For more than three centuries Western nations have dominated the globe. The ideological and political power of Western Europe and America is so pervasive, and has held sway for so long, that it is taken as something natural by most Westerners: it is taken for granted. But what if things had turned out otherwise? What if Muslim nations, rather than the Christian West, formed the dominant power in the modern world? How would the world appear from an American or European perspective if Saudi Arabia and a constellation of Muslim allies constituted the global superpower, rather than the U.S. and its current allies? Can contemporary Americans or Britons even imagine such a thing as a world order set by Muslims?
Positing historical "what ifs" like this is always an uncertain game, but given the current conflict between much of the Muslim world and the modern West it may prove useful. To turn the tables might broaden our perspective a bit.
I want to imagine how things would appear to us with the tables turned. I want to imagine that history had in fact turned out differently. To this end, the historical fiction I present will reverse the roles of Muslims and the West in modern history. Such a fiction may seem shallow or gratuitous at first, but my intention is serious. I want Westerners to imagine themselves in a world where it is others who set the agenda: to consider the world from an angle they are not at all used to. If my fiction leads to more nuanced thinking on even a few of the relevant issues, it will have been worth it. --E.M.
It is 2004. My name is Chris Traupman, and I live in the United States, an independent country. The U.S. has been nominally independent for some time, since 1951 in fact, when the Saudis withdrew their forces and acknowledged the American right to statehood. As everyone knows, however, this independence exists more in title than reality. Here we have nothing like the democracy one sees in developed countries like Syria, Egypt or Saudi Arabia. And it would be very hard to bring it about. For one, the Saudis and Iraqis bankroll our King in Washington. They provide him with all the cash and weapons he needs to stay in power and to keep us down. Thus although we are an independent nation in name, it is a sad truth of our history that the King who rules us is not our real King: he is a puppet of the Muslims. He does their bidding, they keep him on the throne.
Any move to change our government from the grassroots is mercilessly crushed, and as an American I know very well that even to talk about change, even with friends, might bring about my arrest and torture. First I will lose my job, then I will be arrested, finally I will disappear. Most of us accept that it's better not to try to change things through politics. As Americans, we put our trust in God, who is the only power that will stand by our side, as long as we worship Him in truth and righteousness, Amen. All things are in God's hands.
Our former rulers, the Saudis, are terrible hypocrites. Their hypocrisy stinks to Heaven, and one day God will bring them down for their lies and hypocrisy, if He does not bring them down first for their false beliefs. The Saudis talk on and on about freedom and how they stand for the Rights of Man, but when it comes to Christian countries like the U.S. or France or Canada they prove their real intentions by bankrolling tyrants who keep things the way they are--i.e., who keep the Christian peoples in chains. What the Saudis really want is to maintain the good terms on which they get our wheat, our fruit, our textiles and minerals. They prop up governments that will dance to their tune, they provide these puppets with the might needed to keep us in silent submission. It is hard to find a case where a Christian nation has been strong enough to seize its own destiny from Muslim control.
The Muslims dominate the United Nations, which they created mainly to manage things with the appearance of international approval. Anyone who doesn't believe this can just look at the Security Council: the permanent members are Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Palestine and China. Five Muslim countries and China.
Although we Americans have suffered much under Saudi imperialism, there is one thing we have going for us and that we can be proud of. We are true Christians; we are sons and daughters of the true faith. While in the developed countries all manner of decadence reigns, we maintain our faith in God and the redeeming blood of his Son. For us it is priests and religious leaders who provide guidance on social issues, not the fickle opinions of Riyadh movie stars or Tehran hip hop artists. As Christians, we would not tolerate the social decadence seen in these "developed" countries. Their Satan-inspired music, their drug use, their young women shamelessly having sex before marriage and everywhere traipsing about hardly dressed--the behavior of Saudis, Egyptians and Iraqis is scandalous to us and it is a scandal to the eyes of God, who will finally make his will known, Amen.
