Empire in Asia

A New Global History

A World Without Islam

Book Cover

Book Title

A World Without Islam. New York: Back Bay Books, 2010


Fuller, Graham E.


Graham Fuller spent 27 years getting to know the Middle East in particular, and the Islamic world in general, in ever more senior positions in the State Department and CIA. Moving on to a post-government career with the RAND Corporation and an adjunct position at Simon Fraser University, Fuller published widely on the themes of geopolitics and international relations involving the Middle East, Southwest Asia, Turkey, and the Islamic world in general. This volume is a provocative critical analysis of the roots of political conflict, especially as expressed through physical violence, between these regions and peoples on the one hand and ‘the West,’ especially the USA, on the other.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Fuller stipulates right away the inherent problems with ‘what if’ or counterfactual analysis, arguing that his study explores not any ‘might have been’ scenarios but rather the real place and role of Islam, as a political, social and cultural force, in this protracted inter-regional conflict. It does this by identifying both deeper causal roots, and continuing drivers, of the perennially violent relationship between ‘East’ and ‘West,’ putting Islam into both historic and social/political context. Fuller’s main argument is a direct one: had Islam not existed the geopolitical conflict between these regions might not look very different than it does not, because its basic roots and principal causes are more fundamental than religion. Islam provided and provides not a cause or a defining frame for this conflict, but rather a vehicle through which much of it has been defined, redefined, and expressed.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Fuller does not make the mistake of ignoring the importance and impact organized religion can have as a political force. On the contrary, he argues that the deepest roots of the conflict between the regions we now call the Middle East and the ‘West’ were very much driven by political disputes expressed as religious conflict. Islam emerged in a context of already well entrenched ideological and political conflict between different groupings of Christianity. Disputes over theology mingled with cultural and other antagonisms between different regions, escalating in time to sectional feuds within the Church—ultimately to the great schisms between its branches. Islam was shaped by, and fed into, that ongoing dynamic. Islam as a political power inherited already sharp conflict between what had become Byzantium and its empire and what remained of Rome and its western imperium. Religion mattered, but was far from being the sole trigger for friction—and the expansion and evolution of Islam did not change this underlying geopolitical tectonic plate clash. When the emergence of Christendom under the Roman Catholic dominion produced, over time, the political zone that came to be called the ‘West,’ it projected chronic political/military friction with the now Orthodox ‘East.’ That antagonism merged economic, cultural and military frictions with those driven by religion and ideology; Islam became in time a vehicle by which those pre-existing conflicts were continued, and redefined. The feud between West and East both predated and transcended Islam, as a political force and power.

This dynamic influenced the evolution of relations between Islam as a political/cultural force and such regions as Russia in Central Asia, India, and China. Islam created a layer of ideological and cultural commonality that sat atop pre-existing practices of culture and fault lines of politics. While it often helped define and express political conflict, rarely did it cause or trigger it. The causes of conflict continued to be driven by clashes over economics, culture, and social agendas; they were influenced and expressed by organized religion, but not primarily caused by it. Fuller’s conclusion is that American foreign policy should therefore focus not on any supposedly essential characteristics of Islam as a driver of geopolitics, but rather on the underlying continuity of causes of conflicts between West and East. The implications of this analysis for the historical experience of Empire in Asia lie in observations about the relationships between Islam and regional political powers, as they evolved over time. In the region that produced all the world’s great Muslim ‘gunpowder empires,’ with particular reference to Ottoman Turkey as a long standing flashpoint of conflict that inherited the already locked in cycle of Western antagonism with the Middle East, this provides food for thought richer than the title might suggest.

Annotated by Brian Farrell