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Imagine a world without Islam!

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali - Jan 15, 2008

Take away Islam, and the world would still be left with the main forces that drive today's conflicts, including colonialism, cross-national ideologies, ethnic conflicts and terrorism, says Graham Fuller, a former Vice-Chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA in charge of long-range strategic forecasting and currently a professor of history at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada).

In his article entitled A World Without Islam, published in Foreign Policy, Fuller believes that given our intense current focus on terrorism, war, and rampant anti-Americanism it's vital to understand the true sources of these crises. He poses a question, is Islam the source of the problem or does it tend to lie with other less obvious and deeper factors?

Fuller presents his thoughts on Islam in an extended game of "what if." What if Islam had never arisen in the Middle East? 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? Would there still be violent clashes between the West and that part of the world? Would the Middle East be more peaceful? How different might the character of East-West relations be?

Fuller ponders a litany of history's major battles and events to drive home his message that while Islam might be a convenient culprit, but global strife, past and present, can't be blamed on any one religion. Europeans would still have wanted the spoils of the Middle East and launched the Crusades albeit under a different banner. "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 projection."

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, he says adding that 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. We doublespeak about promoting democracy in the Middle East as we back autocratic, despotic and undemocratic client regimes there.

On the U.S. occupation of Iraq, he says that it would not have been welcome by Iraqis even if they were Christian. Fuller points out that the United States did not overthrow Saddam Hussein, an intensely nationalist and secular leader, because he was Muslim and 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."

The West still would have tried various ways to get control of oil-rich areas, according to Fuller. But Middle Eastern Christians would not have welcomed imperial Western oil companies, backed by their European vice-regents, 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 anti-colonial movements to wrest control of their own soil, markets, sovereignty, and destiny from foreign grip--just like anti-colonial struggles in Hindu India, Confucian China, Buddhist Vietnam, and a Christian and animist Africa.

On the current Israeli-Palestinian problem, Fuller believes that Jews would have still sought a homeland outside Europe and the Zionist movement would still have emerged and sought a base in Palestine even if the Middle East was Christian. Why, because, he explains, it was 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, he says. "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 own land?"

The Israeli-Palestinian problem remains at heart a national, ethnic, and territorial conflict, only recently bolstered by religious slogans, Fuller said adding that we should not forget that Arab Christians played a major role in the early emergence of the whole Arab nationalist movement in the Middle East. He recalls that the ideological founder of the first pan-Arab Baath party, Michel Aflaq, was a Sorbonne-educated Syrian Christian.

On blaming Islam for current violence and terrorism, Fuller echoes Robert Pape's argument about the strategic, social and personal motivations work together to encourage suicide terrorism. Pape, in his book Dying to Win : The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, argues that nationalism and religious difference between the rebels and a dominant democratic state are the main conditions under which the "alien" occupation of a community's homeland is likely to lead to a campaign of suicide terrorism. He finds that religion plays a smaller part than thought.

Fuller reminds that the West's memories are short when it focuses on terrorism in the name of Islam. He recalls: "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 commit terrorism."

Fuller points out that 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."

Fuller makes a compelling argument that 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, he asked.

He also reminds us 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, Fuller concludes.

In short, Fuller has done a great job in spelling out the real root of the contemporary problems which lie in imperialism/colonialism, more than religion, although certainly religion is a part. His paradigm repudiates uninformed and biased pundits and neoconservatives who condemn Islam as the root of all conflict and see "Islamofascism" the sworn foe of the West in a looming "World War III."

(Abdus Sattar Ghazali can be reached at



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