Ask the Author: Graham Fuller

In his January/February cover story, “A World Without Islam,” Graham Fuller takes issue with those who blame religion for the rift between East and West. He imagines what the world have looked like without Islam—and argues that it would look much the same. Now, he answers your questions about the role of religion, the future of the Middle East, and whether America invites terrorism upon itself.

1. Mr. Fuller, I agree with your statement that [s]truggles over power, territory, and trade existed long before Islam arrived. They also existed long before the arrival of the worlds most powerful country. So my question is, What would a world without America look like?

1. Mr. Fuller, I agree with your statement that [s]truggles over power, territory, and trade existed long before Islam arrived. They also existed long before the arrival of the worlds most powerful country. So my question is, What would a world without America look like?

Great question, worthy of a long essay. All I can say is that I think the United Statespartly due to World War II and the Cold Warhas come to believe it is indispensable to the world order. Im skeptical about that belief. That is not to condemn Americas past role in international politics, but nothing is truly indispensable, with perhaps rare exceptions. Believing in this self-serving myth of indispensability provides grist for self-imposed global adventures and an urge toward single-superpower global hegemonya condition that is as unhealthy for the world as it is for the superpower. Without the United States, more countries would have to assume greater burdens and take greater global responsibilities. I think the United States produced some superb political and cultural values in its day (its latter-day imperial ventures aside), but it is not indispensable.

2. Rather than asking hypothetical questions, we must focus on the very real problems of the world. Islamists say that they want everyone to convert to Islam, a worldwide Islamic government, and the implementation of sharia law. With the threats these illiberal theocrats pose in so many weak political systems, how can you argue that religion is irrelevant?

I dont argue that religion is irrelevant: Indeed, it becomes the powerful and emotive banner for all kinds of quite worldly global ventures. All fanatics seek to universalize their beliefs as part of imposing their political and cultural agendafascism, communism, racism, religions of various sorts. Remember the popular Christian hymn Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war? Western Christian states used Christianity to justify the spread of their hegemony. Unquestionably large numbers of Muslims would be thrilled to see the whole world one day embrace Islam. Large numbers of Christians believe the same about their own religion, that it would fulfill Gods plan. But there are precious few Christians, or Muslims, who believe they should go to war over that.

I dont think we need worry about Muslims seeking to take over the world. Even if some Muslims think universal Islam might be a nice idea, few really believe it will happen (except at the end of time). Most Muslims have much better things to do with their lives than go on a Crusade. The idea of successfully imposing a single Muslim imperium ruled by sharia law is a fantasy. Not even Saudi Arabia or Iran has pure sharia law: They cherry-pick and accept huge elements of international law in their legal systems. Rulers who attempt to impose heavy-handed and crude versions of Islamic law are unpopular and have no political future. Most Islamists know that.

3. Had Islam never existed, would religion still be so influential in Arab politics?

Yes, probably so. As my article notes, many politicians and political systems reach out to religion to justify, ennoble, and universalize their ambitions. Also, all cultures and communities undergoing periods of intense hardship serve to create messianic religious visions. With the United States Global War on Terror spreading across most of the Muslim World, conditions of war and hardship are rampant in many areas. Radicalismespecially in religious or cultural formsis immensely stimulated. So I think Arab states under the gun from the West would turn to religion as one way to galvanize their people, through Eastern Orthodoxy or some other religion if there had been no Islam. But dont forget that Arabs have turned to Arab nationalism and Marxism-Leninism as banners of defense against Western imperialism in the past as well.

4. In the first paragraph, you write that it is neoconservatives who say Islam is the source of this conflict, calling it an uncomplicated analytical touchstone. But why dont you believe what the jihadists themselves say? They quote the Koran, chapter and verse, to provide a scriptural basis for their war against the West. Why dont you attribute these sentiments to those that want to subjugate infidels and establish a worldwide religious government?

I agree that radical jihadists have such a vision. I also think they are a small minority that would not be enjoying such a prominent voice if the Muslim world were truly independent, free, and prosperous, and not on the receiving end of a century or more of Western meddling. We also must be cautious about accepting and believing the language of these radicals and assuming they represent the bulk of Muslim political culture and beliefs. These individuals are nowhere in power and extremely unlikely to come to power. Whatever we may think of Iran, Sudan, or Pakistan, none of them engages in messianic foreign policies and actions. Allowed to develop on their own, stable Muslim societies will not long tolerate radical extremists in their midst. The United States hands these radicals a gift when American boots on the ground offer justification for radical views that claim to liberate their country, or Islam, from hated foreign occupation.

5. Although I commend your excellent article that challenges the myth that a world without Islam would be any different, I have a problem with your choice of language.

