Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror
by Bernard Lewis
Modern Library. 170 pp. $19.95

Among the papers left by Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turk who shot the Pope on May 13, 1981, was a letter containing this sentence: “I have decided to kill John Paul II, supreme commander of the Crusades.” It is easy to dismiss this lone gunman’s fanatical obsession with what appears to us ancient history, but in the Middle East historical memory is as tangible as its chewy coffee. I have sometimes thought that among the things Americans export we would do well to pass along a little of our historical amnesia.

A germ of truth is, however, embedded in Agca’s imaginings. A pope, Urban II, did give impetus to the Crusades, and though the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem came to an end eight hundred years ago, the evidence of a century of Crusader rule is visible in the commanding castles and European-style churches that still rise from the arid landscape, as well as the longstanding bonds between Middle Eastern and Western Christians, especially in Lebanon and the Holy Land. For many Arabs Christianity appears as a colonial religion brought by the Crusaders. Though Jerusalem sank into obscurity in early modern times, in the nineteenth century European interest, followed by Jewish immigration, awakened Muslim memories. The Crusades came to be seen as an early example of European imperialism, and inexplicably to Westerners, the state of Israel as a Crusader state.

Osama bin Laden, no solitary gunman, also lives (or lived) with memories. In a videotape from October 2001, only a month after the attack on the twin towers, he spoke of the “humiliation and disgrace” Islam had suffered for “more than eighty years.” Few Americans caught the allusion, but bin Laden’s Muslim listeners understood his reference at once. In 1918 the Ottoman Empire was defeated by the Allies and its Arabic-speaking provinces were divided, organized to suit Western interests, and given new names by Britain and France. The Turks succeeded in liberating the Turkish-speaking parts of the empire, chiefly modern Turkey, and Mustafa Kemal, known to history as Ataturk, established a secular state (whose laws on religion were influenced by post-revolutionary French practice). In 1922, roughly eighty years before September 2001, he abolished the caliphate.

For Muslims the caliphate was the historic symbol of Islamic glory. Its demise not only marked the end of an institution that reached back to the very beginning of Islamic history”and with it the abandonment of the ideal of a single Muslim community bound together by political and religious authority”it also inaugurated a period of unprecedented hegemony of Western power and influence. Since then the West has been the source of major changes that have transformed the Islamic world.

In an earlier book, What Went Wrong , published shortly after September 11, 2001, Bernard Lewis outlined the gradual triumph of Western science, technology, ways of making war, learning, and culture over Islam since the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571, when the Christian league decisively defeated the Turks. In his latest book, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Holy Terror , Lewis takes up a similar theme, but now he focuses on the twentieth century and how recent events and historical memory nurture Islamic radicalism.

The book’s most interesting chapter deals with Arab knowledge of the United States. What little was known in the nineteenth century came originally through French sources. In Arabic the word for United States is Itazuni , a translation of the French États Unis . In an Arabic textbook translated from French and published in Egypt in 1833 there is a brief description of the Itazuni as a state composed of people whose “tribes” came from England and eventually freed themselves. “This country,” continues the textbook, “is among the greatest civilized countries in America, and in it worship in all faiths and religious communities is permitted. The seat of its government is a town called Washington.” As this suggests, references to the U.S., though few, were largely descriptive. Not until the Second World War did significant numbers of Americans take up residence in the Middle East and Arabs come to America as students, then businessmen, and finally as immigrants.

The change in attitudes toward the U.S. is perhaps best reflected in the thinking of Sayyid Qutub, one of the leaders of the radical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the mid-twentieth century. Qutub’s view of America was formed during a visit to the United States in 1948-1950 on behalf of the Egyptian Ministry of Education. The time was significant. The state of Israel had just been established, the Arab states had lost the war with the Israelis, and the magnitude of the destruction of European Jewry was first becoming known in the U.S. Qutub was deeply troubled by the identification of Americans with the Jewish people and U.S. support for the state of Israel. He was also shocked by the materialism and promiscuity of American life (the Kinsey report had recently appeared), as well as the shallowness and spiritual hucksterism of the American churches. Though he was executed in 1966 on charges of planning the assassination of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Qutub by the time of his death had seen enough of the growing influence of the American way of life on the Middle East to consider the U.S. a threat to Islam. This perception, Lewis claims, became “a regular part of the vocabulary and ideology of Islamic fundamentalism.”

