June 4, 2006


Islam and the West: A Conversation with Bernard Lewis (The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, April 27, 2006, Hay-Adams Hotel, Washington, DC)

The relationship between Islam and the West will be a defining feature of the 21st century, particularly in the Middle East. How should U.S. policymakers engage with the Muslim world? Will the spread of democracy throughout the Muslim world blunt the militant forces generating terrorism? How will European governments and populations deal with their burgeoning Muslim populations, and how will this affect U.S. foreign policy priorities and alliances?

The Pew Forum hosted a discussion of these and other issues with Professor Bernard Lewis, who for 60 years has helped interpret the world of Islam to the West. In addition to authoring more than two dozen books, including What Went Wrong and The Crisis of Islam, 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.

Professor Bernard Lewis, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University

Luis Lugo, Director, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

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.

The late Marshall Hodgson, of the University of Chicago, in discussing this issue, suggested that we use the word Islamdom to describe the civilization. A good idea, but it didn't catch on, probably because it's so difficult to pronounce.

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. They are used in the modern languages. In Arabic, they borrow the terminology used by Christian Arabs. They are fortunate in having a substantial Christian population using Arabic, and they therefore have a good part of the modern terminology at their disposal, in their own language. In Turkish, Persian, Urdu and other languages of Islam, they had to invent new words. The word in Turkish and in Persian is laik [from the French word laïque, which describes the prevailing concept of separation of church and state].

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 place of worship. It's 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.

On the question of loyalty, let me give you an example. We all know from the history books of the exchange of Turks and Greeks, which took place after World War I when, after the war ended, there was a further war between Greece and Turkey, at the end of which, the Greek and Turkish governments agreed on an exchange of populations. And as it appears in the history books, the Greek minority in Turkey was sent to Greece; the Turkish minority in Greece was sent to Turkey. That's what it says in the history books. But if you look at the treaty in which this agreement was incorporated, it says something different. The parties to be exchanged are defined as Turkish subjects of the Greek Orthodox faith and Greek subjects of the Muslim faith. And if you look more closely at who the people actually were, they were, to a very large extent, Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians from Turkey and Greek-speaking Muslims from Greece. This was not an exchange of two ethnic minorities. It was a deportation of two religious minorities.

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. [...]

MASSIMO CALABRESI, TIME: Sir, you have presented Islamdom, as you called it, as rather inhospitable to democracy. You just described them as part of — the populations have no understanding of free debate and understanding.

MR. LEWIS: I said the present rulers of Iran.

MR. CALABRESI: In your description of Sharia law, you also indicated it had some transnational primacy. You described the contrast of a nation divided into religions with a religion divided into nations. Religion is the primary identity, you said, for followers of Islam around the world. The question is simply, how realistic a policy of spreading democracy in the Islamic world is it at this point?

MR. LEWIS: Thank you. I was hoping someone would ask me that question. I am very grateful to you.

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, headed by Rashid Ali. It was possible to deal with that, and they were driven out of the Middle East. But 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 the 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.

The movement is there. It is dangerous to say or do such things, so they have to be very careful, but it's there, it's growing, and there is a lot we could do that we are not doing to help them. And what are the alternatives? As far as I can see, there are many possibilities; let 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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 4, 2006 5:40 PM

It is well that Lewis never heard of "Godwin's law," and is thus undeterred in telling us where Islamacism comes from.

Very bad things happen when strangers attempt to adopt the power of Christendom without the restraints of Christianity.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 4, 2006 8:50 PM