Thursday, January 24, 2008

Reaction to A World Without Islam

Foreign Policy has an essay entitled “A World Without Islam” by a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, Graham Fuller. Fuller writes if Islam never existed the world would end up “exactly where it is today.”

Fuller is right in the sense that a world (and especially the Middle East) without Islam would not be some sort of utopia. Terrorism, assassinations, suicide bombings, world wars, weapons of mass destruction, riots, religious violence, and a whole lot of other nasty things all have their origins independent of Islam. The Middle East itself was the scene of wars, just like everywhere else, before Islam. Jewish Zealots waged war for God and nation against the Roman Empire, Arab tribes raided caravans for loot, and Persia and the West fought each other dominance all before Muhammad.

However, the essay falls apart in its historical and cultural geographical analysis. Ignorance about demographics, religion, political, and the rise of Europe greatly hurt the thesis that the world would be the same.

First, there is the statement “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,” is flawed when one looks beyond face value. The Middle East would probably be more ethnically diverse. Arabs before the Islamic conflict were limited to the Arabian Peninsula and the fringes of Syria and Jordan. The Islamic Conquest spread Arab culture more than actually Arabian Arabs. This shows today with the physical differences between an Iranian Gulf Coast “Arab” and an Egyptian-Sudanese “Arab.” Arab today is much more of an identity, spread through Islam, rather than an actual ethnic group. Without Islam bringing Arab as a common unifier the Middle East would be a salad bowl of Syriacs, Assyrians, Phoenicians, and other groups. The Middle East may be even more ethnically fractured if Islamic Arabs did not unify it.

The assumptions Fuller makes concerning religion also have problems. Fuller states without Islam Christianity would probably have continued its dominance of the region. This is probably correct. However he goes on to discuss how the region would be Eastern Orthodox and that would be bad because Eastern Orthodox tend to be suspicious of the secular and culturally Catholic West. The problem is this is three fold.

First the region would be a mixture of Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Oriental Orthodox like the Egyptian Copts and the Assyrian Church of the East. Oriental Orthodox probably would have kept the momentum they had before Islam and would have legitimate shots at converting much of India and China. The mindset of Oriental Orthodox would indeed be counter to the West in that they would negatively see both Roman and Constantinople as those who opposed them during the early days of Christianity. Religion would be even more political with joining the Eastern Orthodox or keeping communion with Rome being even more political than it is today.

Secondly, the Eastern Orthodox would not be so anti-West if Islam was had not arrived. The Eastern Orthodox Church actually reunited with Rome before the fall of Constantinople. After the Turks seized the city they had the new patriarch withdraw from the union. The Muslim Turks kept the Eastern Orthodox separate and rivals of the Western Church (A joke goes: “Q: If Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are so similar in dogma why do Protestants not claim the Patriarch is the anti-Christ? A: Because the anti-Christ has better things to do than listen to the Sultan for 500 years.”). Religious struggles would be present in a world without Islam but the playing field would be completely different.

Thirdly the essay states “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.” Byzantine Emperors Michael VII and Alexius I Comnenus, Pope Urban II, and the peasants of the People’s Crusade disagree. Urban II whole justification was the plea of the Byzantines’ who cited Muslims destroying Christian communities. Western Christians first started caring about the Muslim ruled Holy Land not when it economically suited them but when Fatimid caliph, al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher destroyed in 1009. The essay then brings up the Fourth Crusade as premanetly damaging Eastern Orthodox-Catholic relations. Without Islam there would not have been a Fourth Crusade.

The political makeup of the Middle East would be different in a world without Islam. The Muslim goal was to rebuild the world according to their divine revelations. That included disposing with old political, economic, and cultural systems. Muslims were the only group to dispose of the Roman-base system once the Romans or their direct descendants lost control. The Roman-based systems and legal setups would probably be found in the Middle East today and maybe spread as Christianity did. This could mean either a greater respect for human rights but could also leave the door open for dictators who would abuse the power structure for their own benefit like Mussolini or Hitler.

(Side note: If Constantinople had not fallen Moscow could have never of claimed to be the Third Rome. This claim and prestiage help Moscow become a major power.)

The last flaw with the essay is that it assumes only Europe would rise in a world without Islam. The essay states that a Christian Middle East would oppose European colonialism just how all other regions of the world did. But this assumes that only Europe would make “the great leap” forward which spurred the Ages of Exploration, Conquest, and Imperialism. With all of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and perhaps more in the relatively same cultural sphere, the Renaissance and Age of Reason may have spread throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. The Muslim world we know would not be stuck in the slow decline it has been in for the last 500 years but instead it may have rapidly advanced just like Western Europe did. The Middle East and elsewhere may have shifted its glances in other directions like further south around Africa and maybe even the Americas. The great mercenary explorers of Italy may have guided Christian Indian fleets to Australia, Arab fleets around the Cape of Good Hope, and even African Vandal fleets to Brazil. Who knows. This is a double-edge sword. With so much competition and conflicting thoughts in the same realm, English individualism and Protestant freedom (both of which heavily influence America and the free world today) may not have been able to succeed.

Mr. Fuller is right when he writes the world would not be a peaceful utopia if Islam had not existed. There would still be religious violence and most residence of the current Muslim world would still be peaceful and friendly people like everyone else. The world would not be just like it was; however, it would be radically different. For either good or ill.


Dan tdaxp said...

Excellent analysis. One of your best posts ever.

Eddie said...

Nice takedown.

Honestly, FP has been like this for years now.. the only thing usually worth reading is the "Think Again" section and Moises Naim's column.

Its the type of analysis more worthy for a blog so that people like you could poke holes in it and strengthen the author's argument and enrich their thinking process on the issue.

Anonymous said...

The title of the FP cover story -- A World Without Islam -- caught my eye in a bookstore yesterday. I read it thinking it was going to be an interesting exercise in counter-factual history, but in fact it turned out to be just amazingly foolish. The fact is there are a million possible answers to the question "what would the world have been like without Islam." It could have turned out fairly similar to ours, or it could have turned out wildly different, depending on contingencies that we simply have no way of calculating.

For one thing, after the seventh century none of the historical figures we are familiar with would even have been born! Other people would have been born instead. How can you possibly calculate the direction these other people would have taken the world? There is no way to know! Fuller not only assumes that European imperialism would still exist, he even ends up assuming that the Holocaust would still have happened and the state of Israel would still have been created! This is just bizarre!

Steve said...

A very nice post.

Anonymous said...

This really was an excellent post. My first time to read your blog but not my last.

An excellent refutation of the same emasculated Fuller who tried about 15 years ago to take down the thesis of the Clash of Civilizations with "A Sense of Siege", a bit of RAND-style blandness that predicted everything from the end of Radical Islam as we know it thanks to Secularism's great hold in Turkey to the mass loss of Islamic identity among young Muslims in Europe.

And now, such ignorance as "A World Without Islam." This is what CIA calls long-range planning?

Dionysus Liber