There are those who expend energy in making judgements rather than in trying to gaining knowledge and understanding: such judgement is easy, while knowledge is difficult. ~ (Adapted from the novel, Augustus, by John Williams.)
At the outset, I must reassure some, particularly Moslems, and disappoint those who are Islamophobiacs: this book isn’t anti-Islam. In many senses, Muslims have now very much become the new “Jews” in European society (233), and Islamic characteristics and culture are “open season” for cartoons, lampoons and derision in ways no longer tolerated by Western society in respect of Jews (225). Donald Trump, the presidential candidate of the Republican Party, has threatened to ban all Moslems from entering the USA.
What passes off as a conflict between two religions, or sub-divisions of a religion, is really to do with “worldly issues” (85) such as the struggle over power and territory. Consider for example the claiming of land and the building of Buddhist structures in the [as yet] predominantly Hindu Tamil North and East. What is at stake is not religion but questions of identity and power (85). The problem lies in the optic employed, the “immaculate conception” approach to crises, namely, that “we” are totally innocent, and the “others” totally to blame (7). The public is galvanized, and made ready to pay any price by demonizing the enemy. We are conscious of, and sensitive to, our own nationalism but quite obtuse to the fact that others also have such, similar, feelings.
The crux of Fuller’s argument is that the violence presently associated with Islam has little to do with Islam per se and, in reality, has deep geopolitical roots. Many are ignorant of the history of Western intervention in the region over centuries (p. 5). On the other hand, it would be “silly” to suggest that Islam has no role whatsoever in colouring elements and events. Yes, there’s violence, and violence is reprehensible but one must go beyond easy condemnation and make an effort to understand causes. Fuller argues that Islam is primarily a flag or banner for “other, deeper kinds of rivalries and confrontations” (6). Islam, in such uses, has really very little to do with Islam, with religion, and everything to do with politics (18). In other words, it’s not religion but the political use to which religion is put, be it in “Cairo, Tel Aviv, Mumbai, or Colombo” (20). Religious doctrine is almost never the issue: what counts is ethnicity, and the drive for power and domination (160). Power attracts religion, and religion attracts power (25). “Religion is an exceptionally powerful human force” (42. Italics added). The “closer religion becomes linked with state power, the further it drifts away from the realm of intellect and spirit” (46). What better way to promote one’s ethnic or political goals than to cloak them in “religious and godly garb”? (60). For example, Prime Minister Golda Meir asserted that Israel “exists as the fulfilment of a promise made by God Himself”: Such using of heavenly sanction for earthly ends is not unfamiliar. The popular belief among Sri Lankan Buddhists is that the Buddha miraculously visited thrice, and decreed that the entire Island should become the land where his doctrine would be preserved in its pristine purity. Therefore, the people have no choice but to turn this wish / command into reality.
All nationalisms read history retroactively; their historians go back and mine the past for evidence to buttress their nationalist and territorial claims of today and tomorrow (243). States marching off to war invariably claim that justice is on their side (311). Each side is convinced of the rightness, if not righteousness, of their action. In democratic societies, the dilemma grows: if the state were to acknowledge any notions of moral ambiguity in the course of conflict, it would invite disaffection among its troops and population, undermine the proclaimed absolute justice of the cause (311). Hence there’s the need to demonize the enemy (312). “In its own eyes, the state is always right, the state is always moral” (333) – even if it adopts the Israeli tactic of exacting one hundred eyes for just one eye (ibid). St Matthew 5:38, “An eye for an eye”, becomes “An eye for a tooth”. Once the conflict begins, hatred is ratcheted up on both sides; atrocity generates counter-atrocity (314), and original causes and grievances are forgotten.
