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Intimate Enemies

Islam and the West

by Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press, 217 pp., $25.00

Islam and Christianity, Bernard Lewis writes in his new book, have been called “sister religions,” because of their shared Judaic, Hellenistic, and Middle Eastern heritage. Yet throughout thirteen centuries they have most often been in combat. They were both “old acquaintances” and “intimate enemies, whose continuing conflict derived a special virulence from their shared origins and common aims.”

Lewis has long been fascinated with the encounter between Islam and Christendom, Islam and the West, two religions and civilizations. He has returned to the subject again and again. The Muslim Discovery of Europe,1 which examines the Muslim encounter with and perceptions of Europe and Europeans, originated in a lecture which was delivered in 1955. The Emergence of Modern Turkey,2 a study of the late Ottoman Empire and the Turkish republic, deals extensively with the political, territorial, social, and cultural changes the Ottomans brought about as part of their increasingly unequal confrontation with Europe.

The essays in Islam and the West illustrate three broad themes: the nature of the encounter itself, European perceptions of the world of Islam, and Muslim perceptions of and responses to the European challenge. The collection also provides us with insight into Lewis’s distinctive understanding of the relations past and future between Islam and the West.

For Lewis, the encounter between the two has been central and fateful to the history of both civilizations. The expansion of European power during the last five centuries he sees as rooted in the clash of Islam and Christendom; it was partly a response to the growth of Ottoman power and partly a continuation of the struggle of the conquered peoples of Europe to free themselves from Muslim subjugation. Of course there were long periods of coexistence, accommodation, mutual borrowing, even alliances between the Ottomans and European states, as when the Ottomans fought as allies of the British and French against the Russians in the Crimean War. But Lewis describes the relationship as one in which the antagonisms of the Ottoman period established perceptions, suspicions, and enmities that would continue to shape the relations between Islam and the West.

The story turns on conquest and counter-conquest. The Islamic empire and Europe disputed a common territory, first in the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain, then in southeastern and central Europe. Christians and Muslims competed for domination of trade and sea routes. During the last two centuries, in the age of imperialism and colonialism, we have come to view Europe as the dominant power in this relationship. Lewis reminds us that for almost a thousand years, from the founding of Islam to the second siege of Vienna in 1683, Islam, as it developed in the Near East, Iran, North Africa, and the Turkish lands, among other places, was the expansionist power; it was most often superior to Christian Europe in wealth, armies, learning, science, and technology.

In the middle of the sixteenth century, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor to the Ottoman court, compared the wealth, discipline, and fighting spirit of the Ottomans to the “public poverty, private luxury, impaired strength” and “broken spirit” of the Christian states and concluded that Europe was doomed and that the Ottomans would triumph. It was Europe that feared conquest and domination; and, in Spain and Sicily, the Church and the ruling families feared the powerful attraction that Arab culture and language had for Christians. This fear and the intense accompanying concern to immunize Christians against conversion to Islam and the hope of converting Muslims to Christianity, Lewis writes, first encouraged Arabic scholarship in Europe.

Religious antagonism reinforced the intensity of the rivalry. Unlike Judaism, traditional Christianity and Islam, “both claimed to possess not only universal but exclusive truths.” Each felt it had a sacred obligation to convert others to its creed. Neither was willing to recognize the other as possessing a different, but nevertheless, valid divine dispensation. “Both shared this new and almost unprecedented idea that they were the unique possessors of the whole of God’s truth.” This, Lewis writes, made the encounter between Europe and Islam different from the encounter of Europe with China and India, and different from the relations of both Islam and Christianity with Judaism. India and China, Lewis observes were regional civilizations, and did not perceive themselves, or act, as if they possessed universal truth. The Jews, Buddhists and Hindus did not aim at converting all of mankind to their faith.

The colonial empires have come to an end in Europe, religious fervor has greatly diminished. But in many parts of the Islamic world, certainly in the Middle East, there is a widespread belief that European domination continues, this time through the control of economic resources, superior military power, science and technology, and through the pernicious influence of Western cultural values and ways of life. Thus, Lewis writes, large numbers of Muslims have recently reverted to a militant form of religion and seek, through a reinvigorated Islam, to defend themselves against a Western cultural onslaught and to assert their own, unique identity. They attack their present and past rulers—including Ataturk, Nasser, and the ruling Arab monarchs—as Muslims in name only and as tyrants and autocrats, subverters of Islamic law, and agents of Western cultural influence. Such attitudes undoubtedly result in part from modern developments, but for Lewis they also reflect and continue older animosities.

