Notable & Quotable: Bernard Lewis Turns 100
‘Increasing numbers of Islamist radicals’ are coming to believe ‘that their first assessment was correct after all.’
From a May 16, 2007, Journal op-ed, “Was Osama Right?” by Bernard Lewis, the historian and professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, who turns 100 on May 31:
In the Muslim perception there has been, since the time of the Prophet, an ongoing struggle between the two world religions, Christendom and Islam, for the privilege and opportunity to bring salvation to the rest of humankind, removing whatever obstacles there might be in their path. For a long time, the main enemy was seen, with some plausibility, as being the West, and some Muslims were, naturally enough, willing to accept what help they could get against that enemy. This explains the widespread support in the Arab countries and in some other places first for the Third Reich and, after its collapse, for the Soviet Union. These were the main enemies of the West, and therefore natural allies.
Now [with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979] the situation had changed. The more immediate, more dangerous enemy was the Soviet Union, already ruling a number of Muslim countries, and daily increasing its influence and presence in others. It was therefore natural to seek and accept American help. As Osama bin Laden explained, in this final phase of the millennial struggle, the world of the unbelievers was divided between two superpowers. The first task was to deal with the more deadly and more dangerous of the two, the Soviet Union. After that, dealing with the pampered and degenerate Americans would be easy.
We in the Western world see the defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union as a Western, more specifically an American, victory in the Cold War. For Osama bin Laden and his followers, it was a Muslim victory in a jihad, and, given the circumstances, this perception does not lack plausibility.
From the writings and the speeches of Osama bin Laden and his colleagues, it is clear that they expected this second task, dealing with America, would be comparatively simple and easy. This perception was certainly encouraged and so it seemed, confirmed by the American response to a whole series of attacks—on the World Trade Center in New York and on U.S. troops in Mogadishu in 1993, on the U.S. military office in Riyadh in 1995, on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000—all of which evoked only angry words, sometimes accompanied by the dispatch of expensive missiles to remote and uninhabited places.
Stage One of the jihad was to drive the infidels from the lands of Islam; Stage Two—to bring the war into the enemy camp, and the attacks of 9/11 were clearly intended to be the opening salvo of this stage. The response to 9/11, so completely out of accord with previous American practice, came as a shock, and it is noteworthy that there has been no successful attack on American soil since then. The U.S. actions in Afghanistan and in Iraq indicated that there had been a major change in the U.S., and that some revision of their assessment, and of the policies based on that assessment, was necessary.
More recent developments, and notably the public discourse inside the U.S., are persuading increasing numbers of Islamist radicals that their first assessment was correct after all, and that they need only to press a little harder to achieve final victory. It is not yet clear whether they are right or wrong in this view. If they are right, the consequences—both for Islam and for America—will be deep, wide and lasting.
How appropriate that the 100th birthday of historian Bernard Lewis should be marked in your pages by his prescient writings on the Middle East almost a decade ago (Notable and Quotable, May 31). Mr. Lewis had warned of ineffectual responses by the United States to growing attacks by Islamic radicals, believing we consistently misread their purpose and persistence. His deep understanding of the sweep of history reminded the West of 14 centuries of conflict with Islam, in which Islam’s ascendancy for a millennia is not forgotten, but to be reclaimed. The past is very much alive in the present, fueled by a rage at the lack of power in world affairs. A fusion of religion and state is a nasty brew, wherever it surfaces.
The late, great Johns Hopkins Prof. Fouad Ajami quoted Lewis in these pages in 2006 on the problem we face today: “In 1940, we knew who we were, we knew who the enemy was, we knew the dangers and the issues. . . . It is different today. We don’t know who we are, we don’t know the issues, and we still do not understand the nature of the enemy.”
That last point is the point.