‘What went wrong?” That was the title of Bernard Lewis’s landmark book on Islam’s thousand years of global dominance followed by the decline of the caliphate between the 17th century, when Muslim armies were halted at the Gates of Vienna, and the early 20th century, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. This fall from grace left deep scars — grievances expressed most lethally on Sept. 11, 2001, soon after Professor Lewis’s book was completed.
Ten years later, the question we might be asking is “What has gone wrong with us?” The atrocities of 9/11 were said to be a new Pearl Harbor that would once again “awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
Instead, many, if not most, of our political leaders fight fitfully and without conviction, uncertain about both the nature and the gravity of the threat. One example: Lady Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, Britain’s storied intelligence service, last week called the 9/11 attacks “a crime, not an act of war.” She did not explain why she thought using hijacked planes as missiles to destroy the political, military, and financial centers of the free world was akin to a bank robbery. She did not cite other instances in which common criminals seek no monetary benefit, kill themselves during the commission of their crimes, and call that “martyrdom.” She did not say whether she thought Osama bin Laden, as a criminal suspect, should have been entitled to a presumption of innocence rather than bullets through the chest and head.
She did, however, note what she imagines to be “the causes and roots” of the many acts of terrorism carried out by Muslim militants in the name of Islam, including, as usual, “the plight of Palestinians” and the belief that the West is “exploiting their oil and supporting dictators.” According to the Guardian newspaper, she added that terrorist campaigns could not be solved militarily, so she “hoped there were those — she implied in Western governments — who were considering having ‘talks with al-Qaida.’”
A second example: National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said in a recent speech that he and President Obama know what the Iranians are against but “what are they for?” Have Donilon and Obama read nothing that Iran’s revolutionaries have written? Have they heard nothing that Ayatollah Ali Khameini and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have said? Let me boil it down: They are for restoring to Islam the power and glory it enjoyed a millennium ago. They are for the defeat of the Great Satan and the Little Satan and anyone else who defies Allah’s will as they interpret it.
Manningham-Buller, Donilon, Obama, and so many others — they are smart people. So, again, what has gone wrong? I think they have become disoriented. I use the word advisedly.
The “Orient” is the East. Not so long ago, the study of the Middle East and Islam was a discipline called Orientalism. The greatest modern Orientalist was — and for my money, remains — Professor Lewis, now 95 years old and still sharp as a scimitar.
In more than three dozen books, he has detailed the history and cultures of the great Islamic empire founded by fierce and determined conquerors who, starting in the 7th century, pushed west to Spain and east to the Philippines, defeating, among others, Christians and occupying their lands including, in 1453, the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (now called Istanbul).
These forces marched north into the European heartland as well, but their ambitions were frustrated in two historic battles. The first was the Battle of Tours in 732 when Charles Martel, leading the Franks, stopped the powerful forces of the Umayyad Caliphate from overrunning what is now France as well as other Western European territories.
The second was the Battle of Vienna in 1683 when Jan Sobieski, king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, seeing the Turks close to breaching the walls of the city, led his outnumbered troops in a daring counterattack. The date was September 12. Pope Innocent XI hailed Sobieski as the “savior of Vienna and Western European civilization.” The Ottoman commander, Kara Mustafa Pasha, was strangled with a silk cord by order of the commander of the Janissaries, the home guard of the Sultan.
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.