The Roots of Muslim Rage: Recalling Bernard Lewis' 1990 Essay
Nowadays, there seems to be no shortage of self-professed (and often self-aggrandizing) experts on the Middle East, Islam, and/or Western-Islamic relations. Most recite shopworn narratives and are eminently forgettable, while some succeed in imparting at least a measure of insight on arguably the seminal issue of our time. Fewer still are indispensable reservoirs of enlightenment and as such have attained "must-read" status. Bernard Lewis is one of those precious few.
Nearly two decades ago, in September of 1990, Mr. Lewis expressed his views on the origins of Muslim rage. His forum was The Atlantic magazine. For those disinclined to read the article in its entirety, several opening paragraphs provide an excellent historical primer:
Like every other civilization known to human history, the Muslim world in its heyday saw itself as the center of truth and enlightenment, surrounded by infidel barbarians whom it would in due course enlighten and civilize. But between the different groups of barbarians there was a crucial difference. The barbarians to the east and the south were polytheists and idolaters, offering no serious threat and no competition at all to Islam. In the north and west, in contrast, Muslims from an early date recognized a genuine rival--a competing world religion, a distinctive civilization inspired by that religion, and an empire that, though much smaller than theirs, was no less ambitious in its claims and aspirations. This was the entity known to itself and others as Christendom, a term that was long almost identical with Europe.
The struggle between these rival systems has now lasted for some fourteen centuries. It began with the advent of Islam, in the seventh century, and has continued virtually to the present day. It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests. For the first thousand years Islam was advancing, Christendom in retreat and under threat. The new faith conquered the old Christian lands of the Levant and North Africa, and invaded Europe, ruling for a while in Sicily, Spain, Portugal, and even parts of France. The attempt by the Crusaders to recover the lost lands of Christendom in the east was held and thrown back, and even the Muslims' loss of southwestern Europe to the Reconquista was amply compensated by the Islamic advance into southeastern Europe, which twice reached as far as Vienna. For the past three hundred years, since the failure of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 and the rise of the European colonial empires in Asia and Africa, Islam has been on the defensive, and the Christian and post-Christian civilization of Europe and her daughters has brought the whole world, including Islam, within its orbit.
To reduce a Bernard Lewis piece to a two paragraph summation does a disservice to both the author and the reader. All, therefore, are strongly urged to read and digest the unabridged version. Nevertheless, and as is often the case with Lewis, a great deal of insight and instructive analysis can be gleaned from even a modest sampling. In the extracted excerpt above, Lewis provides historical context to the often acrimonious relationship between the Islamic world and "Chistendom," or Europe, or what we today have been conditioned to regard as the West.
By endeavoring to date the rivalry--"the struggle between these rival systems has now lasted for some fourteen centuries"--Lewis has in effect torpedoed the naively self-comforting Western notion that the roots of the dispute, and thus its resolution, begins and ends exclusively with the foreign policy of the Bush administration. Further, in citing the "long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests," Lewis implicitly refutes those who seek to lay the blame exclusively on one side or the other (usually the "West" in many Western circles).
Obviously, if we are to speak with any fluency on the possible solutions to the present Western-Islamic impasse, we must invest every effort to learn and understand how we got here from there. Reading the likes of Bernard Lewis and others is a good start.