THE CRISIS OF ISLAM
Holy War and Unholy Terror
By Bernard Lewis
Modern Library. 184 pp. $19.95
It's not often that history affords one the opportunity to run a grand experiment, but with the present war in Iraq, Bush administration officials are planning to run what may be the greatest historical experiment since the rebuilding of Europe after World War II. That's because this war is not only about removing a nasty dictator who flouts U.N. resolutions and happens to be sitting on the second-largest oil reserves in the world; it is also about remaking the Middle East in our democratic image. At least that is the hope of the neoconservative thinkers who are the intellectual authors of Bush administration policy in the Middle East.
Exactly how this project will play out is anyone's guess. In the unlikely event that elections were held in Saudi Arabia tomorrow, they would likely install someone with views not dissimilar to Osama bin Laden's.
Whatever the long-term outcome of the war in Iraq, any reasonable observer of the Middle East would have to agree that the region has dire problems. Over the past two decades, the academic left in this country held it as a tenet of quasi-theological faith that Western discussions of Middle Eastern problems were inherently biased or flawed. Sept. 11 destroyed whatever currency that notion once had. Moreover, in some quarters of the Arab world today, there is refreshing evidence of self-examination about "what went wrong," best demonstrated by the release of the unglamorously named "Arab Human Development Report 2002." Written by Arab intellectuals, the report highlights the dearth of freedom, the lack of civil society, the widespread illiteracy and the dismal status of women in the Arab world. These social problems have economic consequences. It is not an accident that if you subtract oil revenues from the GDP of all the Persian Gulf countries, their total output is the same as . . . Finland's.
So how did the Arab world get to this point? In his two most recent books, first What Went Wrong? and now The Crisis of Islam, Bernard Lewis sets out to answer that question. The kernel of the argument in both books is offered at the beginning of The Crisis of Islam: "During the past three centuries, the Islamic world has lost its dominance and its leadership, and has fallen behind both the modern West and the rapidly modernizing Orient. This widening gap poses increasingly acute problems, both practical and emotional, for which the rulers, thinkers, and rebels of Islam have not yet found effective answers." What Went Wrong? argued that the Muslim world, convinced of its inherent superiority, largely ignored the spectacular epistemological and technological advances that were being made in Europe between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution until it was too late. Suddenly, Napoleon's armies were in Egypt, beginning a long story of decline that ended with the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire following World War I.
It is with this defeat that The Crisis of Islam opens; or, more specifically, it is with bin Laden's commentary on that defeat. Lewis quotes him after Sept. 11 fulminating about the "humiliation and disgrace" that the Muslim world has suffered for the past 80 years. As Lewis points out, that reference would be almost entirely lost on a Western audience, but for many in the Middle East the Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved up the Ottoman empire between the British and French after 1918 still rankles. Indeed, much of The Crisis of Islam is about the nature of historical memory. Lewis points out that, for Arabs, the Crusades came to be seen as "an early prototype of the expansion of European imperialism into the Islamic world." It is hardly an accident that when bin Laden declared his war against the West, he framed it in part as a war against "the Crusaders."
Lewis explains that in the mid-20th century, the problems of the Middle East were compounded by the importation of two Western ideas -- socialism and secular Arab nationalism, neither of which delivered on its promises of creating prosperous and just societies. Instead, all around the region numerous authoritarian kleptocracies have held on to power for decades. That has turned many toward Islamism, the beguiling idea that Islam offers a holistic solution to all of society's ills.
This development coincided with the widespread dissemination of Saudi Arabia's most successful export other than oil -- the ultra-purist, jihadist form of Islam known as Wahabbism. In a sense, this was a historical accident. In 1932 the Saudis established a kingdom in Arabia, having recently won control of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. A year later, they signed their first agreement with Standard Oil of California. Lewis observes, "The custodianship of the holy places and the revenues of oil have given worldwide impact to what would otherwise have been an extremist fringe in a marginal country." In a remark not calculated to make him friends in Riyadh, he continues, "Imagine that the Ku Klux Klan or some similar group obtains total control of the state of Texas, of its oil and therefore its oil revenues, and having done so, uses this money to establish a network of well-endowed schools and colleges all over Christendom, peddling their own peculiar brand of Christianity."
It is the Wahabbist form of Islam that inspires Osama bin Laden and his acolytes around the world. Al Qaeda's leaders threw some other ideas into the mix -- notably those of Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, who advocated the destruction of "apostate" Middle Eastern regimes. They also added another innovation: the use of suicidal murderers willing to kill thousands of civilians to achieve their purposes. Lewis does a useful service by reminding us that suicide is a grave sin for Muslims and that the suicide attacker is "taking a considerable risk on a theological nicety" -- that in death he will achieve martyrdom and heaven rather than eternal damnation. "At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder," Lewis goes on to say. "At no point . . . do they even consider the random slaughter of uninvolved bystanders."
Lewis elegantly and concisely tracks the crisis that is besetting the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East, soberly explaining that if al Qaeda's leaders "can persuade the world of Islam to accept their views and their leadership, then a long and bitter struggle lies ahead." Bin Laden has acquired a mantle of respectability among certain sections of the Muslim world because other Middle Eastern leaders are seen as compromised. By contrast, his sizable fan base sees him as courageous and incorruptible. For that reason, al Qaeda is not only a terrorist organization but also is morphing into something that approximates a mass movement subscribing to bin Laden's Manichean view that the West really is the enemy of Islam. One can only hope that the conduct of U.S. policy in Iraq, both during the war and afterward, will help to invalidate that view. *
Peter Bergen is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden."