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THE CRISIS OF ISLAM by Bernard Lewis


Holy War and Unholy Terror

by Bernard Lewis

Pub Date: April 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-679-64281-1
Publisher: Modern Library

The dean of Islamic studies in America ponders the current state of what is both a religion and a political system, and finds it wanting.

Mainstream Islam, at least in its ideal form, is at a far remove from the headline-conquering visions of the Islamicists, whether they be the ayatollahs of Iran or the terrorists of al-Qaeda. But, suggests Lewis (Near Eastern Studies Emeritus/Princeton Univ.; The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, 1999, etc.), the fundamentalists may be well along in shifting the center toward the extreme: “The medieval assassins were an extremist sect, very far from mainstream Islam,” he writes. “That is not true of their present-day imitators.” Witness, Lewis writes, the ever-growing power of Wahhabism, the conservative strain of Islam that now dominates Saudi Arabia, which Lewis persuasively likens to the Ku Klux Klan. “The custodianship of holy places [in Saudi Arabia] and the revenues of oil have given worldwide impact to what would otherwise have been an extremist fringe in a marginal country,” writes Lewis—an extremist fringe among whose notable products is Usama bin Ladin, as Lewis spells it, whose “declaration of war against the United States marks the resumption of the struggle for religious dominance of the world that began in the seventh century.” The Islamicists have been able to turn the disaffection of the young and impoverished against not merely America, writes Lewis, but against their home governments, which, after all, have done little to produce healthy societies. (For in every measurable respect of social and material well-being, Lewis writes, the Islamic world lags “ever farther behind the West. Even worse, the Arab nations also lag behind the more recent recruits to Western-style modernity, such as Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.”) Small wonder that so many young Muslims are so eager to fulfill the Quranic obligation of jihad, or “holy war,” by striking out against the West—though, Lewis is quick to add, “at no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder.”

Expanded from Lewis’s prizewinning New Yorker commentary following 9/11: an illuminating brief overview of Islam today.