Islam and the West

Such a dichotomous opposition of terms as the “West” and “Islam” will inevitably be loaded with misunderstanding and contention. If words alone perpetuate misconceptions, then political, strategic and cultural relations between the two entities can be expected to be more complex. In discussing the current crises of understanding between countries like Iran and Iraq, and the US and Great Britain, Middle East Scholar Bernard Lewis emphasizes the role of Muslim and Christian history in shaping current global context – and yet points out that the world must not associate atrocities committed by Hitler or Islamic extremists with either perspective. He urges discretion when discussing the West and Islam, stressing the general need for increased sensitivity in regard to the implications of our language and actions. Lewis concludes that, with democracy and peace, the Muslim countries can restore their role as leaders in a civilized world. – YaleGlobal

Islam and the West

A Conversation With Bernard Lewis
Thursday, June 8, 2006

The relationship between Islam and the West will be a defining feature of the 21st century, particularly in the Middle East. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life hosted a discussion of these issues with Professor Bernard Lewis, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton, who for 60 years has helped interpret the world of Islam to the West, authoring more than two dozen books, including What Went Wrong and The Crisis of Islam. A strong supporter of the U.S. intervention in Iraq, Professor Lewis has advised government officials and policymakers in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Middle East on the intricacies of the relationships between Islam and the West. The following are excerpts from Professor Lewis's April 27, 2006 remarks and his responses to questions from journalists organized by major topic.

Islam and the State

Let me begin with the name, which has been given – not by me – to our discussion today: the West and Islam, sometimes also Islam and the West, depending on your perspective. You will surely be struck by a certain asymmetry in this formulation. On the one side, a compass point; on the other, a religion. Now, of course, we use "the West" in a number of different senses, but primarily, they are political, strategic, cultural, even civilizational, but not normally religious. The one religious term I have heard used for the West is the post-Christian world. I needn't develop the implications of that term. Islam, on the other hand, is the name of a religion. And it is a part of human society identified by itself, and therefore also by others; not the other way around, in terms of religion.

But having said that, I think one needs to be more specific. In talking of the Christian world, in English – and, I suppose, in all 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 also contains many elements that are not part of that religion, many elements that are even hostile to that religion. Let me give one simple 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, which one should bear in mind....

In that 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 [though] they are used in the modern languages.

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, as I said, not only identity, but also basic loyalty. And this is quite independent of religious belief. In Islam, there isn't – or rather, there wasn't until recently – any such thing as the church, in the Christian sense of that word. The mosque is ... a building, a place of worship and study. And in that sense, it is the equivalent of the church. But in the sense of an institution with a hierarchy and its own laws and usages, there was no such thing in Islam until very recently. And one of the achievements of the Islamic Revolution in Iran has been to endow an Islamic country for the first time with the equivalents of a pope, a college of cardinals, a bench of bishops and, above all, an inquisition. All these were previously unknown and nonexistent in the Islamic world....

And this remains very much the perception to the present day. Religion is the primary identity, and that is quite unrelated to belief and worship. An Egyptian scholar even wrote a book with the odd title – odd, that is, to the Western reader – the odd title of Atheism in Islam. It seems a rather absurd title on the face of it. But it isn't at all. He was talking about Islam as a culture, as a civilization, and there, as elsewhere, there were atheists and atheist movements, a perfectly legitimate title of a perfectly valid study. It is very difficult for us in the West to understand and appreciate this and all its implications. Separation of church and state was derided in the past by Muslims when they said this is a Christian remedy for a Christian disease. It doesn't apply to us or to our world. Lately, I think some of them are beginning to reconsider that, and to concede that perhaps they may have caught a Christian disease and would therefore be well advised to try a Christian remedy....

On the Danish Cartoons

[T]his is a very curious story. The news story, as it broke, was that a Danish newspaper had published a series of cartoons offensive to the Prophet, and that this had led to spontaneous outbursts of indignation all over the Muslim world. Now, there are several problems in this. One of them was that the spontaneous outbursts of indignation didn't occur until slightly more than four months after the publication of the cartoons.... The second problem was that when the spontaneous outbreaks of indignation did occur all over the Muslim world, in the remotest parts of northern Nigeria, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and elsewhere they had an ample supply of Danish flags of suitable size and texture for trampling or burning, as required. Obviously, this was something carefully prepared over a period of time.

What exactly was it about? Well, fortunately we have a little background on this, which makes it easier to understand. About 18 years ago, you may recall, the Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a sentence of death against the novelist Salman Rushdie, who was living in London at that time. The crime for which he sentenced him to death was insulting the Prophet. For a Muslim to insult the Prophet is tantamount to apostasy, and that, as we were recently reminded in Afghanistan, is widely seen as a capital offense.

But this is a different matter.... [W]hen we talk of Muslim law, I would remind you that we are talking about law. Sharia is a system of law and adjudication, not of lynching and terror. It is a law that lays down rules, rules for evidence, for indictment, for defense and the rest of it, quite a different matter from what has been happening recently.

