Without Islam?

Graham E. Fuller’s “A World without Islam” piece in Foreign Policy is well worth reading. It smashes the icons of those who believe that the world would be much better off without Islam. AWI puts the Middle East and its peoples in terms of interests due to geopolitical factors that would exist regardless of their religion. He is also right to argue that many ideological rallying points have been formed throughout history, secular or not and that these would exist in the Middle East anyway; “even if Islam as a vehicle of resistance had never existed, Marxism did”. Especially strong is his case that if the Middle East were to have remained Eastern Orthodox, it would be less anti-Western and perhaps less backward.

The culture of the Orthodox Church differs sharply from the Western post-Enlightenment ethos, which emphasizes secularism, capitalism, and the primacy of the individual. It still maintains residual fears about the West that parallel in many ways current Muslim insecurities: fears of Western missionary proselytism, a tendency to perceive religion as a key vehicle for the protection and preservation of their own communities and culture, and a suspicion of the “corrupted” and imperial character of the West. Indeed, in an Orthodox Christian Middle East, Moscow would enjoy special influence, even today, as the last major center of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Orthodox world would have remained a key geopolitical arena of East-West rivalry in the Cold War. Samuel Huntington, after all, included the Orthodox Christian world among several civilizations embroiled in a cultural clash with the West.

This is a critical point. While I would not argue that the Orthodox church culture or theology in and of itself is disinterested in individualism a la the Protestant example, I would say that the cultures that happen to be Orthodox often happen to be quite similar to their predominantly Muslim neighbors. Arabic-speaking Muslims and Christians often share a strong sense of “honor” (and the association of this with a family’s females is share between them, along with honor killings)*; they both tend to share a suspicion of Western European Christianity **; and the Orthodox regions of the world have not been any more friendly towards Jews than have Western European ones or the Islamic world (which by comparison was until very recently much more tolerant of them than was, say, Russia).

Orthodox Christians in the Middle East traditionally did not get along with Jews; this was due to a variety of primarily economic factors, as both were mercantile communities and competed along the same routes and for many of the same goods (the events of 1840 began in the Christian community). This economic situation is perhaps the result of their minority status, but it is doubtful that Christian rule would have been much kinder to the Jews in the east. The notion that Middle Eastern Christianity is significantly more liberal than Middle Eastern Islam is a fallacy. In terms of philosophy, the Coptic and Uniate churches retain views of women, personal status, the West that are most easily described as being “illiberal”; what has been the moderating factor in most Middle Eastern Christian communities has been education, not religion. In Syria, Palestine, and especially Lebanon, Christians were able to benefit from Western educational institutions established by missionaries that introduced them to Western ideas (while Muslims often did take advantage of these institutions, they came to them later on, and the focus of these efforts did not fall upon them like it did the Christians). This was often at odds with church teachings, particularly because the most persistent missionaries were Protestant or Latin-rite Catholics.***

Without missionary activity, which was most intensively focused on those who were already Christians because of the dangers involved in attempting to convert Muslims, Middle Eastern Christians would not significantly differ from their Muslim compatriots in culture, mentality or bias. If Middle Eastern Christian leaders had had their way, missionaries and their teaching would not have gotten as far as they did in the Middle East, because education was not their prerogative at least not until it came time for them to compete with the Protestant invasion. there is nothing that suggests that Western political gaming would provoke a significantly different response from a Christian Middle East as opposed to a Muslim one.****

*[ The peoples of the Balkans, the Iranian plateau, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia also have pre-Islamic honor codes that are just as if not more austere than those found in the Arab world. Even the western Mediterranean lands, especially Italy, Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily, retain similar traditions until relatively recently. ]

** [ Sectarianism within Christianity would exist with or without Islam; and the penalties for Maronites who chose to convert to Protestantism during the 19th century were not much dissimilar for a Muslim who left his religion; even today, in most Middle East Christian households conversions to other churches is punished rather harshly.]

***[ See Michael Oren’s recent book for several examples of the Maronite hierarchy attempting to ban mission schools (in one instance for teaching evolution) and have converts to Protestantism executed; when such episodes were averted it was usually because of the intervention of Ottoman authorities not the Good Book. ]

**** [ As most people know, terrorism is not a part of Islamic theology and was not invented by Muslims or Middle Easterners, and the claim that most terrorists are Muslims is a fragile one, particularly since most terrorist attacks against Western countries (Europe, in particular) and tend not to be Islamic in nature. But, this aside, Middle Eastern Christians have had their share in the use of terrorism; Armenian terrorist groups — famously led by Monty Melkonyan — perpetrated acts of terror in the Middle East, Turkey and Europe. Some of the most radical factions of the Palestinian national movement, pioneering the use of hijacking, were founded and led by Christians. ]

One thought on “Without Islam?

  1. Have you ever thought about publishing an ebook or guest authoring on other websites? I have a blog based upon on the same topics you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my viewers would enjoy your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to send me an e-mail.|

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