Here in the United States one will never see a misguided youth go into his school with a gun and murder his teachers or classmates. But such things happen all the time in Saudi Arabia and Iran. The grim news that comes out of Arabia, constantly repeated, is only proof of how spiritually lost the Muslims are. Their religion is wrong; their understanding of God is wrong. And so: Although the Muslim nations may dominate this fallen world economically and politically, they have nonetheless foregone the world to come. They don't really believe in their Allah any more--their actions prove it--but we believe in God.
We've suffered being colonized, we've suffered their military campaigns and endless manipulations of our governments--all for their own greed--but one thing we will not suffer is to lose the truth through their satanic and corrupting influence. We may not have the weapons to fight them on equal terms, but even so we would rather die than succumb to their decadent and secular culture.
But even so, this is what happens, year in and year out. How can our priests and pastors compete with their slick MTVs and movies? They have the money on their side. More and more our young people dream of becoming like them. We see it and we know we must fight it.
But how fight it? This is the challenge we face as Americans. How make our nominal independence into a real independence? How finally throw off their corrupting influence?
There has been a recent rise of fundamentalism, a militant new kind of fundamentalism. Although many support the movement, I myself am still not certain. Its methods are extreme, to tell the truth, and it is not certain that such methods are justified. But our situation is extreme too. Our survival as a people is at stake.
Probably you have heard of the Base. The organization was founded by one of the sons of the wealthy Bush family. The Bushes became wealthy because they knew how to collaborate with the powers that be. But one son, George W., abandoned his luxurious life and joined the struggle. His family has disowned him because of his decision.
The main goal of the Base is to expel the Muslims from Christian lands once for all. George W. Bush believes that this goal will never be achieved by ordinary political means but only by taking the violence the Muslims have used against us and turning it back against the Muslims. Bush believes ordinary political means have proven useless. The last century of struggle does much to support his thesis: With politics, with the United Nations, we have gotten nowhere; the Muslims continue to manipulate our destinies with impunity.
Bush insists that the Base is engaged in a war of liberation. His goal is to purify the Christian lands and unify them under Christian principles. Too much Christian blood has already been spilled and Bush insists it is time to spill Muslim blood.
His movement was not so famous until a handful of his operatives managed to hijack three jets and crash them into the Riyadh Towers and the Saudi Defense Center back in 2001. Since then Bush and his followers have been in hiding because the president of Arabia, Osama bin Laden, has declared a war on terrorism.
"The evil ones have attacked us for one reason only," said bin Laden. "Because they hate freedom."
This is the kind of hypocritical thing one can always expect from Arab leaders. For centuries they do everything in their power to keep us from gaining freedom, and then when we finally fight back they say it is because we hate freedom. The most depressing thing about bin Laden's statement is that many of the Muslims in Arabia and Iraq live so divorced from history and political realities that they actually believe such rubbish.
Bush and most of the leaders of the Base are now in hiding, probably in Mexico, according to what the best sources say. But after selective air raids on the Base's training camps in Georgia and Louisiana (hundreds of uninvolved Christian civilians were killed in the bombing) the Arab leaders have gone and decided to attack Canada. Consider: Although Bush and his followers are in Mexico, the Muslims attack Canada as the next stage in their "war on terror."
Canada is complex story. I won't go into it. Suffice it to say that the dictator the Muslims helped to power in Canada eventually turned against them. He also developed a dream of unifying the Christian world. But he believed in secularism; he called himself a socialist. And finally he became one of the planet's worst tyrants, using poison gas (provided him by the Muslims, of course) to kill other Christians in Canada who didn't like his rule. Now the Saudis have decided to take him out, and the war on terrorism is their excuse. They apparently want to reinstall a more flexible puppet government in Canada--this especially since the recent discovery of huge oil deposits in British Columbia. Though many Christians are glad to see him go, we know very well why the Muslims have gotten involved in finally taking him out.
