Bernard Lewis a Window on Islam

Renowned scholar weighs in on religion, politics, extremism and war

Sunday, July 9, 2006

Bernard Lewis is arguably the most important living scholar of Islam in the West. Author of more than two dozen books, the retired Princeton professor, who turned 90 earlier this year, has long been an adviser to governments and policymakers seeking to understand the intricacies of Islam and its relationship to the Western world.

Dr. Lewis recently appeared at the Pew Forum in Washington, D.C., where he answered questions about the situation in Iraq, the prospects for democracy in the Muslim world and other vital topics. Here are edited excerpts of his presentation.

Bernard Lewis' q-and-a on Islam.

On misunderstanding the concept of Islam:

In talking of the Christian world, in English - and, I suppose, in all of the other languages of the Christian world - we use two terms: Christianity and Christendom. Christianity means a religion, in the strict sense of that word, a system of belief and worship and some clerical or ecclesiastical organization to go with it.

If we say Christendom, we mean the entire civilization that grew up under the aegis of that religion but that also contains many elements that are not part of that religion, many elements that are even hostile to that religion.

Let me give one example: No one could seriously assert that Hitler and the Nazis came out of Christianity. No one could seriously dispute that they came out of Christendom.

In talking of Islam, we use the same word in both senses, and this gives rise to considerable confusion and misunderstanding. There are many things that are described as part of Islam, which are indeed part of Islam if we take the word as the equivalent of Christendom, but are very much not part of Islam - are even alien or hostile to Islam - if we take the word Islam as the equivalent of Christianity. I think this is a very important point.

In [the Islamic] world, religion embraces far more than it does in the Christian or post-Christian world. We are accustomed to talking of church and state and a whole series of pairs of words that go with them - lay and ecclesiastical, secular and religious, spiritual and temporal and so on. These pairs of words simply do not exist in classical Islamic terminology because the dichotomy that these words express is unknown.

In the Islamic world, from the beginning, Islam was the primary basis of both identity and loyalty. We think of a nation subdivided into religions. They think, rather, of a religion subdivided into nations. It is the ultimate definition, the prime definition and the one that determines not only identity, but also basic loyalty. And this is quite independent of religious belief.

On Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

I am inclined to believe in the sincerity of Ahmadinejad. I think that he really believes the apocalyptic language that he is using. Remember that Muslims, like Christians and Jews, have a sort of end-of-time scenario in which a Messianic figure will appear: in the case of the Shiites, the hidden imam who will emerge from hiding, who will fight against the powers of evil - the anti-Christ in Christianity, Gog and Magog in Judaism and the Dajjal in Islam, a role in which we are being cast now.

And he really seems to believe that the apocalyptic age has come, that this is the final struggle that will lead to the final victory and the establishment of heaven on earth.

I think that the way that Ahmadinejad is talking now shows quite clearly his contempt for the Western world in general and the United States in particular. They feel they are dealing with, as Osama bin Laden put it, an effete, degenerate, pampered enemy incapable of real resistance. And they are proceeding on that assumption.

And my only hope is that they are not right in their interpretation of the Western world.

On the prospects for democracy in the Islamic world:

A lot of things are being said about Islam now. There is a view, for example, that could be summed up this way: These people are incapable of decent, civilized, open government. Whatever we do, they will be ruled by corrupt tyrants. Therefore, the only aim of foreign policy should be to ensure that they are friendly tyrants rather than hostile tyrants.

We know versions of this approach produced well-known results in Central America, in Southeast Asia and other places.

To say that they are incapable of anything else is simply a falsification of history. What we have now come to regard as typical of Middle Eastern regimes is not typical of the past. The regime of Saddam Hussein, the regime of Hafez al-Assad, this kind of government, this kind of society, has no roots either in the Arab or in the Islamic past. It is due to an importation from Europe, which comes in two phases.

Phase one, the 19th century, when they are becoming aware of their falling behind the modern world and need desperately to catch up, so they adopt all kinds of European devices with the best of intentions, which nevertheless have two harmful effects.

One, they enormously strengthen the power of the state by placing in the hands of the ruler weaponry and communication undreamt of in earlier times, so that even the smallest petty tyrant has greater powers over his people than Harun al-Rashid or Suleyman the Magnificent or any of the legendary rulers of the past.

Second, even more deadly, in the traditional society there were many, many limits on the autocracy, the ruler. The whole Islamic political tradition is strongly against despotism. Traditional Islamic government is authoritarian, yes, but it is not despotic.

On the contrary, there is a quite explicit rejection of despotism. And this wasn't just in theory; it was in practice, too, because in Islamic society, there were all sorts of established orders in society that acted as a restraining factor.

The bazaar merchants, the craft guilds, the country gentry and the scribes, all of these were well-organized groups who produced their own leaders from within the group. They were not appointed or dismissed by the governments. And they did operate effectively as a constraint.

All of that disappeared with the process of modernization, which, as I say, strengthened the government and weakened or eliminated the previous limiting factors.