Intellectuals must stop using rhetoric or associating Islam with the terrible events of the recent past. Unfortunately, in the West it seems we continue to use stereotypical terms such as Islamic Extremist, Islamic Radical, or Islamic Fundamentalist anytime one commits an offense and is somehow linked to Islam. We never do the same for the Christians who commit atrocities. Those people are called out by name and given the title of criminal, as they should be.

My question is, do you agree that these labels are detrimental to our understanding of the true nature of the conflict between a small number of evil people and the rest of the world?

I fully agree that whole religions should not be judged or maligned because of the actions of small numbers of zealots. In the case of todays Muslim terrorists, however, large numbers of them do flaunt the use of religious words linked to Islam for their own ends: Hizb-e-Islam, Hizbollah, Jaysh Muhammad, Ansar al-Islam, Sayf al-Islam, al-Takfir wal Hijra, Jamaa Islamiyya, and so on.

So Muslims themselves must discourage parties and groups from casually adopting the name of god, the prophet, or Islam for their own movements. Note the very successful, highly moderate Turkish party with Islamist roots that is now in power wisely calls itself the Justice and Development Party.

6. In writing about Osama bin Laden, you remind people that his cause in his early days was not modernity at allhe talked of Palestine, American boots on the ground in Saudi Arabia, Saudi rulers under U.S. control, and modern Crusaders. Do you think bin Laden believes his stated religious convictions, or do you think he invokes Islam as a convenient recruiting tool and a means to some other nonreligious and political goal?

Its often hard to sort out the religion from the politics, especially since religion in all societies is so closely linked to cultureanother vehicle for a communitys ambitions and goals. I think Osama bin Laden does believe he is interpreting the true message of Islam, but he invokes it in response to a clarion call for empowering the Muslim world to stave off the West, its power, and its armies and preserve their own culture and communitieswhich happen to be Muslim. Preserving the purity of faith and its adherents is a means to an end: to become a powerful community capable of defending itself against outsiders.

Its important to note that there has long been a love-hate relationship with the West in the Muslim world. Most Muslims dont literally want to become America, but they do admire its power and its successes. They would like to emulate that powerpartly to stave off Western intervention (like having nukes)and they do like many of the values and the prosperity that it seems to bring. But they see American values as strictly for U.S. domestic use: When it comes to American foreign policy, they see ignorance, brutality, aggression, double-standards, hypocrisy, and highly selective application of American values designed to justify and advance the American national interest of the moment.

7. Do you believe all hyperpowers are destined to be targets of attacks by weaker groups?

Yes. I think any state that tries to dominate the globe will be resistedby nearly everyone else. That state will then bear the blame for much of what happens in the world. That is happening today. Even the Europeans are quietly backing away from the American projectand not just under President Bush, but from all those who speak of restoring American leadership, which is perceived as a code word for restoring American hegemony. American leadership can appear with a harsh and ignorant face as today, or it can arrive with a smiley face. Either way, it still amounts to domination.

If we in the West believe in the separation and balance of powers in our domestic arenas, and we fight any corporation, however well intentioned, from establishing a market monopoly, then the global order, too, should not be dominated by any one state. Its not healthy for anyone. We need a return to a healthy, multipolar world that provides checks and balances against overly ambitious powersincluding the United States.

8. You understandably focus on the influence of Islam on the world stage. And you also mention that religion in general is often used as a mask for deeper grievances. But you must agree that some religions have shaped the path of history more than others. If not Islam, do you think the world would have been much different without Christianity? Judaism? Hinduism?

That is a great cosmic question that also requires an essayor bookin response. On the first level, the power of a religion to shape the world is linked to its size and geographical reach. So Christianity and Islam rank at the top in terms of global impact. Hinduism is too local and not universal. Judaism is limited to a small, global community of Jews and is not a universal religion, either, since it is the faith only of its own few Chosen People. Buddhism is the only other global contender, and for a variety of fascinating reasons, it may be the religion or philosophy of the future. Although Buddhism is suspicious of politics, it is not entirely exempt: It has an ugly and jingoistic face in Sri Lanka against the Hindu Tamils, for example.

On the cultural and intellectual level, religion has had a huge impact, apart from its misuse by states and leaders. Judaism, as the first monotheistic faith of any prominence, has greatly influenced Christian and Muslim thinking. Christianity has had massive cultural and intellectual impact on the West (we still listen to Bachs B Minor Mass and Handels Messiah and visit Chartres). Islam had equal impact in its heyday; Arabic words and terms are the coin of the intellectual vocabulary of the entire Muslim world. But Islam, for a variety of complex historical factors, is now weak, dispirited, and unfocused, fighting its own demons, caught up in its own postcolonial mess, struggling toward its own reformation and reestablishing its dignity and independence. Islams roots and vision are deep and broad enough that I am sure it will have an intellectual renaissance in timeas a body of intellectual, spiritual, and social thought. But it is a culture best not provoked at this sensitive stage in its history.

