The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror
© 2001, 2003 Bernard Lewis
Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong? examined the failure of modernity in the middle east, but did not address its role in the rise of terrorism. The Crisis of Islam complements it by focusing chiefly on the factors which have inspired violent political activity in both the mideast and against the West, activity which is typically referred to as terrorism. Lewis examines the context that the terrorists claim (Islam) and the history of western nations with the middle-eastern area. The book reveals a myriad of factors at work, and although it isn’t quite as thorough as I would have liked, it covers a great deal more than most Americans know.
Lewis starts off with a history of Islam, pointing out that for a number of centuries Islam’s political empire constituted perhaps the high point of civilization on Earth. He points out the historic lack of distinction between religion and the state in Islamic society, which is helpful for western, especially American, audiences who are used to the idea of church and state being separate and often conflicting entities. His conception of jihad seems conservative, used entirely to describe war against nonbelievers. Other sources refer to such a war as the ‘lesser’ jihad, or struggle — the greater struggle being against our own weaknesses and unwise desires. He also uses the House of Islam vs. House of War dichotomy, which is something I’ve only seen mentioned by people who are intimidated or hostile by the mention of Islam. The chapters on interaction between the west and the Islamic middle-east are far superior, especially in covering the tendency of strong western countries to meddle in local affairs following the Great War, when the Ottoman Empire’s breakup gave Britain and France a host of new quasi-colonies called ‘mandates’. The story which emerges is of the middle-east as a failing area , one which produces impoverished and hostile young people who see modernity as having created that failure and who deeply resent the west for having created it, as well as constantly disrupting local politics at its convenience. On the latter count, at least, their grievances seem justified. I only wish Lewis had focused on economics more: I confess to having been swayed by Albert Hourani’s notion that some of the anti-western hostility has the same source as labor agitation in the west’s own early industrial history.The industrialization process eventually produces an economic boon, but at a cost of environment and human welfare.
Recommended for most readers.