As in his previous book Lewis provides data on the yawning gap between Western nations and the economies and cultures of Muslim societies. The gross domestic output of Turkey, a nation of sixty-four million people, is ranked twenty-third in the world, the highest of any Muslim country. That places it between Austria and Denmark, each of which has approximately five million citizens. The entire Arab world translates a little over three hundred books a year, one-fifth the number of Greece. Even more striking, the total number of translated books since the ninth century is approximately 100,000, the average that Spain translates in a single year. The people of the Middle East are more keenly aware today of the deep and widening gulf between the opportunities of the free world and the privation and repression of their own societies.

Then there are the consequences of national wealth being dependent on oil. Governments with vast sources of oil have no need to collect taxes or encourage representative assemblies, and can, up to a point, ignore public opinion. Hence the absence not only of political life but also of the mediating institutions that are so necessary for a healthy and stable society. The result, according to Lewis, is that religious extremism has become the most effective way to express dissatisfaction and discontent, not only against the West but also against secular Arab rulers. In the words of ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, an Egyptian executed for his role in the assassination of Anwar Sadat, “It is our duty to concentrate on our Islamic cause and that is the establishment first of all of God’s law in our own country and causing the word of God to prevail.”

In the view of these Muslims, the Western nations are degenerate because they are ruled not by God’s laws but laws of their own invention that separate religion from politics, from social life, and even from morality, a fact that is, they claim, embarrassingly evident in the U.S. Yet it is this way of life that infiltrates the Arab societies of the Middle East. It takes little imagination to grasp why stationing American troops in Saudi Arabia, the Muslim holy land, or attacking Iraq (and hence Baghdad), the seat of the ancient caliphate, is an affront to Muslims. The Crisis of Islam is a useful primer to developments over the last century that still dominate the evening news week after week. For that purpose it is an informative read.

In many ways, however, the book is misnamed. Its subject is not Islam but chiefly Islam in the Arab Middle East, Islam in its historic homeland. The “crisis” of which Lewis speaks is a crisis in the Arab world. It was there that Islam began and it was the Arabs who were the bearers of triumphant Islam for its first five hundred years. But today the Arabs are only a small part of the Islamic world. Al-Jazeera, the Arab television station, reaches an audience of forty-five million Arabic speakers, but the total number of Muslims in the world is now close to one billion. What worldwide Islam faces is not so much a crisis, but a series of challenges presented by quite different political and social environments. In Turkey Muslims face one set of issues, in Indonesia another, and in India yet another. In Nigeria, where there are large Muslim and Christian populations, Muslims cannot, for example, ask the government to provide Islamic law courts without being pressured to acknowledge an equal public status for Christianity. In the Western countries, including the United States, Muslims are struggling to reconcile their traditional belief that the Sharia embraces all of life, including politics, with the religious and cultural pluralism of the modern state.

From the beginning Islam has been a political as well as a religious community. Muslims did not have to wait three hundred years for a Constantine; Muhammad was their Constantine, a ruler as well as religious founder. The most pressing question for Muslims in many lands is how to order the life of the community in a society that is not governed according to Muslim law and in which Muslims must conceive of their religion, at least in part, as equivalent to a voluntary association. There is no Church in Islam, and what Muslims have historically required for authentic Muslim life extends far beyond religion.

As for the traditional Islamic countries, Lewis assumes that the future for the Islamic nations can only be a secular society along Western lines. This may seem self-evident, but as Western societies abandon traditional patterns of religious life”for example, Sunday as a holy day”and dismantle such traditional institutions as marriage, one wonders whether Christians (and Jews) should join the chorus of those urging Muslims to set out on the path taken by Western Civilization since the Enlightenment.

Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.