Saturday, November 21, 2015

Notes on Bernard Lewis' book, THE CRISIS OF ISLAM

Chapter three deals with the history of conflict between Islam and (mostly) European
powers from the time of the Crusades till the collapse of the Soviet Union. Why? To
show the importance, or lack of importance, of the Crusades and Western imperialism
 to the current “Crisis of Islam.”

Lewis notes that the Crusades don’t loom large in Arabic history and that “Awareness
of the Crusades as a distinctive historical phenomenon dates from the 19th century, and
the translation of EUROPEAN [my emphasis] books on history” (bottom, p. 50). Read
the rest of the paragraph (top, p.51) for the remainder of Lewis’ summary. Only in the
last two centuries have the Crusades have become a prototype of European imperialism.

Concerning this European imperialism, Lewis points out that it came in response to
centuries of Islamic expansion--an expansion that included the Christian holy lands,
North Africa, Spain, and Eastern Europe. It is instructive to remember that Islamic
(Ottoman) armies were besieging VIENNA as late as 1683! The crisis of Islam was
precipitated when Muslims began to lose, rather than win, the imperialist struggle (read
the first, and only, full paragraph on p. 52). Islam had no problem with imperialism
when they were the imperialists--only when infidels began to win (cf. the paragraph on
“apostasy” on p. 55). The crisis of Islam, in a few words, amounts to this: “Why are
the infidels winning? What can we do to stop them?” [My words, not a quote from

In the last few pages of chapter three Lewis shows how European imperialism--an
extension of the historical “counterpunches” to Islamic imperialism--has shaped policy in
the Middle East. These “countries”--largely creations of 20th century League of Nations
mandates--sought out patrons that were adversaries of their colonial masters. Thus, links
between Syria, Iraq, and Germany were established--to weaken the Brits. After WWII,
links with the Soviet Union were sought to offset American power in the region. After
the fall of the Soviet Union, no counterveiling power presented itself--a fact that
facilitated the rise of groups like Osama’s which claimed that they (Afghan rebels) were
responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Lewis denies that imperialism, per se, had devastating economic consequences--pointing
out, for example, ways in which countries with imperialist backgrounds are academically
and legally more advanced than countries (like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan) without
such imperialist histories. On the other hand, Lewis sees the “strengthening of state
authority” and its mechanisms for repression as an important negative aspect of the
“modernization” that accompanied European imperialism (p. 58).

Chapter eight concerns the origins of Wahhabism--the sect of Islam with which Osama
bin Laden is associated. Its violent, intolerant character (directed primarily against
Muslim rulers who are considered apostates) is reviewed in the first few pages of the
chapter (see the bottom of p. 122). The sect arose, in Lewis’ view, because the gradual
erosion of Islamic power had become obvious even at the geographical centers of
Muslim authority by the mid-18th century.

The chapter then explains how this sect became dominant in the regions where the house
of Saud gained power in the early 20th century. When oil wealth was added to the mix,
the result could be compared to an extensive KKK educational system funded by massive
oil revenues (p. 129).

As Western ideas and power are viewed as the source of the problems experienced by
Islamic countries, and as capitalist and communist solutions are seen as failures, “pure”
(i.e. Wahhabist) Islam, became an increasingly attractive social and political alternative
to reverse the crisis of Islam.

Chapter nine describes historical precedents of terrorism, emphasizing especially that
there is no basis in orthodox Islam for contemporary suicide terrorism. The intentional
killing of innocents was pioneered by nationalists but has been taken over by religious
extremists of the bin Laden stripe. The last few pages describe the views/demands of
radical Muslims vis a vis the United States--their view of 9/11, of American depravity
and political cowardice. Lewis concludes with a subdued plea for Western countries
to support the forces of liberalization that exist in Iran and Iraq--or to face a bleak
future. (In other words, he is asking Americans to show some backbone in Iraq and
not to conform to the image that bin Laden publicizes of a paper tiger with no courage
or staying power, p. 162).

All page numbers assume the paperback edition of Lewis’ book.