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Lewis - Middle East
By Ayub Khan, IOL Correspondent
CHICAGO, May 31 (IslamOnline) - Professor Bernard Lewis, eminent historian and Middle Eastern expert spoke on “Islam and the West” at a lecture organized by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations at the Field Museum. Accused, by some thinkers, of “deliberately overlooking or ignoring well-known facts about the Islamic culture”, Lewis stated that ultimately Muslims will themselves have to find a way out of the crisis that is facing them.
He said that knowledge of history is essential to understand the current conflict in the Muslim world. Lewis remarked that Americans' knowledge of history is abysmally low in marked contrast with the Islamic world where even the illiterate people have a sense of history. He said that time and again historical references are made to Middle East conflicts, such as during the Iran-Iraq war when there was intensive propaganda between the warring neighbors.
Lewis also commented on the latest crisis facing the Muslim world, saying, "Osama bin Laden in his various speeches makes historic allusions. He refers to America as a ‘Crusader’ nation." Lewis went on to say that while bin Laden was using the word "Crusade" in a historical context, the same was not true when U.S. President George W. Bush used it to describe his agenda against Afghanistan. The word crusade has lost its original meaning in the Western world and now stands for almost anything but religious, he said. "In bin Laden's language it has a very explicit meaning."
Lewis also commented that Islam and Christianity are the only global civilizations and that all other religions are regional in nature. He commented that it was necessary to make a distinction between Islam the faith and Islam the civilization (“Islamdom”, a term which never really caught on). He emphasized that caution should be used when describing the movements within “Islamdom”. "Hitler arose in Christendom and yet we do not call his movement a Christian movement. [The] same caution should be used with Islamdom."
Commenting on religious tolerance in Islamic civilization, he said that during the time when Islam was the ruling empire, “Jews and Christians had their own courts. They had the right to their own laws. It was more rather than less tolerant. It was a tolerant, open society."
He said that during its height, Islamic civilization was best in all human endeavors. Both the faith of Islam and human endeavor were behind the glory of Islamic civilization, Lewis said in response to a question. He listed the contributions made by Muslims in science, mathematics and other fields. "Imagine doing your taxes in roman numerals," he said referring to the development of the concept of “zero” by Muslims.
He said that the key to the current crisis in the Islamic world lies in Muslims asking "what did we do wrong?" instead of the question "who did this to us?" He said that while Israel is an aggravating factor it is not the cause. Lewis criticized the Western governments for their support of Middle Eastern monarchies and dictatorships and asserted that much of the crises facing Muslims are a result of their own leaders’ actions. He commented that Western governments follow a racist assumption in the Middle East, which subscribes to the belief that the rules of democracy are not applicable there.
He said that there are hopeful signs that the Middle East is going to open up to the concept of freedom of press. If not then, the Muslim world would fall behind as "the [Ottoman] caliphate fell behind in the industrial revolution," he stated.
Lewis's lecture was fifth in a series organized by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. Past speakers have included renowned professor and former Director of the Washington-based American Committee on Jerusalem (ACJ) Rashid Khalidi, Professor Oleg Grabar, renowned scholar Dr. Tariq Ramadan, Ambassador Frank Wisner.
Lewis recently published his latest book “What Went Wrong”, a series of essays (the core of which were given in Vienna in September 1999). The main idea propagated in that book, as analysts in the Middle East see it, is “an attempt to deepen the dispute between Islam and the West, concluding that Muslim East committed the crime of September 11 attacks on the United States”.
“While claiming to have dug deep into the 18th and 19th centuries diplomatic events, Lewis briefly touched on intellectual history, sketching only the broadest outlines of modern and reformist thought in Islam,” several analysts said of the book.
Others were more critical though, accused Lewis of “either accidentally or deliberately overlooking or ignoring well-known facts about the Middle Eastern culture”. Some of them accused him of just singing to the choir of claiming the West’s superiority over Islam. They suggested that his book “What Went Wrong”, should have carried the title “We are Better – Just Get Over It”.
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