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Islam and the West: A Conversation with Bernard Lewis

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Event Transcript
Islam and the West: A Conversation with Bernard Lewis
Thursday, April 27, 2006
Hay-Adams Hotel
Washington, DC

MR. LUGO: A major conference marking that occasion is being held next Monday in Philadelphia under the auspices of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. Professor Lewis, thank you for being with us today. It is a pleasure and honor to have you, sir.

MR. LEWIS: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. It is certainly a privilege and, I hope to discover, also a pleasure to be with you today. As time is short, I shall waste no further time on ceremonial formalities and get straight to the one or two points that I shall have time to make, and leave the rest for you to develop in the course of our subsequent discussion.

Let me begin with the name, which has been given -- not by me -- to our discussion today: the West and Islam, sometimes also Islam and the West, depending on your perspective. You will surely be struck by a certain asymmetry in this formulation. On the one side, a compass point; on the other, a religion. Now, of course, we use "the West" in a number of different senses, but primarily, they are political, strategic, cultural, even civilizational, but not normally religious. The one religious term I have heard used for the West is the post-Christian world. I needn't develop the implications of that term. Islam, on the other hand, is the name of a religion. And it is a part of human society identified by itself, and therefore also by others; not the other way around, in terms of religion.

But having said that, I think one needs to be more specific. In talking of the Christian world, in English -- and, I suppose, in all the other languages of the Christian world -- we use two terms: Christianity and Christendom. Christianity means a religion, in the strict sense of that word, a system of belief and worship and some clerical or ecclesiastical organization to go with it. If we say Christendom, we mean the entire civilization that grew up under the aegis of that religion, but also contains many elements that are not part of that religion, many elements that are even hostile to that religion. Let me give one simple example. No one could seriously assert that Hitler and the Nazis came out of Christianity. No one could seriously dispute that they came out of Christendom. In talking of Islam, we use the same word in both senses, and this gives rise to considerable confusion and misunderstanding. There are many things that are described as part of Islam, which are indeed part of Islam, if we take the word as the equivalent of Christendom, but are very much not part of Islam -- are even alien or hostile to Islam -- if we take the word Islam as the equivalent of Christianity. I think this is a very important point, which one should bear in mind.

The late Marshall Hodgson, of the University of Chicago, in discussing this issue, suggested that we use the word Islamdom to describe the civilization. A good idea, but it didn't catch on, probably because it's so difficult to pronounce.

In that world, religion embraces far more than it does in the Christian or post-Christian world. We are accustomed to talking of church and state, and a whole series of pairs of words that go with them -- lay and ecclesiastical, secular and religious, spiritual and temporal, and so on. These pairs of words simply do not exist in classical Islamic terminology, because the dichotomy that these words express is unknown. They are used in the modern languages. In Arabic, they borrow the terminology used by Christian Arabs. They are fortunate in having a substantial Christian population using Arabic, and they therefore have a good part of the modern terminology at their disposal, in their own language. In Turkish, Persian, Urdu and other languages of Islam, they had to invent new words. The word in Turkish and in Persian is laik [from the French word laïque, which describes the prevailing concept of separation of church and state].

In the Islamic world, from the beginning, Islam was the primary basis of both identity and loyalty. We think of a nation subdivided into religions. They think, rather, of a religion subdivided into nations. It is the ultimate definition, the prime definition and the one that determines, as I said, not only identity, but also basic loyalty. And this is quite independent of religious belief. In Islam, there isn't -- or rather, there wasn't until recently -- any such thing as the church, in the Christian sense of that word. The mosque is a place of worship. It's a building, a place of worship and study. And in that sense, it is the equivalent of the church. But in the sense of an institution with a hierarchy and its own laws and usages, there was no such thing in Islam until very recently. And one of the achievements of the Islamic Revolution in Iran has been to endow an Islamic country for the first time with the equivalents of a pope, a college of cardinals, a bench of bishops and, above all, an inquisition. All these were previously unknown and nonexistent in the Islamic world.

On the question of loyalty, let me give you an example. We all know from the history books of the exchange of Turks and Greeks, which took place after World War I when, after the war ended, there was a further war between Greece and Turkey, at the end of which, the Greek and Turkish governments agreed on an exchange of populations. And as it appears in the history books, the Greek minority in Turkey was sent to Greece; the Turkish minority in Greece was sent to Turkey. That's what it says in the history books. But if you look at the treaty in which this agreement was incorporated, it says something different. The parties to be exchanged are defined as Turkish subjects of the Greek Orthodox faith and Greek subjects of the Muslim faith. And if you look more closely at who the people actually were, they were, to a very large extent, Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians from Turkey and Greek-speaking Muslims from Greece. This was not an exchange of two ethnic minorities. It was a deportation of two religious minorities.

And this remains very much the perception to the present day. Religion is the primary identity, and that is quite unrelated to belief and worship. An Egyptian scholar even wrote a book with the odd title -- odd, that is, to the Western reader -- the odd title of Atheism in Islam. It seems a rather absurd title on the face of it. But it isn't at all. He was talking about Islam as a culture, as a civilization, and there, as elsewhere, there were atheists and atheist movements, a perfectly legitimate title of a perfectly valid study. It is very difficult for us in the West to understand and appreciate this and all its implications. Separation of church and state was derided in the past by Muslims when they said this is a Christian remedy for a Christian disease. It doesn't apply to us or to our world. Lately, I think some of them are beginning to reconsider that, and to concede that perhaps they may have caught a Christian disease and would therefore be well advised to try a Christian remedy.

