Posted: June 30, 2011
Books by Bernard Lewis discussed in this essay
Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East
The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years
The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror
Nonagenarian Bernard Lewis is perhaps the foremost historian of the Muslim Middle East. His latest effort is Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East, a collection of essays and lectures organized loosely around the title subject. It contains familiar themes concisely and eloquently stated, but also a good deal of repetition. Some of the individual chapters are gems, especially the one on Islam and democracy and the second of the two titled "Islam and Europe," and one should be grateful for having these pieces collected in one place. In a series of short essays and speeches, one does not expect more than that they stimulate and provoke. Here, Lewis certainly succeeds.
Nonetheless, this book was not greeted enthusiastically by the New York Times. In "The Muslim Past" (June 25, 2010), reviewer Max Rodenbeck condescended to say that Lewis is adept at "catchy apothegms" that "explain his appeal to politicians in search of a punchy quote." Lewis was accused of holding "the quaintly missionary idea of ‘bringing freedom' to benighted peoples" and of engaging in "shrill alarmism" by saying that "either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us." Which politicians is Rodenbeck speaking of? This is, no doubt, a swipe at the Bush Administration's embrace of military intervention as a means to disrupt the dysfunctional character of the Arab world, either inspired by or blamed on Lewis, who clearly supported Operation Iraqi Freedom. Underlying this derision is, surely, the poisonous legacy of Edward Said, who smeared Lewis as an Orientalist (a once respectable word made dirty by Said), one who places scholarship at the service of Western state power. Said seemed to be possessed of a Nietzschean notion that Western scholarship on Islam was simply a mask for the will to power, and should be understood as such. By this light, Lewis and his ilk have not been trying to understand lslam but to dominate it. Unfortunately, this Nietzschean point of view makes the truth unavailable by any means, and reduces the search for it to another form of political struggle. It is highly ironic that Rodenbeck accuses Lewis of being "dangerously reductionist" when it is Rodenbeck who reduces this great scholar's work to a misguided political program.
Lewis has written that "Middle Easterners increasingly complain that the West judges them by different and lower standards than it does Europeans and Americans, both in what is expected of them and in what they may expect, in terms of their economic well-being and their political freedom." Lewis doesn't do this. He does not condescend. He has devoted his life to learning the ways, the languages, and the history of Middle Easterners. His work bespeaks respect, especially in what he expects of the Middle East. And for this he is criticized. The denigration of Lewis is far more politically inspired than anything in his work.
Promises of Victory
Rather than addressing the substance of Faith and Power, Rodenbeck praises Fred M. Donner's new book, Muhammad and the Believers [reviewed in the Winter 2010—Spring 2011 CRB], as a real work of scholarship. Why? Because, he writes, it offers a "more sophisticated reading of history" that explains Islam as a doctrine that "evolved from an ecumenical, syncretic, pietist and millenarian cult." I have no doubt Lewis would agree that Islam underwent a period of doctrinal development. Rodenbeck suggests the difference is that Lewis "depicts Islam as aggressive from the start," while Donner "shows that contemporary followers of other religions initially and perhaps even for several generations, regarded Islam as an open-minded and not specially threatening movement with universalist aspirations."
I don't know if this is a fair representation of Donner's views, but it suggests that Islam, which within the space of "several generations" conquered much of the known world, did so without quite knowing why, and only later sat down to figure out its motives for doing so. Thus, says Rodenbeck, "the Muslim triumphalism that Lewis discerns, it seems, was largely introduced in retrospect, to explain the seemingly miraculous spread of the faith as a result of heavenly favor." This is a startling statement which, if true, would require a skewed chronology and a view of the Koran as a retrospective rather than prophetic document. Since the Koran promises victory, it is difficult to see the victory of Islam as coming before the expectation of it.
In any case, Lewis certainly disagrees with this irenic view of an accidental empire. He argues:
The declaration of war came almost at the very beginning of Islam. According to an early story, in the year 7 of the Hegira, corresponding to 628 C.E., the Prophet sent six messengers, with letters to the Byzantine and Persian emperors, the Negus of Ethiopia, and other rulers and princes, informing them of his advent and summoning them to embrace his faith or suffer the consequences. The authenticity of these prophetic letters is doubted, but their message is accurate in the sense that it does reflect a view dominant among Muslims since early times.
Lewis is also clear that "the long relationship between Christendom and Islam...has mostly been one of conflict." The reason is that "when you have two religions with the same self-perceptions, making the same claims in the same geographical area, the conflict between them was virtually inevitable." Of course, the contending claims were to the universal truth of their respective revelations, which were contrary to each other. Thus, we continue to face, in that famous phrase, "a clash of civilizations."
