Imagine, if you will, a world without Islam -- admittedly an almost inconceivable state of affairs given its charged centrality in our daily news headlines. Islam seems to lie behind a broad range of international disorders: suicide attacks, car bombings, military occupations, resistance struggles, riots, fatwas, jihads, guerrilla warfare, threatening videos, and 9/11 itself. Why are these things taking place? "Islam" seems to offer an instant and uncomplicated analytical touchstone, enabling us to make sense of today's convulsive world. Indeed, for some neoconservatives, "Islamofascism" is now our sworn foe in a looming "World War III."
But indulge me for a moment. What if there were no such thing as Islam? What if there had never been a Prophet Mohammed, no saga of the spread of Islam across vast parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa?
Given our intense current focus on terrorism, war, and rampant anti-Americanism -- some of the most emotional international issues of the day -- it's vital to understand the true sources of these crises. Is Islam, in fact, the source of the problem, or does it tend to lie with other less obvious and deeper factors? For the sake of argument, in an act of historical imagination, picture a Middle East in which Islam had never appeared. Would we then be spared many of the current challenges before us? Would the Middle East be more peaceful? How different might the character of East-West relations be? Without Islam, surely the international order would present a very different picture than it does today. Or would it?
IF NOT ISLAM, THEN WHAT?
From the earliest days of a broader Middle East, Islam has seemingly shaped the cultural norms and even political preferences of its followers. How can we then separate Islam from the Middle East? As it turns out, it's not so hard to imagine.
Let's start with ethnicity. Without Islam, the face of the region still remains complex and conflicted. The dominant ethnic groups of the Middle East -- Arabs, Persians, Turks, Kurds, Jews, even Berbers and Pashtuns -- would still dominate politics. Take the Persians: Long before Islam, successive great Persian empires pushed to the doors of Athens and were the perpetual rivals of whoever inhabited Anatolia. Contesting Semitic peoples, too, fought the Persians across the Fertile Crescent and into Iraq. And then there are the powerful forces of diverse Arab tribes and traders expanding and migrating into other Semitic areas of the Middle East before Islam. Mongols would still have overrun and destroyed the civilizations of Central Asia and much of the Middle East in the 13th century. Turks still would have conquered Anatolia, the Balkans up to Vienna, and most of the Middle East. These struggles -- over power, territory, influence, and trade -- existed long before Islam arrived.
Still, it's too arbitrary to exclude religion entirely from the equation. If, in fact, Islam had never emerged, most of the Middle East would have remained predominantly Christian, in its various sects, just as it had been at the dawn of Islam. Apart from some Zoroastrians and small numbers of Jews, no other major religions were present.
But would harmony with the West really have reigned if the whole Middle East had remained Christian? That is a far reach. We would have to assume that a restless and expansive medieval European world would not have projected its power and hegemony into the neighboring East in search of economic and geopolitical footholds. After all, what were the Crusades if not a Western adventure driven primarily by political, social, and economic needs? The banner of Christianity was little more than a potent symbol, a rallying cry to bless the more secular urges of powerful Europeans. In fact, the particular religion of the natives never figured highly in the West's imperial push across the globe. Europe may have spoken upliftingly about bringing "Christian values to the natives," but the patent goal was to establish colonial outposts as sources of wealth for the metropole and bases for Western power projection.
And so it's unlikely that Christian inhabitants of the Middle East would have welcomed the stream of European fleets and their merchants backed by Western guns. Imperialism would have prospered in the region's complex ethnic mosaic -- the raw materials for the old game of divide and rule. And Europeans still would have installed the same pliable local rulers to accommodate their needs.
Move the clock forward to the age of oil in the Middle East. Would Middle Eastern states, even if Christian, have welcomed the establishment of European protectorates over their region? Hardly. The West still would have built and controlled the same choke points, such as the Suez Canal. It wasn't Islam that made Middle Eastern states powerfully resist the colonial project, with its drastic redrawing of borders in accordance with European geopolitical preferences. Nor would Middle Eastern Christians have welcomed imperial Western oil companies, backed by their European viceregents, diplomats, intelligence agents, and armies, any more than Muslims did. Look at the long history of Latin American reactions to American domination of their oil, economics, and politics. The Middle East would have been equally keen to create nationalist anticolonial movements to wrest control over their own soil, markets, sovereignty, and destiny from foreign grips -- just like anti-colonial struggles in Hindu India, Confucian China, Buddhist Vietnam, and a Christian and animist Africa.