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A review of The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. By Bernard Lewis.

Nov 23, 2004

Phoenix 2003.

Bernard Lewis is a leading Orientalist and expert on Islam. The author of dozens of books on the subject, spanning five decades, he is a world authority on the Middle East, Islam and its history, and related concerns. His newest volume thus does not disappoint.

This volume examines the various undercurrents in the Muslim world today, and how a divided Islam is seeking to interact with the rest of the world. Arab unity, Lewis demonstrates, is now an oxymoron. Today no single Muslim polity exists, and this is part of the problem, or identity crisis, which the Islamic world faces.

For many centuries there was one Islamic community united by one ruler. Even when that community splintered into various states, there was still a discernable unified polity. No longer however. It is this divided and amorphous body that now is seeking to find its way in the modern world.  Resentment, disorientation and despair have been part of the reaction. And the rise of terrorism is one of the more pronounced responses to this loss of unity and hegemony.

The loss of a coherent centre in Islam, and its fall as a global power, is at the heart of the current crisis in Islam. Of course Islam is more than just a religion, it is a culture and civilization as well. For a millennia it enjoyed the status as a world power. But the past century has witnessed a great reversal of fortune for this empire, and the responses have been varied.

In this volume the fourteen centuries of Islam are discussed, but special attention is focused on the past few centuries. As part of his historical examination, Lewis compares the Islamic and Christian civilizations. In many ways they are sister civilizations, he notes.

They certainly have much more in common with each other than with the major eastern religious traditions. And of course both share common ancestry with Judaism. And both appeal to divine revelation and a divine law-giver.

But there are major differences as well. This is especially apparent in the relationship between religion, society and the state. They are clearly separate – or at least should be – in Christianity. But no such distinction exists in Islam. Church and state relations, so much of an issue of debate in Western Christian nations is not even an issue in Islam. The Muslim world is at once both a religious and a political sphere. One can choose between God and Caesar in Christianity. Both are one and the same in Islam.

And of course Islam responded to modernity in a much different manner than did Christianity. In fact, it can be said that it was Christian civilization that gave birth to modernism, and it has in many ways accepted its offspring. Islam on the other hand did not – perhaps could not – give rise to such a development, and even if it did, would have considered it a bastard son.

With the differing reactions to modernism in mind, Lewis examines the various responses to the crisis in Islam that has followed, with extensive discussion of one of the more frightening options, that of terrorism.

The rise of Islamic extremism is examined in detail, with helpful comparisons made of other forms of militancy, including the Christian Crusades. While some may seek to argue that the major monotheistic religions are the same in terms of the use of force, Lewis demonstrates some obvious differences.

He makes clear that while there has always been a history of armed conquest in Islam, Christian use of arms is both tangential and unjustified in terms of its own faith and its propagation. Indeed, while there are some similarities between the histories of Christian and Islamic civilization, this is an area of major difference. Jihad is a religious obligation in Islam, while the Crusades were a late, limited and perverted trajectory of Christianity.

While the concept of jihad can also be understood in a more general sense as a religious striving, from its inception it also had a military connotation. And throughout Islamic history, jihad has mainly been understood to mean armed struggle.

True, both Islam and Christianity have a concept of just war theory, but differences nonetheless exist. For example, much of Islam’s wars were fought against the followers of other faiths. Christian battles tended to be in-house, against those seen as heretical and schismatic.

And to the modern Muslim terrorists at least, there is no such thing as collateral damage. Uninvolved civilians are a prime target. This is a major means of inspiring fear and winning psychological victory, along with gaining publicity. Christianity eschews such practices in principle, although Islam is not alone in resorting to such means. European terrorist organizations also spring to mind.

Moreover, there is in Islam no instruction to turn the other cheek, nor an expectation of swords being beaten into plowshares. In addition, there is the theory and practice of assassination in Islam which is foreign to Christianity. It arose at an early period in Islam’s history, and of course we get the term from a Muslim sect dating from the eleventh century.

And suicide terrorism is in one sense also a new development, and one which Muslim terrorists have been happy to employ. One can think of the Kamikaze pilots, as one non-Muslim example. But they tended to focus on military targets, not civilian populations. Thus the suicide bomber is in many ways uniquely the product of Muslim extremism.

Lewis makes it clear however that the bulk of Muslims are neither fundamentalists nor terrorists, and have little sympathy for their cause. And he leaves open the question as to which way the majority of Muslims will go. If they follow the path of groups like Al Qaida, then the future looks grim indeed. But if the majority pursue a better, more peaceful option, then there are hopeful prospects ahead.

But Lewis is realistic on this. He reminds us that of the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, only one, Turkey, has had any history of length of democratic institutions. The only other two at the moment who might move in this direction are Iran and Iraq.

And he rightly notes that the war against terror and the struggle for freedom are closely related. Fostering pro-democracy reforms in the Middle East will be difficult and painstakingly slow. But they are possible and must be pursued with the same rigor that we use in combating terrorism.

In sum, this book is both realistic in its appraisal of recent Muslim history, but sensitive to distinctions, and hopeful of a better future than what we have recently been through.

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