What about the nature of Islamic revelation as a source of this clash? The sentence from which the title of Lewis's book comes declares "Islamic sacred scriptures and memories have a total identification of faith and power during the lifetime of the founder." This is what makes Rodenbeck's remark that "Islamic triumphalism" came later so suspect. From its start, Islam was the religion of power. In its (Sunni) theology, Allah is pure omnipotence and unlimited will. Islam without power makes about as much sense as Christianity without Christ. Lewis's statement differentiates Islam from Christianity with respect to the separation of the sacred from the secular, but it also helps explain the deep sense of grievance and humiliation Muslims feel when power is not theirs. Christians are not thrown into spiritual confusion or theological doubt if they do not control the state because Christianity does not require the exercise of power for its fulfillment. Islam does (at least in its Sunni form). As Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who recently (February 18) attracted an audience of several million people in Tahrir Square in Cairo, said, Christianity's separation from state power "contrasts with what would happen if the Islamic state did this. The result would be that the faith would be left without any authority to support it, or force to maintain it."
Following the true path means success in this world and the next. If infidels have power over Muslims, it must mean that Muslims have left the true path and are being punished by Allah. Therefore, the prescription for recovery is a return to the true path. This is obviously the answer embraced by the Islamists who wish to restore the rule of sharia and to expunge Western influences from their societies. Once they re-Islamicize their own societies, they can resume Islam's temporarily delayed universal mission to Islamicize the world. In Faith and Power, Lewis points out that this is generally what Osama bin Laden thought he was doing.
Where does the prospect for Muslim democracy fit into this picture? More than half of the chapter titles in Faith and Power contain either the word "democracy" or "freedom." The author is preoccupied with the question: is liberal democracy compatible with Islam? He is very amusing in sarcastically characterizing the view that tyranny is all that Muslims are capable of as the "pro-Arab" position, while the one that holds that they can develop their own kind of democratic institutions is the "imperialist" position. (Only in this sense is Lewis an "imperialist.") Lewis is neither Pollyannaish nor darkly pessimistic in dealing with this question.
First of all, he dismisses Islamism as clearly incompatible with democracy, inasmuch as Islamism insists on God's exclusive sovereignty and on democracy as a form of blasphemy. What about the rest of Islam, or Islam as it understood itself before or aside from the Muslim Brotherhood, the quintessentially Islamist organization? There are formidable obstacles here, too. God's exclusive sovereignty is not something Islamists made up. As Lewis writes, "For believing Muslims, legitimate authority comes from God alone, and the ruler derives his power not from the people...but from God and the holy law." There is no need for, or even a conception of, a legislative or representative body. God makes law; man does not. In fact, there is no such thing in Islam as legal personhood, e.g., civic bodies, cities, or corporations. In view of this, says Lewis, it is not surprising that "the history of the Islamic states is one of almost unrelieved autocracy."
Referring to Alexis de Tocqueville, Lewis says that "the point he makes about the incompatibility of eternal legislation with the functioning of democratic institutions is an important one that bears closer consideration." Lewis obviously recognizes the importance of this point, but he never explores it theologically or in terms of Muslim revelation. The real issue is not so much "eternal legislation" as it is the content of divine law—what it actually says. Christianity and Judaism have divine laws, but they are not ultimately incompatible with democracy. Indeed, one might say they are its foundation.
The reason sovereignty is exclusively God's in Islam is that, in the Koran's account of creation, man is not made in the image and likeness of God. The Islamic doctrine of tanzih teaches that God is so infinitely transcendent that absolutely no comparison can be made between Him and anything else. There is nothing "like" Him, certainly not man. The Judeo-Christian notion from Genesis of man possessing the imago Dei is a scandalous blasphemy in Islam. I wonder why Lewis never says this. For someone who so thoroughly comprehends Islamic culture, it is curious how seldom Lewis refers back to the cult from which it comes as the potential source of its problems.
Lewis does point out that "traditional Islam has no doctrine of human rights, the very notion of which might seem an impiety"; but he does not elaborate. In Judeo-Christian teaching, rights are God-given, which is why man is inviolable in his person. His integrity is located not only in an immortal soul, but in reason and free will, both of which are God-given and God-like. They constitute the imago Dei in man. The divine imprint is the theological underpinning for the eventual development of democracy and inalienable human rights. Man's ultimate destiny is to share in God's life. This, also, is considered blasphemy in Islam.
Man has no rights in Islam because man cannot have what God has not given. What God gives is his law, which man is expected to obey unquestioningly. This is why the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights, signed by 45 foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference on August 5, 1990, locates "rights" in the sharia and excludes anything contrary to it.
