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Faith and Power

Ron Geaves

Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press, 208pp, ISBN: 9880195144215

RLewis.jpgBernard Lewis is as informative as ever in his latest book, and sometimes staggering in his encyclopedic knowledge of Middle-Eastern history. For the lay reader he provides a lucid account of the history of Muslim contact with Europe, the age-old conflict between Islam and Christendom, the differences between Christian and Muslim attitudes to power and politics and the Muslim reaction to the decline of power and the rise of Europe in the 19th century. There is no doubt that the uninformed would come out with a much deepened understanding of the causes of conflict with the Muslim world placed into an informative historical context.

However, I have two concerns with it. One is the lack of academic tools. It says something about Professor Lewis's standing in the field of Middle-Eastern and Islamic studies that he is permitted to publish a book with Oxford University Press that does not contain a bibliography, index or a system of referencing or footnoting. There are also times when Professor Lewis repeats himself beyond the requirements of emphasis or summarising and one cannot help but feel that a more thorough editing was required.

As a fellow scholar of Islam I found the lack of referencing particularly irritating. I could live with the lack of an index and bibliography but found it hard to have no substantiation for the various quotations from infamous public figures such as Osama bin Laden. It is not that I doubt that Bin Laden said such things, but I would like to know where, when and in what context. However, the tone and style of the book suggest that Professor Lewis is aiming for a wider audience than academics and their students.

My greater concern is with neutrality. When Lewis asks a pertinent question concerning the overwhelming belief in Western democracies that their forms of governance are the pinnacle of human civilisation, and states 'There is an illusion, curiously widespread in the world at the present time, that democracy is the natural state of mankind', one might expect a deeper questioning of that proposition. However, the reader would be disappointed.

Lewis works from the definition of democracy offered by Samuel Huntingdon in his famous but divisive book Clash of Civilizations, that is, 'You can call a country a democracy when it has changed its government twice by elections'.

Lewis states that he prefers not to be drawn on the subject of the controversial book published by Huntingdon and so admired by the neo-conservatives of the previous Bush administration. Yet at one point he acknowledges that the book was an advance in the way of thinking about the Muslim world in that it uses the term 'civilisation' to describe both sides of the conflict.

These comments concerned me, as whilst reading I felt that there was an underlying fear of the Muslim as 'other' that the author tried his best to conceal behind descriptions of the tolerance and cultural riches of the great Muslim empires of the ninth to 13th centuries. Yet the closer one comes to the present era, the more the suspicions of the author towards the Muslim world begin to surface.

It is the chapter on Europe and Islam that seems to display the author's true feelings. Views from across both sides of the Atlantic can often distort the reality of both respective strongholds of western culture and civilisation. Lewis appears to regard the Muslim migrations into western Europe as a third attempt to establish Islam in the continent and finally destroy the old enemy, Christendom. The first attack was the initial Arab expansion from their heartlands in Arabia shortly after the death of Muhammad, the second was the expansion of the Turks in the 15th and 16th centuries.

This is a much too simplistic view of history but even worse, Lewis's paranoia concerning Muslim migration into western Europe in the 20th century runs far too close to the views of extreme right political fringe groups in Europe. This is compounded when Lewis raises the age-old fear of xenophobes everywhere, that the Muslims of Europe have population increase on their side in the new attempt to re-conquer christendom. Lewis ignores how small most Muslim presences are as a percentage of overall populations  and seems to be unaware that birth rates rapidly decline in second and third generation migrant families.
I am even more concerned when he speaks about Muslim fervour, conviction and certainty of the rightness of their cause, as compared to European self-abnegation and self-abasement. Anyone who has studied Muslim communities in the West knows that they are deeply insecure, not sure where they belong, often deprived socially and economically, and deeply divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.

When Lewis proclaims that Islamic radicals have a right-wing appeal to the anti-Jewish elements in Europe, he forgets that the extreme right in Europe now targets Muslims not Jews, and when he declares that the Islamists have an appeal to left-wing anti-American sentiments, he forgets that the European left has little sympathy for religion of any kind, and that the anti-US sentiments in western Europe during the Bush years went far beyond political fringe groups.

This chapter is not balanced, it is not scholarly and it is not an academic analysis based on evidence. It is more in the style of journalism expressing a polemic, all very well written in a newspaper as an editorial, but the rest of the book's contents lead the reader to believe that this is a scholarly text that goes far beyond the partisan.

Ron Geaves