Authored by the famous Princeton Orientalist Bernard Lewis. I was looking forward to the book to see if Lewis might have had some different insight about Islam and radicalization of Islam that would be food for thought for me to nuance or even perhaps make me reconsider the specifics of my understanding of Islam. I don’t think this book gave me anything significantly new concerning the religion of Islam itself. Actually it seem to me that the book ended up being more about the geo-political realities of the Islamic Middle East rather than a deeper look into Islam or radical Islam itself.
Perhaps the one point in the book that struck me was how one needs to distinguish very carefully between Muslims who believe in possible peace with the West and those who say “peace” but really only want a temporary truce with nonmuslims in the long struggle of Islamic domination. The implication of this means that one ought to be cautious of assuming that bridge building and seeking understanding alone will resolve the present crisis. Against our intuition, Lewis argues that Iranian hostage crisis was the result of improved relationship and not bad relations. Things was going too GOOD–hence radicals had to resort to means to ensure hostility continues.
I think the book also made a good point that the West’s policy of supporting a certain government in the Middle East and its failure to shore up any aid for that regime when it faces rising internal threats has encouraged Radicals. Think of Iran. Lewis argues that the perception of most Muslims in the Middle East is that this is an indication of how the West installs puppet government but when push comes to shove the West is weak and will betray their own puppets. This in turn make the US seem unhonorable and encourages those engage in Islamic insurgency to believe there is hope in their activities against present Middle Eastern government.
The book does a masterful job filling in some of the blank spot I had in understanding the West’s relationship with the Middle East during the Cold War. Lewis explains why most Arab state fail to see the Soviets as a threat even though Russia has been a threat historically to Muslim territories and oppressive to Muslims during the Communist era. Lewis points out that the limited Russian influence and colonialism among Arabian territory reduces the likelihood of being demonized as immediate Western extension into the Middle East. Lewis noted the great irony of how the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was even supported by Muslim countries who were allied with the Soviets, and these countries went so far as even voting against UN condemnation of the invasion and speaking favorably of the invasion!
At times he even seem to handle Islam with kids gloves; for instance, while the book does discuss about the Crusades there is no account of how Islam originally spread to historically Christian land prior to the Crusades that made them “Islamic lands” in the first place. While Lewis noted that Islamic law makes nonbelievers pay the jizya, an Islamic tax, he nevertheless said that it’s better to be a second class citizen than not being a citizen at all in some nations in the West. This strikes me as odd since I think the concept of “second class citizen” versus “no citizenship” is rather anachronistic and Lewis doesn’t go into details as to what he means nor does he give any specific example from the West.
This particular work was published in 2003 and considering that I read this book in 2013, I would say the last decade allows us to examine whether some of his point hold water. For instance, Lewis argues that the United States has been relatively successful in their influence of Middle East compare to other region which has resulted in failed military intervention and other disaster. One must remember the book was written prior to the invasion of Iraq and our involvement in Afghanistan was just on it’s second year. Afghanistan’s future remain uncertain.
Lewis presents the Middle Eastern narrative of how the US have low standards in the Middle East of tolerating and working with tyrannical regimes in contrast to other regions of the world; I don’t think that’s historically true (think of Vietnam, think of Africa). But if the West stop working with current Middle Eastern government means better relationship with the people of Middle East as whole? We must further ask: with the US support of Arab Springs does it show that being anti-establishment and pro-revolution actually improve public perception or actual relationship between the Islamic world and the US? And more importantly, with policies of ousting the established powers does it actually improve the rights of the people? Does it prevent terrorism from being exported to the West? Not necessarily, and in 2013 it’s hard to believe Lewis’ perspective. Lewis even talks about in the book of how in 1992 Syria violently put down a rebellion and how the West paid no attention to it. Ironically, twenty years later the West does pay attention to it–and support the rebellion whose identity is, well you guessed it, tied to Islamic extremists.