Friday, January 18, 2008

A World Without Islam? --An Article Review by Steve

In a fascinating exercise of journalistic creativity, Graham Fuller’s “A World Without Islam” (Foreign Policy, Jan/Feb 2008) argues that the Middle East would be just as violent a place without Islam as it is with it. Yet Fuller does what every historian knows he or she shouldn’t do—make unwarranted assumptions. Writing alternative histories is always risky, since it’s extremely difficult to know whether an event or conflict would definitely have happened if the situation had been different. Fuller’s repeated assertion that the Middle East would still be riven by ethnic and political strife is an interesting argument, but impossible to really defend. His thesis is too rigid and dogmatic, and makes claims about history that are unsupportable.

Take, for example, his argument that Western powers would have colonized the Middle East regardless of religion. He bases this argument on the assumption that medieval Europe was politically expansionist and that the Crusaders were adventurers “driven by political, social, and economic needs.” It’s true that some Crusaders settled in Palestine as nobles, though many did not. Contrary to today’s popular image of the greedy Crusader, however, crusading for most people was not a lucrative proposition—most Crusaders were self-supporting and expended enormous amounts of personal capital to go to Jerusalem. Many, if not all Crusaders went as pilgrims desiring to see the sacred places of the Bible at the same time they were fighting for ‘Christendom.’ Fuller simply does not do justice to the religious motivation of many Crusaders. Would medieval Europe really have colonized the Middle East without the threat of Islam? Remember that Pope Urban II only called for the Crusades after the Byzantine empire appealed for Western help in the face of a Turkish assault in Anatolia.

It’s assuming a lot even to say that modern Western imperialism was inevitable in the Middle East. Fuller argues that Eastern Christians would have resented Western dominance as much as Muslims did. It’s true that even before the advent of Islam, tensions existed between the eastern and western branches of Christendom. But who is to say whether Westerners would have attained political and military dominance over Eastern Christians had it not been for the steady pounding Muslims gave the Byzantine empire over centuries? Moreover, Western power derives from the technological advancement made during the Enlightenment, which itself was only made possible by the Reformation’s challenge to certain dogmas and practices of the Catholic Church. But would the Reformation have survived had the Catholic Church not been squeezed by the advance of Muslims Turks on their eastern frontier during the sixteenth century? Were it not for the siege of Vienna in 1529, there might have been no Reformation, and therefore no Enlightenment, and therefore no Western military dominance. You see how the kind of exercise Fuller engages in must ultimately be inconclusive. Which makes his certainty about his argument, however journalistically attractive, dishonest.

Fuller also does not take belligerence within Islam seriously enough; he too easily dismisses passages in the Qur’an that provide some key to understanding why so many Muslims hate the West. However one wants to interpret chapter nine of the Qur’an, this “sword” chapter, as Muslims themselves call it, was one of the last to be revealed to Muhammad and is extremely important for how Muslims should think about non-Muslims. Of course one should not look only at the Qur’an to explain Muslim antipathy for the West. Certainly Western imperialism in the past and the modern nation of Israel are flashpoints with Muslims. But these are recent phenomena, and Muslim opposition to the West goes back much further than this. The 14th century Arab Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, for example, wrote condescendingly of northern Europeans as barbarians and of Africans as having a “disposition and character similar to that of dumb animals.” Obviously 19th and early 20th century European imperialists were not alone in their cultural arrogance.

All this considered, Fuller might be right that the Middle East would still be a fractured, dangerously unstable place today without Islam. But his lack of scholarly modesty is most unbecoming.

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