Islam and the West: A Conversation with Bernard Lewis | Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project

April 27, 2006

Hay-Adams Hotel Washington, D.C.

The relationship between Islam and the West will be a defining feature of the 21st century, particularly in the Middle East. How should U.S. policymakers engage with the Muslim world? Will the spread of democracy throughout the Muslim world blunt the militant forces generating terrorism? How will European governments and populations deal with their burgeoning Muslim populations, and how will this affect U.S. foreign policy priorities and alliances?

The Pew Forum hosted a discussion of these and other issues with Professor Bernard Lewis, who for 60 years has helped interpret the world of Islam to the West. In addition to authoring more than two dozen books, including What Went Wrong and The Crisis of Islam, Professor Lewis has advised government officials and policymakers in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Middle East on the intricacies of the relationships between Islam and the West.

Professor Bernard Lewis, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University

Luis Lugo, Director, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

LUIS LUGO: Good afternoon to all of you and thank you for joining us today. I’m Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which is a project of the Pew Research Center. The Center is a research organization and does not take positions on policy debates.

This luncheon is part of an ongoing Pew Forum series that brings together journalists and policy leaders to discuss timely topics at the intersection of religion and public affairs.

We are delighted to have Professor Bernard Lewis with us today. Professor Lewis is one of the most influential scholars of Islam of our time. For more than 60 years, he has specialized in the history of Islam, particularly in the Middle East, and the relationship between Islam and the West, a relationship that has become arguably the single-most important U.S. foreign policy concern of the 21st century. It was Professor Lewis who coined the term “clash of civilizations,” three years before Samuel Huntington used that phrase in his famous article in Foreign Affairs, setting the stage for a vigorous debate about the relationship between Islam and the West.

As everyone acknowledges, more than four-and-a-half years after 9/11, the United States continues to face serious challenges in its relations with the Muslim world. A survey done last year by our sister project, the Pew Global Attitudes Project, captured this rift in numbers. The survey of countries around the globe found that the U.S. draws its most negative assessment from Muslim nations. In fact, solid majorities in five of the six Muslim countries surveyed view the U.S. unfavorably. In Jordan, for instance, just 21 percent of the population held favorable views of the U.S., while in Turkey and Pakistan it was 23 percent. Morocco, by the way, was the lone exception. There, our unfavorable rating stood at “only” 42 percent versus 49 percent favorable.

And the feeling seems to be mutual. Surveys we have done with the Pew Research Center find that only 4 out of ten Americans have a favorable view of Islam, and unfavorable views in this country are driven by what many perceive to be a close association between Islam and violence. It is a sobering fact, as our survey from last summer revealed, that more than half of the American public now believes the terrorist attacks over the last few years are, or soon will be, part of a major civilizational conflict between Islam and the West.

Are we witnessing a deep-seated and long-term clash of civilizations, or is this a serious but perhaps more manageable and short-term clash of policies? And what does this all mean for U.S. foreign policy interests and priorities? I submit that if one is going to have a serious conversation on the topic of Islam and the West, any short list of invitees would surely include the name of Bernard Lewis. We are delighted to have him with us here today. I should mention that Professor Lewis will be celebrating his 90th birthday next month.

BERNARD LEWIS: Celebrating isn’t the right word. (Laughter.)

MR. LUGO: A major conference marking that occasion is being held next Monday in Philadelphia under the auspices of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. Professor Lewis, thank you for being with us today. It is a pleasure and honor to have you, sir.

MR. LEWIS: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. It is certainly a privilege and, I hope to discover, also a pleasure to be with you today. As time is short, I shall waste no further time on ceremonial formalities and get straight to the one or two points that I shall have time to make, and leave the rest for you to develop in the course of our subsequent discussion.

Let me begin with the name, which has been given – not by me – to our discussion today: the West and Islam, sometimes also Islam and the West, depending on your perspective. You will surely be struck by a certain asymmetry in this formulation. On the one side, a compass point; on the other, a religion. Now, of course, we use “the West” in a number of different senses, but primarily, they are political, strategic, cultural, even civilizational, but not normally religious. The one religious term I have heard used for the West is the post-Christian world. I needn’t develop the implications of that term. Islam, on the other hand, is the name of a religion. And it is a part of human society identified by itself, and therefore also by others; not the other way around, in terms of religion.

