Bernard Lewis

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.

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.

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.

The Jewish Talmud says that the righteous peoples have an equal place in paradise. The Christians and Muslims agree in rejecting that; they claim that they are the fortunate recipients of God’s final message and those who accepted will go to heaven and those who rejected go to hell. So there is a long struggle between the Dar al-Islam and the Dar al-Harb, which in effect was Christendom. This was the perceived enemy. And this has inevitably colored the perception of everything else.

I know it is said repeatedly that I was in support of the American invasion in Iraq. It is simply not true. I was in favor of helping the Iraqis, and most specifically Ahmad Chelebi and the Kurdish leadership to set up an independent government of free Iraq. I think that would have been the right thing to do.

Moses led his people through the wilderness and he wasn’t permitted to enter the Promised Land. Jesus was crucified. Mohammad founded a state which soon became an empire, so that Islam from the very beginning is involved with government, with politics. And therefore there is a very clear strong political tradition in Islam.

I see encouraging signs of democracy developing in other places in the Middle East. In Tunisia, in Iraq, and now in Egypt. Tunisia is the one Muslim country that does something for girls and education. As far as I know, this is the only Muslim country where this is true. There is compulsory education for girls from the age of 5.

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.