Bernard Lewis: All That Glitters Is Not Gold

Historians in the News

Two weeks ago the American Enterprise Institute, with all kinds of its associated panjandrums -- members, friends, supporters, admirers -- present, gave the "Irving Kristol Prize" to Bernard Lewis.

In the audience was Vice President Cheney, who is reputed to be, if not an acolyte of Lewis, at least someone who thinks of him as the last word on Islam and how to deal with Islam. He apparently reveres Lewis' acuity, and accepts that "greatest-living-scholar-of-Islam" stuff (of a piece with the development-office exaggeration of "world-class" universities).

Lewis crept up on, but never quite got to, the very things one most wanted him to speak forthrightly about. He alluded quickly, in his scattered, à bâtons rompus discussion, to this or that topic, then skittered away, on to something else. Nothing was concluded, nothing told you where Lewis stood about matters today. He didn't praise the "war on terror" and he didn't attack the "war on terror." He never said that the phrase "the war on terror" is a misleading thing.

Instead, he pretended to be an historian deliberately au-dessus de la melée, who would provide an historian's perspective. He mentioned how, centuries ago, Muslim jurists in Morocco were asked if it was licit for Muslims to continue to live in the Iberian peninsula, but under non-Muslim rule, and they were told that they were not. And then, the audience waited to hear what he might say about Muslims living in Europe today, and how they manage to reconcile the idea of refusing to live under rule by non-Muslims with, for example, their new strength in numbers and money and easy links, through technology (telephone, Internet, airplanes) to Dar al-Islam, that make them able to remain in Europe, but not be of Europe, not have their Islam weakened by distance but, instead, often strengthened as a reaction to the new and puzzling environment, where Infidels, against nature and reason and Allah, are calling the shots. He said nothing about this.

And then he did something that was truly astonishing. He had earlier mentioned the two Muslim assaults on Europe: the Arab one that ended in the West, near Poitiers with the victory of Charles Martel in 732. And the one that started in the East, with the Turks, which was marked by the two assaults on Vienna, the second one in 1683, the high-water mark of Ottoman power in Europe.

And so, just toward the end, was this unremarked but remarkable sentence:

"Third time lucky?"

And that was how Bernard Lewis, sage of the age, the man whom so many in the Pentagon took as the last word on Islam because compared to what is dished out by Esposito and MESA Mostra he may appear to be that last word, dealt with the most terrifying danger to the survival of the West, offered a flippant phrase. Muslims by the millions, having settled within Western Europe, are now playing on the two pre-existing mental pathologies of antisemitism and anti-Americanism, as well as on the sentimental levelling (some call it "multiculturalism") of the entire Western world, that world that appears to have forgotten its own past achievements, and the legacy that deserves to be preserved, and fails to recognize the West's clear superiority to Islam, to everything about Islam. Such words as "superiority" and "primitivism" are regarded as smacking of "race superiority" or assumptions about those living in what is called "the Third World." But that is not how William James or Jacques Barzun used that word. It means something. Not merely different. Better. More admirable. Superior. Such words need to be brought back into unembarrassed circulation, if the Western peoples are to visit their museums and libraries, and law courts, and newspapers, and the deliberations of their parliaments (however unseemly their current leaders or those "taking a leadership role") and realize that yes, the civilization they inherited is indeed not only different from, but could never for a minute have been produced by, the world of Islam. And they need to realize also that the whole thing can go under, not through "terrorism" (though that has its place) but through Da'wa and demographic conquest, if not now opposed, halted, and reversed....

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