The Crisis of IslamHoly War and Unholy Terror
By Bernard Lewis
Review by La Shawn Barber
When the Ayatollah Khomeini first referred to the United States as “The Great Satan” at the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, he wanted to invoke the image of the Seducer, the Liar of all liars. According to the Koran, Satan is “an insidious tempter who whispers in the hearts of men.” To Muslims, America is not a superpower to be feared, but a deceiver to be obliterated.
In his concise, best-selling book, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, Bernard Lewis examines the religious origins of terrorism and takes the reader through thirteen centuries of the history of Islam. He explores key events leading up to terrorism in the twenty-first century. A follow-up to his best-selling What Went Wrong? <read review>, this readable, 184-page book includes four maps showing the expansion of Islam in the Middle East from 622 A.D. to the present.
Lewis’s thesis is that Islam’s current obsession with the United States isn’t a recent phenomenon, and its hatred isn’t just about Israel. To Muslims like Osama bin Laden, the war against the “Land of the Unbelievers” is a religious one. Despite President Bush’s pronouncement that Islam is a religion of peace, Lewis makes clear that it is not. The Middle East’s escalating hatred for the West challenges many assumptions Americans--who are baffled by this hatred--may have about Islam.
A Middle East expert, Lewis proffers that Americans are puzzled by this venomous sentiment because their general level of historical knowledge is “abysmally low.” Muslims, however, are defined by their history: who they are, where they came from, and what they perceive as God’s purpose for their lives. “For [Osama] bin Laden, his declaration of war against the United States marks the resumption of the struggle for religious dominance of the world that began in the seventh century,” Lewis writes.
For example, to the Middle East, President Bush is just a successor in a long line of rulers--from the Byzantine emperors of Constantinople, the Holy Roman Emperors in Vienna, Queen Victoria, and other European imperialists--who are serious impediments to the divinely ordained expansion of Islam, merely delaying its inevitable conquest. Without understanding how important history is to followers of Islam and how important it should be to Americans, the confusion will continue.
With an engaging style, Lewis traces the development of Islam from the prophet Muhammad in seventh century Arabia, to the rule of the caliphates, under which Islam grew to become a world religion in barely a century. He dedicates a chapter to the influence of oil wealth in the spreading of Wahhabism, a strict and violent sect established in Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabis have been able to broaden their version of Islam worldwide because of Saudi Arabia's oil money and power in the Middle East. Lewis contends this violent sect would have remained an isolated fringe without oil wealth. His point raises interesting questions about America’s present alliance with Saudi Arabia.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Crisis of Islam is the connection Lewis makes between failed social movements--Nazism, Soviet Marxism and Socialism--and the anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. These social theories played a key role in building the foundation of their anti-Americanism, a fact many are either unaware of or have forgotten (Ironically, the Middle East’s contempt for the West also had origins in the nihilistic philosophy so familiar to the brooding American college student). Muslim intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s embraced the philosophy of these movements not because they thought them great, but because anti-Americanism was a distinct part of the message.
Page after edifying page is packed with such fascinating facts. Lewis challenges twenty-first century Americans’ assumption that Muslims hate America because of its alliance with Israel. At the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, the U.S. was cautious and maintained limited contact with Israel. Not until the spread of Soviet influence in the Middle East during the Cold War did the U.S. begin to see Israel as a well-positioned ally. Countries such as Russia and France have had much deeper involvement with Israel, but the Middle East’s wrath seems to be focused on America.
In the post-Cold War era, the U.S. is unmistakably the dominant force in the world. For the first time in centuries, Lewis argues, the Osamas have no useful enemies of the West to turn to for support in an attack against the U.S. To paraphrase Lewis, radical Muslims realized that if they wanted to fight the U.S., they had to do it themselves. The war has only just begun.
In the last chapter of the book, “The Rise of Terrorism”, Lewis discusses what he calls “new-style terrorists”, where innocent civilians--not just one person--are the prime target. The goal is to inspire fear and gain international publicity. Lewis instructs the reader in the Koran, declaring that suicide is a major sin and punished by eternal damnation in Islam. The terrorists who attacked the U.S. on September 11 have no justification in Islamic doctrine or law and no precedent in Islamic history. Islamic terrorists are in direct contradiction to their holy book.
The Crisis of Islam has no happy ending. Closing on a somber note, Lewis writes, “If the fundamentalists are correct in their calculations and succeed in their war, then a dark future awaits the world, especially the part of it that embraces Islam.” If The Crisis of Islam leaves us with only one lesson, it should be this: Islam is a religion, a culture, and a way of life. The more we understand this world and our place in it, the better equipped we’ll be to defend ourselves against those who are willing to die to annihilate us.
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