Thursday, March 22, 2007

Prof. Lewis Speaks on Islam, the Mid East, & Conflict with the West, Part 1

Professor Benard Lewis, now ninety years old, is the West's preeminent scholar on Middle East. His writings foretold 9-11, and he is able to put the myriad of nuances regarding Islam, the Middle East, and Muslim interactions with the West into understandable framework. In this text of his most recent speech, Professor Lewis touches upon almost all of the major issues surrounding the Middle East and its relations with the West. I include his speech here in its entirety.

Thank you, Vice President and Mrs. Cheney, ladies and gentlemen. As you have been told, I have studied a number of languages, but I cannot find words in any of them adequate to express my feeling of gratitude for the honor and appreciation which I have been shown this evening. All I can say is thank you.

My topic this evening is Europe and Islam. But let me begin with a word of personal explanation. You are accustomed for the most part to hearing from people with direct practical involvement in military and intelligence matters. I cannot offer you that. My direct involvement with military and intelligence matters ended quite a long time ago--to be precise, on 31 August 1945, when I left His Majesty's Service and returned to the university to join with colleagues in trying to cope with a six-year backlog of battle-scarred undergraduates.

What I would like to try and offer you this evening is something of the lessons of history. Here I must begin with a second disavowal. It is sometimes forgotten that the content of history, the business of the historian, is the past, not the future. I remember being at an international meeting of historians in Rome during which a group of us were sitting and discussing the question: should historians attempt to predict the future? We batted this back and forth. This was in the days when the Soviet Union was still alive and well. One of our Soviet colleagues finally intervened and said, "In the Soviet Union, the most difficult task of the historian is to predict the past."

I do not intend to offer any predictions of the future in Europe or the Middle East, but one thing can legitimately be expected of the historian, and that is to identify trends and processes - to look at the trends in the past, at what is continuing in the present, and therefore to see the possibilities and choices which will face us in the future.

One other introductory word. A favorite theme of the historian, as I am sure you know, is periodization--dividing history into periods. Periodization is mostly a convenience of the historian for purposes of writing or teaching. Nevertheless, there are times in the long history of the human adventure when we have a real turning point, a major change--the end of an era, the beginning of a new era. I am becoming more and more convinced that we are in such an age at the present time--a change in history comparable with such events as the fall of Rome, the discovery of America, and the like. I will try to explain that.

Conventionally, the modern history of the Middle East begins at the end of the 18th century, when a small French expeditionary force commanded by a young general called Napoleon Bonaparte was able to conquer Egypt and rule it with impunity. It was a terrible shock that one of the heartlands of Islam could be invaded, occupied, and ruled with virtually no effective resistance.

The second shock came a few years later with the departure of the French, which was brought about not by the Egyptians nor by their suzerains, the Turks, but by a small squadron of the Royal Navy commanded by a young admiral called Horatio Nelson, who drove the French out and back to France.

This is of symbolic importance. That was, as I said, at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. From then onward, the heartlands of Islam were no longer wholly controlled by the rulers of Islam. They were under direct or indirect influence or control from outside.

The dominating forces in the Islamic world were now outside forces. What shaped their lives was Western influence. What gave them choices was Western rivalries. The political game that they could play--the only one that was open to them--was to try and profit from the rivalries between the outside powers, to try to use them against one another. We see that again and again in the course of the 19th and 20th and even into the beginning of the 21st century. We see, for example, in the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War, how Middle Eastern governments or leaders tried to play this game with varying degrees of success.

That game is now over. The era that was inaugurated by Napoleon and Nelson was terminated by Reagan and Gorbachev. The Middle East is no longer ruled or dominated by outside powers. These nations are having some difficulty adjusting to this new situation, to taking responsibility for their own actions and their consequences, and so on. But they are beginning to do so, and this change has been expressed with his usual clarity and eloquence by Osama bin Laden.

We see with the ending of the era of outside domination, the reemergence of certain older trends and deeper currents in Middle Eastern history, which had been submerged or at least obscured during the centuries of Western domination. Now they are coming back again. One of them I would call the internal struggles--ethnic, sectarian, regional--between different forces within the Middle East. These have of course continued, but were of less importance in the imperialist era. They are coming out again now and gaining force, as we see for example from the current clash between Sunni and Shia Islam--something without precedent for centuries.

