AsiaViews, Edition: 35/VII/December2010
Category: BOOK REVIEW
A VERY valuable and healthy exercise is to learn to rid oneself of prejudices. Graham Fuller will not, I think, be surprised that, along with many others I have had a long-time aversion to anybody or anything to do with state intelligence bodies such as the CIA and Britain's MI5/MI6 (that goes for BIN, too!).
When I picked up this book and saw that Mr Fuller had previously been a very highly placed operative in the CIA, I sucked on my teeth. ?Mmm,? I mused, ?what do we have here?? Then the name Ray McGovern came into focus. McGovern is an ex-CIA analyst who, over the past several years has written some excellent pieces for the very worthy US anti-corporatist, anti-militarist website Common Dreams. He has made the scales drop off my eyes and whilst I retain what I see as a healthy skepticism to Intelligence agencies, I now give some former operatives the benefit of the doubt.
The title, which perhaps should have a question mark addended, appears to suggest an antipathy to Islam as such. Nothing could be wider of the mark than such a knee-jerk conclusion, actually the very sort of conclusion that those such as FPI and Hizbut-e-Tahrir and would-be Qur'an-burning Florida pastors will probably jump to, anti-intellectual, low-brow, primitive.
Fuller's thesis is much more expansive than that. I will come to it shortly.
I come to this book both an agnostic in the religious sense and a socialist of a libertarian humanist persuasion in the political sense. I am also pleased to say I am a historian with a particular interest in modern history.
Calling myself an ?agnostic? is likely to ignite the fury of on the one hand Muslim fundamentalists (I use the term only as shorthand, recognizing its inadequacies) and on the other Christian evangelist fundamentalists of the ilk of the Florida preacher who recently announced he would burn a Qur'an in public and the equally egregious Reverend (?!!) Pat Robertson who claimed after the January 2010 Haitian earthquake had killed nearly a quarter of a million people that they ?deserved it for making a pact with the devil?. Agnostics are taken by the ignorant to be the same as atheists and by definition beyond redemption.
What Graham Fuller has set out to do very honorably here is to paint a very much more nuanced picture of the world than that somewhat crassly suggested by Samuel Huntington in his Clash of Civilizations thesis which saw the Christian West-Islam face-off as critical. Fuller blows that out of the water by insisting that there is no single entity to Islam, although there may be umma, the collectivity of believers, and that Islamic practice is not uniform and since very early in the history of the religion has not been so.
One only has to look to the early schism between Sunni and Shia to see that and then to look at all the other currents such as Sufi and Wahhabi that have run through the umma over time to confirm that.
The author makes similar points about Christianity. It never ceases to amaze me that people can talk with absolute confidence of something they call the ?Christian West? whilst ignoring its major divides. Most interestingly, Fuller deals with that between Byzantium as representative of the Orthodox Church and Rome as the center of Catholicism, a divide marked by continuing hostility, even of a very violent character as seen between the Catholic Croatians and the Serbian Orthodox believers in the murderous break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Let us ask a ?what-if?? What if the earliest Christian evangelizers had remained in the Levant or gone south and east instead of west? Fuller puts it thus, ?If Islam had never appeared on the stage of history, there is no doubt the religion that would dominate the Middle East today would still be Eastern Orthodox Christianity.?
This has very serious consequences even today because although we know that the early Christian evangelists, in particular Peter headed west to the seat of temporal power?Fuller is especially good at pointing out the sometime ascendancy of the political over the purely theological?in the Mediterranean, that is to say Imperial Rome the major initial base of Christianity and the original base of Orthodoxy was Byzantium. The modern consequences are seen, as the author notes interestingly, to be found in post-Communist Russia where a resurgent Orthodox Church shares with some elements of Islam a vehement opposition to the rest of the Christian world (if such a thing exists) in its Catholic and Protestant manifestations.
Post-Communist Russia is on a continuum going back at least to the beginning of the second millennium CE in the way that its newly confident Church opposes ?desacralized? Western Europe and North America.
If Graham Fuller has done a service we should be thankful for it is to blow out of the water the idea that the Crusades, which began under Pope Urban II in 1052, were conceived of in terms of Christianity versus Islam. This misapprehension has seriously distorted views both amongst the less literate Christians and their Muslim counterparts.
Piecing together Pope Urban?s call to arms addressed to the young men of Christian Western Europe, Fuller shows that the Prelate made no mention of either ?Islam? or ?Muslims? only of non-believers, in other words non-Christian infidels. He spoke instead of ?Turks? and ?Arabs? and in no way saw the campaign to reassert Roman Christian influence over Jerusalem as a ?holy war? against Islam.
Let us be clear what this means. For a thousand years or so majority opinion amongst Christians and indeed very many secular Europeans has been predicated on the idea that these two major religions have been locked in some kind of unfinished struggle declared by the Pope. Misapprehensions with mischievous results!
Fuller also does us the fine service of emphasizing just how important the cross-fertilization between Orthodox Christianity and Islam has been and how consequential that Byzantine scholars passed on to early Islamic scholars knowledge of the major Ancient Greek figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and Ptolemy, not forgetting Pythagoras and Herodotus. The Arabs translated them and it was by this means that the oldest Arab university of all at Fez in Morocco became a conduit of knowledge into the great cities of Andalusian Spain such as Cordoba, ?The Athens of the West?, Sevilla, Granada and Toledo.
Thus began an intellectual trajectory of world-historic importance. When the Sultan of Egypt in 1232 presented to Frederick, leader of the Bloodless Crusade, an astronomer?s clock he pushed Europe off on a path that opened to it the doors of technology.
These things cannot be reiterated too often, although one suspects that bone-headed Christian and Jewish fundamentalists (I do not like this term and prefer ?literalists?) are deaf to all Reason. We need to see at what points there have been commonalities and how these have worked.
I am particularly intrigued, by the way, to find that in post-Communist Russia the legislature, the Duma, felt it necessary to bring in laws to curb the activities of evangelizing Protestant and Catholic elements most evidently from North America. The Protestant sort have done untold damage around the globe?I say this as someone whose brother is a Protestant (Anglican) vicar (priest) of a rather more open-minded, liberal disposition!
I do not have sufficient space here to do Graham Fuller full justice for what I believe to be a very well-considered attempt to place Islam in a properly nuanced context that takes into multiple factors, politics, nationalism, culture and colonial history, for example.
However, I must say that it is a relief to find that he takes various wipes at the myopia of the Bush administration?s so-called ?Global War on Terror?, the baton of which ?Yes, We Can? Obama has picked up and run with. I will leave to potential readers the intriguing suggestions he makes for a more inflected foreign policy approach that Washington and London in particular might take up vis-?-vis predominantly Muslim countries, but if anything is above all his message it is that it is simply wrong-headed to lump each and every Muslim society in one basket.
By: David Jardine
Tempo No. 14/XI/ 01-07 December 2010 photo:
A WORLD WITHOUT ISLAM
Author: Graham E. Fuller
Published by: Little and Brown, 2010