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Sunday, October 17th, 2010

Time Event
8:37p
But not really ...
This was a book obtained from the LibraryThing “Early Reviewers” program. As frequent readers of my reviews here may have a sense, the books that come to me via that channel are frequently not what I would have wished them to be (at least judging from the brief synopsis provided on the announcement listing), and this, unfortunately, falls in that zone as well. Frankly, Graham E. Fuller's A World Without Islam diverges significantly from its description. The book I was expecting was one based on a “thought experiment” of an alternative history in which Islam had never flourished, spread, and stamped its mark on wide swaths of the world, the book I ended up reading was not this at all, instead being a chain of “excuses” for Islam “not being at fault” for assorted conflicts across continents and centuries.

As I've previously noted in this space, I very rarely go digging into other reviews posted on the net prior to my writing my own, but this was one of those cases where I was wondering if I was “missing something” in this, and went to see what others had said about it. There was a certain dichotomy, of course (many thought this was brilliant), but I was amused at those who suggested that this project was “paid for by CAIR”, as it does seem to be exclusively intended to paint Islam as the “aggrieved party” in almost any historical situation where it might have otherwise been at least suspected to have been at fault.

Of course, my next question was “who is this Graham Fuller guy?”, as the easy assumption from the tone of the book would be that he was some mush-headed left-wing college professor looking to “stick it to the Man” with this sort of tome. Much to my surprise, however, not only is Fuller not in academia, he's not even a PhD (although he does have a Masters from Harvard in Russian), which led me momentarily to consider him to simply be a pro-Islamic crackpot. Upon more research, I was further amazed (given the tone of the book) that he spent 27 years in the State Department and the CIA (serving as Station Chief in Kabul!), and had even been the vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council before leaving government work for a no-doubt better-paying role at the RAND Corporation.

Needless to say, this created more confusion for me, as this guy is unlikely to be a raving “fifth column” agitator, a tenured Marxist drone, or even somebody simply grossly misinformed. How then to explain the book? It is structured in three sections, “Heresy and Power”, “Meeting at the Civilizational Borders of Islam”, and “The Place of Islam in the Modern World”, spinning out the history of Islam within the world. On this level, as a history, it's quite a useful and interesting book, but rather than looking at “what might have been” scenarios of what the world would have been like without Islam, again and again the focus is on how things would have been “just as conflicted” in the numerous regions and times given geopolitical and cultural stresses existing beyond Islam per se ... sort of like saying that if the same people who are currently Islamic found themselves in the same situations they'd be as much a problem for the West as they are, but they just wouldn't be Islamic (which isn't really the same thing as looking at a world minus that particular monotheism).

The first section looks at Islam as something like a Judeo-Christian heresy, not unlike many other heresies of the time, and how this fit in with the early evolution of Christianity. It then looks at Rome and Byzantium, and the conflicts and cultures represented by these, with Islam's eventual conquering of the Eastern empire and the balance developed between the Orthodox Church and Islam. Next the Crusades are discussed (painting Islam in a much gentler light than the Crusaders), and tracks the interactions of Islam with Christianity up into the Protestant Reformation.

The second section looks at Islam's engagement with various other cultural entities. This is probably the most informative part of the book, as much of the material here was completely new to me, and I'm assuming that Fuller isn't fudging on the facts to bring his biases to the fore. There is a long look at Russia, and how Orthodoxy was attempted to be put forward as “the Third Rome”, and how this influenced Byzantium and the various Asian regions where both Russia and Islam had influence (all those “stans” late of the Soviet Union). The notable cultural interface of Islam with India is covered, as is the somewhat surprising Islamic incursion into China, and in a chapter titled “Muslims in the West: Loyal Citizens or Fifth Column?” Fuller takes a look at the frequently uncomfortable fit of Islam in cultures that are either primarily secular or nominally Christian.

The final section looks at the modern issues with Islam, and the role that Colonialism, Nationalism, and various revolutionary movements have had in that interface. The subject of terrorism comes up here, but in such an excuse-laden form as to be hardly recognizable, as it is framed in a way that the belief that the West is to blame for everything, and anything done to lessen the prestige, power, or prosperity of the West is justifiable in the cultural milieu in which Islam operates. The final chapter is looking forward at future scenarios. Although from the tone of the book, one might think that Fuller would be advocating at that point for submission to Sharia Law, he rather suggests that “Washington should act as if Islam did not exist in formulating its policies in the Middle East.”, a suggestion that would seem to be doomed to failure when dealing with people for whom their religion is central to their cultural identity! But, hey, I'm not a RAND Corp. consultant, so what do I know?

Anyway, the distance between the A World Without Islam's description and its reality felt to be something of a “bait and switch”, and the dissonance of those poles were a constant irritation while reading this. As noted above, as a history there is much to commend this, but it would have helped to have had it be presented as what it is (perhaps titled Islam Is So Much Cooler Than You Think It Is or somesuch). This is fairly new (it just came out in August), so if you're interested in picking up a copy, your best bet might be through Amazon, who has it at 34% off at the moment (the new/used guys don't have it for much less at this point), but there's still a decent chance that your local brick-and-mortar might have copies as well. Again, while I found parts of this informative, I felt is was pushing an agenda beyond the nominal purpose of the book. Needless to say, “your mileage may vary”, especially coming to it forewarned.


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