"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bernard Lewis on Religion, Politics, and the Middle East

The Princeton historian Bernard Lewis is widely hailed as the doyen of historians of Islam today. His latest book is

Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East (Oxford UP, 2010), xxi+208pp).

This is a small volume and consists entirely of collected essays all published elsewhere between 1988 and 2009. There is no index, bibliography, or footnotes. It is clearly written for the general reader coming to these matters with little to no previous background.

I had thought, given the title, that we might have a wider examination of religion and politics among the Jews, Eastern Christians, and Muslims of the Middle East. But we do not: this book's overwhelming preoccupation is Islam. When he treats Christianity it is always in the broadest, most abstract terms, as in the following formulation, repeated thrice in the text (as with all collected works of disparate essays, there is considerable repetition throughout the volume, almost verbatim in many places):
Moses led his people out of bondage and through the wilderness but was not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Christ died on the cross, and his followers were a persecuted minority until centuries later....Muhammad, the Prophet and founder of Islam, achieved worldly success during his lifetime, becoming the head of a state that was soon to grow into an empire (xii-xiiii).
His point, of course, is that those formative events of the "careers" of Moses and Jesus shape the way Jews and Christians will come to understand their relationship to the world, and in particular the relationship between synagogue/church and the state. The same is true for Mohammad, but in a radically different direction. Lewis notes that "in classical Islam, church [sic] and state are one and the same" (xii) so that to talk about them as two separate institutions is quite "meaningless"(ibid). Lewis then proceeds to categorize Muslim states according to a sixfold typology of the "existing regimes in the Islamic countries of the Middle East": traditional autocracies; liberalizing autocracies; dictatorships; ex-Soviet republics; revolutionary Islamic regimes; and democracies, of which there is only one--Turkey.

His main question, to which he returns repeatedly, is whether "liberal democracy [is] basically compatible with Islam, or is some measure of respect for law, some tolerance of criticism, the most that can be expected from autocratic governments" (62)? He does not have a definitive answer to whether democracy will spread more in the Islamic world, saying "it would be rash to conclude that because democracy has not worked in the past, it will not work in the future" (121). Connected to this question is that of freedom and rights. A little earlier he observes that "traditional Islam has no doctrine of human rights" (71). He does not elaborate this point, but the reasons for this are clearly theological: the roots of Western rights discourse and doctrine are ultimately theological in nature, coming from Christianity.

Along the way he treats a variety of related issues--the rise and fall of the Ottomans who, of course, so heavily influenced the fate of Eastern Christians, Greeks and Armenians especially; rights of women; homosexuality (whose "tolerance...was almost total" in the Muslim world he surprisingly claims [p.101]); the growth of American influence after World War I and the resentment this has generated; and the increase, from the 19th century onwards, of European "imperial" influence and presence in the Middle East, not all of which was by any means bad. On this latter point, it is heartening to see Lewis refuse to prostrate himself before the almost universally accepted academic shibboleths that "colonialism" and "imperialism" were unmitigated evils. Many Egyptians, Lewis notes, have told him sotto voce that their country was never so free or prosperous, before or since, as when Great Britain ran it (pp.142-43).

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