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Which Way to Mecca?

We are, in this country right now, engaged in the process of constructing, rather hurriedly, as though we had better quickly get on with it after years of neglect, a standard, public-square image of “Islam.” Until very recently, we had hardly more than the suggestions of such an image—vagrant notions of stallions, harems, deserts, palaces, and chants. A Peter Arno drawing in The New Yorker sixty-five years ago more or less summed the matter up. A stetson-hatted tourist leans out of his roadster to ask a turbaned man prostrate in prayer by the side of the road: “Hey, Jack, which way to Mecca?”

The reason for the rush to change this casual mixture of ignorance and indifference is clear enough: September 11, suicide bombers, Kuta Beach, Osama, Nairobi, the Cole—and now the Iraq war. What isn’t clear, and will not become so for quite some time, is where it all is taking us, what our sense of this obscure and threatening Other that has appeared suddenly—and literally—on our domestic horizon is going ultimately to be. The familiar, almost intimate enemy we precipitously lost with the dissolution of the Soviet Union is being replaced in our minds by something far less well defined, much further removed from the political history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe and America. Communism, with its roots in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, at least had a Western pedigree. Marx and Lenin emerged from historical backgrounds all too recognizable, with ideological intentions derived, on the face of them, from some of our dearest social hopes. But “Islam,” a creed of Arabs, Turks, Africans, Persians, Central Asians, Indians, Mongols, and Malays, has been rather off our cultural map. What are we Americans to think about an inflamed competitor of which most of us know hardly more than the name?

There has been an avalanche in the last two or three years of books and articles—by historians, by journalists, by political scientists, by students of comparative religion, by sociologists and anthropologists, and by variously inspired amateurs—designed to assist us in answering this question, to give us a crash course in, as the phrase goes, “understanding Islam.” “Jihad,” a term most Americans had encountered, if they had encountered it at all, in dime novels or at Saturday matinees, has become a prime subject of popular and scholarly discourse. Works designed for that elusive figure, the general reader, have begun to appear on something called, variously and confusingly, “reformism, “modernism,” “radicalism,” “extremism,” or “fundamentalism”—sometimes, even, “Wahhabism”—in contemporary Islam. Handbook explications of Islamic law, of the teachings of the Koran, of the fast, the pilgrimage, or the meaning of the veil are suddenly on offer. So are introductions to Islamic schooling, science, ritual, and scholarship, and accounts of the Shiite clergy, the ecstatic brotherhoods, and that mysterious flying object, “Sufism.”

Bernard Lewis, perhaps the leading Orientalist of the day, has, at the fine old age of eighty-six, become a best-selling author, a television celebrity, an urgent hawk, and a know-your-enemy adviser to the vice-president of the United States. An attempt to introduce a course on the Koran at the University of North Carolina has produced a state-and-church cause célèbre and an outburst of right-wing sectarian rage. A short, self-confident book by Karen Armstrong, an English ex-nun with an urge to instruct, has become perhaps our most widely read guide to “the religion of the Prophet.” Even the Italian media-madam, Oriana Fallaci, rather off the radar screen since her famous sendup interview of Henry Kissinger a decade or so ago, has checked back in with a screaming attack on anything Muslim, “Afghans and Bosnians and Kurds included,” as well as anybody in the West who might consider saying something less than abusive about “the culture of the bigots with the beard and the chador and the burkah.”1

And that is only the beginning. An ex-Trotskyite, ex-beatnik, ex-obituary writer from San Francisco who converted to Sufism in Bosnia and became Washington bureau chief of the Jewish Forward issues a zealotic attack on Saudi zealotry and gets himself fired from the Voice of America. The son of a prominent anti-Soviet scholar active during the cold war carries “the West vs. the Rest” polemic forward with a “the Muslims are coming, the Muslims are coming” call to arms. A South Asian exile, publishing under an assumed name in the United States, popularizes the work of an obscure group of Arabists from London’s School of Oriental Studies dedicated to the textual deconstruction of the Koran, the Traditions, the Prophet, and “the myth of Mecca,” whole and entire. A former Supreme Court clerk to Justice David Souter, now a law professor, searches through Islamic examples of state and government looking for signs and portents of democratic potential. An ex-CIA staff officer, with thirty years of practice in the Middle East, urges us to win the hearts and minds of “Muslim intellectuals,” a growing class, he says, of open and tolerant cosmopolitan thinkers.2

Thomas Simons, Clinton’s last ambassador to Pakistan, a career diplomat retired to Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, sets “political Islam” against the background of a sweeping historical macrophase: “IT [i.e., information technology]- led globalization.” Vartan Gregorian, the head of the Carnegie Corporation and former president of Brown University, in search of “the best means to facilitate multilateral dialogues between Western and Muslim intellectuals, professionals…clerics… and theologians,” produces a power-point ex- ecutive summary of what Islam is about for his board of trustees, and gets the Brookings Institution to publish it, the Rockefeller and MacArthur foundations to support conferences to examine it. Paul Berman, a historian of the New Left, his subject remaindered, turns his attention to ferreting out the “deep,” “sophisticated” philosophy behind Islamic extremism so as to formulate a comparably reflective, comparably militant counterposition.3 Many arrows fired in many directions with varying force, varying effectiveness, and varying intent. What are we to make of it all? Which way to Mecca indeed?

