There are so many disturbing things about Bernard Lewis’ interview, but the most disturbing is the possible effect of his ill-considered remark counseling against the use of force with Iran, because Iran, you see, has a venerable history, and the Iranians are proud nationalists, and no doubt an attack that destroyed Iran’s nuclear facilities would cause some — but how much, and for how long — rallying around the Islamic Republic of Iran by those who are otherwise disaffected. The problem is that Israel, and the United States, can’t wait, in order for that “regime change.” And Lewis surely must know — he’s keenly aware of it — that his every word is held up by some as holy writ. And therefore, when he off-handedly counsels against any military attack on Iran, he’s making the likely task of the Israelis, and others who know that they cannot wait, much harder.
It was a foolish remark, foolishly made. And even though he adds, afterthoughtedly, some modification, the damage has been done. For this is how it will be used: “See, even Bernard Lewis says that Iran’s nuclear project should not be attacked, for it will only make the regime stronger.” Well, maybe yes, and maybe no. The Islamic Republic of Iran could hardly be doing more than it is doing to threaten Israel and, in Lebanon and elsewhere, other Infidels. It is at least conceivable — but Lewis can’t conceive of it — that the humiliation of having that nuclear project destroyed will lead to a temporary rallying-round, followed by a realization that the regime has failed on every count. Or, to put it otherwise, if the regime does acquire nuclear weapons, and is successful in defying the Americans, the Israelis, and everyone else, will it not then have such prestige that those who want regime change will be put on the defensive, will be weakened? This appears not to occur to Lewis, for he doesn’t even consider it.
Lewis, remember, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Oslo Accords. It annoys him to be reminded of this. And even now, though he calls that support a “mistake,” he has done nothing to explain why he made that “mistake.” Was it that he had faith in Arafat? Was Arafat the problem? Or was it something deeper than Arafat, something about the tenets of Islam, and the example of Muhammad? Lewis should be asked, but was not asked in this or in any other interview, two questions:
1) Does he think that the Muslims and Arabs will ever accept, as permanent presence within borders that are truly defensible and not hopelessly vulnerable, an Infidel nation-state, smack in the middle of Dar al-Islam? If he thinks that, on what basis does he do so?
2) Why does he think that Muslims can somehow overcome 1350 years of ideology, and of behavior based on that ideology? What makes him think, for example, that Muhammad is no longer uswa hasana, al-insan al-kamil, and that his dealings with the Meccans in 628 A.D., at Hudaibiyya, do not have continuing vitality as the example for all treaty-making with Infidels?
Lewis was such a fervent admirer of the Oslo Accords that he privately told a Jewish leader who, early on, was attempting to bring violations by the “Palestinians” of those accords to the attention of others, to “keep quiet” — because he, Lewis, didn’t want anything to rock the damn Oslo boat. And he was also, as we know, a famous proponent of the war in Iraq, and of remaking Iraq, for he knew what he had to know about Iraq from the likes of Ahmad Chalabi.
This is not a function of age. Lewis is as keen now as he ever was. The question is: was he quite as keen ten years ago, or twenty, as his admirers of the World’s-Greatest-Authority School seem to think, no matter what Lewis supports, or how incautiously he may, though seeming to be cautious, express himself? It is Israel, and the rest of the West, that will pay the price for that remark.
And for this one:
“What we are seeing now in much of the Islamic world could only be described as a monstrous perversion of Islam. The things that are now being done in the name of Islam are totally anti-Islamic. Take suicide, for example. The whole Islamic theology and law is totally opposed to suicide. Even if one has led a totally virtuous life, if he dies by his own hand he forfeits paradise and is condemned to eternal damnation. The eternal punishment for suicide is the endless repetition of the act of suicide. That’s what it says in the books. So these people who blow themselves up, according to their own religion – which they don’t seem to be well-acquainted with – are condemning themselves to an eternity of exploding bombs.”
Apparently, the widely-read and presumably authoritative Sheik Al-Qaradawi, and the Sheikh Al-Azhar (who holds the highest position in Sunni Islam), and a great many other Muslim clerics, do not agree with Bernard Lewis. They think that what the West describes as “suicide bombing” is not “suicide” at all as Muslims understand it. As they see it, the attacks by Muslims who have bomb vests strapped to their waist are simply updated versions of a Muslim warrior in the past who, were he brave enough, might attack a large number of the enemy at the same time, knowing full well he could not possibly emerge alive, but at least he would kill a far greater number of the enemy.
Lewis ignores all this. He ignores the repeated justification of this practice by Muslim clerics all over the place, and claims that he, Lewis, recognizes suicide-bombing as a “monstrous perversion.” But he is ignoring technology. In the past, Muslims did not have explosive belts. They had only their swords, or in some cases later on, their rifles. Any Muslim who attacked a much larger force was, in essence, committing suicide, but this was not seen as “suicide.” Suicide, for Muslims, is not what you do when your act is accompanied by the killing of Infidels. It is what you do alone, and for no other reason than that you no longer wish to live. That is what is unacceptable in Islam.
But now there are explosives. And a Muslim who might once have entered battle with a sword to smite a much larger force, thinks he is doing the same thing, but with a newly-available weapon, when he enters a restaurant, a bus, a hotel function room, and blows himself up.
Lewis doesn’t even bother to discuss how contemporary Muslim clerics justify suicide bombing, in ways completely recognizable, and, indeed, understandable to many other Muslims now — as it would have been in the past. He doesn’t like it. He no doubt would wish to discourage it. So he calls it merely a “monstrous perversion” without considering that technological progress, and not a moral sea-change, explains the propriety of what we all “suicide-bombing” but they simply call “an attack on Infidel enemies.”
This is not the only time he has failed to think things through. But it is certainly striking. And the interviewer, who seems ill-inclined to question him further about anything, merely serves as a reminder — to the reader, and no doubt to Lewis himself — of his adoring claque.