The second, really deadly phase came - and here I can date it precisely - in the year 1940. In 1940, the government of France decided to surrender and, in effect, changed sides in the war. The greater part of the colonial empire was beyond the reach of the Axis, and the governors therefore had a free choice: Vichy or de Gaulle.

The overwhelming majority chose Vichy, including the governor - high commissioner, he was called - of the French-mandated territory of Syria-Lebanon. So, Syria-Lebanon was wide open to the Nazis, and they moved in on a large scale - not with troops, because that would have been too noticeable, but with propaganda of every kind.

It was then that the roots of Ba'athism were laid and the first organizations were formed, which ultimately developed into the Ba'ath Party. It was then that the Nazi style of ideology and government became known, eagerly embraced simply because it was anti-Western rather than because of inherent attraction.

From Syria, they succeeded in spreading it to Iraq, where they even set up a Nazi-style government for a while, headed by Rashid Ali. It was possible to deal with that, and they were driven out of the Middle East.

But after the war, the Western allies also left and the Soviets moved in, taking the place of the Nazis as a champion against the West. To switch from the Nazi to the communist model required only minor adjustments.

This is not the part of the historic Arab or Islamic tradition, and, for that reason, I think that the prospect not of our creating democratic institutions but allowing them to develop their own democratic institutions is definitely a possibility.

On fighting the war on terror:

I am familiar with this slogan. I feel that while we are indeed engaged in a war against terror, it is inadequate and even misleading. If Churchill had informed the country in 1940, "We are engaged in a war against bomber aircraft and submarines," that would have been an accurate statement but not a very helpful one. To say we are engaged in a war against terror is of the same order.

Terror is a tactic. It's a method of waging war. It is not a cause, it is not an adversary, it is not anything that one can identify as an opponent, and I think we need to be more specific in fighting a war. It's useful to know who the enemy is.

On Wahhabism: (State religion of Saudi Arabia)

Wahhabism is about as central to Islam as, shall we say, the Ku Klux Klan to Christianity. It originated in Najd, what is now part of Saudi Arabia, in the 18th century. It was a reaction to the general perception of that time that things were going wrong.

There have always been two reactions in the Muslim world to an awareness of things going wrong. One is, we are falling behind the modern world; the answer therefore is to modernize, to catch up with the modern world.

The other is, as we see now, what has gone wrong is that we have tried to ape the modern, i.e., infidel world and the right answer is to return to the true and authentic traditions of Islam. That was the Wahhabi line, and Wahhabism is a peculiarly violent and fanatical version of this.

This would have remained an extremist fringe in a marginal country except for the unfortunate combination of two circumstances. One was the creation of a Saudi kingdom in the mid-'20s. The House of Saud were the local tribal sheikhs of the area where the Wahhabis flourished and followed the Wahhabi faith.

By creating the kingdom, controlling the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and also therefore the pilgrimage, it gave them enormous power and influence in the Islamic world. And the other, of course, was oil and money, which gave them resources beyond the dreams of avarice.

So what you are getting now in the Muslim world, all over the Muslim world and more particularly among the Muslim communities in non-Muslim countries, is the spread of the Wahhabi version of Islam, which, as I said, is about as typical of what you might call mainstream Islam as the KKK of mainstream Christianity.



The Wahhabi menace is particularly strong among the Muslim communities in Europe and America. And just think, for example, for a Muslim living in Hamburg, Birmingham, Los Angeles or whatever it may be, it is very natural that he should want to give his children some sort of grounding in his religion and culture.

So he looks around for evening classes, weekend schools, holiday camps and the like. These are now almost entirely controlled, financed, funded by the Wahhabis, so that you get, among the Muslims in the diaspora more than among the Muslims in Muslim countries, an intense indoctrination from the most radical, the most violent, the most extreme and fanatical version of Islam.

On the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Obviously it's very important, but it's not the only one. If you look around the bloody perimeter of the Islamic world ... there's one place after another where there is conflict - Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, South Philippines, Timor and so on - this is a pattern that goes all the way around the perimeter and through parts of the interior. The Palestine question is just one of a larger series.

For much of the Middle Eastern Arab world, Israel is a very useful topic. It is the licensed grievance. There is a pent-up rage in all these countries directed primarily against their own rulers, and rulers make every effort they can to deflect it elsewhere.

It surely is the "licensed" grievance and serves a very useful purpose in that respect. If that grievance were ever resolved, they would have to find a new one, which would be a lot of trouble.

By all this I didn't mean to say that it's unimportant. It's obviously very important, but I think it is the general conflict that is preventing us from solving the Palestinian problem, rather than the Palestinian problem that is preventing the solution of the general one.

On the resolve of the West:

I have often thought in recent years of World War II - you were told earlier that I'm ancient myself. The most vividly remembered year of my life was the year 1940. And more recently, I have been thinking of 1938 rather than of 1940. We seem to be in the mode of Chamberlain and Munich rather than of Churchill.

These remarks are presented with permission from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.




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