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  Global Viewpoint



This essay is excerpted from remarks by Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, who was awarded the Irving Kristol Award at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington last week. His most recent books include "What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East" (2002); "The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror" (2003); and "From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East" (2004).

By Bernard Lewis

WASHINGTON — In the eyes of a fanatical and resolute minority of Muslims, the third wave of attack on Christendom and Europe has clearly begun.

The first wave dates from the very beginning of Islam, when the new faith spilled out of the Arabian Peninsula, where it was born, into the Middle East and beyond. It was then that Muslims conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa — all at that time part of the Christian world — and went beyond into Europe. There, they conquered a sizable part of southwestern Europe, including Spain, Portugal and southern Italy, all of which became part of the Islamic world, and even crossed the Pyrenees and occupied for a while parts of France.

The second wave was conducted not by Arabs and Moors but by Turks and Tartars. In the mid-13th century, the Mongol conquerors of Russia were converted to Islam. The Turks, who had already conquered Anatolia, advanced into Europe and in 1453 they captured the ancient Christian citadel of Constantinople. They conquered a large part of the Balkans, and for a while ruled half of Hungary. Twice they reached as far as Vienna, to which they laid siege in 1529 and again in 1683. Barbary corsairs from North Africa went to Iceland — the uttermost limit — and to several places in Western Europe, including notably a raid on Baltimore (the original one, in Ireland) in 1631.

The third wave is taking a different form: terror and migration. The subject of terror has been discussed frequently and in great detail. What I want to address here is the other aspect, which is of more particular relevance to Europe today — the question of migration.

In earlier times, it was inconceivable that a Muslim would voluntarily move to a non-Muslim country. Muslim jurists have discussed at great length in the textbooks and manuals of shari`a whether it permissible for a Muslim to live in or even visit a non-Muslim country — and what he must do if he finds himself in a non-Muslim country.

Generally speaking, this was considered under certain specific headings. A captive or a prisoner of war obviously has no choice, but he must preserve his faith and get home as soon as possible.

The second case is that of an unbeliever in the land of the unbelievers who sees the light and embraces the true faith — in other words, becomes a Muslim. He, too, must leave as soon as possible and go to a Muslim country.

The third case is that of a visitor. For a long time, the only purpose of a visit to a non-Muslim country that was considered legitimate was to ransom captives. This was later expanded to also include diplomatic and commercial missions.

With the advance of the European counterattack, there was a new issue in this ongoing debate. What is the position of a Muslim if his country is conquered by infidels? May he stay or must he leave?

We have some interesting documents from the late 15th century, when the reconquest of Spain was completed and Moroccan jurists were discussing this question. The general answer was that it is not permissible for a Muslim to stay.

But what if the Christian government that takes over is tolerant? This proved to be a purely hypothetical question, of course. The answer, though, was no; even then they may not stay, because the temptation to apostasy would be even greater. They must leave and hope that in God's good time they will be able to reconquer their homelands and restore the true faith.

This was the line taken by most jurists. There were some, at first a minority, later a more important group, who said it is permissible for Muslims to stay provided that certain conditions are met, mainly that they are allowed to practice their faith. This raises another question: What is meant by practicing their faith?

Here I would remind the reader that we are dealing not only with a different religion but also with a different concept of what religion is about, referring especially to what Muslims call the shari`a, the holy law of Islam. Shari`a covered a wide range of matters regarded as secular in the Christian world even during the medieval period, and it certainly does so today in what some call the post-Christian era of the Western world.

There are obviously now many attractions that draw Muslims to Europe, including the opportunities for employment and welfare offered, particularly in view of the growing economic impoverishment of much of the Muslim world. They also have freedom of expression and education, which they lack at home. This is, by the way, a great incentive to the terrorists who migrate. Terrorists have far greater freedom of preparation and operation in Europe — and to a degree also in America — than they do in most Islamic lands.


Assimilation is another issue much discussed nowadays. How far is it possible for Muslim migrants who have settled in Europe, in North America and elsewhere to become part of those countries in which they settle, in the way that so many other waves of immigrants have done?

To answer this question we need to address the basic differences in what precisely is meant by assimilation and acceptance. Here there is an immediate and obvious difference between the European and American situations. For an immigrant to become an American means a change of political allegiance. For an immigrant to become a Frenchman or a German means a change of ethnic identity.

Changing political allegiance is certainly very much easier and more practical than changing ethnic identity, either in one's own feelings or in one's measure of acceptance. England had it both ways. If you were naturalized, you became British but you did not become English.

There is also the important difference in what one means by religion. For Muslims, issues such as marriage, divorce and inheritance are covered by shari`a. Since antiquity in the Western world — the Christian world — these have been secular matters. The distinction of church and state, spiritual and temporal, lay and ecclesiastical, is a Christian distinction that has no place in Islamic history and therefore is difficult to explain to Muslims, even in the present day. Until very recently they did not even have a vocabulary to express it. They have one now.

What are the European responses to this situation? In Europe, as in the United States, a frequent response is what is variously known as multiculturalism and political correctness. In the Muslim world, there are no such inhibitions. They are very conscious of their identity. They know who they are and what they are and what they want, a quality that we seem to have lost to a very large extent. This is a source of strength in the one, of weakness in the other.

