Q&A: Bernard Lewis on Islam's Crisis

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Alan Koic

No contemporary writer has done more to inform Western perceptions of Islam than Bernard Lewis. His seminal 1950 work, The Arabs in History, still holds up as one of the definitive accounts of the Arab world. Some of his more recent books have examined the rising anti-Western mood in the Islamic world. Coming after 9/11, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East and The Crisis of Islam Holy War and Unholy Terror seek to explain the roots of extremism. His take on these subjects has often been controversial; some scholars accuse him of being needlessly alarmist about the "clash of civilizations" — a term he coined before Samuel Huntington's book. Lewis's latest book Islam: The Religion and the People, (Wharton School of Publishing) co-authored with Buntzie Ellis Churchill, is a useful primer for those who know little or nothing about the religion and its adherents. TIME's World Editor Bobby Ghosh recently interviewed Lewis, 92, over the phone. Excerpts:

TIME: Tell me about the timing of your new book. Why now, and how do you feel it adds to the general discussion on Islam?

LEWIS:There are two points I would like to make. One is the importance of Islam at the present time, which is about a billion and a third people, but it's not because of the numbers only but more because of its role at the present time, its situation in Europe, Africa, Israel and increasingly America, and the mood in which the Islamic world finds itself at the present time. I think it's very important that we should understand it.

That brings me to my second point. There are considerable difficulties in understanding it because of two false images, which are widespread. On the one hand we have the image of Muslims as barbarians, the traditional image of a Saracen riding out of the desert on horseback with a sword in one hand and a Koran in the other offering their victims a choice between the two. On the other hand we have Islam as a religion of love and peace, like the Quakers but without their aggressiveness. Both of these are, of course, nonsense. Both are wildly exaggerated, and the truth is in its usual place somewhere between the two.

What we try to do in this book is to give an unvarnished, unapologetic, undefensive account of Islam as it truly is. It's not a religious book. We are not theologians. We are concerned with human beings, people who expressed and promoted the religion and who profess it at the current time. What we have tried to do is to give a fair and balanced account of the realities of the Islamic world, the good things, the bad things, and the present danger.

Over the last six or seven years in the Western world, there has been a greater interest in Islam. Is there a similar curiosity, a similar appetite in the Islamic world for understanding about the West?

There has been in the past, but less so nowadays. But it's a different situation. You must remember that in most of the Islamic countries, the level of literacy is low. Second, the degree of freedom of expression is very limited, so you can't expect the same kind of outpouring of interest and response to that interest as there is in the Western world.

The wild man image, as you put it, of the Saracen with the sword in one hand and the Koran in the other ...

Which, by the way, is not only absurd but also impossible — unless you were going to assume a race of left-handed swordsman. No self-respecting Muslim would carry the Koran in the left hand, which is traditionally reserved for unclean purposes.

How deeply rooted is that image still in Western culture and in the Western psyche?

I would say it was deeply rooted for quite a long time when the West was more or less continuously under attack. First, it was the Arab conquest was in Spain and then the Turks in Europe. Then it began to fade, but now, of course, it has revived for obvious reasons.

Are there any particularly noteworthy examples in recent times that spring to your mind of how deeply rooted this is?

Well there are various statements one finds in the press and in speeches that project that image of Islam. To be fair the image presented by the enemies of Islam is much the same as that presented by the terrorists. As I see it, the terrorist organizations represent a deformation of Islam in the same way as Nazism is a deformation of German patriotism and Bolshevism is a deformation of the aspiration for social betterment. We have observed such things in our lifetime now, and as with the Germans and the Russians, the Muslims themselves are the first and worst victims of this.

There seems to be a growing disquiet among religious scholars or ordinary Muslims about this image that the terrorists are presenting to the world. There seems to be some discussion of how to address and redress that. We should have no illusions. It is a very real danger that could be a mortal threat to our whole civilization, to our way of life. It comes in two varieties. On the one hand you have the al-Qaeda type. On the other hand you have the Iranian type sponsored by the Iranian government. Both of these have global aspirations. Both of them have a sort of apocalyptic mind-sets. Both feel that now is the end of time and that the final struggle is about to take place between the forces of good and the forces of evil, the forces of good, of course, means themselves and the forces of evil means us, the rest of the world.

Do you think that on the Iranian side, there is some cynical political calculation as well?br Yes there is that too. There are a number of differences of opinion in Iran. Iran is a very old country; it's not a recently manufactured state. Iran is a country that goes back not just centuries but millennia. In Iran you have patriotism that's distinct from nationalism, which is what you find in most of the rest of the Muslim world. This sense of Iranian identity is very strong and very deep-rooted, and in opposing this we have to be careful not to give the present rulers of Iran a gift of something that they don't personally enjoy — the support of Iranian patriotism.

On the one hand there are patriotic Iranians who feel offended and insulted when people attack their country. On the other hand there are many Iranians, probably a majority of Iranians, who feel outraged by the present leaders of their country, who feel they are dishonoring the good name of Iran, as many Germans felt about the Nazis.

What should we make, if anything, of the Saudi King Abdallah's visit to the Pope, and his sponsorship of an interfaith dialogue in Spain? Are these serious efforts to reach out and arrive at some sort of understanding, or are they merely cosmetic?

I think they show an awareness of the mortal danger that this kind of militant Islam represents to the Saudis and to the rest of the world.

What do you make of the outbreak of violence between Shi'ites and Sunnis, especially in Iraq? How do you expect that will that play out?

Obviously this is an internal division among Muslims. The case of Iraq is a particularly important one because Iraq is a country that has a Shi'ite majority but a Sunni domination. I would borrow a word from the Irish history to describe it and say it's the "Shi'ite Ascendancy." Since the days of the medieval Caliphate, the Sunnis remained the ruling group. They monopolized all of the positions of power and authority. Now, for the first time, the Shi'ite has access to power as they must inevitably in any real democracy, and so far its going better than what one might have expected. The Irish word "ascendancy" describes it perfectly.

Some in the West think that if they are fighting each other that is a jolly good thing for the rest of us, because then they aren't bothering with us. How do you respond to that?

I don't share that view.

Is the hatred of Muslim extremists towards the West greater than their hatred towards each other?

There is no one answer to that. It depends on the time and the place and the mood. There are different answers in different times and places.