Bernard Lewis

I think confronted with the modern world or with the rest of the world, I think people are becoming aware that the Western and Islamic civilizations have more in common than apart. It was a German scholar, C. H. Becker, who said a long time ago that the real dividing line is not between Islam and Christendom; it’s the dividing line East of Islam, between the Islamic and Christian worlds together on the one hand and the rest of the world on the other. I think there is a lot of truth in that.

You see in Turkey, they had a remarkable success story in building up a democracy. I was in Istanbul for most of the year 1950. That was the year when the government held free and fair election, was defeated and simply withdrew from power and handed it over to the opposition, without precedent in Middle Eastern history. That was a really remarkable time and it was a fascinating and rewarding experience to be there at that time.

When we talk about the Judeo-Christian or the Judeo-Muslim tradition, it’s important to remember that we are speaking of a Jewish component of civilization, but not in itself a civilization. What is happening now in Israel is that you have a coming together of Jews from the Christian world and Jews from the Muslim world with different cultures.

These internal clashes in Israel nowadays are in a sense a continuation of a clash between Islam and Christendom through their former Jewish minorities and it works out in a number of different ways. It’s fascinating to watch. And I hope they succeed in finding a compromise. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be much sign of it.

In the Christian world, as you remember, Christianity is in the 21st century, Islam is in the 15th century. I don’t mean to say that Islam is backward; I mean to say that there are certain experiences that it hasn’t gone through. Christianity had the great religious wars of the 17th century. Islam, fortunately for the Muslims, did not have that. Christianity worked out a system of toleration. Islam was always more tolerant of Christendom.

In opposing we always talk about freedom in the Western world, Muslims always talk about justice. Very often we mean the same thing. But what we do mean, what in the Western world we call human rights, in the Islamic world, they don’t talk about rights. Now they do, but in the past they didn’t. It wasn’t part of their terminology. But really it’s the same thing.

My position on that has been misrepresented again and again and again in the media. Let me make it clear. There are two wars in Iraq. The first one was absolutely necessary and entirely justifiable. Saddam Hussein had attacked and invaded Kuwait, a sovereign independent state, it was a blatant act of aggression, and action was justifiable and necessary. I have no problems with that at all.

In the West nowadays, it’s very common to talk about the Judeo- Christian tradition. It’s a common term. The term is relatively modern but the reality is an old one. One could with equal justification talk about a Judeo-Islamic tradition or a Christian-Islamic tradition. These three religions are interlinked in many signification ways, which marks them off from the rest of the world. And I think there is a growing awareness of this among Christians and among Jews, and even to some extent to some Muslims. That’s happening for obvious reasons.

Blaming the imperialists nowadays is obviously absurd, as is blaming the Americans, who obviously don’t have the slightest desire to control anything in the Middle East. The American desire is to get out as quickly as possible and the general view is that now that the Cold War is over and the Soviets are no longer a problem, we have no reason to stay there, let’s get out. They will have to confront their own problems. Israel provides a useful scapegoat but it’s a limited one.

In the past, foreign intervention was obviously a major problem. Foreign domination, or if not domination, interference. But that has ended. There is no foreign domination; there is minimal foreign interference. The Cold War has ended. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The United States is showing minimal and diminishing interest in the Muslim world. They now have to confront their own problems. The old excuses are gone. The old justifications are gone and therefore the anger of people is turning increasingly against their own rulers.

Muslims naturally saw Christendom as their arch rival. One point that is really important to bear in mind, particularly in addressing an American audience, and that is that the Islamic world has a very strong sense of history. In the Muslim world, history is important and their knowledge of history is not always accurate but is very detailed. There is a strong historical sense in the Muslim world, a feeling for the history of Islam from the time of the Prophet until the present day.

What has been happening in Turkey. The country has been taken over by the present rulers and they have been very, very skillful and taking over everything and taking over control over everything and now taking control over the judiciary. They will be taking over the constitution. Unless there will be some radical change, which is unlikely, I will say the tradition of Kemalism will be dead in Turkey. And Turkey is becoming a more Islamic state, in the traditional sense.

If you look at the movement of refugees, in Vladimir Lenin’s phrase, “the people who voted with their feet,” the movement of refugees until comparatively modern times was overwhelmingly from West to East, not from East to West. Refugees of all kinds were constantly fleeing from Christendom to the Islamic lands. Jews of course and Muslims of course, but even some Christians and the movement of refugees went overwhelmingly that way.

Muslims are very keenly aware of the history of their community, of the history of that relationship between their community and the rest of the world. And they have had this all through the centuries and are very much heightened by modern communications. I mean now you have Muslims in the Muslim world who can compare their situations with people elsewhere and they find that very humiliating.

One reason which I find particularly fascinating about Israel is this. There is no such thing as a Jewish civilization. There is a Jewish culture, a Jewish religion, but there is no such thing as a Jewish civilization. The Jews were a component basically of two civilizations. In the Western world, we talk about the Judeo-Christian tradition and you talk about the Judeo-Islamic tradition because there were large and important Jewish communities living in the lands of Islam.