Lewis of Arabia | The Nation


Lewis of Arabia

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I have witnessed what Bernard Lewis, and later Samuel Huntington, designated the "clash of civilizations" between Christendom and Islam up close in at least two wars. One was the Lebanese civil war that erupted in the spring of 1975, pitting universal values and tolerance against sectarianism and fanaticism.

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Charles Glass
Charles Glass (www.charlesglass.net) was ABC News Chief Middle East Correspondent from 1983 to 1993 and covered the...

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The other took place in Bosnia, where the adherents of pluralism and equality battled racists and ethnic cleansers. Both wars fit the clash paradigm, but not as Lewis and Huntington fashioned it. In Lebanon and Bosnia, the partisans of equality and democracy were nominally Muslim--their opponents defiantly Christian.

The schema of civilizational collision that Professor Lewis posited in his landmark September 1990 Atlantic Monthly contribution, "The Roots of Muslim Rage," omits both Lebanon and Bosnia. Republished here alongside fifty other essays on Islam, history and politics, Lewis's best-known polemic cites conflicts that undermine his contention that enlightened Christendom is locked in a near-eternal battle with the dark forces of Islam. The reason, he writes, for the global Christian-Muslim tension is that "for [non-Muslim] misbelievers to rule over true believers is blasphemous and unnatural, since it leads to the corruption of religion and morality in society.... This may help us to understand the current troubles in such diverse places as Ethiopian Eritrea, Indian Kashmir, Chinese Sinkiang, and Yugoslav Kosovo, in all of which Muslim populations are ruled by non-Muslim governments." Alas, his conceptual framework prevents any understanding of the lands he mentions. In "Ethiopian" Eritrea, a secular liberation front headed by a Christian named Isaias Afewerki achieved independence from then-Marxist Ethiopia after thirty years of struggle. When I covered that war, the guerrillas never mentioned religion as relevant to their demand for independence. The operative fact was that Eritrea had been an Italian colony from 1889. At the end of the Second World War, the Allies awarded Italy's former colony to the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, without consulting its inhabitants. Most Eritreans--Muslim, Christian and animist--rejected absorption into Haile Selassie's Amharic empire and, later, the Marxist terror state of the Dergue, which overthrew him. By the end, Eritrean Marxists were battling fellow Marxists from Addis Ababa. As for Yugoslav Kosovo, Muslims sought independence from Belgrade not as adherents of Islam but as Albanians fearful of annihilation. Kosovo's Serb minority had--and justifiably still has--the same fear. The Albanians who persecute them today are Muslim and Christian, believer and atheist. Sinkiang's struggle for freedom bears a greater resemblance to Buddhist Tibet's than to Kashmir's. And the Kashmiris have suffered almost as much from the depredations of their Muslim neighbors in Pakistan as from their Hindu overlords in New Delhi.

Lewis's insistence that "for misbelievers to rule over true believers is blasphemous" does not explain why millions of Muslims--many of them devout--have chosen to live under nonbelievers in France, Germany, Britain and the United States. Their migration stems more from poverty, insecurity and oppression in the countries they left than from any desire to expand the realm of Muslim rule. If anything, Muslim émigrés came west to avoid life under contemporary Muslim dictators. Lewis himself points out that, in centuries past, dissident Christians and Jews sought similar tolerance under the Ottoman banner, far from the religious despots of Christian Europe. They were no more taking sides in a millennial boxing match than are the majority of today's Muslim expatriates in the West. In pre-partition India, most of the Muslim ulema--the community of jurists and scholars--opposed the establishment of Muslim Pakistan, and they knew a united India would have left all the country's Muslims under Hindu rule. Crusades and jihads are less common than battles between states in alliance with monarchs of other religions. Christian Britain fought in the Crimea alongside Muslim Turkey against Christian Russia and its Muslim levies. Syria and Egypt sent troops to help the United States expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.

Despite his misbegotten forays into contemporary political discussion--the latest being his passionate advocacy of the American invasion of Iraq--Bernard Lewis remains the Grand Old Man of Oriental Letters. Emily Yoffe, writing in Slate three years ago, spoke for her fellow mesmerized Lewisites, "When he is gone, there will be no one with his depth and breadth to pick up his mantle." Lewis, she claimed, was "one-stop shopping for baffled Westerners needing a coherent worldview to explain our current situation." Coherent or not, he was required reading for those of us taking courses in Middle East studies at American universities in the 1960s and '70s. (He moved from London's School of Oriental and African Studies to Princeton in 1974. Some teachers may still require his works, although I hope they include correctives like Edward Said, Albert Hourani, David Hirst and Tom Segev.) Another assigned writer from the old Orientalist school was Sir Hamilton (H.A.R.) Gibb, Lewis's mentor during his undergraduate years at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Lewis recalls in the introduction to From Babel to Dragomans that Gibb asked him in 1937, four years after he began to study the Middle East, "Don't you think it's time you saw the place?" On the evidence of these essays, originally published between the 1950s and last year, he should visit the place again. He might also read some of its writers, like Naguib Mahfouz or Adonis or David Grossman, who have not been dead for several centuries.

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