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Seven Questions: Bernard Lewis on the Two Biggest Myths About Islam

He is one of the world’s foremost scholars of Islam and the Middle East. Bernard Lewis shares his thoughts on Iraq, “Islamofascism,” the roots of terrorism, and the two biggest misperceptions about the Muslim faith.

From the Jan./Feb. 2008 issue of Foreign Policy: A World Without Islam, by Graham Fuller. Remove Islam from the path of history, and the world ends up exactly where it is today.

Foreign Policy: What do you see as the biggest misperception about Islam?

Bernard Lewis: Well, there are two. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, predominates. It depends when and where. I would call them the negative one and the positive one. The negative one sees Muslims as a collection of bloodthirsty barbarians offering people the choice of the Koran or the sword, and generally bringing tyranny and oppression wherever they go. And the other one is the exact opposite, what you might call the sanitized version, which presents Islam as a religion of love and peace, rather like the Quakers but without their aggressiveness. The truth is in its usual place, somewhere between the extremes.

FP: Do you believe in the clash of civilizations theory of Samuel P. Huntington, that the Islamic world and the West are destined to butt heads?

BL: Well, I dont go into destiny; Im a historian and I deal with the past. But I certainly think there is something in the clash of civilizations. What brought Islam and Christendom into conflict was not so much their differences as their resemblances. There are many religions in the world, but almost all of them are regional, local, ethnic, or whatever you choose to call it. Christianity and Islam are the only religions that claim universal truth. Christians and Muslims are the only people who claim they are the fortunate recipients of Gods final message to humanity, which it is their duty not to keep selfishly to themselveslike the Jews or the Hindus or the Buddhistsbut to bring to the rest of mankind, removing whatever obstacles there may be in the way.

So, we have two religions with a similar self-perception, a similar historical background, living side by side, and conflict becomes inevitable.

FP: You write in your chapter about radical Islam that most Muslims are not fundamentalists, and that most fundamentalists are not terrorists. Thats not self-evident to everyone, so can you just explain it a little further?

BL: Naturally we hear about the acts of terror. Nobody ever wrote a headline saying a million people went peacefully about their business yesterday and did nothing. Terrorism is very much the news of the moment and it is also the threat of the moment. It is a real menace, and I dont wish to understate that or diminish it in any way. But if one assumes that thats all there is to Islam, thats a grave mistake, because terrorism only comes from one brand of Islam, and even that one brand of Islam is not entirely committed to terrorism. But for a terrorist movement, you do need mass support.

FP: I noticed that you use the term Islamofascism in the conclusion of your book. That term has been hotly debated. What do you think? Is it harmful or useful?

BL: Well, I dont use it; I discuss it. I think one has to confront that this is a term that is used. I dont like it because its insulting to Muslims. They see it as insulting to link the name of their religion with the most detestable of all the European movements. Its useful in the sense that it does distinguish real Islam from Islamofascism, but I still feel that the connection is insulting, and I prefer to use the term radical Islam.

FP: A lot of analysts, and this is especially something you hear from political leaders in the Muslim world, say that Islam has nothing to do with terrorismthat these are completely separate issues. Is that a view that you subscribe to? Some people say that terrorism is largely caused by occupation or a response to U.S. policy, not Islam.

BL: Well, I cant subscribe to it since the terrorists themselves claim to be acting in the name of Islam. There was one Muslim leader who said, not long ago, that it is wrong to speak about Muslim terrorism, because if a man commits an act of terrorism, hes not a Muslim. Thats very nice, but that could also be interpreted as meaning that if a Muslim commits it, it doesnt count as terrorism.

When a large part of the Muslim world was under foreign rule, then you might say that terrorism was a result of imperialism, of imperial rule and occupation. But at the present time, almost the whole of the Muslim world has achieved its independence. They can no longer blame others for what goes wrong. They have to confront the realities of their own lives at home. A few places remain disputed, like Chechnya and Israel and some others, but these are relatively minor if youre talking about the Islamic world as a whole.

FP: Iraq, which used to be ruled by a Sunni ruler, is now being governed by Shiites. What does that mean in the context of Islamic history?

BL: I think it means a great deal. But what is important in Iraq is not that its being ruled by the Shiites, but that its being ruled by a democracy, by a free, elected government that faces a free opposition. It proves what is often disputed, that the development of democratic institutions in a Muslim Arab country is possible. A lot of people say, No, its impossible. It cant work. They cant do it. Well, its difficult, but its not impossible, and I think Iraq proves that. What is happening in Iraq I find profoundly encouraging. Of course, it is the ripple effect from Iraq that is causing alarm among all the tyrants that rule these countries [in the region]. If it works in Iraq, it could work elsewhere, and this is very disturbing [for tyrants].

FP: As someone who has spent so much time studying the Ottoman Empire, the history of Islam, and the region, is the future of Islam something that has a deep meaning to you personally? Where do you see the Muslim world headed in the next decade?

BL: Im not a religious person. But I find things that are good and encouraging. Islam over the last 14 centuries has brought dignity and meaning to millions of drab and impoverished lives. It has created a great civilization that has gone through several different phases in several different countries. It is now going through a major crisis, and it could go either way. It could descend into a fanatical tyranny, which would be devastating for Muslims and a threat to the rest of the world. Or they may succeed in developing their own brand of democracy. When we talk about the possibility of democracy in the Islamic world, it doesnt have to be our kind. Our kind results from our own history and institutions. Its not a universal model. They can, and I think will, develop their own brand of democracy, by which I mean limited, civilized, responsible government. And there are signs of that.

Bernard Lewis is professor emeritus at Princeton University and the author of dozens of books, most recently Islam: The Religion and the People (Upper Saddle River: Wharton School Publishing, 2008), coauthored with Buntzie Ellis Churchill.

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