The other thing more directly relevant to my theme this evening is the signs of a return among Muslims to what they perceive as the cosmic struggle for world domination between the two main faiths--Christianity and Islam. There are many religions in the world, but as far as I know there are only two that have claimed that their truths are not only universal--all religions claim that--but also exclusive; that they--the Christians in the one case, the Muslims in the other--are the fortunate recipients of God's final message to humanity, which it is their duty not to keep selfishly to themselves--like the Jews or the Hindus--but to bring to the rest of humanity, removing whatever obstacles there may be on the way. This self-perception, shared between Christendom and Islam, led to the long struggle that has been going on for more than fourteen centuries and which is now entering a new phase.

In the Christian world, now at the beginning of the 21st century of its era, this triumphalist attitude no longer prevails, and is confined to a few minority groups. In the world of Islam, now in its early 15th century, triumphalism is still a significant force, and has found expression in new militant movements.

It is interesting that both sides for quite a long time refused to recognize this struggle. For example, both sides named each other by non-religious terms. The Christian world called the Muslims Moors, Saracens, Tartars, and Turks. Even a convert was said to have turned Turk. The Muslims for their part called the Christian world Romans, Franks, Slavs, and the like. It was only slowly and reluctantly that they began to give each other religious designations and then these were for the most part demeaning and inaccurate. In the West, it was customary to call Muslims Mohammadans, which they never called themselves, based on the totally false assumption that Muslims worship Muhammad in the way that Christians worship Christ. The Muslim term for Christians was Nazarene--nasrani--implying the local cult of a place called Nazareth.

The declaration of war begins at the very beginning of Islam. There are certain letters purported to have been written by the Prophet Muhammad to the Christian Byzantine emperor, the emperor of Persia, and various other rulers, saying, "I have now brought God's final message. Your time has passed. Your beliefs are superseded. Accept my mission and my faith or resign or submit--you are finished." The authenticity of these prophetic letters is doubted, but the message is clear and authentic in the sense that it does represent the long dominant view of the Islamic world.

A little later we have hard evidence--and I mean hard in the most literal sense--inscriptions. Many of you, I should think, have been to Jerusalem. You have probably visited that remarkable building, the Dome of the Rock. It is very significant. It is built on a place sacred to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Its architectural style is that of the earliest Christian churches. It dates from the end of the 7th century and was built by one of the early caliphs, the oldest Muslim religious building outside Arabia. What is significant is the message in the inscriptions inside the Dome: "He is God, He is one, He has no companion, He does not beget, He is not begotten." (cf. Qur'an, IX, 31-3; CXII, 1-3) This is clearly a direct challenge to certain central principles of the Christian faith.

Interestingly, they put the same thing on a new gold coinage. Until then, striking gold coins had been an exclusive Roman privilege. The Islamic caliph for the first time struck gold coins, breaching the immemorial privilege of Rome, and putting the same inscription on them. As I said, a challenge.

The Muslim attack on Christendom and the resulting conflict, which arose more from their resemblances than from their differences, has gone through three phases. The first dates from the very beginning of Islam, when the new faith spilled out of the Arabian Peninsula, where it was born, into the Middle East and beyond. It was then that they conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa--all at that time part of the Christian world--and went beyond into Europe, conquering a sizable part of southwestern Europe, including Spain, Portugal, and southern Italy, all of which became part of the Islamic world, and even crossing the Pyrenees into France and occupying for a while parts of France.

After a long and bitter struggle, the Christians managed to retake part but not all of the territory they had lost. They succeeded in Europe, and in a sense Europe was defined by the limits of that success. They failed to retake North Africa or the Middle East, which were lost to Christendom. Notably, they failed to recapture the Holy Land, in the series of campaigns known as the Crusades.

That was not the end of the matter. In the meantime the Islamic world, having failed the first time, was bracing for the second attack, this time conducted not by Arabs and Moors but by Turks and Tartars. In the mid-thirteenth century the Mongol conquerors of Russia were converted to Islam. The Turks, who had already conquered Anatolia, advanced into Europe and in 1453 they captured the ancient Christian citadel of Constantinople. They conquered a large part of the Balkans, and for a while ruled half of Hungary. Twice they reached as far as Vienna, to which they laid siege in 1529 and again in 1683. Barbary corsairs from North Africa--well-known to historians of the United States--were raiding Western Europe. They went to Iceland--the uttermost limit--and to several places in Western Europe, including notably a raid on Baltimore (the original one, in Ireland) in 1631. In a contemporary document, we have a list of 107 captives who were taken from Baltimore to Algiers, including a man called Cheney.