The problem is made all the more difficult by the fact that these arrows are not being fired randomly into the empty air, but, as the above catalog suggests, onto a scene already crowded with ideological combatants. The American idea of Islam, various, irregular, and charged with foreboding, is being built up at a time when the American idea of America is itself the subject of no little doubt and dispute, and the country as a whole seems embarked on a disconsonant and quarrelsome course. The forms the “What is Islam?” argument takes—“What do they really believe?” “How do they really feel?” “What do they really intend?” “What can we do about them?”—owe as much to domestic divisions, to warring conceptions of our national interest and national purpose, what we believe and feel and intend, as they do to the matted, instable, rapidly changing thought world they seek to represent. The effort to “understand Islam,” to locate it, describe it, and reduce it to intelligible summary, is caught up in the excitements of the present moment. It is a thing of responses and reactions—of warnings, reassurances, advices, attacks.

The literally scores of books, good, bad, indifferent, and peculiar, pouring right now from our public presses represent, therefore, more than the opportune exploitation of an emergent mass market or, what is perhaps the same thing, a strategic shift in the winds of intellectual fashion. They represent the opening stages of something quite new, and in some ways unprecedented, in our national experience: the construction, live and in real time, out there in the common culture where we can see it made, watch it happen, observe its makers, and track its progress, of an enduring image of an alien phenomenon, obscure and worrisome, working its way in toward the center of that experience. From that point of view, a making up of a collective mind about an imagined object, what needs first to be assessed is less the reliability, knowledgeability, or scholarly standing of the writers clamoring for our attention and assent. That varies enormously and is beyond summary judgment. What needs first to be assessed is: What sort of thing is it that these determined reality instructors would have us think?


In that spirit, one more concerned with assumptions than findings, it is possible to mark out four main approaches, which, although neither unmixed nor self-contained, more or less divide and bound the overall field of argument and interpretation. There is, first, the “civilization” approach, which opposes “the West” as a whole to “Islam” as a whole and compares their fates. Second, there are the attempts to pick apart the various streams of contemporary Muslim thought and practice and place them within a culturally familiar grid of ideological contrasts—to sort “good” Islam (and “Islamists”) from “bad,” “real” from “false,” “authentic” from “hijacked,” “tolerant” from “terrorist” in terms of recognized categories of political expression. Third, there are conciliative, or reconciliative, efforts seeking out “many are the roads but God is One” convergences between Islamic teachings and those of the other major religious traditions so as to lay a positive course for their co-evolution. And finally, there are place-, or people-, or nation-focused studies that conceive of “Islam” less as a cohesive mega-entity persisting through time, than as a collection of particular, in many ways disparate, “family-resemblance” traditions coming into more and more immediate and difficult contact with one another as the vast and entangling forces of all-over modernity advance.

The “civilization” conception of things was, and is, the approach generally characteristic of what is usually referred to, sometimes descriptively, sometimes tendentiously, as “Orientalism”—that is, the world-historical, textual-philological, originally European, university tradition of “‘Mid-‘ or ‘Near’ Eastern (or, sometimes, ‘Semitic’) studies,” a tradition based, from Renan forward, on an underlying thematic contrast between “Christendom” and “the Islamic World.” “Christendom,” as a term, has rather gone out of fashion since the middle of the last century when first Oswald Spengler and then, in a different way, Arnold Toynbee put a bit in the shade the fashion of characterizing whole civilizations and their evolutions on the basis of their supposed “spirits.” But recently it has experienced something of a revival, especially in geopolitical circles, with such writers as the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington and his conception of an impending “clash of civilizations” along “the bloody borders”—the Balkans, Central Asia, Sudanic Africa, the southern Philippines—that divide the Islamic from the Christian (or anyway, post-Christian) worlds.4

The most prominent figure here, as well as the most controversial, is, again, Bernard Lewis. Lewis, who was educated in Islamic history at the University of London’s School of Orien-tal and African Studies before the Second World War, served during that war in British intelligence, and moved to Princeton in 1974. He is the author of more than twenty books and hundreds of articles on Near Eastern and Islamic subjects: the formation of the Turkish Republic; race, color, and slavery in Islam; the history of the Arab-speaking peoples; the political language of Islam; the Muslim discovery of Europe; the Jews of Islam; and the avant la lettre twelfth-century terrorist cult called, after its members’ supposed addiction to hashish, “the Assassins.” Possessed of an assured and liquid style, casually erudite, sardonic, dismissive, and given to grand conclusions, he has, by dint of tireless writing, lecturing, traveling, consulting, and media-swinging, established a public, quasi-official role for himself as the go-to authority on all things Middle Eastern.

  1. 1

    Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, translated by Michael Sells (White Cloud Press, 1999); Oriana Fallaci, The Rage and the Pride (Rizzoli, 2002).

  2. 2

    Stephen Schwartz, The Two Faces of Islam (Doubleday, 2002); Daniel Pipes, Militant Islam Reaches America (Norton, 2002); What the Koran Really Says, edited by Ibn Warraq (Prometheus Books, 2002); Noah Feldman, After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003); Graham E. Fuller, The Future of Political Islam (Palgrave MacMillan, 2003).

  3. 3

    Vartan Gregorian, Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith (Brookings Institution Press, 2003); Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (Norton, 2003). And this is but the tip of a very large iceberg: I have read more than fifty recent works in preparing this commentary.

  4. 4

    See Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (Simon and Schuster, 1996). The use of “Islam” to mean both the “religion” and the “civilization” it animates—the lack of a Christianity/Christendom-like distinction—has hampered the discussion here somewhat. The late Marshall Hodgson, whose The Venture of Islam (University of Chicago Press, 1974) is the (usually unacknowledged) founder of this world-historical approach to Islam—see my review in The New York Review, December 11, 1975—suggested “Islamicate” for the latter meaning, but it has not, unfortunately, much caught on.

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