The first point made was that ... making images of the Prophet of any kind is against the Muslim religion. That is true, though not always strictly observed by Muslims. But the point is that they want to avoid any kind of deification of the Prophet. Muslims are shocked when they go into churches and they see pictures and statues being worshipped... The ban on the portrayal of a prophet is intended to prevent the development of idolatrous worship of the Prophet. I don't think there was any danger of that from the Danish cartoons.

What was much more at issue was another ban, and that is on insulting the Prophet, which is, of course, an offense... in Muslim law. This raises two issues: one of substantive law, the other of jurisdiction. Muslim jurists discuss this at some length, and there is a considerable body of case law concerning it in Muslim states.

The first point of disagreement: What is the range of jurisdiction of Muslim law? And here you have two opinions. According to the Shi'a and a minority among the Sunnis, Muslim law applies to Muslims wherever they may be in the world. A Muslim who commits an offense against Muslim law, wherever he may be in the world, is subject to Muslim law and must therefore be punished in accordance with Muslim law.

The majority Sunni view is that Muslim law only applies in countries under Muslim government. What happens outside is no concern of the Muslim authorities.

Here you have two different opinions relating to an offense committed by a Muslim....If a non-Muslim subject of a Muslim state says or does something offensive to the Prophet, he is to be tried – accused, tried, and if necessary, punished. The jurists on the whole tend to take a rather mild view of this offense. They say, well, he is not a Muslim; he doesn't accept Mohammed as the Prophet; we know that. So saying that Mohammed is no prophet does not constitute this offense. It has to be more specifically insulting than that. And, as I say, there is an elaborate juridical literature and case law on this subject.

What is never discussed at all – it is never considered – is an offense committed by a non-Muslim in a non-Muslim country. That, according to the unanimous opinion of all of the doctors of the holy law is no concern of Islamic law, which brings us back to the case of Denmark. Does this mean that Denmark, along with the rest of Europe is now considered part of the Islamic lands, and that the Danes, like the rest, are therefore dhimmis, non-Muslim subjects of the Muslim state? I think this is an interesting question, which can lead to several possible lines of inquiry.

...Insulting the Prophet is something that has been going on in Europe for a very long time. In Dante's Inferno... where Dante is being taken on his conducted tour of hell and guided by Virgil, he comes across the Prophet Mohammed in the course of his eternal damnation. He is punished – I quote Dante's words, as a "seminator di scandalo e di scisma," a sower of scandal and of schism. Now, this is very insulting. In the great Cathedral of Bologna there is a wonderful set of pictures painted, if I remember rightly, in the 15th century depicting scenes from Dante's Inferno, including some very graphic pictures of Mohammed being tortured in hell by the devil – very graphic. A couple of years ago, the leaders of the Italian-Muslim community sent a polite request to the cathedral saying these are insulting to Muslims; would they mind covering those pictures. The cathedral administration said they would consider it. Nothing happened. The pictures are still in view.

On the Iraq War

No, it has not turned out the way I had anticipated. I had underestimated our capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Well, let's not go into that....

How do they [the Iraqis and the Muslim world] perceive it? I think this is the important thing. And on this, fortunately, we are very well documented. Thanks to modern media and modern methods of communication, we are able to follow their thinking, their debate among themselves fairly closely. And I think one can get a fairly good understanding of how this conflict is seen by Osama bin Laden, by al Qaeda generally, and by many other parallel movements including the Iranian leadership personified by [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.

It goes something like this: [T]he conflict of civilizations, [is] a term that has been much used and even more misused.... Some have even written as though civilizations had foreign policies and could form alliances, and so on. I would never go that far. [When I first used it] I was referring to one specific conflict between two specific civilizations. Christendom – I'll call it that for the present purpose – and Islam. And it is a conflict that arises not from their differences but from their resemblances.

These two religions, and as far as I am aware, no others in the world, believe that their truths are not only universal but also exclusive. They believe that they are the fortunate recipients of God's final message to humanity, which it is their duty not to keep selfishly to themselves like the Jews or the Hindus, but to bring to the rest of mankind, removing whatever barriers there may be in the way. This... inevitably led to conflict, to the real clash of rival civilizations aspiring to the same role, leading to the same hegemony, each seeing it as a divinely ordained mission.

We can date it precisely with the advent of Islam, which spread very rapidly by conquest.... the beginning of a conflict that has been going on ever since. Now, we in the Western world, and particularly in the United States, don't seem to attach much importance to history. And even what happened three years ago has become ancient history... In the Muslim world, on the contrary, they have a very lively sense of history... and a surprisingly detailed knowledge of history. If you look at, for example, the war propaganda of Iran and Iraq during the eight-year war between those two countries, '80 to '88 This is propaganda addressed to the largely illiterate general public [and] it is full of historical allusions...not telling them historical anecdotes, but a rapid, passing allusion to a name or an event in the sure knowledge that it would be picked up and understood.

Osama bin Laden, in one of his pronouncements, said, "For more than 80 years we have been suffering humiliation" (we meaning the Muslim world). That sent all of the experts scurrying to find out what on earth he was talking about, the old ones to reference libraries; the young ones to their computers. And they came up with a wide variety of different answers.

