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National Observer Home > No. 57 - Winter 2003 > Book Reviews

Book Review: the Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror

by Bernard Lewis

London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2003, pages 134 and index, $35.

Professor Lewis is the emeritus professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and is an acknowledged expert on Islam.

His concise book, The Crisis of Islam, is a valuable short exposition of the aspects of Islam that today cause the greatest concern in the non-Islamic world.

Professor Lewis commences with an analysis of Muslim religions and political thought and sets out views of Muslim fundamentalists that are surprising to many in the West who are less well informed about Islam:

"In their perception it was they, not America, that had won the Cold War. In their eyes, the Soviet Union was not the benign helper in the common struggle against the Jews and the Western Imperialists but rather the fountainhead of atheism and unbelief, the oppressor of many millions of Muslim subjects, and the invader of Afghanistan. As they saw it, not implausibly, it was their struggle in Afghanistan that had defeated the mighty Red Army and driven the Soviets to defeat and collapse. Having disposed of the more ferocious and the more dangerous of the two infidel superpowers, their next task was to deal with the other, the United States, and in this war the compromisers were tools and agents of the infidel enemy."

Moslems experience differing degrees of revulsion for the American way of life — "principally its sinfulness and degeneracy" — and the extent to which everything, even religion, is seen to be measured in material terms: churches in America are seen to "operate like businesses, competing for clients and for publicity, and using the same methods as stores and theatres to attract customers and audiences".

Professor Lewis also highlights the unreliability of the United States as an ally or protector. This has been evident from such conflicts as the Vietnam War, when the U.S. withdrawal was accompanied by a U.S. refusal to continue to supply the unfortunate South Vietnamese with the arms which they had been promised and which the South Vietnamese needed in order to defend themselves from the assaults of the North. Similarly the United States refused to assist the Shah in 1979 (although the Shah had previously regained power through American support) and even refused him asylum. Again, in 1991 the United States called on the Iraqi people to revolt against Saddam Hussein. As Professor Lewis comments, "The Kurds in northern Iraq and the Shi’a in southern Iraq did so, and the victorious United States forces sat and watched while Saddam Hussein, using the helicopters that the cease-fire agreement had allowed him to retain, bloodily suppressed and slaughtered them, group by group and region by region." Professor Lewis notes that the Muslim world is well aware of the United States’ unreliability. (It may be commented that U.S. unreliability is entirely predictable, since its policies are from time to time controlled by such diverse and unsatisfactory presidents as Carter, Clinton and Bush. Australia has not yet sufficiently understood to what extent the United States is unpredictable and untrustworthy and disposed to disregard its allies’ welfare.)

Perhaps the only disappointing feature of Professor Lewis’ valuable book is his treatment of Israel. In Europe the difficulties caused by Israel are freely discussed. But in the United States Jewish influence has made it politically incorrect to criticise Israeli actions or policies or to advert to Israel as a principal cause of Middle East tensions and hostility to the West. Hence Professor Lewis downplays the role of Israel as a promoter of hostilities and aggression against the West and particularly against the United States. In fact, Islam views Israel as an open sore and as a continual source of anti-Muslim activity. This perception is continually exacerbated by brutal Israeli policies, which include the shooting of children and the killing of Westerners who seek to protect the Palestinians. And, of course, the relentless spreading of Israeli settlements into Palestinian land and the treatment of Palestinians as an under-race give rise to understandable fury amongst Muslims, who seek to prevent these attacks on their fellow believers. They find it difficult to conceive how American foreign policy is subordinated to that of Israel, and it is easy to appreciate why they regard the United States as an enemy.

Subject to this regrettable deficiency, The Crisis of Islam may be recommended. It is very well written — Professor Lewis’ style is admirable, and the text is clear and logical — and there is a need for this short book, which sets out a complicated and difficult position simply, so as to be readily comprehensible.

R.M. Pearce

National Observer No. 57 - Winter 2003