What went wrong with Bernard Lewis?

IN SEPTEMBER OF 1990, at the cusp of the fall of the Soviet Union, Bernard Lewis published a seminal essay in the Atlantic Monthly titled “The Roots of Muslim Rage”. The essay articulates his basic theory as to why Islamic civilization is in such disarray and what must be done to fix it. Through a series of subsequent books he argues that Islam’s downfall was a result of its inability to modernize, focusing specifically on the relationship between religion and state. His underlying argument, that Muslims are angry because their religion has failed them, and not because of geopolitics, foreign occupation or anything else, provides the intellectual justification for many failed US policies in the Middle East since 9/11.

Lewis acknowledges the fact that Islam was an integral component of the great civilizational flourishing that took place in the Muslim world during the Middle Ages. He goes on to contend that the bifurcation of religious and secular authority in Europe and North America during the advent of modernity created a world where nations influenced by sociopolitical Islam were no longer viable. In short, he concludes that what made Islam great, the influence of religion in the public conscience, is what in part led to its eventual downfall. Lewis goes on to argue in his book The Crisis of Islam that Islam is at a civilizational crossroads, and Muslims have two choices. The first is to ” attributed all evil to the abandonment of the divine heritage of Islam and advocate[s] a return to a real or imagined past. The other way is that of secular democracy, best embodied in the Turkish republic founded by Kemal Atatiirk.” For Lewis, nothing short of a transformation of the Muslim world into the latter would ensure security for America at home.

Lewis’s ideas were important because of his eminent status amongst policymakers in Washington. His close relationships with neoconservatives like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are well noted. A 2004 Time magazine profile of Lewis explained that no other scholar had more influence on the decision to wage war in Iraq. The war was, in effect, a test of whether or not Lewis was correct in his diagnosis and prescription for what ails the Muslim world.
The dramatic failure of Lewis’s perspec- tive is best illustrated by comparing the status of two countries situated at the crossroads of the Middle East and Europe. On one hand there is Turkey, a nation that has made significant economic and politi- cal strides under Tayyip Erdogan and his justice & Development Party. While Erdo- gan enjoys support from a majority of Turks as evidenced by his landslide elec- tion, his administration must continue to tread carefully around the anti-religious military establishment, the guardians of the Atatiirk- style secular republic advocated by Lewis. Erdogan, a devout Muslim, is fashioning Turkey into a modern Muslim republic, the kind of nation capable of reconciling its Islamic heritage with the realities of the modern world.

On the other hand you have Iraq, a country plunged into civil war by the very interventionist force that Lewis argued would bring about democracy. In Turkey, Islam interacted with the modern world, resulting in mainstream Muslim leadership that respects both religion and the secular foundations of the state. In Iraq, external military intervention was used as a catalyst for reform, resulting in complete chaos. We would have all been better off had Lewis remained in his ivory tower.

US policymakers must abandon the Lewisian perspective. Given that Lewis was completely wrong in every policy recommendation his body of work formulated, it may be instructive for US policymakers to do that exact opposite of what he would argue. This would include recognizing that foreign policy has played an important role in the current political malaise of the Middle East and that Islam’s interaction with democracy does not necessarily result in medieval style governance.

What remains is the need to reconfigure how we understand the role of religion in Muslim politics. The vast majority of Muslims are not interested in a monolithic totalitarian religious state. At the same time, many want Islam to play a role in shaping the social, cultural and moral underpinnings of society. This is not something US policymakers should fear. Rather, it is something they should try and understand.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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