The Cairo Declaration was issued as an appendix to the United Nations's Universal Declaration of Human Rights to make explicit the differences with the U.N. Declaration. The last two articles in the Cairo Declaration state that "All rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Sharia," (Article 24) and that "The Islamic Sharia is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification [of] any of the articles of this Declaration" (Article 25). Elsewhere it declares that "no one in principle has the right to suspend...or violate or ignore its [Islam's] commandments, in as much as they are binding divine commandments, which are contained in the Revealed Books of God and were sent through the last of His Prophets.... Every person is individually responsible—and the Ummah collectively responsible—for their safeguard."
Under the dispensation of sharia, what does respect for "human rights" look like? In June 2000, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar, the highest jurisprudential authority of the Sunni world, the late Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, offered Saudi Arabia as the model. He said: "Saudi Arabia leads the world in the protection of human rights because it protects them according to the sharia of God.... Everyone knows that Saudi Arabia is the leading country for the application of human rights in Islam in a just and objective fashion, with no aggression and no prejudice."
Lewis points out that Islam contains a profound teaching of equality for all Muslim (male) believers. Slaves were immediately manumitted when they converted. But this equality cannot be extended to all mankind because the inferiority of infidels, people of the book (i.e., Jews and Christians), women, and slaves, is divinely codified in the sharia. How, then, can one acknowledge that all people are created equal if this is not expressed in one's revelation? An avenue is open to this realization through philosophy and the recognition that every person's soul is ordered to the same transcendent good or end—which is what we mean by human nature in the first place.
For this light to dawn, however, the culture must be open to reason or, more exactly, to reason's authority in its ability to apprehend reality. There are, in fact, very few cultures in which this is the case, which is why we have seen so little of democratic constitutional order in history. As Fr. James Schall has said, "Islam does not have a tradition of natural law in the ordinary sense that would signify a rationale all men could accept apart from their religion." In fact, within Asharite theology, which is the majority school in Sunni Islam, the existence of natural law is repeatedly and explicitly denied as a flagrant and impermissible constriction of God's absolute power. (Gravity does not make the rock fall; God does.) If within the Muslim world there is no principle of equality that embraces all human beings, then there is no philosophical foundation for democracy—no "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" on which to build. This can be fatal for democratic development and, concomitantly, equality before the law.
The Worst of the West
Lewis contends that "the modern style of dictatorship that flourishes in many Muslim countries is an innovation and to a large extent an importation from Europe." This is unquestionably so and is obvious particularly in the Baathist regimes in Syria and, formerly, in Iraq. When facing the challenge from the West, many Muslims sought to imitate it. Why, of all things, did they choose as their models the worst of what the West had to offer, fascism and Communism? Why, with few exceptions, did they not try to imitate a constitutional democratic order?
In his earlier book, The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years (1995), Lewis suggested it was because these ideologies were anti-Western and anti-Christian, but also because "the ideologies and social strategies that were being offered corresponded in many ways much more closely to both the realities and the traditions of the region." Lewis did not spell out what that correspondence is, however, beyond saying the West is "individualistic" in orientation and the Middle East "collective." In The Closed Circle (2002), David Pryce-Jones got closer by suggesting that "Nazism and Arab power challenging had in common the belief that life is an unending struggle in which the victor works his will upon the loser by virtue of his victory." The fuller answer is that Arab Muslims were naturally drawn to fascism and Communism as more compatible with what they already believed because these models are based upon the primacy of the will and the denigration of reason. A political order that presumes the primacy of reason did not appeal. This natural affinity also helps explain the easy passage of leftist nationalists and Communists like prominent Egyptian writer Dr. Mustafa Mahmud and well-known Shiite writer Samih Atef El-Zein to Islamism.
The question Lewis addresses is whether Islamic culture can, despite all this, make room for democratic development, though he never explicitly deals with the status of reason in Islam or with the devastating consequences of al-Ghazali's expulsion of philosophy in the 12th century. Faith and power are so closely intertwined in Islam because faith and reason were divorced from each other. The primacy of power is the product of faith without reason. Can the role of reason be restored?
In The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (2003), Lewis claimed that "there is enough in the traditional culture of Islam on the one hand and the modern experience of the Muslim peoples on the other to provide the basis for an advance toward freedom in the true sense of that word." What are the positive elements in Islamic tradition that, "rightly interpreted and applied, might lead to greater political freedom and respect for human rights"? Lewis points out that, although the caliph exercised sovereignty from God, his power was not absolute. At least theoretically, he was as much under the rule of the sharia as were his subjects, who were enjoined by Muhammad to "not obey a creature against his creator." Should the ruler violate the sharia or apostatize, he was vulnerable. The caliph operated under a "contractual and consensual" arrangement with his subjects that could be dissolved, at least in principle, if the ruler "defaults on his obligations." This meant that, unlike modern Arab states with totalitarian features, traditional Muslim regimes had some measure of the rule of (God's) law. The consensual aspect was evident in the operation of a shura council or, as in Afghanistan today, a loya jirga. Lewis wisely cautions, however, that "this principle [of consultation] has never been institutionalized, nor even formulated in the treatises of holy law."
