A World Without Islam
Little, Brown: 336 pp., $25.99
One of the sadder consequences of the near decade of war and violence that has followed the attacks of 9/11 is that so many people are convinced that we are in a clash of civilizations divided along religious fault lines. The concept was popularized by Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington in the mid-1990s, but he didn’t invent the idea; he gave it a name. Until 9/11, however, it was both debated and debatable. Since then, it has become a mainstream view in both the Western world and the Muslim world. The recent furor over the proposed Muslim center in Lower Manhattan, the rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric in Europe and the continued attraction of radical antinomian Islam in parts of the Muslim world attest to this situation.
But Graham Fuller offers a forceful, erudite reminder that neither Islam nor religious fervor adequately explains the animosity between parts of the Muslim world and the United States. In fact, he posits that the fissures that currently exist might well have existed even if Islam never had, and he offers a wide-ranging, at times digressive but always illuminating look at the past centuries to support that contention.
For years, Fuller has been a voice of reason and calm in an otherwise hysterical debate about the root causes of the contemporary logjam. He does not apologize for terrorism or violence in the name of God, but he has been consistently critical of the myopia of Americans about their own role in feeding the current hostility. And with a pedigree that includes years in high-level positions in the CIA, his critiques should carry unusual weight.
In order to support the assertion that “the present crisis of East-West relations … has really very little to do with religion and everything to do with political and cultural frictions,” Fuller embarks on a narrative tour that ranges from pre-Muslim antiquity to the present-day steppes of Central Asia and the Uyghur hinterlands of far-western China. He delves deeply into the fractious relations between Latin Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox Church, acrimonious fissures that began in the centuries after the death of Christ and only deepened over time. In fact, even the Crusades, which are routinely portrayed as the purest form of religious conflict between Islam and Christianity, had a dramatic element of conflict between the Eastern Orthodox armies of Constantinople and the hodgepodge of Western knights who invaded on the pretext of liberating the Holy Land.
While the narrative is never less than entertaining and the perspective always acute, the book does not quite live up to its title. Fuller never makes a convincing case that contemporary conflicts could have been just as acute had Islam never existed, and at times the precise point of his digressions is lost. The analysis of Islam in India and tensions between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs is informative about the degree to which culture and context shaped conflict, but it isn’t clear how that adds to his overall argument that Islam is incidental.
The other main contribution is to illustrate the degree to which the legacy of Western control and empire shape contemporary attitudes toward religion and terrorism in the Muslim world. For Americans, that history seems either distant or beside the point, but for many Arabs and Iranians, it is neither. The struggles for independence are decades, not centuries, old, and until the 1970s, nationalism rather than religion was the preferred ideology of resistance. But with the failure of nationalism to establish many Muslim countries as independent powerhouses, religion assumed a new role.
Fuller does not excuse acts of terror but he also tackles the question more bluntly than many Americans may like. “Terrorism cannot be separated from the conditions, concerns and distress of people in the Middle East,” he writes , and he excoriates the United States for using the label to invalidate any violent attempts by less powerful groups to fight for independence. In the end, terrorism directed at Americans will diminish when “Western military intervention and political intervention in the Muslim world” diminish.
Just after the attacks of 9/11, Americans passionately sought answers about what had generated such anger and hatred. In the years since, that questioning has given way to hardened lines and ideology that focuses on conflict and apportions blame. Fuller’s book is unlikely to alter that dynamic. But it is a needed corrective, a sober call not to settle for historical pabulum and instead recall a past and recognize a present that is far more complicated and layered than any polemic would have us believe.
Karabell’s most recent book is “Sustainable Excellence: The Future of Business in a Fast-Changing World” (with Aron Cramer).