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Author Podcast: Graham E. Fuller

abstract:I would not be the first person to admit that Graham E. Fuller is a person whose intellect, career and breadth of life experience is intimidating—I'll get to his credentials in a second. But in meeting him, one is immediately disarmed to find a soft spoken individual who stands ready to take any question, debate any point and who routinely pitches-in in his adopted community of Squamish, BC on everything from civic planning issues and the preservation of bald eagles to teaching watercolor painting classes each summer at the Whistler Art Festival.

However, in the sphere of history, world affairs and US foreign policy Fuller has been a player, not just a bystander like the rest of us. Author and co-author of at least a dozen political science books, his newest, titled A World Without Islam (published by Little and Brown Oct 2010) takes the reader on an examination of "what if's" as he lays down facts to support his thesis that the current situation in the Middle East and other hot spots around the world: Pakistan, Indonesia, the Baltics... concerning the attitudes and actions of Muslims, is far deeper and more complex than can be pinned on Islam alone, and we do ourselves a grave disservice if we choose not to consider and confront these factors.


September 18, 2010
— There are 1.57 billion Muslims in the world, a full 23% of the population or 1 in 4 is Muslim. Fifty countries have a Muslim majority of citizens. Join us today as BookBuffet speaks with Graham E. Fuller on this crucial subject. As the author says, "I could easily take any topic in this book and turn it on its head and argue the other direction, and my hope is that it stimulates thinking and debate."

BookBuffet host Paula Shackleton has over 100 podcast interview segments with both literary and nonfiction authors, and many of them are available here. Support this website with a donation by clicking on the banner link provided so we may continue to bring you the voices and stories of emerging and established authors.—Thank you

The Interview

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Interview Transcript

  • PART I: Introduction to the author and his primer on world religions.
  • PART II:Russia, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Riff and Reformation and Islam's newest trend in fundamentalism.
  • BookBuffet:This is Paula Shackleton for and today I am speaking with American author, political analyst and foreign affairs consultant and lecturer, Graham E. Fuller - who has a new book out provocatively titled, A WORLD WITHOUT ISLAM, (published by Little and Brown 2010).

    Graham Fuller obtained his BA and MA in Russian and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University with a year at SOAS in London. He speaks Russian, Arabic, Turkish and Chinese. His career spans 27 years in Foreign Service with the US State Department and the CIA. He served as Vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council before retiring from government to join Rand for 12 years as senior political scientist specializing in the Middle East. Since 2006, he’s been adjunct professor of history with the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. He has authored and co-authored about a dozen previous books with impressive titles which mirror his background and interests, including:

    A Sense Of Siege: The Geopolitics Of Islam And The West
    The New Turkish Republic: Turkey as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World
    The Future of Political Islam
    The Arab Shi'a: The Forgotten Muslims

    Graham welcome, and thank you for agreeing to speak to BookBuffet.

    Graham E. Fuller: My pleasure Paula.

    BB:I’d like to begin by saying that when I put the book title on my FaceBook wall several of my Jewish and non-muslim friends mistook it as a gag during the Jewish high holidays and I found their responses interesting. So let’s begin by addressing your choice of this title. I know you have spent many years living in Muslim countries like the Middle East, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, North Yeman, and Afganistan, to name a few, and that you have a profound understanding and appreciation the Islamic faith. Who are you looking to attract to read this book?

    Graham E. Fuller: Certainly the title is provocative, it is meant to be provocative, and I think even possible to misunderstand the contents of the book because it isn't clear whether we are advocating a world without Islam or commenting on other aspects. And indeed as you know having read the book, that the bulk of the book is commenting on the other aspects.

    Over the years I have been living in the area and looking at the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism, and been impressed with how much other things are going on in these movements. In other words, within their own country movements for social change, social reform, overthrowing dictators who are often backed by the US government, the rallying cry for change, for bringing in some kind of moral principles and government that seems sometimes cynical and corrupt in places where they're living.

    So it's an expression of awareness, an examination and exploration of how little, perhaps, the factor of Islam actually is in the relations between the Muslim world and the West. That's the important part - I'm talking its impact on relations between the muslim world and the US and the West.

    BookBuffet:Clearly your work process at the CIA and at RAND have shaped the way you both examine issues and present them, as you do in the thesis for this book. The book is divided into 3 parts with 14 chapters that take the reader on a linear journey through the history of the Abrahamic Faiths with their ethnic and regional politics, as nations rose and fell in dominance and power, and giving each stage a “what if” argument for factors on both sides of the equation as to the influences the Islamic faith to our present world view. Let’s begin by asking you one of the most fundamental questions of religion that illustrates the beliefs that unite and divide believers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam - and that is - who was Jesus Christ?

