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September 2007

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Crisis of Islam

Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War & Unholy Terror, New York: Random House Books, 2003.

Reviewed by Captain Timothy E. Wolfe, US Army

In The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, Bernard Lewis explores a wide array of causal factors for the current conflict involving Islamic fundamentalists against Western democracies. While he does not seem to offer any conclusive practical solution to this quandary, Lewis does an outstanding job of cataloguing a great deal of information into a relatively short book. In so doing, he manages to educate readers without risking the loss of their attention through pleonasms or circumlocution.

In spite of his Jewish heritage, Bernard Lewis does not demonstrate any noticeable favoritism in this or any of his other works. He is a genuine (vis-à-vis revisionist) historian, and his intent in The Crisis of Islam is to focus on placing epochal events into perspective in order to elucidate their relevance to the evolution of the protean religious struggle into its modern milieu. Perhaps the most laudable characteristic of this book is that it addresses the major issues of the topic with just enough detail to arouse curiosity but not so much as to overwhelm the reader with excessive factual fodder; all the while retaining the crucial impartiality necessary to avoid skewing the opinion of his readership.

In The Crisis of Islam, Lewis highlights the social disparity between Western and Islamic societies. He explains that Muslims see themselves as affiliated with a religion separated into nations instead of as members of a nation separated into religions, which is the common affiliation Westerners associate with themselves. Whereas Western societies are generally secular, Islam is woven into the very fabric of a Muslim society, from politics to law to everyday living. This “religion versus nationalism” is reflected in the modern Arab's recognition of religious or tribal boundaries as compared to the Westerner's recognition of nation-state borders.

Lewis goes on to postulate that the widespread feeling of humiliation among the Muslims of the Middle East is a sine qua non for the fomentation of anti-Western hostilities which exist throughout the region. This humiliation is the result of confusion and rage. These are the products of a once-proud (almost to the point of arrogant narcissism) empire that attributed its unprecedented expansion through conquest to a pious dedication to Allah and now wonders why its ostensibly “superior” civilization has been far surpassed in so many respects by people they view as inferior infidels. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, Lewis explains, was largely the result of this humiliation exacerbated by contempt for the materialism espoused by Western civilization.

In typical centrist style, Lewis views Islam as not a threat to the West, yet he concludes that Islam is not harmless. Presumably, the author means by this that Islam can be practiced, as it is by millions of Americans, peacefully within a democratic society, yet like nearly any philosophy, extremists can manipulate it into a tool of violence. What Lewis fails to mention, however, is that those who practice Islam “peacefully” appear to ignore or disobey certain verses of the Koran that unequivocally incite believers into violence against non-Muslims. Nor does the Koran contain any Surah that directs its followers to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's” that could be interpreted as permission to submit to the laws of a secular government in lieu of those of Shariah law.

In his explanation of jihad, the author clarifies this commonly misunderstood phenomenon. He elaborates on the concepts of “greater” and “lesser” jihad and makes note of the seemingly contradictory messages of those Surahs revealed to the Prophet in Mecca in contrast to those revealed in Medina. Lewis also expounds on a detailed comparison of the Crusades to jihad. Here, the reader learns that scriptural support for endeavors such as the Crusades cannot be found in the Bible but that Jihad is encouraged saliently and with some frequency in the Koran. Additionally, Lewis challenges the Muslim claim that the Crusaders were “conquerors” by arguing that they were sent to “liberate” previously held Christian lands that had fallen to jihad conquerors. In an academe which seems to be saturated with agenda-driven intellectuals, Lewis' sobering perspective based on historically driven facts is a welcome solace.

Another important point brought to light in The Crisis of Islam is the comparison between the ancient “Hashashin” cult of Shiite assassins and the modern-day homicide bomber. Here, Lewis differentiates between the assassin, who used a dagger or other melee weapon to kill a targeted victim and was often killed in the process by the victim's security apparatus, and the homicide bomber, who uses explosives to kill both intentional and unintentional victims and, in the process, brings about his own death at his own hand. While the former dies a martyr's death at the hands of his enemy, the latter commits suicide, the penalty for which is clearly outlined in the Koran as repetition of the deadly act in hell for eternity. Additionally, Lewis states that the wanton murder of innocents cannot be justified by Koranic verse.

Just when the ambiance of the book starts to sway slightly towards condemnation of the Muslims, the author brings it back into moderation by explaining that the second-class dhimmitude afforded Jews and Christians living in Muslim lands was significantly better than the treatment that Christians gave Jews and Muslims living in their lands. Dhimmitude was the condition of living that infidels experienced under Islamic rulers whereby non-Muslims, or Dhimmis, were obligated to pay a tax for the right to live and continue to practice their religion under Muslim rule. Additionally, dress codes, noise statutes, architectural limitations, and legal disparities were imposed on Dhimmis. In spite of these strict rules, Dhimmis in Islamic lands fared far better than their Muslim and Jewish counterparts under Christian rule, who, the author explains, received neither religious tolerance nor, at times, even the right to live.

The author goes on to explain the different systems of alliances the Muslims involved themselves in to resist what they saw in the West as a hollow, cultureless society that worshipped only wealth and repeatedly demonstrated their apathy towards the plight of Muslims by supporting like-minded despotic quislings. A “them against us” victimization attitude emerged in the Muslim world, fueled by the rhetoric of charismatic leaders such as Sayyid Qutb, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Usama Bin Laden.

A final point that Lewis makes is a comparison between the economic and academic productivity of three of the most successful Islamic countries — Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan — to that of the tiny, resource-devoid nation of Israel. The GDP of Israel in 2005 was significantly more than that of these three Islamic countries combined, and Israel published and translated significantly more books than the entirety of the Arab Muslim world. These factors, according to Lewis, seem to serve as a solemn harbinger of continued hardship for the Arab Muslim world and, hence, continued violent struggle.

There is one final, albeit essential, piece of advice this reviewer would be remiss in neglecting to offer those considering the audio book in lieu of the hard copy - do not do it! Although a sage Middle East scholar of the contemporary era and a pleasure to read, Bernard Lewis is torturously difficult to listen to at length and, for whatever reason, chose to narrate his own book in its audio form. Regardless, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror was informative and unbiased. It provides an excellent introduction to, and understanding of, the long-standing conflict between Muslim and Western societies.


Following various military enlisted and officer assignments, Captain Wolfe served in the U.S. Army Special Forces and commanded an SF detachment for two years, with combat tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He later served for a year as a doctrine writer and analyst for the Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, NC, during which time he completed the course work for a master's degree in International Relations from Webster University. He is currently preparing to enter a second master's program in Public Policy at George Mason University.

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