carried out assassination operations
against U.S. officials in Athens. Organized Sikh terrorism killed Indira
Gandhi, spread havoc in India, established an overseas base in Canada,
and brought down an Air India flight over the Atlantic. Macedonian
terrorists were widely feared all across the Balkans on the eve of World
War I. Dozens of major assassinations in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries were carried out by European and American "anarchists," sowing
collective fear. The Irish Republican Army employed brutally effective
terrorism against the British for decades, as did communist guerrillas
and terrorists in Vietnam against Americans, communist Malayans against
British soldiers in the 1950s, Mau Mau terrorists against British
officers in Kenya -- the list goes on. It doesn't take a Muslim to
Even the recent history of terrorist activity doesn't look much
different. According to Europol, 498 terrorist attacks took place in the
European Union in 2006. Of these, 424 were perpetrated by separatist
groups, 55 by left-wing extremists, and 18 by various other terrorists.
Only 1 was carried out by Islamists. To be sure, there were a number of
foiled attempts in a highly surveilled Muslim community. But these
figures reveal the broad ideological range of potential terrorists in
Is it so hard to imagine then, Arabs -- Christian or Muslim -- angered
at Israel or imperialism's constant invasions, overthrows, and
interventions, employing similar acts of terrorism and guerrilla
warfare? The question might be instead, why didn't it happen sooner? As
radical groups articulate grievances in our globalized age, why should
we not expect them to carry their struggle into the heart of the West?
If Islam hates modernity, why did it wait until 9/11 to launch its
assault? And why did key Islamic thinkers in the early 20th century
speak of the need to embrace modernity even while protecting Islamic
culture? Osama bin Laden’s cause in his early days was not modernity at
all -- he talked of Palestine, American boots on the ground in Saudi
Arabia, Saudi rulers under U.S. control, and modern "Crusaders." It is
striking that it was not until as late as 2001 that we saw the first
major boiling over of Muslim anger onto U.S. soil itself, in reaction to
historical as well as accumulated recent events and U.S. policies. If
not 9/11, some similar event like it was destined to come.
And even if Islam as a vehicle of resistance had never existed, Marxism
did. It is an ideology that has spawned countless terrorist, guerrilla,
and national liberation movements. It has informed the Basque ETA, the
FARC in Colombia, the Shining Path in Peru, and the Red Army Faction in
Europe, to name only a few in the West. George Habash, the founder of
the deadly Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was a Greek
Orthodox Christian and Marxist who studied at the American University of
Beirut. In an era when angry Arab nationalism flirted with violent
Marxism, many Christian Palestinians lent Habash their support.
Peoples who resist foreign oppressors seek banners to propagate and
glorify the cause of their struggle. The international class struggle
for justice provides a good rallying point. Nationalism is even better.
But religion provides the best one of all, appealing to the highest
powers in prosecuting its cause. And religion everywhere can still serve
to bolster ethnicity and nationalism even as it transcends it --
especially when the enemy is of a different religion. In such cases,
religion ceases to be primarily the source of clash and confrontation,
but rather its vehicle. The banner of the moment may go away, but the
We live in an era when terrorism is often the chosen instrument of the
weak. It already stymies the unprecedented might of U.S. armies in Iraq,
Afghanistan, and elsewhere. And thus bin Laden in many non-Muslim
societies has been called the "next Che Guevara." It's nothing less than
the appeal of successful resistance against dominant American power,
the weak striking back -- an appeal that transcends Islam or Middle
MORE OF THE SAME
But the question remains, if Islam didn't exist, would the world be more
peaceful? In the face of these tensions between East and West, Islam
unquestionably adds yet one more emotive element, one more layer of
complications to finding solutions. Islam is not the cause of such
problems. It may seem sophisticated to seek out passages in the Koran
that seem to explain "why they hate us." But that blindly misses the
nature of the phenomenon. How comfortable to identify Islam as the
source of "the problem"; it’s certainly much easier than exploring the
impact of the massive global footprint of the world’s sole superpower.
A world without Islam would still see most of the enduring bloody
rivalries whose wars and tribulations dominate the geopolitical
landscape. If it were not religion, all of these groups would have found
some other banner under which to express nationalism and a quest for
independence. Sure, history would not have followed the exact same path
as it has. But, at rock bottom, conflict between East and West remains
all about the grand historical and geopolitical issues of human history:
ethnicity, nationalism, ambition, greed, resources, local leaders,
turf, financial gain, power, interventions, and hatred of outsiders,
invaders, and imperialists. Faced with timeless issues like these, how
could the power of religion not be invoked?
Remember too, that virtually every one of the principle horrors of the
20th century came almost exclusively from strictly secular regimes:
Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo, Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin and Stalin,
Mao, and Pol Pot. It was Europeans who visited their "world wars" twice
upon the rest of the world -- two devastating global conflicts with no
remote parallels in Islamic history.
Some today might wish for a "world without Islam" in which these
problems presumably had never come to be. But, in truth, the conflicts,
rivalries, and crises of such a world might not look so vastly different
than the ones we know today.