    Graham E. Fuller: Well as you know the faiths share huge amounts in common and that's why, increasingly, many call them the Abrahamic faiths, because they all acknowledge the roots of monotheism going back to Abraham, and running through Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But in terms of views on Jesus actually Islam and Judaism have very different views because Judaism does not acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Messiah, and will give very trenchant arguments as to why he is not the figure who was forecast in the Old Testament. Muslims, on the other hand, who come after the life of Jesus and the whole New Testament, do accept Jesus. They do not consider that he is the Son of God, they are much stronger monotheists in that respect, they believe that God is One and God cannot have children or offspring. But they consider him as one of the truly great prophets within the Islamic tradition just as Moses is, and even Mary is a most revered figure. The Virgin Mary is a most revered figure in the Koran among women. So there's an interesting divergence in the Jewish views and the Islamic take on Jesus.

    BB:I found the chapters dealing with power and heresy in the evolution of Christianity about the Rift between Western Christianity and the Eastern Orthodox Religion to be fascinating. I think what's interesting there is that the [Protestant] Reformation (1500's) that Christianity went through is kind of similar to what Islam is going through today [in the questioning of values and the trends toward "returning to fundamentals" - Islamic Fundamentalism.] Can you talk about that part of history?

    Graham E. Fuller: Yes well a fundamental theme in the book of course is the how religions behave in proximity to power, and there is not an important religion out there that doesn't get pre-empted in some way by power. Power and the state acknowledges the importance of religion.

    So by the way, I am not saying that religion doesn't matter. I think it has huge impact on people's personal lives and their moral vision and their inspiration in life and their view of the world around them. But I am focusing here on religion as a political and social factor.

    The Eastern Roman Empire which was the beginning of the Roman Empire in later ages was based in Constantinople and it rapidly became a rival to Rome where the western church was based, and they increasingly fought and argued over turf and authority and ideology and doctrine for nearly a millennium.

    Now I do argue in the book that really what they are arguing about is not actual theological points, although there were theological differences, but that the political interests of power and turf and all of these things were far more important, and that religion is just a banner.

    Indeed, Paula, that's one of the main themes of the whole book, is that Islam, when it comes to political uses of it, it's a banner but not the cause that is actually driving the conflict. So we find the eastern and western churches and empires breaking apart in this cataclysmic schism in the 10th century.

    The whole basis of the argument was whether the Holy Ghost was descended directly from the Father or whether the Holy Ghost is descended from the Father and the Son together. And over this extremely abstruse theologic point that most people can't even understand, two mighty empires and churches broke asunder, wouldn't talk with one another and came to blows repeatedly in international struggle.

    Now when you see that you know that something is going on here more than just some small, narrow abstruse theological point. That's what I'm getting to when we come to struggles between the Middle East and the West, even if there was no Islam, I'm arguing that you would have all kinds of reasons for conflict in which Islam or Christianity happened to be handy banners to justify your cause, but they're not the real cause of these conflicts.


    BB:The story of how the Russians adopted to Eastern Orthodox religion is an interesting one, and the fact that this area also contains the largest population of muslims, with both having come through Communism and the Cold War era to see a resurgence in their citizen's faith. Indeed 5 Muslim countries broke off to independence and the current government favors a strong Orthodox practice. Can you speak to politics and religion in this region?

    Graham E. Fuller:Sure well I think again the interesting point about the emergence of Russia as a power starting sometime, depending on how you judge it from the 12-13th century, when Constantinople collapsed when the Eastern Empire was defeated by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the Russians who had already been converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity claimed that the banner or cause of the EOC (Eastern Orthodox Church) had shifted to Russia. Russia was then called "the Third Rome". The first being Rome, the second being Constantinople and now Moscow. So Russia, by merely inheriting its Eastern Orthodox Religion inherited large amounts of anti-Western feeling and ideology and emotions that had been also very present in EOChristianity. So again, this is part of the argument that is saying you don't have to have religion to find the geo-political conflict in the area. Their religions are often used to justify it.

    So as the Russian Empire spread she began to absorb all kinds of Muslims who lived in the Caucasus of Central Asia, who still live there, and rapidly came to an accommodation with these people in bringing them into the Orthodox driven system of the Russian empire. So it wasn't as if these were, sort of Christianity who had a palm and daggers drawn at all, but there was a very interesting kind of a co-existence between the two of them that even exists to this day in one way or the other despite tensions as well.

    BB:The chapters that deal with Muslims in India and China are all so fascinating; the rich history of the Mogul dynasty [the partition of India and Pakistan] and the incorporation [indeed amalgamation] of Muslims inside China with, for example, the Hui in society, despite their contribution of a unique Sino-Arabic script... I’ll let readers pick up your book to read about all of that, but I’d like to move forward to a sort current geo-political scene since 9-11 and the consequences of the Bush administration, and how you see things moving forward in Muslim-Western relations since Obama has taken office?

    Graham E. Fuller:Sure. I would like to make one point before we continue because it goes along with everything we've said before. The reason I wrote this book was not to present just an interesting alternative history or to have a clever argument about how the world relations between East and West would be similar or very similar if Islam had never existed. The whole point of all of this really is to say, look if we say that all of these problems in the Middle East and the United States is due to religion and due to Islam, then you arrive at one set of answers - and that essentially is the set of answers that the US has been operating on in the global war against terrorism since 9-11.

