Graham E. Fuller, a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, has a book out called “A World Without Islam.” Great title. What can it mean?
Is this an Islamophobe breaking cover? Well, no. It turns out that Fuller is the opposite -- someone who thinks Islam is responsible for so few of the world’s ills that history would have been pretty much the same without it.
As a barroom argument, that’s all well and good. Unfortunately, Fuller devotes an entire book to the notion, and he doesn’t do half measures. Foreign policy, terrorism, the defense of our values -- the whole lot, he insists, turns on the West’s hostility toward Islam. Yet we know almost nothing about the Middle East, he claims. If we did, we would discover that religion isn’t the problem; it just serves as a convenient banner for deeper rivalries and confrontations.
“The present crisis in East-West relations, or between the West and Islam, has really very little to do with religion and everything to do with political and cultural frictions, interests, rivalries and clashes,” writes Fuller.
Culture and politics have little to do with religion? I don’t get it. Has Islam no responsibility for poverty and backwardness in the Middle East -- no responsibility for the region’s patriarchy and oppression of women? You might as well argue that the Russian Orthodox Church, a fearsomely reactionary and obscurantist institution, had nothing to do with the continuation of serfdom into 19th-century Russia, or with the later Bolshevik revolution.
Fuller’s polemical stance taints the pocket history of world religions and geopolitics that follows. Sometimes he argues against himself. Having maintained that religion isn’t terribly important, he says that an Islamic intellectual renaissance can emerge, providing “it is not obstructed by brutal international forces.” Which suggests that a renaissance is needed.
If the influence of religion has been exaggerated, how does he account for the faith and passion evident in the achievements of Islamic culture, which he extols? If religion really were secondary, the restrictions it has imposed in the arts would have been less deadening.
The West must get out of Islamic lands, Fuller insists. Many of us would like nothing better. Then he adds that “Muslim society must be given a chance to calm down and return to a state of normalcy.”
What is normalcy for an illiterate Afghan woman working in the drug trade? Are murderous Shiite and Sunni hostilities in the Middle East normal? Or is religious intolerance also a product of Western interference?
“There is not the slightest consideration,” Fuller claims, that U.S. policies may have contributed to America’s problems. Yet every newspaper I see -- from the Guardian and the Times in London to Le Monde in France and the New York Times -- carries op-ed pieces thumping home the same truisms as the author: Not all Muslims are terrorists; extremists thrive in poor economic conditions; and the U.S. and Western policies past and present must shoulder their share of the blame. Nor is there any lack of politicians saying the same.
Insofar as this book’s message makes sense, it is redundant. Insofar as its argument is wildly overstated, we can do without it. You don’t correct one absurdity by perpetrating another, but that is what the author does with his Pollyanna assertions about how splendid everything would be if only we would leave Muslims alone.
Religions run deep in many cultures, and the Puritan legacy in the U.S. can lead to an unhealthy greed for guilt. If this is the level of thinking on the National Intelligence Council, God save us all. Which God, I don’t much mind.
“A World Without Islam” is from Little, Brown (336 pages, $25.99 as a hardback in the U.S., 13.99 pounds as a paperback in the U.K.). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(George Walden, a former U.K. diplomat and member of Parliament, is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)