But having said that, I think one needs to be more specific. In talking of the Christian world, in English – and, I suppose, in all the other languages of the Christian world – we use two terms: Christianity and Christendom. Christianity means a religion, in the strict sense of that word, a system of belief and worship and some clerical or ecclesiastical organization to go with it. If we say Christendom, we mean the entire civilization that grew up under the aegis of that religion, but also contains many elements that are not part of that religion, many elements that are even hostile to that religion. Let me give one simple example. No one could seriously assert that Hitler and the Nazis came out of Christianity. No one could seriously dispute that they came out of Christendom. In talking of Islam, we use the same word in both senses, and this gives rise to considerable confusion and misunderstanding. There are many things that are described as part of Islam, which are indeed part of Islam, if we take the word as the equivalent of Christendom, but are very much not part of Islam – are even alien or hostile to Islam – if we take the word Islam as the equivalent of Christianity. I think this is a very important point, which one should bear in mind.

The late Marshall Hodgson, of the University of Chicago, in discussing this issue, suggested that we use the word Islamdom to describe the civilization. A good idea, but it didn’t catch on, probably because it’s so difficult to pronounce.

In that world, religion embraces far more than it does in the Christian or post-Christian world. We are accustomed to talking of church and state, and a whole series of pairs of words that go with them – lay and ecclesiastical, secular and religious, spiritual and temporal, and so on. These pairs of words simply do not exist in classical Islamic terminology, because the dichotomy that these words express is unknown. They are used in the modern languages. In Arabic, they borrow the terminology used by Christian Arabs. They are fortunate in having a substantial Christian population using Arabic, and they therefore have a good part of the modern terminology at their disposal, in their own language. In Turkish, Persian, Urdu and other languages of Islam, they had to invent new words. The word in Turkish and in Persian is laik [from the French word laïque, which describes the prevailing concept of separation of church and state].

In the Islamic world, from the beginning, Islam was the primary basis of both identity and loyalty. We think of a nation subdivided into religions. They think, rather, of a religion subdivided into nations. It is the ultimate definition, the prime definition and the one that determines, as I said, not only identity, but also basic loyalty. And this is quite independent of religious belief. In Islam, there isn’t – or rather, there wasn’t until recently – any such thing as the church, in the Christian sense of that word. The mosque is a place of worship. It’s a building, a place of worship and study. And in that sense, it is the equivalent of the church. But in the sense of an institution with a hierarchy and its own laws and usages, there was no such thing in Islam until very recently. And one of the achievements of the Islamic Revolution in Iran has been to endow an Islamic country for the first time with the equivalents of a pope, a college of cardinals, a bench of bishops and, above all, an inquisition. All these were previously unknown and nonexistent in the Islamic world.

On the question of loyalty, let me give you an example. We all know from the history books of the exchange of Turks and Greeks, which took place after World War I when, after the war ended, there was a further war between Greece and Turkey, at the end of which, the Greek and Turkish governments agreed on an exchange of populations. And as it appears in the history books, the Greek minority in Turkey was sent to Greece; the Turkish minority in Greece was sent to Turkey. That’s what it says in the history books. But if you look at the treaty in which this agreement was incorporated, it says something different. The parties to be exchanged are defined as Turkish subjects of the Greek Orthodox faith and Greek subjects of the Muslim faith. And if you look more closely at who the people actually were, they were, to a very large extent, Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians from Turkey and Greek-speaking Muslims from Greece. This was not an exchange of two ethnic minorities. It was a deportation of two religious minorities.

And this remains very much the perception to the present day. Religion is the primary identity, and that is quite unrelated to belief and worship. An Egyptian scholar even wrote a book with the odd title – odd, that is, to the Western reader – the odd title of Atheism in Islam. It seems a rather absurd title on the face of it. But it isn’t at all. He was talking about Islam as a culture, as a civilization, and there, as elsewhere, there were atheists and atheist movements, a perfectly legitimate title of a perfectly valid study. It is very difficult for us in the West to understand and appreciate this and all its implications. Separation of church and state was derided in the past by Muslims when they said this is a Christian remedy for a Christian disease. It doesn’t apply to us or to our world. Lately, I think some of them are beginning to reconsider that, and to concede that perhaps they may have caught a Christian disease and would therefore be well advised to try a Christian remedy. […]


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