    But if you say, no wait a minute, Islam is not really the cause, it's only the banner that is sort of helping, you know bring the other Muslims, that this is really about a Muslim response to centuries of Western Imperialism and domination and invasion and seizure of resources and control of resources and Western sponsored coup d'etats and all of this; that there is a great body of grievances on the part of Muslims against the West. But if they weren't Muslims they'd still have these same grievances because the West would have operated the same way, whether they were Muslims or not Muslims. So that's really the point.

    If you say that history begins with 9-11 then you can blame it all on Islam. But if you are forced to acknowledge that there is a long precedence, or prequel if you will to 9-11, then you see that we are talking about a problem of conflicting interests, Western actions which Muslims have found offensive and angering and to which they are responding and 9-11 is perhaps the ultimate response. So difference as to whether or not Islam is the problem has everything to do with how Washington or the West ends up treating this issue.

    BB:How is Obama doing now? Do you see a change in foreign policy coming through? I mean he's pulling out of the Middle East, we hope, and I just wanted to know a sort of progress report since...

    Graham E. Fuller:Yeah. Well I mean I'm very, a couple of things. George Bush, and quite frankly I've never been an admirer of his, at least early on was willing to say that the problem was not Islam. The Republican party, or at least elements of it, have slipped away from that thesis and now are talking indeed about the problem of Islam and Islam is a wicked terrorist cult and not really a [true] religion and all of this kind of thing.

    I think that Obama has done a great deal to help restore, at least the nature of rhetoric between the United States and the Muslim world. He's given some great speeches spoken of Islam and the Muslim civilization with respect and this was very much appreciated, highly valued and I think began to change the minds, initially, of lots of people who live in the Muslim world. But sadly, the policies don't seem to have changed that radically themselves in the interim. And that is what is the problem today. The Muslims say, yes, great talks, great speeches, but we want to see changes on the ground in the actual policies.

    BB:How much do you think the resolution of Israeli-Palestinian efforts through the US government and within their own dialogues is going to change Western and Muslim relationships?

    Graham E. Fuller:Yeah. Well, I think many people, including myself believe that a just settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis is absolutely vital to the posture of the West in the Middle East and across the whole Muslim world. But frankly, I don't think it's going anywhere. Ahhh, and we've been at this game now, the US has been at this game of the so-called Peace Process for twenty thirty years; nothing changes, in fact it gets worse by-and-large. The positions are hardening. The Israeli settlements are deepening and thickening. The Palestinians are getting more radicalized in the process and less and less willing to compromise in ways that they might have been willing to earlier. So I'm afraid I'm very pessimistic about any forthcoming settlement in the Arab-Israeli problem, and especially with the most Right Wing government in the history of Israel in charge.

    BB:As a linguist, I sort of thought you'd have an interesting perspective on the power of language to overcome differences between nations and peoples and ethnicities and so on, politics, [from the point of view of world literature] and there seems to be a rise in translated works and a trend among people who speak in Arabic languages to write in possibly their Colonial languages in order to reach audiences larger than their own populations. We've seen people nominated and winning the Booker Prize and considerations for the Nobel Prize for literature from these countries - how much reading of foreign books do you do? I'm talking about novels and fictions that are coming out of these countries and do you see that that would have any kind of effect on the world understanding each other a little better?

    Graham E. Fuller:That's a great question Paula and I am 100% on board on that. Even when I was at CIA and working with junior analysts on other countries I would say "Read the novels. Look at the movies. It's the only way that you can ever get inside the culture and society and mentality and thinking of these people." Otherwise you know it's easy to sit in the West and think "Oh my God. Islam and Muslim culture, it's so exotic and so distant and so foreign to everything we think." But when you read the novels you really begin to get a sense that yes, of course that Muslims are human beings just like the rest of us with most of the same aspirations and desires. And I think it brings home to Western readers, vividly, the kind of cultural that it represents.

    So I think reading novels from these countries, not just one but reading quite a number of them, will perhaps do more to help you understand where they're coming from and why they think the way they do and act the way they do than even from reading history. I'm a great believer in reading histories, but it's got to have a human supplement, a human angle that you talk about. I'm delighted to see all these books, either translated from Arabic or Turkish or Persian, whatever, or even as the case in Pakistan, written in English sometimes.

    BB: Well I'm in full agreement there, and I want to thank you so much for joining us on BookBuffet. I just want to say that your book is an incredibly fascinating read and I think that our listeners would really enjoy getting this ride through history and this elegant debate and these that you bring foreward in their applications toward their own thinking and attitudes toward Islam and the Muslim world. So thank you for joining us.

    Graham E. Fuller:Well thank you Paula very much and for the opportunity to talk about it. I hope that at least people will find their views partially challenged as a result of reading it. Thank you.



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