Im not, by the way, one of those people who believes that the world would have been better off without religion. Religion is a human enterprise. As such, it has been the source of much sublime thinking, art, and values. But it has also served as justification for many horrible things in history: suppression, bloodshed, and conquest, to name just a few. If there had been no religion in human history, Im quite confident humans would have come up with other forms of ideology to do the same terrible things to each other. Look at the real horrors of the 20th centuryall secular: Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Rwanda, the list goes on.

9. You write, 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.

Its a powerful argument, but why then dont we see large groups of Christian Africans attacking the United States? Or peoples anywhere that there is poverty that could be attributed to colonialism?

Great question, with no single easy answer. Here are a few stray thoughts, many from the article. The existence of a worldwide Muslim communityan ummahas enabled Muslims to become aware of what is happening to them across the globe, especially now with modern communications such as the Internet and satellite TV. So whatever sets of legitimate concerns and grievances exist are magnified across a huge listening board, giving all Muslims the sense that their whole faith, culture, and very existence is under global siege: Afghanistan, Bosnia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nigeria, Palestine, etc. That is the perception and the source of offense.

I dont see Christianity, at least at this stage of its late history and decline in the West, as capable of galvanizing united resistance in quite the same way. Its not the poverty per se, that is the key element of Muslim grievance; its more the invasive character of Western or American culture: the globalization that can wreak social and economic havoc on the developing world; U.S. troops stationed around the world; U.S. support for dictators of convenience; American domination of global media (hence the huge power of an Al Jazeera that first broke that U.S. monopoly and gives voice to non-Western concerns); the U.S. right to call the shots around the world, quite literally; unqualified strategic support for everything Israel does to contribute to Palestinian misery; Guantnamo, Abu Ghraib, the list goes on. Im not justifying all of these concerns, but they are dominant perceptions with a considerable basis in reality for many people.

Muslims also have a civilization spread over a huge geographic area and a glorious history to which they can appeal in the name of resistance today; non-Muslims dont. Africans, perhaps because of the heavy impact of tribalism that Christianity has never effectively overcome, are more divided and dont seem to speak or act in the name of Christianity. Islam, for all its political shortcomings, seems more capable of overcoming ethnicity within the faith than Christianity isbut thats only on a comparative basis.

It is important to note that most of the worst of Islamist violence toward the West and the United States is quite recent. Lets remember Palestinians were throwing rocks for years before they turned to bombings, and still later when they turned to suicide bombingan action barely a decade old in the Arab world. In other words, something very bad is going on in the U.S.-Muslim confrontation that is leading to escalation. Whatever it is, we must get a handle on it before further escalating American violence and stimulating radical Muslim violence; they are now playing off against each other. Thats bad, but thats new. The world simply wasnt that way for most of modern history, even when the Ottoman Empire was fighting European armies.

10. You mention several neoconservatives who propagate a false understanding of Islam. Who, in your view, are the worst offenders?

Im reluctant to get involved in speaking of offenders, but a few figures have gone out of their way to become prominent in this struggle. Norman Podhoretz is leading the charge to bomb Iran in what he sees as a titanic struggle against Islamofascismwhat he calls World War IV. Other neocons more modestly call it World War III, or the long war. Daniel Pipes is extremely outspoken about the threat of Islamism to the world in near apocalyptic terms. So is Steven Emerson. This, despite the fact that no state has embraced Osama bin Laden, and Islamists have no army, no real territory, and no public institutions. It is an underground cult on the run that can only draw adherents in times of the worst conditions visited upon the Muslim worldto which U.S. policies now directly contribute.

Terrorism today has indeed become a problem for the world. That is an undeniable fact. Today, for geopolitical reasons, the Middle East seems to be the most incendiary area. That wasnt the case 50 years ago, when the communist threat dominated everyones thoughts.

Terrorism is growing because of inept American methods of analyzing the phenomenon and its solution, which is a long-term and essentially political one. Terrorism must be dealt with directly through intelligence and police methods, not by invading armies that create massive collateral damage and turn hearts into rageand new recruitsagainst the United States. Only when American boots on the ground are pulled out of the Muslim world can the region begin to calm down and return to some degree of normal life in which Islam takes a normal place within a broad range of human identity and activity.

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).

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