At 91, Bernard Lewis, the doyen of Middle Eastern Studies who for more than half a century has been considered one of the West's foremost scholars of Islamic history and culture, is the author of more than two dozen books, most notably The Arabs in History, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, The Political Language of Islam, and The Muslim Discovery of Europe and is the subject of envy because of his remarkably lucid mind and memory. Both qualities were on display on Wednesday evening, May 2, 2007 when he addressed an overflow audience in the ballroom of the Loew’s Philadelphia Hotel. The program, sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, charged the masterful Professor Emeritus of Princeton University to lecture on the subject of Europe and Islam.
Professor Lewis, who was recently awarded the Ataturk Peace Award from the Turkish government, began his presentation by illustrating the similarities and differences between Europe and Islam. Europe, he said, defined itself as a civilization known as Christendom, in spite of its current post-Christian self-perception. Islam and Christianity share a prominent feature - triumphalism. Both Christianity and Islam believe that they are the sole recipients of G-d’s latest word. Conversely Jews believe in individual salvation through righteousness.
Christians in the 21st century evolved and, in large measure, left the triumphalist creed behind. Islam, currently in its 15th century, is still deeply entrenched in such beliefs. “Muslims,” Lewis said, “believe that theirs is the only true faith, and it is their duty to bring their faith to the rest of the world.”
In such circumstances, where two similar and yet rival civilizations claim true faith, conflict is inevitable, according to Lewis. Conflict with the Christian West began at the dawn of Islam when Muslim warriors burst out of Arabia and conquered Syria, Palestine and other lands previously held by Christian Byzantium. The Moors conquered Spain, and the Ottoman Turks captured land previously held by Christians, extending their conquest to Europe. In the 17th Century, Ottoman Turkish Corsairs raided Western Europe, and Europe was able to recover some of these lands, and enter the Islamic domain in the 18th and 19th Centuries.
“We are now experiencing a third attempt to bring Islam to Europe,” Lewis pointed out. Unlike the previous attempts that were primarily military in nature, the current Muslim push is through migration and demography. Freedom of expression, economic opportunities and moderate climates encouraged Muslim migration to Western Europe. The contrast between the high birthrates of Arab-Muslims in Europe and the negative rates of native Europeans, who marry late and have fewer children, may finally provide Islam with the chance to Islamize Europe.
The Bin Laden terrorist phenomenon has, according to Lewis, much to do with the perception that Jihad defeated the Red Army in Afghanistan. “The crucial moment” for the rise of Bin Laden, said Lewis, was the defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union. Some regard that as a Western victory; for Bin Laden, however, it was a victory for Islam and Jihad.
According to Lewis, Bin Laden exploited the all too willing Western media. Bin Laden’s argument was that the “ongoing struggle is between the superceded word of G-d and the latest word of G-d.” In Bin Laden’s vision, he was chosen to restore Islam and lead it to victory. Lewis explained that as the Jihadists see it, the end of the Caliphate (1924) following the abolition of the Ottoman Empire Sultanate (1922) by Kamal Ataturk was for Bin Laden the “ultimate humiliation.”
For Bin Laden, it is now the final stage in a three-act play. Having “destroyed the stronger and more deadly superpower,”the Soviet Union, “the effeminate American Empire is not a problem.” Bin Laden attacked U.S. installations in 1998 with impunity. Americans responded with “angry words” followed by “let’s get out of here.” This attitude began in 1983 Beirut after the U.S. Marine compound was destroyed and 241 U.S. Marines were killed, repeated in Somalia in 1994. Bin Laden’s attacks on American interests continued throughout the 1990’s, culminating with September 11, 2001, when Bin Laden opened the third phase - bringing his Jihad to America.
Lewis made an interesting observation when noting “In the Islamic world governments change the elections unlike the U.S. where elections change governments.” There are three groups of governments in the Islamic world. One, like those of Morocco and the Persian Gulf Sheikhdoms, which demands loyalty from its subjects; the second, the Fascist Baathist regimes of Syria and Iraq under Saddam that had no roots in the Islamic past and were influenced by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. And, a third group, that includes Turkey and Lebanon, which has genuine democratic institutions. “Turkey,” Lewis stressed, “became a democracy in 1950 when the government lost an election and the opposition took over.”
The resurgence of Islamism and an Islamic agenda is testing Turkey’s secular nature, Lewis suggested. The Turkish parliament led by the AKP (Justice and Development Party, a moderately Islamic party) is seeking to replace the current secular president with the pro-Islamic foreign minister Abdullah Gul (member of the same AKP party). The secular members of parliament responded by staging a walkout and denying the AKP-led government the necessary quorum. Lewis warned that the next election in Turkey “is crucial.”
Turning to Iraq, Lewis suggests a number of views - one reflected in the media, which is of a “continuing disaster,” and another which comes to Lewis from his personal friends in Iraq who “report positive developments.” A third view, Lewis claims, is that “most of Iraq is functioning rather well.” As he ended his prepared remarks, Lewis surprised everyone by expressing “cautious optimism” regarding Iraq. Lewis credited President Bush for being “tough and consistent” in Iraq and ridiculed the attitudes of congressional Democrats who oppose the Iraq war and who are saying: “Unless we win the war by next Tuesday, we are done.”
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