Lewis: Strong sense of history compels Muslims

Princeton professor Bernard Lewis, one of the West's leading authorities on the Arab world, has been much in demand lately. He has appeared on NBC's Sunday talk show "Meet The Press," penned op-ed pieces for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal and written a 14-page story for The New Yorker's Nov. 19 issue titled "The Revolt of Islam." The many reading lists on Islam that newspapers have published since Sept. 11 invariably include at least one of his titles. His book "The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years," which was published in 1996, recently appeared on The New York Times Book Review's paperback bestseller list.

Lewis, the Cleveland Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus, has taught at the University since 1974. His latest book, "Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew Poems," is a collection of 132 poems written between the seventh and 18th centuries translated and introduced by Lewis. Recently, he talked with a Princeton communications office staff writer about the misunderstandings that plague our comprehension of Islamic culture and religion and described the way that he stumbled upon one of Osama bin Laden's most important pronouncements in 1998.

What is the most important thing that people in the West need to understand about Islam?

They need to understand that people in the Middle East, unlike in this country, have a very strong sense of history. In America, if you say, 'That's history,' you mean it's unimportant, irrelevant, of no concern. That is accompanied by a breathtaking ignorance of even recent history.

But when Osama bin Laden makes a passing reference to events of the seventh century, he doesn't need to go into detailed explanations. In one of his more recent declarations, he talked about Muslims having suffered shame and humiliation for more than 80 years. In the Western world, people wondered what he was referring to. His own people, I'm sure, understood.

The way Osama bin Laden and his followers see it, this war with the United States is part of a struggle between the house of belief and the house of unbelief, which has been going on for 14 centuries. For the last couple of centuries, nonbelievers have been dominant, winning every battle – on the battlefield, in the marketplace, in the schoolroom. Now they feel the time has come to turn the tables.

When you have a civilization that was once the greatest, richest, most powerful in the world for many centuries, and then it suddenly finds itself defeated – outranked if not defeated in every significant field of human endeavor – it's not surprising that its members feel hatred for those who have overtaken and surpassed them. His hatred of the West in general, and the United States in particular, has been going on for decades. The difference is that in the past a significant restraint was fear. What one sees now is that the hatred is mixed with contempt.

Why is that an important turning point?

Osama bin Laden's contempt comes from his belief that Americans have grown soft, that they can't take casualties – hit them hard enough and they'll run. He refers to our troops withdrawing from Lebanon and Somalia, and of course Vietnam. He talks about our weakness and fear.

For the last 200 years, the Muslims could always balance the unbelievers against one another. In the 19th century, it was the English against the French, in the 20th century the Axis against the Allies. After the fall of the Axis, it was the Soviets against the West. Now for the first time in many centuries there's no balance. Nazi Germany is gone, the Soviet Union is gone – there is only one center of power in the world, and that's the United States. So they find themselves directly confronting the United States for the first time.

But when Osama bin Laden calls on Muslims to fight the United States in the name of Islam, is he distorting the religion's tenets?

The idea of paradise as a reward for martyrdom is old. It goes right back to the roots of Islam. But the idea of suicide is very new, and it's totally contrary to Islamic belief. The position is very clear: Suicide is a major sin – it is not permitted in any circumstances. It is true that there are classical Islamic texts that praise the warrior in the holy war who throws himself to certain death, but certain death at the hands of the enemy is not the same as death at your own hand.

Americans are eager to understand more about Islamic beliefs and more about the Arab world, as evidenced by the surge in sales of your books.

There is a great curiosity, and the problem is that there have been all kinds of absurd statements made – some of them by Muslims, most of them by non-Muslims – about what Islam is and what it's about. Most of it is well-intentioned nonsense; some of it is not well-intentioned, but it is nonsense.

What are the most erroneous things you've heard people say about Islam?

That Islam is a religion of bloodthirsty barbarians, full of hate and bent on destruction, and the converse – you have people who tell us that Islam is a religion of love and peace, rather like the Quakers but less aggressive.

What mistakes has the United States made in dealing with the Arab world?

One very important element in this situation is the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia since 1991. We tend to forget that for Muslims the holy land is Arabia, so there are infidels actually in the holy land. This is the thing most emphasized by Osama bin Laden in all his earlier declarations, that these infidels are present in the Muslim holy land and used it as a base for an attack on Iraq. These are always his first and second points – Jerusalem has come in third. It's only now that he realizes that the Palestine issue is good p.r. for him, so he has moved it up to number one. But in all his previous pronouncements, Arabia was number one.

You were one of the first scholars to pay serious attention to Osama bin Laden's declaration of war against the United States in 1998.

There is this convention in our department that I lead the opening session of our weekly brown-bag seminar for graduate students and faculty. In September 1998 I was looking around for a suitable topic when I read Osama bin Laden's declaration of war in an Arabic newspaper. To tell you the truth, I didn't attach that much importance to it. You wouldn't think it was terribly important that some unknown figure was declaring war with the United States. But it was a very interesting text, so I used it for the seminar. And afterward I thought I could make an article out of it, so I called Foreign Affairs and asked if they would be interested. After Sept. 11 it was that story in Foreign Affairs, more than anything else, that brought in a torrent of telephone calls.

But the reporters didn't call you just because of your knowledge of Osama bin Laden. You have studied the Arab world for the last 50 years.

More. I was 85 my last birthday.

So what do you see as your role in the next few months?

I have no role.

It seems like you do. People are looking to you for understanding. They're buying your books, they're interviewing you, asking you to write articles....

When people ask me, I try to communicate such understanding as I have achieved. I don't claim that I'm always right, but I think on the whole my record isn't too bad.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601