Part of my family is Canadian. My sister and brother-in-law live in Montreal. Their twin daughters, my nieces, died two months ago in one of the Saudi air raids. A Saudi guided missile aimed at a military base landed two blocks north of target. My nieces were at school, in their classroom. Their teacher and all but one of their classmates were killed. As usual, the Saudi government sent its condolences, and according to what we've been able to learn, they agreed to pay $300 Canadian dollars to each of the grieving families. $300 per dead child. If you add up the total Saudi bill for these condolence fees, it still would not cover a fraction of what they spent on the missile that landed on that school. I know because I have checked: the type of missile they killed my nieces with cost them the equivalent of $980,000 Canadian dollars to build. They want to pay out $5,100 to the families of those murdered children.
I said above that I don't know if I support George W. Bush and the Base. That's because his program of violence seems to me to be un-Christian. I don't think Jesus would have supported such a resistance movement, even if it were in the interests of saving Christian culture against the satanic excesses of the secular culture now ruling over us. And yet many Christians do support Bush as a hero. He has had the courage to stand up to an enemy vastly more powerful than us. And his fighters are not afraid to give their lives to make the Muslim imperialists finally realize they cannot control us forever.
Will the Base's program of terror prove counterproductive in the long run? No one can tell. Until now I've believed in a more moderate Christianity, one not as politicized as that advocated by Bush. Rather than in politics, I have put my trust in God. But does God want us to stand by passively while these corrupt dictators and their Western supporters keep our people in submission? Or does He rather want us to the fight them with the violence they have so long wielded against us? This is the question many Christians now ask.
Buffalo, New York
The above "world upside-down," in which Saudi Arabia has something like superpower status, seems facile at first glance. And certainly many readers will find something offensive in the reversal of bin Laden's and George W. Bush's roles. Bush, after all, is a democratically elected leader, while bin Laden is one of the world's most notorious criminals. Yet my point is in part precisely this: with different historical givens things could turn out very differently. The experiences that led Osama bin Laden to his current role as terrorist leader would simply never had happened if he'd grown up in the heart of a Muslim world that dominated the planet. And likewise for George W. Bush.
How did it come about that the Western world acquired the ascendancy in it now enjoys? Although most Westerners, as I've pointed out, seem to take this ascendancy for granted as part of the "normal way" of things, its grounds are not natural, but historical. Though in earlier centuries people may have theorized that white Europeans dominated the world because the white race was inherently superior to other races, now only the most ignorant of people would subscribe to such a view. In fact the Western rise to global power occurred on a rather tenuous base of historical coincidence.
During the later Middle Ages the Christian countries of Europe and the Muslim countries of North Africa and the Middle East had much in common. They had comparable political and economic systems, their science had attained roughly similar levels of sophistication (in fact the Christians had only recently begun to catch up to the Muslims in this regard) and the two sides faced each other with similar levels of military might. In both Christendom and Islam at that time one could see much that was backward and much that was already highly developed: one could see that both civilizations had attained a similar level of philosophical and material sophistication.
Then the Renaissance came to Italy. It was a period of development set off by various things: first, something akin to modern capitalism appeared in Italian cities; at the same time, because of the fall of Constantinople, Italy experienced an influx of manuscripts in Greek and scholars able to read them, and there developed in Florence an impassioned interest in the new Greek knowledge. Thus the Renaissance simultaneously unleashed in Europe both the economic norms of capitalism and the philosophical norms of humanism. It was a progressive and powerful mix.
To make a long story short, Europe began to develop in leaps and bounds. Soon European technological know-how and economic development led to an aggressive imperialism that reached round the globe. The Islamic countries, meanwhile, remained more or less in their medieval mode. And of course many of them, unable to defend themselves against the might of Europe, became colonies in the new European empires.