Fuller asks what can better illustrate the ‘clash of civilisations’ (a phrase now associated with Samuel Huntington) than “Western crusaders brimming with Christian fervour, banner unfurled” marching under the Pope’s blessings to “liberate the Holy Lands from the infidel Muslims” (108). Fuller then goes on to argue that “religion was really the backdrop, the popular narrative, the justification of what was a powerful geopolitical move by the West” (ibid). If the Ottoman Turks had been Christian, would they not have invaded “Greek Byzantium, a rich and weakened state”? If the Tamils had been Buddhist, would history have been different? Religious aggression is “little more than pious pretext for imperial expansion” (193). Geopolitics transcends religion (213).
I have suggested elsewhere the following for consideration: Religious doctrine is divine, religion is human. In other words, there is a vast difference between religious doctrine, be it from the Buddha, Christ or the Prophet Mohammed, and religion with its rituals, paraphernalia, hierarchy, myths and superstitions. This helps to explain why the same religious doctrine can be interpreted and employed differently at different times. Indeed, why ‘religion’ can be used to act contrary to ‘religious doctrine’ such as, for example, the Buddha’s adjuration to avoid violence, and his urging followers to extend compassion to all, at all times. ‘Religion’ can lose the spiritual essence of ‘religious doctrine’: “Buddhism, when combined with ethnicity […] quickly loses its ethical considerations of pacifism, even on the part of Buddhist monks, when it comes to fighting in the name of the Buddhist Sinhalese community” (48).
The first schism in Christianity was between the Orthodox and Rome-centred churches, and Fuller shows that the grounds that led to division had much to do with power, prestige and influence. (Since it is the West that brought Christianity to Africa, Asia and further East, many in these regions, as in the West itself, are unaware that the “Eastern Orthodox Christian Church today remains the second-largest single Christian communion in Christianity after Catholicism”, 78). Theological differences were minor, and the quarrel was over who was to claim the mantle of Rome: the West based in Rome or the East centred on Constantinople. With time, as with the schism between the Shi’ites and Sunnis, these divergences gain a life and momentum of their own. Catholic crusaders from Europe pillaged the then-Christian city of Constantinople, and in 1182 about 80,000 Catholics were massacred in Constantinople: they were largely Venetians “who virtually ran the economy of Constantinople” (83).
Many in the West are ignorant of Western intervention in the Middle East over centuries (5) and they dismiss anti-Western feelings as pathology, rather than evidence-based (178). Anti-Westernism is mostly the direct result of Western political, economic and cultural expansion in the wake of imperialism and colonialism (179): In passing, one notes that Fuller maintains the distinction, now often blurred, between ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’. The latter entails outsiders who come to live and take over the land: the natives are the nett losers (284.) After the Ottomans were stopped outside Vienna in 1683, Europe went on to “invade and dominate virtually every Muslim country in the world” (218). It is a history of invasion, empire-building, coups, political, economic and cultural domination, exploitation of resources and arrogance (164). Western territorial imperialism may be past but its effects are present. For example, hundreds of ethnic groups find themselves included within a culturally different state that is often suppressive of their identity and cultural rights. Fuller’s list includes Chechens, Uyghurs, Sri Lankan Tamils and others (33I). Imperialism also distorts natural development (284) and Fuller wonders whether “British imperial control of India over several hundred years” (261) has much to answer for what led to a Partition that was “Ill-starred and perhaps unnecessary”, one that “solved nothing”. (In the essay, ‘Reign of Anomy’, included in my Pubic Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2, 2013, I wonder to what extent the Island’s natural development has been distorted by centuries of Western, Christian, imperial rule, which was as exploitative as it was arrogant.)
Remaining with history, Fuller sees the Crusades as one of the earliest indicators of the imperialist urge in Western politics: even if the Middle East had not been Moslem, Europe would have invaded (131-132). After all, Christian crusaders desecrated the church in Constantinople; smashed the icons and holy books, and sat a prostitute upon the “patriarchal throne” who sang obscene songs as the soldiers drank wine from the church’s holy vessels (119). The ‘Thirty Years War’, one of the bloodiest wars in European history, was ostensibly about religion, a fight between Protestants and Catholics, but in reality it was a power-struggle among states (135-6). Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation succeeded because of support from German princes who wanted to reduce the power of the church (138) and so increase theirs. Apropos, it has been pointed out that making God masculine (a “He” rather than a “She”) strengthens the case for male domination: see among others, When God Was a Woman by Merlin Stone.