Short of a re-hellenization of Islam—a restoration of philosophy—it is difficult to imagine the Muslim world using these strains of its tradition in the way that Lewis hopes for. They seem thin reeds. Where is the intellectual underpinning for their development? While they may point in a useful direction, can that direction be taken without a new understanding of the cult of Islam that would allow for a culture in which reason has primacy? This is unlikely, though the recent Arab revolutions have obviously raised great hopes.
What is at Stake
Does Lewis have a rhetorical strategy in his work? I think he may, though not in Said's or Rodenbeck's sense. While being highly critical, Lewis nonetheless recalls Arabs to what is or was best in themselves, and does not present insurmountable obstacles to their reaching for it. Presciently, he predicted last year change of historical magnitude on the immediate horizon that could turn out either way. From within their own culture, "rightly interpreted and applied," Lewis offers Muslims a gift by pointing them to a better future, while warning of the dire alternative. Is Lewis trying to persuade Islam that it is something other than it conceives itself to be? Perhaps, but this is exactly what the struggle within Islam today is about. Only it can choose.
Regarding the hopes raised by the recent overthrow of Middle Eastern tyrannies, Lewis offers some sobering advice. In an interview with David Horowitz in the Jerusalem Post (February 25, 2011), he cautions that the discourse in Egypt is still "religiously defined" and that "the language of Western democracy is for the most part newly translated and not intelligible to the great masses." How many Egyptians, for instance, actually believe that Copts and Muslims, men and women, believers and nonbelievers, are equal—to say nothing of Jews and Muslims? Pressing for elections now, he warns, could lead to catastrophe, as only religious parties are well enough organized to take advantage of them. (Lewis prefers first to see the development of local self-governing institutions.) Therefore, he says, "I don't see elections, Western-style, as the answer to the problem. I see it rather as a dangerous aggravation of a problem. The Western-style election...has no relevance at all to the situation in most Middle Eastern countries. It can only lead to one direction, as it did in [Weimar] Germany, for example." This dire warning easily pertains to the overwhelming March vote in Egypt in favor (77%) of the constitutional amendments that have placed the Muslim Brotherhood in such an advantageous position for the fall parliamentary elections.
Lewis is keenly aware that the Middle East may not choose well. In fact, in the Wall Street Journal (September 1, 2010),he wrote, "For the moment, there does not seem to be much prospect of a moderate Islam in the Muslim world. This is partly because in the prevailing atmosphere the expression of moderate ideas can be dangerous—even life-threatening. Radical groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the likes of which in earlier times were at most minor and marginal, have acquired a powerful and even a dominant position."
In the face of this, Lewis has a warning for the West. In Faith and Power, he speaks of "the return among Muslims to what they perceive as the cosmic struggle between the two main faiths, Christianity and Islam." But isn't the West now post-Christian? In fact, to the extent to which it is, it is at a great disadvantage. Lewis remarks that Muslims "know who they are and what they want, a quality that many in the West seem to a very large extent to have lost. This is a source of strength in the one, of weakness in the other." Moreover,
They have fervor and conviction, which in most Western countries are either weak or lacking. They are for the most part convinced of the rightness of their cause, whereas Westerners spend much of their time in self-denigration and self-abasement. They have loyalty and discipline, and perhaps most important of all they have demography. This admonition reminds me of Hilaire Belloc's remark: "Those who direct us and from whom the tone of our policy is taken have no major spiritual interest...Islam has not suffered this spiritual decline...and [in this] lies our peril."
So yes, Lewis hopes for the development of democracy in the Middle East. "It is," he says, "perhaps in the long run our best hope, perhaps even our only hope, of surviving the latest stage—in some respects the most dangerous stage—of a fourteen-century-old struggle." Still, there may be another way. Perhaps we should be thankful forthis challenge because it is only in the face of it that we may be able to restore ourselves to some condition that deserves survival. Without it, we would just continue to sink into the muck. Of course, we may not rise to that challenge and sink anyway, but as Whittaker Chambers said of the contest with Communism, "For the West, the struggle is its own solution. Out of the struggle itself, the West may rediscover in itself, or otherwise develop, forces that justify its survival." That is the opportunity. Those are the stakes. Thanks in large part to Bernard Lewis, no one can say they have not been spelled out.