Along with the rise of the business class, Europe also soon developed new political norms. This is what we call the Enlightenment. The American and French Revolutions were part of this movement, and in this and many other respects America is merely an extension of Europe. The Enlightenment gave us democracy, individual rights, civil liberties, and the separation of church and state.
Meanwhile in the Muslim countries, kept back in their development in great measure because of the burden of colonialism, there was no development of individual rights or the business class beyond what had been normal in the Middle Ages. Muslim countries had none of the developmental bases that gave us the modern world we know. Whereas we have been living under Enlightenment norms for two centuries, the Muslim countries have never experienced anything like our 18th century revolutions.
This is the way things actually happened. Note that I am not writing this description to make excuses for the way fundamentalist Islam is today fighting its hopeless and backward battle. These Muslim radicals have taken certain militant elements in their tradition and twisted them into a sick justification of mass murder. They will not attain their goals. (Concerning which goals, read the Afterword below.) The reason I'm making this description is so as to show, in a way, how tenuous our history is. Most historians would agree: If things had been only a little different, the forces of humanism and capitalism may never have come together in 15th century Italy to create the powerhouse that is modern Western culture. And if this mix hadn't coalesced in the decades when it did, we Westerners may all still be living in something like the Middle Ages: ruled by kings and the Catholic Church.
In my historical fiction above I've imagined the tables turned as regards the Muslim nations and the Christian West. Could such a thing have actually been possible? I believe so.
Imagine that it was in medieval Egypt rather than in medieval Italy that capitalist norms began to develop. And imagine that it was in Egyptian cities that there occurred a sudden resurgence of interest in the Greek classics: an interest similar in kind to that which appeared in Florence. Such a thing is not impossible. During the Middle Ages Muslim scholars' knowledge of the Greek classics was stronger than that of their Christian counterparts. And so humanism could certainly have arisen in one of the Muslim countries.
Now imagine that everything followed in the Muslim countries the way it had in Europe. There was a spread of capitalism, a new humanism in scholarship, a leap forward in economics, politics, science. Meanwhile the Europeans, never having benefited from the developments that actually did occur in Italy, continued to live according to the economic and political norms of the Middle Ages. Soon the Muslim nations, newly emboldened, invaded and colonized Europe, the rest of Africa, India. And with the increase in knowledge of the natural world and other cultures there came an increased skepticism toward the doctrines of faith. Although the Muslims remained outwardly Muslim in terms of their religious practice, there grew up in their midst a new secularism, so that many of the people in these countries began to admit that they no longer really believed in Allah, but that they believed rather in what science could tell about the universe.
The nations of Europe and North and South America meanwhile retained their Christianity, but they were henceforth subject to Muslim rule: they were colonies, and their economic and political development was checked by their situation. Colonizers, after all, are mainly interested in plundering natural resources: progressive political development in the colonies can only mean resistance movements, demands for equal rights, etc. Nothing good from the colonizer's point of view.
Rather than being slowly broken, however, the Christian faith of the people in the colonies remained strong. In fact, in defiance of the corrupt Islam they saw ruling the planet, most of the world's Christians clung to their faith all the more tenaciously. Thus the Christians defiantly insisted that although the Muslims may hold temporal power, in terms of God and his plan for humanity it was they, the Christians, who followed the true path. Most of the Muslims in the "advanced" countries, seeing the fervor and strictness of this Christian faith, held to the view that the Christians were incorrigible religious maniacs: they were incurably "dogmatic" and "backward" and "intolerant." In short, the more secularized and open-mined Muslims looked down on the Christians in just the same way many Americans and Britons (in our real world) now look down on the Muslims.
