Scholar Bernard Lewis explains the rise of radical Islam in his latest book
National Post (Canada), Apr. 2, 2003
Isabel Vincent, National Post
Bernard Lewis, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Islam, does not speak in sound bites. Asking the professor emeritus of history at Princeton University his opinions on everything from Osama bin Laden, Islam, or the war in Iraq, for that matter, is likely to produce a long, erudite discussion of 14 centuries of Muslim history. Which is why it is difficult to imagine that Dr. Lewis, a kindly, grandfatherly figure of 86, has become a kind of media celebrity on the U.S. talk show circuit.
But since the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, the seemingly indefatigable Dr. Lewis, whose formal title is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, has become an international best-seller and a leading TV pundit.
Since Sept. 11, he has spent his retirement writing article after article about radical Islam, and is increasingly in demand among the American networks for his comments on everything from suicide bombers to the war in Iraq.
Today, Dr. Lewis, who is Jewish and was born in Britain, is regarded as the world’s foremost interpreter of the Arab world.
What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity‘, CAPTION, ‘Browsing Tip’, STICKY, CLOSECOLOR, ‘white’, HAUTO, VAUTO, SNAPX, ‘5’)” onMouseOut=”nd()”>What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity. The book, completed just before the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, topped best-seller lists around the world, largely because it was one of the first to address the root causes of Islamist terrorism, focusing on the rise of militant Islam in Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and the influence of the radical Wahhabi sect. Many of the Sept. 11 terrorists, including bin Laden, practise Wahhabism, which since its founding in the 18th century has advocated a harsh, puritanical and often violent form of Islam.
“There is one very interesting difference between Osama bin Laden and the Western world, and that is the importance attached to history,” Dr. Lewis said in a recent interview in Toronto, where he will speak on the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes on the Middle East during a lecture at the University of Toronto this evening. “In North America, people are quick to dismiss history. In the Muslim world, the attitude is different. There is a strong sense of history.”
The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror‘, CAPTION, ‘Browsing Tip’, STICKY, CLOSECOLOR, ‘white’, HAUTO, VAUTO, SNAPX, ‘5’)” onMouseOut=”nd()”>The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, Dr. Lewis probes deeper into the world of radical Islam, attempting to explain, among other things, the evolution of the suicide bomber, and hatred of the United States, a seemingly new (in Dr. Lewis’s view of the world) phenomenon among radical Islamists.
“If the leaders of al-Qaeda can persuade the world of Islam to accept their views and their leadership, then a long and bitter struggle lies ahead, and not only for America,” argues Dr. Lewis in his new book. “If the fundamentalists are correct in their calculations and succeed in their war, then a dark future awaits the world, especially the part of it that embraces Islam.”
“Obviously,” he writes, “the West must defend itself by whatever means will be effective.”
Perhaps it is for this reason Dr. Lewis supports the use of force to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq. “Saddam Hussein has never hesitated to use terror,” he says by way of explanation, adding he believes the Bush administration’s assertion that there are strong links between Saddam and al- Qaeda.
But why would Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, ally himself with a Wahhabi like bin Laden?
“During the Second World War, Nazi Germany and the allies had all sorts of odd friends,” Dr. Lewis says. “When Churchill was asked in the House of Commons about Britain’s new ally, Russia, he replied that if Hitler would invade hell, ‘I would find occasion to support the devil.’ In this way, there is nothing odd about an alliance between Saddam and al-Qaeda.”
Dr. Lewis adds it is important to support Iraq’s exiled opposition leaders, many of them part of the Iraqi National Congress, who may end up forming the postwar administration in Iraq.
“The United States has no intention of establishing a permanent presence in Iraq,” says Dr. Lewis, adding that it wants to ensure stability in the country as it did in Germany and Japan after the Second World War, and leave the rest to the Iraqi exiles.
“Obviously, if Saddam is toppled tomorrow, he’s not going to be replaced by a Scandinavian-style democracy,” he says. “There is no do-it-yourself instruction manual for developing democracy. But of all the oil-producing countries, pre-Saddam Iraq made the best use of its oil revenues. It built a fine infrastructure, an excellent educational system. And I do believe that among the other Iraqi people there are those who are willing and able to initiate the development of democratic institutions.”
It’s this kind of pro-American view of the world that has earned Dr. Lewis a great deal of criticism, particularly from his nemesis, the scholar Edward Said, who has spent the last three decades attempting to denounce Dr. Lewis and other Western scholars of Islam as “imperialist stooges.”
Dr. Lewis, who left the University of London to join Princeton’s faculty in 1974, is unperturbed. “I have had excellent relations with scholars in Arab countries,” he says, adding he has so much work to do that he pays little attention to academic squabbles. In addition to his numerous media appearances, Dr. Lewis is completing a new book, a collection of his essays and articles, and will soon begin work on a book on Islam and democracy.
Although he will turn 87 in May, Dr. Lewis says he has no plans to slow down.
“One of my colleagues once said to me that retirement means a new set of tires and full speed ahead,” he says with a smile. “That’s exactly how I feel.”