Monday, Apr. 26, 2004

Bernard Lewis

A few months after the attacks on New York City and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, several key Washington figures were invited to dinner at the Vice President's residence. The star turn was by an elderly professor from Princeton, whom Dick Cheney asked to conduct a seminar on Islam, the Koran and Muslim attitudes toward Americans. The teacher was Bernard Lewis, now 87, who first studied the Islamic world in his native London in the 1930s and — with a break spent serving in British intelligence during World War II — has been engaged in a life of scholarship ever since. But it is only in the past few years that the depth of Lewis' influence on key U.S. policymakers has become clear.

In a 1990 article in the Atlantic, Lewis identified the struggle between Islam and the West as a "clash of civilizations," long before the term was fashionable. The roots of Muslim rage, he argued, lay less in any evils of the West than in a "feeling of humiliation" in the Islamic world, deriving from the fact that Muslims' proud civilization had been "overtaken, overborne and overwhelmed by those whom they regarded as their inferiors." Once the the rage and failure of the Islamic world slipped out of their natural confines, as they did on Sept. 11, 2001, neoconservatives were able to argue that something dramatic was needed to ameliorate the threat to the West. Only transformation of the politics of the Islamic nations would suffice. Lewis — who is close to Ahmad Chalabi, the neocons' favorite Iraqi politician — became an advocate of intervention in Iraq in the hope of establishing a modern democracy there.

So the struggle in Iraq is as much a test of a theory as it is a war. For Lewis and the neoconservatives, the failure of Islam to reconcile itself to modernity is now too dangerous to leave alone. Moreover, they believe, the application of external force can be a catalyst for reform and peace. No scholar has had more influence than Lewis on the decision to wage war in Iraq. To what end, we don't yet know.

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