That's all by way of introduction; I can elaborate on these points if you wish later. I want to tackle one specific question that has been very much in the news of late and will appeal to you professionally, I hope. That is the question of the Danish cartoons. Now, this is a very curious story. The news story, as it broke, was that a Danish newspaper had published a series of cartoons offensive to the Prophet, and that this had led to spontaneous outbursts of indignation all over the Muslim world. Now, there are several problems in this. One of them was that the spontaneous outbursts of indignation didn't occur until slightly more than four months after the publication of the cartoons. It's a little difficult to follow, I think you'll agree. The second problem was that when the spontaneous outbreaks of indignation did occur all over the Muslim world, in the remotest parts of northern Nigeria, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and elsewhere they had an ample supply of Danish flags of suitable size and texture for trampling or burning, as required. Obviously, this was something carefully prepared over a period of time.

What exactly was it about? Well, fortunately we have a little background on this, which makes it easier to understand. About 18 years ago, you may recall, the Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a sentence of death against the novelist Salman Rushdie, who was living in London at that time. The crime for which he sentenced him to death was insulting the Prophet. For a Muslim to insult the Prophet is tantamount to apostasy, and that, as we were recently reminded in Afghanistan, is widely seen as a capital offense.

But this is a different matter. And after a time, I got interested in what was happening, and therefore made a study of the literature relating to this offense, which probably I would not otherwise have bothered with. A number of interesting things emerged. By the way, when we talk of Muslim law, I would remind you that we are talking about law. Sharia is a system of law and adjudication, not of lynching and terror. It is a law that lays down rules, rules for evidence, for indictment, for defense and the rest of it, quite a different matter from what has been happening recently.

The first point made was that it is forbidden to portray the Prophet, that making images of the Prophet of any kind is against the Muslim religion. That is true, though not always strictly observed by Muslims. But the point is that they want to avoid any kind of deification of the Prophet. Muslims are shocked when they go into churches and they see pictures and statues being worshipped. This they see as idolatrous. And if you go into the interior of a mosque, it is very austere: no pictures, no statues, only inscriptions. The ban on the portrayal of a prophet is intended to prevent the development of idolatrous worship of the Prophet. I don't think there was any danger of that from the Danish cartoons.

What was much more at issue was another ban, and that is on insulting the Prophet, which is, of course, an offense. This raises a number of interesting questions that I think are of direct relevance to the whole issue at the present time. Insulting the Prophet is an offense in Muslim law. This raises two issues: one of substantive law, the other of jurisdiction. Muslim jurists discuss this at some length, and there is a considerable body of case law concerning it in Muslim states.

The first point of disagreement: What is the range of jurisdiction of Muslim law? And here you have two opinions. According to the Shi'a and a minority among the Sunnis, Muslim law applies to Muslims wherever they may be in the world. A Muslim who commits an offense against Muslim law, wherever he may be in the world, is subject to Muslim law and must therefore be punished in accordance with Muslim law.

The majority Sunni view is that Muslim law only applies in countries under Muslim government. What happens outside is no concern of the Muslim authorities. One distinguished jurist makes his point with an extreme example: A Muslim traveling in the lands of the unbelievers commits robbery and murder. He returns to the lands of Islam with his loot. No action can be taken against him or against his loot because the offense was committed outside the jurisdiction of Islam, and it is therefore up to the juridical and legal authorities of the infidels to take action, if they can and will.

Here you have two different opinions relating to an offense committed by a Muslim. That is not the case for the Danish cartoons. This is an offense committed by a non-Muslim. And here the plot thickens. This is discussed by all of the juridical authorities only in the case of a non-Muslim subject of a Muslim state. If a non-Muslim subject of a Muslim state says or does something offensive to the Prophet, he is to be tried -- accused, tried, and if necessary, punished. The jurists on the whole tend to take a rather mild view of this offense. They say, well, he is not a Muslim; he doesn't accept Mohammed as the Prophet; we know that. So saying that Mohammed is no prophet does not constitute this offense. It has to be more specifically insulting than that. And, as I say, there is an elaborate juridical literature and case law on this subject.

What is never discussed at all -- it is never considered -- is an offense committed by a non-Muslim in a non-Muslim country. That, according to the unanimous opinion of all of the doctors of the holy law is no concern of Islamic law, which brings us back to the case of Denmark. Does this mean that Denmark, along with the rest of Europe is now considered part of the Islamic lands, and that the Danes, like the rest, are therefore dhimmis, non-Muslim subjects of the Muslim state? I think this is an interesting question, which can lead to several possible lines of inquiry.

MR. LUGO: Excellent. Thank you so much.

Before taking your questions, I did want to introduce to all of you my two partners in crime in this Pew Forum luncheon series, E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution and The Washington Post, and Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. We take turns moderating these events.

MR. LEWIS: There is one thing I wanted to add.

MR. LUGO: Please do.

MR. LEWIS: Insulting the Prophet is something that has been going on in Europe for a very long time. In Dante's Inferno, if you're interested in the 28th Canto, where Dante is being taken on his conducted tour of hell and guided by Virgil, he comes across the Prophet Mohammed in the course of his eternal damnation. He is punished -- I quote Dante's words, as a "seminator di scandalo e di scisma," a sower of scandal and of schism. Now, this is very insulting. In the great Cathedral of Bologna there is a wonderful set of pictures painted, if I remember rightly, in the 15th century depicting scenes from Dante's Inferno, including some very graphic pictures of Mohammed being tortured in hell by the devil -- very graphic.

Nobody did anything about this. A couple of years ago, the leaders of the Italian-Muslim community sent a polite request to the cathedral saying these are insulting to Muslims; would they mind covering those pictures. The cathedral administration said they would consider it. Nothing happened. The pictures are still in view.

MR. LUGO: Thank you.

Read the entire article on the Pew Forum website (new window will open).

Posted: 04-Jun-06

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