Bernard Lewis is probably the most prominent academic speaking about Islamic fundamentalism.    The articles “What Went Wrong?” and “Roots of Muslim Rage” in The Atlantic framed the debate in America.  He has made regular forays into the White House to explain his theory that the Muslim world is responding to the sense of inferiority it has nurtured at least since the Reconquista.  

Lewis tends to discount the importance of current grievances and implicitly assumes that people are mostly motivated by things that happened hundreds of years ago.  It may be that there is more historical awareness in the Muslim world than in America, but ancient history is not what makes so many Muslims sympathetic to Osama bin Laden.  Specifically, Lewis refuses to recognize the importance of American support of Israel, which most Muslims see as the driving force behind the radicalism.  He has even agreed with the ludicrous neo-conservative idea that local governments create anti-Israel sentiment to draw attention from their own repression.

Although Lewis’ Orientalism makes him distasteful to many people, his ideas are still helpful.  It is easy to believe that Muslims have a vague understanding of the historical dominance of Muslim culture over Christianity and that this contributes to a persistent unwillingness to accept subordinate status.  However, this does not directly lead to the ideology.  A reasonable person would listen when someone says they harbor resentment over the imposition of Israel, the support of repressive regimes, and the innumerable problems left over from colonialism.

What Lewis gives us is the long historical perspective, which helps explain why the effects of these betrayals were so uniquely dramatic in the Muslim world.  Some cultures become demoralized by their subordinate position, as has happened in much of Latin America.  If the society has no organizing ideology, it can’t mobilize to change the situation and slough off the dominators.  Some societies do develop ideological responses, as both Japan and Germany did.  To Lewis’ credit, nobody would think to explain the rise of the Nazis or Japanese militarism without some historical perspective.   However, it would be quite wrong to leave out the Treaty of Versailles or the Great White Fleet.

The Arab world particularly, but joined by other related Muslim cultures, has been engaged in a battle for its destiny for much of the last century — maybe longer.  The structure of international politics and economics has placed them in an inferior position.  The imposition of Israel against their will and several catastrophic defeats in the wars to retake the land confirmed it beyond any doubt.  In response, the Arab world has generated two major ideological movements.  Pan-Arab nationalism was a vital force until the disastrous miscalculation of the 1967 war against Israel.  The Baath, pseudo-nationalist rulers in Iraq and Syria, lived on as the carcass of this movement.  Radical Islamists who have taken up the banner will likely one day fail their own substantial test.  But unless the entire Muslim world is forced into demoralization and an acceptance of defeat, there will continue to be ideologies of resistance.

—Pete DeWan

In The Fray is a nonprofit staffed by volunteers. If you liked this piece, could you please donate $10?