Thursday, August 2, 2018

Fighting for God

Bernard Lewis and the Clash of Civilizations.
By Michael Isenberg.

Yesterday I posted an obituary for Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, a towering figure in twentieth century Middle East studies who was no stranger to controversy. I noted that two controversies in particular will be forever linked with his name: his “Clash of Civilizations” hypothesis, which is the subject of this post, and “Orientalism,” which I will cover in a future article.

The Clash of Civilizations theory concerns the origins of Islamic conflict with the West, a topic which Professor Lewis explored in a 1990 essay in The Atlantic, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” and expanded upon in his 2003 book, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror.

Lewis rejects the idea that Islamic radicalism is a reaction to particular policies of Europe or the United States. In The Crisis of Islam, he points out that one of the founders of modern jihadist theory, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sayyid Qutb, formed his views about the West during a stay in the United States from 1948 to 1950. At that time, most of the US policies which are supposedly responsible for radical Islam—from the fall of Mossadegh, to the two Gulf Wars, to the invasion of Afghanistan—hadn’t happened yet.

Admittedly, America was a supporter of Israel at the time, and that did influence Mr. Qutb, but Professor Lewis argues that American support for the Jewish state during its early years was lukewarm at best. Lewis claims that Israel was far closer to the Soviet Union than the US at that time. In fact, during the 1956 Suez crisis, when Israel, France, and Great Britain attempted to wrest control of the Suez Canal from Gamal Nasser’s Egypt, the Eisenhower Administration intervened on the Egyptian side, applying diplomatic pressure that led to the withdrawal of Israel and its allies. And yet, the US’s support of Egypt brought no goodwill for America from the Arab world, whose governments proceeded to build alliances with the Soviets.

“Clearly,” Professor Lewis writes in the Atlantic article, “something deeper is involved than these specific grievances, numerous and important as they may be—something deeper that turns every disagreement into a problem and makes every problem insoluble.” If nothing the Western nations did can explain Muslim antipathy, one must look elsewhere. “It should by now be clear,” he continues,

that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both [emphasis mine].

This “clash of civilizations,” a phrase which was subsequently taken up by Samuel Huntington in his eponymous book, has its origins in both ideology and history. Indeed, as early as 1964, Lewis wrote about “The Revolt of Islam” as a force to be reckoned with in Middle Eastern affairs. Its origin is in the absence of a separation between the sacred and the secular in Islamic ideology. There is no rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s in Islam. It’s all God’s.

In Islam the struggle of good and evil very soon acquired political and even military dimensions. Muhammad, it will be recalled, was not only a prophet and a teacher, like the founders of other religions; he was also the head of a polity and of a community, a ruler and a soldier. Hence his struggle involved a state and its armed forces. If the fighters in the war for Islam, the holy war "in the path of God," are fighting for God, it follows that their opponents are fighting against God. And since God is in principle the sovereign, the supreme head of the Islamic state—and the Prophet and, after the Prophet, the caliphs are his vicegerents—then God as sovereign commands the army. The army is God's army and the enemy is God's enemy. The duty of God's soldiers is to dispatch God's enemies as quickly as possible to the place where God will chastise them—that is to say, the afterlife.

Clearly related to this is the basic division of mankind as perceived in Islam...In the classical Islamic view, to which many Muslims are beginning to return, the world and all mankind are divided into two: the House of Islam, where the Muslim law and faith prevail, and the rest, known as the House of Unbelief or the House of War, which it is the duty of Muslims ultimately to bring to Islam. But the greater part of the world is still outside Islam, and even inside the Islamic lands, according to the view of the Muslim radicals, the faith of Islam has been undermined and the law of Islam has been abrogated. The obligation of holy war therefore begins at home and continues abroad, against the same infidel enemy.

The holy war went well…at first:

For the first thousand years Islam was advancing, Christendom in retreat and under threat. The new faith conquered the old Christian lands of the Levant and North Africa, and invaded Europe, ruling for a while in Sicily, Spain, Portugal, and even parts of France. The attempt by the Crusaders to recover the lost lands of Christendom in the east was held and thrown back, and even the Muslims' loss of southwestern Europe to the Reconquista was amply compensated by the Islamic advance into southeastern Europe, which twice reached as far as Vienna. For the past three hundred years, since the failure of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 and the rise of the European colonial empires in Asia and Africa, Islam has been on the defensive, and the Christian and post-Christian civilization of Europe and her daughters has brought the whole world, including Islam, within its orbit.

For a long time now there has been a rising tide of rebellion against this Western paramountcy, and a desire to reassert Muslim values and restore Muslim greatness. The Muslim has suffered successive stages of defeat. The first was his loss of domination in the world, to the advancing power of Russia and the West. The second was the undermining of his authority in his own country, through an invasion of foreign ideas and laws and ways of life and sometimes even foreign rulers or settlers, and the enfranchisement of native non-Muslim elements. The third—the last straw—was the challenge to his mastery in his own house, from emancipated women and rebellious children. It was too much to endure, and the outbreak of rage against these alien, infidel, and incomprehensible forces that had subverted his dominance, disrupted his society, and finally violated the sanctuary of his home was inevitable. It was also natural that this rage should be directed primarily against the millennial enemy and should draw its strength from ancient beliefs and loyalties.

Clearly, the “roots of Muslim rage” run deep in Islamic ideology. But fortunately, Islam is not monolithic and Muslims do not have to choose between waging perpetual war against the West or giving up on Islam altogether. There are other, gentler ways to interpret Muslim scripture. Quoted in his New York Times obituary, Professor Lewis says,

As a specialist on Islam, I find myself disturbed by the nonsense being talked, by both Muslims and non-Muslims. On the one hand, you have people who would have you believe that Islam is a bloodthirsty religion bent on world destruction. On the other hand, you have people telling us that Islam is a religion of love and peace—rather like the Quakers, but less aggressive.

The truth is in its usual place.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

Photo source:

No comments:

Post a Comment