Again, Europe counterattacked, this time more successfully and more rapidly. They succeeded in recovering Russia and the Balkan Peninsula, and in advancing further into the Islamic lands, chasing their former rulers whence they had come. For this phase of European counterattack, a new term was invented: imperialism. When the peoples of Asia and Africa invaded Europe, this was not imperialism. When Europe attacked Asia and Africa, it was.

This European counterattack began a new phase which brought the European attack into the very heart of the Middle East. In our own time, we have seen the end of the resulting domination.

Osama bin Laden, in some very interesting proclamations and declarations, has this to say about the war in Afghanistan which, you will remember, led to the defeat and retreat of the Red Army and the collapse of the Soviet Union. We tend to see that as a Western victory, more specifically an American victory, in the Cold War against the Soviets. For Osama bin Laden, it was nothing of the kind. It is a Muslim victory in a jihad. If one looks at what happened in Afghanistan and what followed, this is, I think one must say, a not implausible interpretation.

As Osama bin Laden saw it, Islam had reached the ultimate humiliation in this long struggle after World War I, when the last of the great Muslim empires--the Ottoman Empire--was broken up and most of its territories divided between the victorious allies; when the caliphate was suppressed and abolished, and the last caliph driven into exile. This seemed to be the lowest point in Muslim history. From there they went upwards.

In his perception, the millennial struggle between the true believers and the unbelievers had gone through successive phases, in which the latter were led by the various imperial European powers that had succeeded the Romans in the leadership of the world of the infidels--the Christian Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the British and French and Russian empires. In this final phase, he says, the world of the infidels was divided and disputed between two rival superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. In his perception, the Muslims have met, defeated, and destroyed the more dangerous and the more deadly of the two infidel superpowers. Dealing with the soft, pampered and effeminate Americans would be an easy matter.

This belief was confirmed in the 1990s when we saw one attack after another on American bases and installations with virtually no effective response of any kind--only angry words and expensive missiles dispatched to remote and uninhabited places.

The lessons of Vietnam and Beirut were confirmed by Mogadishu. "Hit them, and they'll run." This was the perceived sequence leading up to 9/11. That attack was clearly intended to be the completion of the first sequence and the beginning of the new one, taking the war into the heart of the enemy camp.

In the eyes of a fanatical and resolute minority of Muslims, the third wave of attack on Europe has clearly begun. We should not delude ourselves as to what it is and what it means. This time it is taking different forms and two in particular: terror and migration.

The subject of terror has been frequently discussed and in great detail, and I do not need to say very much about that now. What I do want to talk about is the other aspect of more particular relevance to Europe, and that is the question of migration.
In earlier times, it was inconceivable that a Muslim would voluntarily move to a non-Muslim country. The jurists discuss this subject at great length in the textbooks and manuals of shari`a, but in a different form: is it permissible for a Muslim to live in or even visit a non-Muslim country? And if so, if he does, what must he do?

Generally speaking, this was considered under certain specific headings. A captive or a prisoner of war obviously has no choice, but he must preserve his faith and get home as soon as possible.

The second case is that of an unbeliever in the land of the unbelievers who sees the light and embraces the true faith--in other words, becomes a Muslim. He must leave as soon as possible and go to a Muslim country.

The third case is that of a visitor. For long, the only purpose that was considered legitimate was to ransom captives. This was later expanded into diplomatic and commercial missions. With the advance of the European counterattack, there was a new issue in this ongoing debate. What is the position of a Muslim if his country is conquered by infidels? May he stay or must he leave?

We have some interesting documents from the late 15th century, when the reconquest of Spain was completed and Moroccan jurists were discussing this question. They asked if Muslims could stay. The general answer was no, it is not permissible. The question was asked: May they stay if the Christian government that takes over is tolerant? This proved to be a purely hypothetical question, of course. The answer was no; even then they may not stay, because the temptation to apostasy would be even greater. They must leave and hope that in God's good time they will be able to reconquer their homelands and restore the true faith.

The speech is continued here at Part 2.

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