For devout Muslims, Lewis writes, Islam is not only a religion; it is “the whole of life.” It is the source of civil and criminal law, a guide to social behavior. It defines the nature of government and is the source of the legitimacy of the state. This, of course is the classical view of the relationship of Islam to society. Many would argue that it is no longer valid or, at the very least, that Islam is only one of many forces in the modern world that shape the life of Muslims, and that the content of this Islam is itself changing. Most Islamic states—Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and Algeria among them—have, Lewis notes, adopted secular legislation, inspired by European models, in civil and criminal matters; and most governments in Islamic societies diverge considerably from the ideal Koranic model. In Iraq the ruling Baath Party was militantly secular until setbacks in the war with Iran, and then with the US over Kuwait, led Saddam Hussein to rediscover his Islamic identity. In Saudi Arabia, the ruling family are keepers of the holiest shrines of Islam but its members continue to amass fortunes and to spend them lavishly in ways that are hardly in keeping with the Prophet’s ideal of the simple life.

Many Muslims lead largely secular lives. Throughout the Middle East, even in Islamic Iran, education is primarily secular and much of the technocratic elite has been educated in the West. In Iran, despite recurrent crackdowns, the government’s “moral police” cannot prevent women from using makeup and wearing fashionable Western clothes under their Islamic dress; nor can it prevent the middle class from privately enjoying alcohol, Western music, and sexual intimacy. Lewis insists, nevertheless, that even today, Islam to a large extent defines how Muslims see themselves.

When an earlier collection of Lewis’s essays, Islam in History, was published twenty years ago,3 some reviewers took Lewis to task for under-estimating the gains made by secularism in the modern world. But in his new book he makes it clear that he feels vindicated in view of three large developments, the continuing power of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the recent proliferation of Islamic movements throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and southeast Asia; and the inclination of all these movements to use Islam as the principal means of asserting individual and group identity and articulating their visions. He was among the first to sense the significance of the early stirring of the current Islamic revival. His prescient essay “The Return of Islam” recast and expanded for this book, appeared in 1976.

Today Lewis argues that secularism in the Islamic world is under attack, and the current wave of Islamic movements in North Africa, Egypt, Iran, and even Turkey

share the objective of undoing the secularizing reforms of the last century, abolishing the imported codes of law and the social customs that came with them, and returning to the holy law of Islam and the Islamic political order.

This is what Islamic fundamentalism is primarily about.

This development, Lewis suggests, is in part the result of the decline and fall of the old Westernized elites and “the entry into political life of more authentically popular elements.” The fundamental sentiments of the masses in many of the Muslim countries are, he clearly believes, sympathetic to the Islamic vision; and therefore it is likely that greater popular involvement will only strengthen the Islamic element in political life. The recent election in Algeria of an Islamic party with genuine popular support, an election soon annulled by the military, is only one of many recent cases bearing out his analysis.

In his essay “State and Society under Islam,” which appears in the revised edition of Islam in History,4 Lewis considers the prospects for “civil society” in Islamic countries. By this he means a society in which the initiative for political action, for the organization of social and cultural activity, does not come from the elites who hold power, whether monarchs or military dictators or political mullahs. It comes instead from people who have their own close ties to the local community. Lewis describes the many forms of civic activity in traditional Muslim society: a deeply rooted tradition of private charity and private charitable endowments for the common good; strong bonds within the family, kin group, and clan, and among Sufi brotherhoods, crafts, and guilds; the strength of neighborhoods or wards in the Islamic cities; a degree of tolerance for other “recognized” religions (Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism), and for diverse sects within the larger Islamic community.

But Lewis also observes that in the Islamic world, religion was never entirely displaced as the organizing principle of society, that the separation of religion and state was seldom recognized and rarely took place. Religion has been formally disestablished only in two Middle Eastern Muslim states, Turkey and Lebanon. In all the others, Islam is officially recognized, although in some instances, as in Syria, the constitution merely requires that all laws be in accordance with the shari’a. If in the West the independence and initiative of civil society are measured in relation to independence from the state, Lewis observes, under Islam it must usually be measured in relation to the independence of society from religion, of which the state is merely the instrument. He argues, therefore, that in Islam, civil society would mean a society in which the organizing principle is something other than religion.

Lewis does not say what this organizing principle might be. But he points elsewhere to the example of Turkey, which removed any references to Islam from its constitution and abrogated shari’a as a source of the law. No other Middle Eastern Muslim state has gone this far, although several, including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran before the overthrow of the monarchy, restricted the application of the shari’a primarily to family law and moral content, such as laws against adultery. Lewis reverts to the same idea in an essay on the notions of secularism and of separation of church and state in the Middle East and in Europe. He notes that in the Middle East the idea of church and state being separate had no coherent meaning and that in both the Islamic states and in Israel there has been an increasing tendency for the religious leaders to become active in politics and assume political office.

  1. 1

    Norton, 1982.

  2. 2

    Oxford University Press, 1968.

  3. 3

    The Library Press, 1973. Islam in History has just been republished, in a revised and much expanded edition, by Open Court this year.

  4. 4

    Islam in History, pp. 261–274.

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