Read Bernard Lewis — When He Goes On Sale

Bernard Lewis has two books out this holiday season: “What Went Wrong?” and “The Crisis of Islam.” WWW was written before 9/11 and published just after, but has been rereleased to take advantage of the surge of interest in the Middle East.

Lewis’ work is interesting and insightful, but overpriced. Especially since much of what he says can be found in various articles over the last 15 years and available via Google. So I recommend the books, but only when they go on sale after the holidays.

Lewis’approaches a question troubling many today from diverse points of view: Why is unremitting hostility directed against the United States by the Islamic world, even to the point where murderous tyrants such as Saddam Hussein are embraced as popular heroes for their postures of defiance? Lewis rejects the surface explanations of the left and right — in the case of the left, that particular U.S. policies can explain current hostility and in the case of the right that there is something intrinsic in Islam that hates democracy.

Instead, Lewis traces the current situation to a longstanding difficulty of the Islamic world. For nearly the first thousand years of Islamic history, Islam triumphued not merely as a religion gaining converts but as a military, scientific, and economic power. To the extent the lands of Islam suffered losses or invasiuons they were either peripheral (such as the Spanish reconquista), absorbed (such as the Mongol invasions) or expelled by Moslems over time (such as the Crusader Kingdoms). When Napoleon and a comparitively small force of French troops took control of Egypt, however, and could only be evicted by the efforts of another western, Christian power, the lands Islam were confronted with irrefutable evidence that their material success was waning.

The three centuries since Napoleon have seen the Islamic world try a number of remedies, and fall further behind. To make the humiliation of Islamic lands worse, Asian countries have now succesfully westernized and experienced a concomitant increase in prosperity.

Lewis argues that anti-Americanism is an outgrowth of the internal debate in the Islamic world and that America, because of its dominance in World affairs since WWII, has become the symbol of all that is wrong and, by default, the party responsible. Under this analysis, solving U.S.-Arab relations is not so simple as changing diplomatic positions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict or withdrawing from bases in Saudi Arabia. U.S. policy must cease accomodating dictators in the region — even where allied with the U.S. -and encourage the growth of democracy in the region.

It is, as I say, an interesting read, but not worth the $20+ being asked for the hardcover.



  1. I have found Lewis’s thesis at least plausible, although I remember reading something he wrote once somewhere (sorry I can’t give a better reference) and thinking that he was talking through his hat. I experienced Islam while living for two years in a moslem village as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and much of what I see in the popular media about Islam has precious little do do with what I experienced. Of course Islam is varied, like, say, Christianity, where different interpretations are miles and miles apart.

    And of course Islam is changing. I found this <a href=”http://www.davidwarrenonlin

    article</a>, by David Warren, who grew up Christian in Lahore, Pakistan, to be very compelling and insightful. And depressing, too.

  2. Ooops == my link is broken. The story to look for is called “wrestling with Islam.”

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