In the Occident, Lewis has noted, the phrase “That’s history” has come to imply irrelevance. Not so in the Orient, where the past weighs heavily on the present. “The Muslim peoples,” Lewis wrote, “like everyone else in the world, are shaped by their history, but, unlike some others, they are keenly aware of it.”
If many of our leaders fail to comprehend all or any of this, part of the explanation may be that the intellectual waters have been muddied. In 1978, Edward Said, a Columbia University professor of comparative literature with no background in history, political science, or anthropology, published a book entitled Orientalism, an assault on Lewis and other Western scholars. Said’s contention was that Europeans and Americans were not competent to understand Muslims and their civilization — and that their attempts to do so should be dismissed as a manifestation of neo-colonialism.
Those concerned with the rise of militant movements within the Islamic world, Said charged, were racists, reactionaries, and hysterics. His views were quickly embraced on the left and came to dominate the Middle East–studies departments of American and European universities. Small wonder that the attacks of 9/11 were not anticipated by most academic experts or the diplomats and intelligence analysts who had studied under them.
It should not go unmentioned here: As much as Lewis has been denigrated by Islamists and their apologists, he also has been roundly criticized by some on the right who see no hope for a reformed Islam — an Islam as distant from Khomeinism, Wahhabism, and bin Ladenism as 21st-century Christianity is from the Inquisition.
But few Muslims are likely to fight for such reform until and unless Islamic militancy is decisively defeated. And that cannot happen so long as the West’s leaders fail to recognize 9/11 for the act of war it was, so long as they think they can sweet-talk self-proclaimed jihadis into being reasonable, so long as they remain persuaded that the global conflict now under way is a crime or a mystery and has nothing to do with the powerful currents of history and faith.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.