Middle East Resources

Toward Understanding the Turmoil in Islamic Lands

This review and commentary on three works by Bernard Lewis provides background information on the situation in North Africa, and the Middle East

By Rev. Bassam M. Madany

 “The Multiple Identities of the Middle East”
“The Political Language of Islam”
“What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response”

Needless to say, the Arab world has been going through cataclysmic events since the beginning of 2011. The first political fire broke out in Tunisia, ending with the ouster of a long governing dictator through the action of the brave citizenry of that most secularized North African country. Then came the turn of Egypt. Having suffered under three successive military regimes since 1952, finally the masses rose up and acted on the slogan, Kifaya, i.e. Enough. Yes, enough of Hosni Mubarak, the modern Pharaoh who was about to hand over the presidency to his son Gamal. No sooner had Mubarak left Cairo for an unknown destination than the winds of change moved westward. This time, the fires began burning the tragi-comedy Libyan Jamahiriyya, that unusual Arabic nomenclature for “republic” invented by the semi-rational Colonel Qaddafi. (The normal Arabic word for republic is “jumhuriyya,” with its equivalent in Turkish, “cumhuriyet.”) As of the writing of this review article, 24 February, 2011, the situation in Libya remains unclear as to the outcome of the struggle against the mad man of Tripoli.

Unlike the rest of the nations in Africa and Asia, the Islamic nations are unable to cope with their multiplying problems of the post-colonial era, as the rest of the world has managed to do. The dilemmas that confront Islam today have been well treated in three books of Bernard Lewis that I would like to briefly review and comment on.

I start with his “Multiple Identities of the Middle East.” It offers a much-needed background for our understanding of the people and politics of the Middle East. One of its main themes deals with a complexity that arises from the fact that Middle Easterners identify themselves both ethnically and religiously. However, the religious element remains the dominant one. Within the vast Islamic empire, the conquerors classified people according to their religions affiliation. One was either a Muslim or a follower of one of the earlier religions. Muslims enjoyed all the rights and privileges accorded to them by the Islamic Shari’a Law. As for others, such as Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, they were given the status of dhimmis, i.e., the protected ones.” This “protection” was actually a euphemism as it entailed many restrictions imposed on non-Muslims. Thus, one’s identity was not primarily defined by an ethnic or geographic factor, but by one’s religious faith. This classification continues to the present day. A Middle Easterner’s primary identity resides in his or her religious faith; secondarily it is defined by the state within which he happens to live.

For example, early in my days when I was living in the Middle East, my Lebanese Identity Card identified me as a Protestant Christian. In the 99-member Lebanese Parliament (before the upheavals of 1975), we had one Protestant representative in that chamber! The president of the republic had to be Maronite, i.e., of the Roman Catholic faith, the prime minister, a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the Parliament, a Shi’ite Muslim. Usually, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs went to a Christian of the Orthodox Church! This way of identifying people created a serious crisis whenever relations between the various religiously-defined groups were strained. Quite often, Muslims even though living within a distinct country such as Lebanon, felt that their ultimate identity (and therefore loyalty) resided elsewhere, within the Islamic Umma. That kind of allegiance practically nullified the modus vivendi that had existed in Lebanon since the 1920s, and that led eventually to the upheavals that lasted from 1975 until the early 1990s, in a land that used to be known as the Switzerland of the Middle East.

Bernard Lewis has been much more than a historian. His method of teaching the history of Islam has distinguished itself by his interpretive approach. The rest of my review-article will consist mainly of excerpts from his recent works that I hope would shed a great light on what appears to be a very confused situation in the Arab World.

I begin with the following quotation from the “Multiple Identities of the Middle East”:

During the centuries-long confrontation between the states of Europe and the Ottoman Empire, the Europeans always saw and discussed their relations in terms of Austrians, Frenchmen, Germans, Englishmen, and other nationalities versus Turks; the Turks saw it in terms of Muslims versus Christians. In pre-modern Muslim writings, the parochial subdivisions of Christendom are given scant importance. In the worldview of Muslims, which they naturally also ascribed to others, religion was the determinant factor of identity, the focus of loyalty and, not less important, the source of authority. (P. 22)

In these words, we notice how the religious factor is of utmost importance in our relations with the Middle East or any nations within the vast Islamic world that surrounds it. Secular Western writers tend to ignore the critical importance of religion in Islam and what constitutes a Muslim’s ultimate loyalty. They tend to forget that, in contrast with Christianity, Islam is an amalgam of religion, politics, and culture, in one indivisible entity. If this thesis is correct, and I believe that the history of the last 1400 years supports it, then we must ask: why do some writers and politicians continue to ignore this fundamental fact about Islam?

