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Who Says Islam Is Totalitarian?
Not long ago, Bernard Lewis sounded almost like Geert Wilders.


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Andrew C. McCarthy

Who says Islam is a totalitarian doctrine? Well, Geert Wilders does, of course. As the editors point out in Monday’s superb National Review Online editorial, the Dutch parliamentarian has even had the temerity to compare Islam with Nazism. Strong stuff indeed, and for speaking it, Wilders has earned the disdain not just of the usual Muslim Brotherhood satellite organizations but even of many on the political right.

Though they support free-speech rights, and thus grudgingly concede that Wilders should be permitted to say such things, they want you to understand they find his sentiments deplorable. Taking the politically correct view, they assure you that Islam is not a problem at all — it’s just those bad extremists and Islamists who have, as the Bush-era refrain went, “hijacked one of the world’s great religions.”

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Emblematic is the estimable Charles Krauthammer, who has described Wilders’s views as “extreme, radical, and wrong.” Dr. K.’s complaint, expressed on Fox News back in March (and published on the Corner), was that Wilders conflates “Islam and Islamism.” The latter, Krauthammer insists, is “an ideology of a small minority which holds that the essence of Islam is jihad, conquest, forcing people into accepting a certain very narrow interpretation [of Islam].”

As I take a backseat to no one in my admiration of Dr. K., I wonder what he’d make of Bernard Lewis’s take on this subject. Professor Lewis is the distinguished scholar widely and aptly admired, including by Wilders’s detractors, as the West’s preeminent authority on Islam.  At Pajamas Media, Andrew Bostom has unearthed a 1954 International Affairs essay in which Professor Lewis quite matter-of-factly compared Islam with Communism. The essay, in fact, was called, “Communism and Islam.”

In it, Lewis considered “the very nature of Islamic society, tradition, and thought,” and concluded that its principal defining characteristic is the “authoritarianism, perhaps we may even say the totalitarianism, of the Islamic political tradition.” Expanding on this, he wrote:

There are no parliaments or representative assemblies of any kind, no councils or communes, no chambers of nobility or estates, no municipalities in the history of Islam; nothing but the sovereign power, to which the subject owed complete and unwavering obedience as a religious duty imposed by the Holy Law. . . . For the last thousand years, the political thinking of Islam has been dominated by such maxims as “tyranny is better than anarchy,” and “whose power is established, obedience to him is incumbent.”

But what about the conceit that undergirds current American foreign policy, the notion that Islam and Western democracy are perfectly compatible? Lewis dismissed the idea as so much elite wishful thinking:

Many attempts have been made to show that Islam and democracy are identical — attempts usually based on a misunderstanding of Islam or democracy or both. This sort of argument expresses a need of the uprooted Muslim intellectual who is no longer satisfied with or capable of understanding traditional Islamic values, and who tries to justify, or rather, restate, his inherited faith in terms of the fashionable ideology of the day. It is an example of the romantic and apologetic presentation of Islam that is a recognized phase in the reaction of Muslim thought to the impact of the West.

Clearly, the ensuing half-century has found Western intellectuals — regardless of political bent — joining romantic forces with their uprooted Muslim counterparts. Thus the accusation by Dr. Krauthammer, to take a prominent but by no means singular example, that Wilders fails to perceive the distinction — I’d call it a hoped-for distinction — between Islam and Islamism. Yet this accusation itself conflates Islam with Muslims, as well as Islamists with violent jihadists. This confusion leads Krauthammer to surmise both (a) that only a small minority of Muslims believe jihad is “the essence of Islam,” and (b) that because most Muslims in the West are not terrorists, it should be “obvious” that they are not Islamists.



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