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 provided 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 upon 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 naïvely 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 India 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.
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 the world.
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 globalize 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 grievances remain.
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 Eastern culture.
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.