Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Bernard Lewis on the Middle East and Islam

Historian Bernard Lewis
The part of the world dominated by Islam concerns all of us today, as we face a Syria already in a state of civil war, deal with the shock of an American ambassador murdered by religious fanatics in Libya, and attempt to block new terrorist attacks against our own country. Bernard Lewis is one of the most influential Western scholars of Islamic civilization, and a helpful guide to the problems posed by modern Islam, although I am not sure that he has the right answers to those problems. As an introduction to his work, I particularly recommend From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, which offers a selection of fifty-one essays from his long career, dating from 1953 to 2002. Some of these are short newspaper and magazine opinion pieces, of only two or three pages. Others are more conventional scholarly essays. Lewis has divided them into three sections: “Past History,” “Current History,” and “About History.” He also provides an introduction that is interesting and useful because in it he reflects on his own career and discusses how these essays relate to that career.

Most of the pieces in the first section are scholarly in character and will probably be less immediately appealing to most readers than his works on current events. This first section is important, though, because in it Bernard considers the complicated ways in which Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East have understood and misunderstood each other over the centuries. The title essay, the second in part one on past history, was first published in 1998 and deals with some of the earliest intermediaries between these two neighboring civilizations. The word “dragoman” in English refers to someone who is a guide or interpreter in the nations of the East. As Lewis explains, it comes from an Arabic word that means “to translate.” The two major civilizations of the Mediterranean, Christendom and Islam, needed to communicate with each other. Since most of the Islamic world had fallen to the control of the Ottoman Turks by the end of the Middle Ages, this meant that the Turkish rulers of Istanbul and the powers of Europe needed to find interpreters.

Many of the earliest interpreters were slaves, refugees, or renegades. They were Europeans who had been captured by the Turks, Jews fleeing European persecution, or former Christians turned Muslim. Eventually, some groups came to provide professional dragomans. The Levantines, usually Catholics of Italian origin living in the eastern Mediterranean, provided many of the professional interpreters. However, the Levantines had no commitment of national loyalty to the European embassies they served and no diplomatic protection from the Ottoman rulers under whom they lived. The dragomans were reluctant to deliver messages that might give offense and they often engaged in systematic mistranslation, compounded by the problems of finding precisely equivalent meanings in different languages and cultures. Lewis made a good choice in selecting this as his title essay because it gives readers a cautionary tale about taking the explainers of Islam uncritically.

Most of the essays in the past history section do not touch directly on contemporary events. One of the exceptions is “Religion and Murder in the Middle East,” which treats both the political and the religious meaning of murder and draws parallels between the past and the present. Beginning with the assassination of the caliph ‘Uthman in 656 C.E., Lewis poses the problem of seeing a religiously motivated killing as a crime or as a legitimate act of justice. He traces religious killings through the emergence of the medieval order of the Assassins. He suggests that assassins are dedicated volunteers, motivated by promises of reward in the afterlife, and willing to engage in elaborate planning. He draws parallels between older historical assassinations in the Middle East and modern acts of terrorism and the Iranian death sentence on writer Salman Rushdie. He observes that claiming justification for killing in the religious teachings of Islam can have devastating consequences. Although initially delivered as a lecture in 1998, this essay has a great deal of relevance for the events of the early twenty first century.

The essays of the second part, on current history, present some of Lewis’ most controversial works. “The Roots of Muslim Rage,”originally delivered as a lecture and published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1990, brought Lewis to wide popular attention. It is an effort to explain why many Muslims seem to be angry with the West. In it, Lewis argues that the conflict between Christendom and Islam really is a conflict between two civilizations, originating in the spread of Islam by conquest through Christian lands in the Middle East, across North Africa, and into Spain. For centuries, the Muslims had the cultural and military advantage, but were generous enough to tolerate the Christians and Jews who lived among them. Since the late seventeenth century, though, Muslims have suffered a steady series of defeats at the hands of the Christian West. In modern times, the Europeans, and more recently the Americans, have dominated the Islamic world in thought and cultural practice, as well as in politics. This domination by people formerly regarded as inferior has been humiliating for Muslims, whose traditional ways have been undermined by the new Western ways. Muslim anger is an expression of frustration by those who were winning but are now losing.

The argument presented in “The Roots of Muslim Rage” lies behind many of the other essays in this section. Part of it is well-founded. There is clearly frustration at Western domination among many nations of Africa and Asia, all of whom are deeply influenced by Europe and the West. Still, radical Islamic movements have arisen across the Muslim world, in nations that have a wide variety of historical experiences. Some of these movements, such as those in Indonesia and the southern Philippines, are in regions entirely outside of the Mediterranean world in which Christendom and Islam have historically faced each other as competing civilizations. This led me to wonder whether Lewis’ generalizations are just too broad.

The question of how the West, and America in particular, should respond to Muslim frustration at Western penetration is a difficult one. If one accepts this view, one may conclude that the best thing for the United States and the European nations to do is simply leave the nations of Islam alone. Some commentators point out that the defense of Kuwait against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the first Gulf war brought American troops into the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia, and that outrage over the presence of these foreign troops sparked the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda. The invasion and occupation of Iraq by the U.S. and its allies, according to these commentators intensified the rage and contributed to the problem, rather than solve it. Lewis presents an entirely different view in these essays. In “Did You Say ‘American Imperialism?’: Power, Weakness, and Choices in the Middle East,” first published in the conservative National Review in December 2001, Lewis argues that the United States cannot hope for friendship or good relations in the region. He maintains that the U.S. should not seek to be even-handed in its relations with Middle Eastern nations, such as Israel and the countries that surround it. Instead, realistic self-interest demands that the U.S. attempt to benefit its friends and harm its enemies. Lewis suggests that the American government is faced with the stark alternative of getting tough or getting out of the Middle East. He leaves little doubt that he favors getting tough.

In the last essay of the current history section, “A Time for Toppling,” Lewis makes the clearest statement in favor of the getting tough option. Originally published in the Wall Street Journal in September 2002, he maintains that the tyrannical rulers of the Middle East encourage the rage of their own people in order to turn anger away from themselves and against foreign enemies. Peace can only come with the defeat of those rulers, and their replacement by freely chosen governments. It is not clear, though, how this argument is connected to the Lewis’ observations on the historical conflict of civilizations. I wonder, for example, whether it is possible for the United States, or any other power, to impose representative governments throughout the Middle East.

Now, ten years after this last essay, we have seen many of the rulers in the Middle East overthrown and we have seen the attempt to overthrow the ruler of Syria push that country into internecine conflict that will probably not end soon. I have no doubt that our overriding goal in the Middle East and in other Muslim parts of the world should be the pursuit of our own self-interest. But that pursuit may require us to recognize that our powers over these foreign lands are limited, and that their populations are likely to burn with rage, against us, their own leaders, and even against each other for some time to come. Rather than seek peace by encouraging internal political developments, I think it may be better for us to try to devise a new containment strategy, on the principle that the rage cannot last forever.

No comments:

Post a Comment