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"Exploring The Powerful Issues & Emotions of The Middle East" 
  Reaching out to 51,228 Viewpoint readers around the globe

Editor's Note:

What if Islam had never existed? To some, it's a comfort-
ing 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. 

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A WORLD WITHOUT ISLAM Pt. 1 - By Graham E. Fuller

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, fatwas, 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 were 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 tend to lie with other less obvious and deeper 

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? 

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 upliftingly 
about bringing "Christian values to the natives," but the 
patent goal was to establish colonial outposts as sources 
of wealth for the metropole and bases for Western power 

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 geo-
political preferences. Nor would Middle Eastern Christians 
have welcomed imperial Western oil companies, backed by 
their European viceregents, 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 anti-
colonial 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 

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. 

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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 home-
land 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 Ba.th 
party, Michel Aflaq, was a Sorbonne-educated Syrian 

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 

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 

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, juris-
prudence, 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. 

          [Part Two will be emailed tomorrow] 

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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