It is not hard to imagine such an outcome. And given this as a basis, terrorism would not have been long in coming. Long subjected to the greed and machinations of Muslim powers situated far over the seas, suffering under corrupt puppet governments that did nothing to defend their real interests, many of the world's Christians would have turned to their faith as a last bastion of hope. And many others would have begun to interpret that faith as a call to violent resistance. "Do not think that I came to bring peace to the earth," said Jesus. "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" (Matthew 10:34; Luke 12:49) Perhaps these would have become the most frequently quoted Biblical passages in the mouths of the propagandists that supported the Base. And as their essays and calls to violent resistance were spread in the press and over the radio, more and more of the downtrodden turned to them for a sense of purpose.
And so we would arrive finally at the twenty-first century. Not the real twenty-first century, but one that is not very different from the one we know.
1) What bin Laden Wants
The following paragraphs are quoted from an article by Max Rodenbeck in the April 29, 2004 issue of The New York Review of Books. They present the most concise summary of bin Laden's goals that I've yet read.
To clarify the reformist spectrum [in contemporary Islam], we can identify, at one end, the blinkered frenzy of al-Qaeda, and at the far opposite end, a growing number of Muslims who question, and in some cases reject, the fundamental tenets of belief. The great mass of Muslims stand, with increasing discomfort, in the middle, repelled by the violence of some coreligionists, but also fearful that Islam risks dissolving--as it may be argued that the faith of many nominal Christians also dissolved--into a mix of vestigial folklore and personal belief.
It may sound odd to classify a terrorist group as reformist, but a radical remake of the faith is indeed the underlying intention of bin Laden and his followers. Attacking America and its allies is merely a tactic, intended to provoke a backlash strong enough to alert Muslims to the supposed truth of their predicament, and so rally them to purge the faith of all that is alien to its essence. Promoting a clash of civilizations is merely stage one. The more difficult part, as the radicals see it, is convincing fellow Muslims to reject the modern world absolutely (including such aberrations as democracy), topple their own insidiously secularizing quisling governments, and return to the pure path. It is this latter part of his project that bin Laden shares with a wider radical and reactionary trend, which is sometimes referred to as Salafist (derived from the Arabic salaf, meaning forebears, i.e., returning to the way of the founding fathers of Islam).
The imagined political destination of this path is the recreation of a pan-Islamic caliphate, such as existed for a few short years after the Prophet's death. (The question of who is to fill the office of caliph has been left conveniently vague by bin Laden and the other extreme radicals.) Reaching this goal would necessitate the elimination of such impurities as Shiism, Sufism, and so on, and the imposition of a supranational, tribal identification with Islam. So far as personal behavior is concerned, the ultra-radicals would like to see the Salafist version of Islam applied in detailed, prescriptive form. There would be hand-chopping for theft, and death by stoning for adultery. But there would also be a thicket of lesser rules to regulate everything from how to greet an infidel (a Muslim may respond to but not initiate hellos) to how to bury the dead (in unmarked graves).
 A statement from al-Qaeda following the Madrid bombings clarified this intent. It said the organization hoped George Bush would win reelection, "because he acts with force rather than wisdom or shrewdness, and it is his religious fanaticism that will rouse our (Islamic) nation, as has been shown. Being targeted by an enemy is what will wake us from our slumber." Quoted on the Arabic news Web site www.elaph.com: "Bayaan lil qa'ida yuhhammal tawqi' kataib abu hafss al massri," March 17, 2004.
 A thorough investigation of the jurisprudence upon which such ideas are based can be found in Yohanan Friedmann's Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition. While Friedmann's scholarship is unimpeachable, his focus on early Islamic practices may leave the unwary with the impression that Islam is basically an intolerant faith. As practiced in most times and places, this has been less true of Islam than of, say, Christianity. Until reforms introduced this year, however, Saudi schools promoted this brusque sectarian etiquette of greetings.
2) Further Reading
Anyone interested in the development of Islam versus the development of Christianity can't go wrong in picking up Karen Armstrong's brilliant book A History of God: the 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is an excellent introduction to a huge range of issues and will be an eye-opener to anyone coming new to the study of Western religion. Check the book at Amazon.com: A History of God
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