The history of Pakistan affords us an example of why Muslims believe that they ought to live in an environment that is officially and legally Islamic. Before the end of the British rule, the most outspoken representatives of Indian Muslims requested the Raj to partition the subcontinent between Muslims and Hindus; and thus the Islamic state of Pakistan was born. That event signified that at the end of European colonial presence in Asia and Africa, Muslims would not tolerate living under non-Muslim rule. Since they identify themselves primarily as Muslims, their first loyalty goes to the Islamic Umma. Muslims feel at home only within Daru’l Islam.

Back to Bernard Lewis.

In the modern world, the political role of Islam, internationally as well as domestically, differs significantly from that of its peer and rival, Christianity. The heads of state or ministers of foreign affairs of the Scandinavian countries and Germany do not from time to time foregather in a Lutheran summit conference. Nor was it customary, when the Soviet Union still existed, for its rulers to join with those of Greece and Yugoslavia and, temporarily forgetting their political and ideological differences, to hold regular meetings on the basis of their current or previous adherence to the Orthodox Church. Similarly, the Buddhist nations of East and Southeast Asia, the Catholic nations of southern Europe and South America, do not constitute Buddhist or Catholic blocs at the United Nations, nor for that matter in any other political activities.

The very idea of such a grouping, based on religious identity, might seem to many modern Western observers absurd or even comic. But it is neither absurd nor comic in relation to Islam. Some fifty-five Muslim governments, including monarchies and republics, conservatives and revolutionaries, practitioners of capitalism and disciples of various kinds of socialism, friends and enemies of the United States, and exponents of whole spectrum of shades of neutrality, have built an elaborate apparatus of international consultation and even, on some issues, of cooperation. They hold regular high-level conferences, and, despite differences of structure, ideology, and policy, have achieved a significant measure of agreement and common action. (P. 26)

In another work by Bernard Lewis, “The Political Language of Islam,” he refers to the problems that continue to impact the Islamic nations and make them ill at ease in our modern world:

The second half of the twentieth century brought great disappointments and much soul searching. The talismans from the mysterious Occident worked no magic; the nostrums offered by various foreign hucksters brought no cure to the ills of Islamic lands and peoples. Constitutional governments, contrary to expectations, did not make them healthy, wealthy, and strong. Independence solved few problems and brought many more, while freedom — now meaning the freedom of the individual against his own compatriots and coreligionists — seemed further away than ever. Many imported remedies were tried — from eastern as well as western Europe, from South as well as North America. None of them have worked very well, and increasing numbers of Muslims have begun to look to their own past, or what they perceive as their own past, to find a diagnosis for their present ills and a prescription for their future well-being. The revolution in Iran has shown one way, and there are men and women in every Muslim country today who seek to follow the Iranian way, or to find a better alternative, in order to return to the true, original, and authentic Islam of the Prophet and his companions. The political language of Islam is acquiring a new relevance and a new significance.

It is also acquiring a new content. A revised or reconstructed past is never the same as the past as it was, and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution owes more to the outside world than just guns, direct dialing, and cassettes, important as they were in his seizure of power. Among fundamentalist circles in Iran, Egypt, and elsewhere, a new Islamic political language is emerging, which owes an unacknowledged debt to the westernizers and secularists of the past century and their foreign sources, as well as to prophetic and classical Islam. Much will depend on their ability to harmonize these different traditions. (Pp. 115, 116)

The third book of Professor Lewis that deals with the continual unrest in the Islamic world was written before the attack on the World Trade Center and Washington, on 11 September, 2011. However, it was published in 2002, “What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response.”

Rather than excerpt large portions from this valuable work, I end the review with a few lines from the Introduction, and the Conclusion. They give us his scholarly insight into the continuing malaise that pervades the world of Islam in general, and especially the lands between Morocco on the Atlantic, and Iraq on the Gulf.

What went wrong? For a long time the people in the Islamic world, especially but not exclusively in the Middle East, have been asking this question. The content and formulation of the question, provoked primarily by their encounter with the West, vary greatly according to the circumstances, extent, and duration of that encounter, and the events that first made them conscious, by comparison, that all was not well in their own society. But whatever the form and manner of the question and of the answers that it evokes, there is no mistaking the growing anguish, the mounting urgency, and of late the seething anger with which both question and answers are expressed. (P. 3)

In the final chapter, “Conclusion,” Mr. Lewis gives his prescription for the age-long malady of the Islamic world. He pleads for the intellectuals to lead their world in shedding the question, “Who did this to us?” that has “led only to neurotic fantasies and conspiracy theories” and to begin asking “What did we do wrong?” that would lead them “naturally to a second question: “How do we put it together? In that question, and in the various answers that are being found, lie the best hopes for the future.”      (P. 159)


 “The Multiple Identities of the Middle East,” by Bernard Lewis. Random House, NY, 1998

“The Political Language of Islam,” by Bernard Lewis. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1988

“What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response,” by Bernard Lewis. Oxford University Press, New York, NY 2002

The latest book by Bernard Lewis published in May, 2011, is:

“The End of Modern History in the Middle East,” HOOVER INSTITUTION PRESS,

Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-6010