To anyone who studies Islam or what goes on in the Islamic world, the meaning was perfectly clear. He was referring to the suppression of the caliphate by the Turkish Republic in 1924... after World War I, when the last of the caliphs was deposed, and the last of the great Muslim empires was partitioned, its territories divided between the victorious Western allies. That is what he meant by humiliation....

We think of the defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union as a Western victory in the Cold War..... For Osama bin Laden and his followers, this was a Muslim victory in the jihad... not an implausible interpretation. It was, after all, the Taliban in Afghanistan that drove the Red Army to defeat and collapse. And, as he put it, "We have now dealt successfully with the more deadly, the more dangerous of the two infidel powers. Dealing with the soft, pampered, and degenerate Americans will be easy." ...In order to understand what is going on, one has to see the ongoing struggle within this larger perspective of the millennial struggle between the rival religions now, according to this view, in its final phase....

Regarding the war against 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....

[O]bviously the situation [in Iraq] has been getting worse over time, but I think it is still salvageable. We now have a political process going on, and I think if one looks at the place and what's been happening there, one has to marvel at what has been accomplished.... Three elections were held – three fair elections in which millions of Iraqis stood in line waiting to vote and knowing they were risking their lives every moment that they did so. And all this wrangling that's going on now is part of the democratic process, the fact that they argue, that they negotiate, that they try to find a compromise. This is part of their democratic education....

And there's one thing in Iraq in particular that I think is encouraging, and that is the role of women. Of all the Arab countries, with the possible exception of Tunisia, Iraq is the one where women have made most progress. I'm not talking about rights, a word that has no meaning in that context. I'm talking about opportunity, access. Women in Iraq had access to education, to higher education, and therefore to the professions, and therefore to the political process to a degree without parallel elsewhere in the Arab world, as I said, with the possible exception of Tunisia. And I think that the participation of women – the increasing participation of women is a very encouraging sign for the development of democratic institutions.

On Iran

The Iranian revolution was a real revolution, not just a coup d'etat or a putsch.... It brought a massive change, social, economic, ideological – not just a change of regime. Like for the French and Russian revolutions in their day, Khomeini had had a tremendous impact everywhere they had a shared universe of discourse, that is to say, the Muslim world.... I remember being on a tour of Islamic religious universities in Indonesia, which is a solidly Sunni country, and in the student dorms they had pictures of Khomeini hanging on the walls. The Iranian revolution has gone through many phases. It has had its Jacobins and its Gizondins, its Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, its terror. And I would say it's now in the Stalinist phase, and that also has a global impact.

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 their case, in the case of the Shiites, the hidden imam who will emerge from hiding... 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 the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Others in the ruling establishment in Iran may share this belief. I am inclined to think that most of them are probably more cynical and regard it as a useful distraction from their domestic problems and also a useful weapon in their external relations, because he has been doing very well and he seems to be succeeding, for example, on the question of nuclear weapons. And every time they make an advance, we move the point at which we won't tolerate it anymore .... We have shown ourselves to be, shall we say, remarkably adaptable in this respect, and this is no way to win friends and influence people.

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.... Where we see free debate and criticism, they see fear, weakness and division; they proceed accordingly, and every day brings new evidence of that from Iran.

I think it is a dangerous situation. And my only hope is that they are not right in their interpretation of the Western world.... We seem to be in the mode of Chamberlain and Munich rather than of Churchill.

...I don't think it's a good idea to launch an armed invasion. There is a great deal one can do short of that to indicate displeasure, to make things difficult and to encourage resistance among the subjects of the Iranian government. And there is ample evidence of widespread unhappiness and discontent among the people of Iran. I think we could do more to encourage and help them in a number of ways.

Democracy in the Muslim 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.

I would say that this is a totally false approach because 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 Hafiz 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 – and let me be quite specific and explicit – 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.

There is a wonderful quote I like to use; it is the letter written in 1786 by the French ambassador in Istanbul – three years before the French revolution. He is trying to explain why he is not making good progress with his assignment. And he says, here things are not as in France where the king is sole master and does as he pleases; here the sultan has to consult with all kinds of people, with all kinds of holders of office, and even with retired, former holders of office. And it's true; that is how it was. 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 – and this is what concerns us specifically – 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 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 .... 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 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. I would go a step further. I think we could have done much more than we have done, and I think that it's still not a lost cause, but it is now becoming very much endangered. And if they go on, if we help them, there have been many signs of a developing democratic movement not only in Iraq, where the news is much better than you would think, but also in Iran, in Syria and in other places – stirrings of popular democratic movements – Egypt, for example, and North Africa and elsewhere....

[L]et me give you the worst-case and best-case scenarios and you can work out the intermediate possibilities. My worst-case scenario is that Europe, and possibly also the rest of the West, and the Islamic world destroy each other, and the future belongs, or is contested between, India and China as the superpowers of the second half of the 21st century. My best case scenario is that, somehow, with our help, or at least without our hindrance, the peoples of the Middle East succeed in developing open, democratic societies, in which case the Middle East would be able to resume its rightful place, which it has had twice before, in world civilization.

Copyright © The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.