What if Islam had never existed? To some, it’s a comforting thought: No clash of civilizations, no holy wars, no terrorists. Would Christianity have taken over the world? Would the Middle East be a peaceful beacon of democracy? Would 9/11 have happened? In fact, remove Islam from the path of history, and the world ends up pretty much where it is today.
By Graham E. Fuller
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. He is the author of numerous books about the Middle East, including The Future of Political Islam (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
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, fatwa, jihads, guerrilla warfare, threatening videos, and 9/11 itself. “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 was 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 tends 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. Contesting Semitic 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 uplifting about bringing “Christian values to the natives,” but the patent goal was to establish colonial outposts as sources of wealth for the metro pole 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. 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 Euro-pean 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 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 anticolonial movements to wrest control of their own soil, markets, sovereignty, and destiny from foreign grip–just like anticolonial 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 own 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 Bath 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 still persists 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, the perception of 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, this Middle East possesses a fierce sense of historical consciousness and grievance against the West. It has been invaded repeatedly by Western imperialist armies; its resources commandeered; its borders redrawn by Western fiat in conformity with the West’s 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 does not present an entirely peaceful and comforting picture.