The suffering of the Jews, the “killers of Christ”, at the hands of Western Christians over the centuries, and culminating in the Holocaust, is well known. But today, the conflict is seen as one between Islam and Christianity. However, the Virgin Mary is mentioned more often than any other woman in the Qur’an, more often than even in the New Testament of The Bible. She is the most revered female figure in Islam (35). For Muslims, any denial of Jesus as a great prophet violates the beliefs of Islam itself. There are no disparaging remarks about Jesus in the Qur’an, while in Judaism there is much harsh criticism of Jesus (36). According to Islam, Jesus did not die on the cross but was taken up to heaven by God, the compassionate. “And it will be Jesus, not Mohammed, who will return at the day of judgement” (38. Original italics). The difference between Christianity and Judaism are far greater than those between Christianity and Islam (42).
Fuller cites several examples of the use of religion for purposes of power and politics. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was Arab nationalism and not Islam that was seen as a threat to Western interests in the Middle East (300). Mosaddegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, was overthrown in 1953 in a coup d’etat aided by the CIA and British intelligence, and the pliant and West-leaning Shah brought in, unwittingly helping to create the present theocracy. But the US and Britain funded the Muslim Brotherhood opposition to Nasser in Egyptian (301) and, in more recent times, helped armed Islamic groups in Afghanistan in their fight against the Red Army. Communist Stalin in the desperate struggle against Hitler turned for help to the Orthodox Church, symbol of Holy Mother Russia, while the Japanese invoked the sacred character of the Shinto religion (307). “In Sri Lanka, the dominant Sinhalese […] employed Buddhist monks to strengthen Sinhalese public support” (308) against the largely Hindu Tamils. In the 1960s, Israel released the Hamas leader Shaykh Ahmad Yassin from prison, and funded Islamist Hamas against the Arab nationalist PLO under the leadership of Yasir Arafat. Years later, in 2004, Israel assassinated Shaykh Yassin (301).
Islam is now associated with terrorism: “Not all Moslems are terrorists but all terrorists are Moslem”. But, as I have written in ‘Reign of Anomy’, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter. It’s a matter of perspective. In the 1980s, the US enthusiastically supported terrorist attacks in Afghanistan against the occupying Soviet army. “Terrorism” is the clinching argument, and once it is invoked, no political approach or negotiation is required, and states have full moral authority to apply maximum violence to wipe out the opposition (329). As it has been pointed out, while “terrorists” may kill in the tens and hundreds, states have killed in the hundreds of thousands, far more civilians, including children and women, in a callous disregard for human suffering and life, lightly dismissing the carnage as ‘collateral damage’. “Terrorism” is a form of political violence but violence is routinely exercised, particularly by repressive regimes (330): the definition if “terrorism” is not consistently applied (334). It seems to me that one right a state possesses is to brand all those opposed to it internally as “terrorists”. ‘Terrorism’ is indeed reprehensible but it does not necessarily “delegitimize grievances” (338). In focusing on the former, we must not lose sight of the latter.
