Monday, 3 October 2011

Book Review – A World Without Islam

Graham E. Fuller
New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2010

If Islam didn’t exist, would there still be conflict between the West and “another”…? This is the central theme that runs through this excellent, easy-to-read book. Today, when Islam and Muslims have become scapegoats for every problem imaginable in the world, Fuller argues that conflict is never purely about religion; it’s usually about land, natural resources, national egos, spheres of influence, and balances of power. Religion is used by people to fan the flames of conflict and hatred to catastrophic levels.

Through a careful study of the history of relations between Christianity, Islam, and their peoples as far as the Crusades, Fuller answers the question by demonstrating that the potential for conflict has always existed, even without Islam. Unlike what many would like us to believe, the history of modern-day international relations did not begin on 9/11.

This book is a must for those who want to understand the bigger picture in today’s West vs. Islam debate. Many times, it’s too easy to fall into one camp or another; to defend the West for their supposed altruistic values, or to defend Islam as the religion under fire. Fall, and you will end up like those supporting or even acting like Breivik or Ben Laden.

Fuller’s account of Islam’s role in shaping civilization goes to prove the point that Islam didn’t just come out of the Arabic dessert in the last few decades to challenge the West. This is the picture that certain western neo-conservatives like to paint; one which attempts to portray Islam as a barbaric religion completely unattached to Christianity, thus making the Muslims easier targets as “the other”.

My favorite part of the book is Fuller’s analysis of the Crusades of the 11th, 12th, and 13th Centuries. We often oversimplify the Crusades as the ultimate conflict between Christianity and Islam. Fuller points out interestingly that Muslims at the time didn’t see this as a war between religions, but as a continuation of the rivalry between the West and the East, which had earlier existed in the form of the Latin Romans (Rome) vs. the Greek Romans (Byzantine).

I was also intrigued by Fuller’s explanation of the West-Soviets rivalry as a continuation of the one between Rome and Byzantine (as represented by the Orthodox Catholic church in Slavic Europe). During the Cold War, the West-Soviet friction was THE rivalry, THE conflict. It pitted two different ideologies in the fight for spheres of influence, land, natural resources, and balance of power. It almost sank the world to complete annihilation. And it evolved with the Islamic world simply watching from the sides.

We Indonesians know very well that conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims are seldom truly about religion. It’s usually about political influence; differences among tribes, among tribe leaders, and separatist/secessionist tendencies against the unitary state of Indonesia. When a side shouts “Allahu Akbar”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a conflict is religious-based. Religion is merely the vehicle, and not the end.

To those who identify themselves as an educated pluralist and “moderate” (regardless if you’re a Muslim, Christian, or atheist), Fuller’s line of argument is nothing new. Even then, it’s always good to have analysis and views supporting our perspective. In a time when people are often easily pushed to extremes, and when schisms are nurtured by ignorance, we must become part of the empowered moderates. And to be empowered means to nourish one self with be knowledge, including about history, the world, and its people.

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