The Islamic radicals have even been able to find some allies in Europe. They have a left-wing appeal to the anti-U.S. elements in Europe, for whom they have, so to speak, replaced the Soviets. They have a right-wing appeal to the anti-Jewish elements in Europe, replacing the Axis. They have been able to win considerable support under both headings. For some in Europe, their hatreds apparently outweigh their loyalties.

There is an interesting exception to that in Germany, where the Muslims are mostly Turkish. There, they have often tended to equate themselves with the Jews, to see themselves as having succeeded the Jews as the victims of German racism and persecution.

I remember a meeting in Berlin convened to discuss the new Muslim minorities in Europe. In the evening I was asked by a Muslim group of Turks to join them and hear what they had to say about it, which was very interesting. The statement that sticks most vividly in my mind from one of them was, “In a thousand years they (the Germans) were unable to accept 400,000 Jews. What hope is there that they will accept two million Turks?”

Some Turks in Germany used this very skillfully in playing on German feelings of guilt in order to inhibit any effective measures to protect German identity, which, I would say, like others in Europe is becoming endangered.


Finally, let me address the question of tolerance. You will recall that at the end of the first phase of the Christian reconquest, after Spain and Portugal and Sicily, Muslims — by that time numerous in the reconquered lands — were given a choice: baptism, exile or death. In the former Ottoman lands in southeastern Europe, the leaders of what you might call the reconquest were somewhat more tolerant but not a great deal more. Some Muslim minorities remained in some Balkan countries, with troubles still going on at the present day in Kosovo and Bosnia.

Nevertheless, I mention this point because of the very sharp contrast with the treatment of Christians and other non-Muslims in the Islamic lands at that time. When Muslims came to Europe, they had a certain expectation of tolerance. They felt that they were entitled to at least the degree of tolerance that they had accorded to non-Muslims in the great Muslim empires of the past. Both their expectations and their experience were very different.

Coming to European countries, they got both more and less than they had expected. They got more in the sense that they received in theory and often in practice equal political rights, equal access to the professions, all the benefits of the welfare state, freedom of expression, and so on and so forth.

But they also got significantly less than they had given in traditional Islamic states. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, non-Muslim communities had separate organizations and ran their own affairs. They collected their own taxes and enforced their own laws. There were several Christian communities, each living under its own leadership and recognized by the state. These communities ran their own schools and education systems, and administered their own laws in such matters as marriage, divorce, inheritance and the like. The Jews did the same.

This meant that three men living on the same street could die and their estates would be distributed under three different legal systems if one happened to be Jewish, one Christian and one Muslim. A Jew could be punished by a rabbinical court and jailed for violating the Sabbath or eating on Yom Kippur. A Christian could be arrested and imprisoned for taking a second wife. Bigamy is a Christian offense; it was not an Islamic or an Ottoman offense.

Muslim immigrants do not have that degree of independence in their own social and legal life in the modern state. It is quite unrealistic for them to expect it, given the nature of the modern state, but that is not how they see it. They feel that they are entitled to receive what they gave. As one Muslim friend of mine in Europe put it, “We allowed you to practice monogamy, why should you not allow us to practice polygamy?”

Such questions — polygamy, in particular — raise important issues of a more practical nature. Isn't an immigrant who is permitted to come to France or Germany entitled to bring his family with him? But what exactly does his family consist of? They are increasingly demanding and getting permission to bring plural wives.

The enforcement of shari`a is a little more difficult. This has become an extremely sensitive issue.

Another extremely sensitive issue, closely related to this, is the position of women, which is of course very different between Christendom and Islam. This has indeed been one of the major differences between the two societies.


Where do we stand now? Is it third time lucky? It is not impossible. Muslim immigrants have certain clear advantages. They have fervor and conviction, which in most Western countries are either weak or lacking.

They are self-assured of the rightness of their cause, whereas we spend most of our time in self-denigration and self-abasement. They have loyalty and discipline, and perhaps most important of all, they have demography. The combination of natural increase and migration that is producing major population changes could lead within the foreseeable future to significant majorities in at least some European cities or even countries.

But we also have some advantages, the most important of which are knowledge and freedom. The appeal of genuine modern knowledge in a society that, in the more distant past, had a long record of scientific and scholarly achievement is obvious. They are keenly and painfully aware of their relative backwardness and welcome the opportunity to rectify it.

Less obvious but also powerful is the appeal of freedom. In the past, in the Islamic world the word freedom was not used in a political sense. Freedom was a legal concept. You were free if you were not a slave. They did not use freedom and slavery as a metaphor for good and bad government, as we have done for a long time in the Western world.

The terms they used to denote good and bad government are justice and injustice. A good government is a just government, one in which the Holy Law, including its limitations on sovereign authority, is strictly enforced. The Islamic tradition, in theory and, until the onset of modernization, to a large degree in practice, emphatically rejects despotic and arbitrary government. Living under justice is the nearest approach to what we would call freedom.

But the idea of freedom in its Western interpretation is making headway. It is becoming more and more understood, more and more appreciated and more and more desired. It is perhaps in the long run our best hope, perhaps even our only hope, of surviving this developing struggle.