“Terrorism” is the weapon of the weaker (320-1): if the Palestinians had jets and helicopters, not to mention other ghastly ‘weapons of mass destruction’ stockpiled by Israel, these would be their weapons, not terrorism: see also the now-defeated Tamil Tigers. The Havana Declaration of 1979 of the Non-Aligned Movement condemned all forms of occupation, domination, interference. The NAM opposition to Israel was not based on anti-Semitism but on an exclusivist Zionist state built at the expense of the Palestinians. Islam has nothing to do with the origins of the conflict (304) and Moslems fear Israel is a creature of the West, deliberately implanted into the heart of the Middle East to dominate it (302-3). Islam has nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of the Palestinian problem. “The crime of the Holocaust” lies entirely on European shoulders: Palestinians are paying the price for European sins over the centuries, culminating in the Holocaust (303). The ‘Palestinian problem’ (the phrase suggests that Palestinians are a problem, rather than a people on whom a massive and tragic problem has been placed) has its roots “not in Islam, but in Western persecution and butchery of European Jews” (5). The Palestinian problem is “perceived across the Muslim world as the single most egregious case of imperialism, which has displaced local people and cast them into desperate living conditions in refugee camps, imposed second-class citizenship upon them in Israel, or pushed them into exile – for more than sixty years” (345). Jihad and violence are not the problem but the symptom or expression of a problem (316).
China is said to have trouble on its border regions because of Islam but, on examination, the problem is with ethnicity and not belief. Beijing has deliberately stimulated a massive flow of Han Chinese to migrate to Xinjiang province. Over time, ten million Uyghur will have little ability to preserve their identity and culture in the face of over 1.2 billion Han Chinese (272). Over the years, China will “gradually and quietly extirpate the Uyghurs as a distinct group” (273). Buddhism in Tibet will lose out but not because of a clash of ideology or religious belief but because of China’s territorial appetite and aspiration. It’s reported that Buddhists in Myanmar are attacking Moslems. At the entrance to Thaungtan village, as elsewhere, there’s a sign which reads: “No Muslims allowed to stay overnight. No Muslims allowed to rent houses.” The minister for religion, former general Thura Aung Ko, refers to Moslems and Hindus as “associate citizens” (The Guardian, London, 23 May 2016). But again, probing beneath the surface, looking behind appearance, the hatred is really based on this-worldly matters such as the ownership of land and the running of small businesses. Even if the Rohinga people had been Buddhists, they would not, as things are at present, enjoyed equality, inclusion and justice.
The hostile attitude to Muslims, particularly in the West, has “probably done more to forge a common-minded umma than any other factor” (9). Younger Moslems in the West, ties with their countries of origin loosening, find in Islam “a common link across ethnic lines” (221).Islam does provide focus, strength and vigour but, at root, is not the explanation. It may complicate, even exacerbate, problems but it does not create them. On the other hand, “we cannot dismiss the Islamic factor entirely out of hand” (221). I cite Fuller: The death of Islamic intellectual vigour and curiosity led to the decline of creative thinking in Islamic theology, philosophy, science and technology. Ritual and narrow legalism came to triumph over thought and inquiry. This atrophy of Muslim intellectual vigour is well demonstrated in the collapse of Muslim science and, possibly more damaging, in a general passivity toward science and technological development. Most Muslim reformers looked at the West as a warehouse of technological hardware, without grasping the need for the all-important cultural and intellectual software that made it all function (280). A majority of leaders in the Arab world are not elected, and pursue pro-Western policies unpopular with the majority of their people (289). Though claiming to champion democracy, the West is largely silent on the subject of civil liberties and human rights in these states. Indeed, the West has helped crush real liberation movements in the Middle East – as in Latin America. Religious leaders are seen as being in the pocket of the regime (325) and the Muslim world has a high proportion of despotic regimes (330).
In conclusion, even in ‘A World Without Islam’, there will be conflict unless Planet Earth were to be attacked by aliens from outer space. Then we would all, irrespective of ethnicity, colour, religion, unite to fight them (162-3). I am not sure about this for history provides many examples of people seizing opportunity, and allying themselves with powerful but total aliens against historic neighbours with whom the differences are less than the similarities. Divide et impera invariably succeeds: we, Homo sapiens, often display a woeful lack of “sapiens”. Understanding deep-structure; cause and motivation is important because it, hopefully, may lead to a solution. It is not to indulge in an easy exculpation: the struggle is to understand.