- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2003

By Bernard Lewis
Modern Library, $19.95, 203 pages, maps

Bernard Lewis writes, "the West must defend itself by whatever means will be effective. But in devising means to fight the terrorists, it will surely be useful to understand the forces that drive them." In this, his most recent book "The Crisis of Islam," he gives us that understanding. He tells us of the fall of the Islamic world, from its apogee in the 17th century, when it ruled parts of Europe and threatened the rest, to its nadir after World War I when it in turn, with only two exceptions, was ruled by the European powers.
In the Islamic world it was the custom to designate citizens by their religion. Of course, people who spoke Greek were sometimes called Greek, as Arabic speakers were sometimes called Arabs. But normally they were identified by their faith, regardless of the language they spoke or their ethnic background. Thus one was either a Muslim, or a person of the Book who reads the sacred bible, meaning either a Jew or a Christian, or a pagan.
The Ayatollah Khomeini, despite his ethnic Persian identity, could celebrate the defeat of Zoroastrian Persia by invading Arab enemies because it was a great Muslim victory. His Iraqi foes could do the same because it was their ancestors who had won the battle. Indeed, the world according to Islam is basically divided between what is Muslim, The House of Islam (dar-al-Islam) and the House of War (dar-al-harb), that part of the world which is inhabited and ruled by infidels. Certainly peace and compromise were acknowledged, as in the House of Truce (dar-al-Sulh).
The classic example of such a peace, the author tells us, was the pact in 652 between the Umyyad caliphs and the Christian rulers of Nubia whereby the latter paid a yearly tribute of slaves and in consequence were able to maintain a large measure of autonomy. The House of Truce has existed for centuries, but in modern history it has been turned upside down, with the Western powers imposing their wishes on seemingly subservient Muslim polities. The divinely designed order of things had become seriously disrupted.
To add to the lingering resentment this caused was the failure of the economies of the emerging Arab states. All had statist systems under an autocratic political control. There was little material progress and because of the high birth rate and dramatic population increase the economic standing of the Arab countries decreased in relation to the rest of the world. They were outstripped by the rest of Asia and now rank only higher than sub-Saharan Africa in per capita income and productivity.
The lack of opportunity hits the young particularly hard since they have no place to go, with little hope for the future. Their despair is often channeled against the West, meaning the United States, sometimes by the government-controlled media to divert them from their government's ineffectiveness.
Aside from the customary accusations of economic exploitation there are some real differences that divide us from the Muslim world. The author cites Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian ideologue and Muslim fundamentalist. As an official of the Egyptian Ministry of Education he was sent to the United States on a special study grant that ran from 1948 to 1950. He was shocked by what he perceived to be the American way of life. He deplored our rampant materialism and what he considered, despite the large number of churches, our lack of spirituality. Even worse, were our sinfulness, degeneracy, and addiction to sexual promiscuity.
Church recreation halls sponsor dances where both sexes meet and touch. The lights are dimmed and "the dance hall becomes a whirl of heels and thighs…lips and breasts meet, and the air is full of lust." This charge, or one similar to it, is always included in the bill of particulars against the United States. In Islamic imagery Satan is the great seducer or tempter as he was in the Garden of Eden.
Thus the United States is the Great Satan because of our moral degeneracy which seduces the young. Mr. Lewis examines, of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and makes the salient point that in the Arab world Israel is the licensed grievance. There are many things to complain about but complaints are dangerous, though no one has ever suffered from complaining about Israel.
Mr. Lewis has spent his distinguished career studying the Middle East. He is knowledgeable, sympathetic and objective. He tells us that Islam as such is not an enemy of the West, and that there are a large number of Muslims who desire a friendly relationship with the West and the development of democratic institutions in their own countries. There are also a significant number who are hostile and dangerous, not because we need an enemy, but because they do.
Our course of action should be clear. We should follow our basic instincts and promote democracy; show that change is both inevitable and necessary for an advancing Arab world.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer who writes and lectures on international affairs.

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