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What I personally find of interest in this brilliant article is the way that the author clearly proposes that the Muslim conflict that is going on is something that the West has no influence over whatsoever and should be left to them to decide. Given the US's long and futile history of intervening in other nation's affairs to try and direct politics to their advantage, this is something that we should all remember.
On one hand he maintains that Islam is a competing cultural system to Christianity, on the other, he maintains that Islam is on the defensive -- that this 14 centuries' struggle has resulted in a shrinking Islamic world.
The fact that Islam has become "radicalized" during recent history suggests that, in fact, it is no longer a competing system, but a declining one. For all the derisive aspects that the West may bring to the Middle East through Christianity from an Islamic viewpoint, it has also brought Western philosophy regarding economics and government that have been successful around the world. Until Islamic society can incorporate those benefits without the religious aspects, conflict will continue -- and perhaps is unending, as religion is an integrated component in Islamic culture.
This article reminded me very much of the work of Samuel P. Huntington in his book titled The Clash of Civilizations(1996). The article on which Huntington's book was based was published in 1993, so it looks as if Lewis may have anticipated some of Huntington's arguments. Huntington's ideas were strongly attacked when they first appeared, but, in retrospect, they look prophetic, as indeed does this article by Lewis.
Lewis concentrates a great deal on Jefferson's imperative that there must be a separation of church and state. He goes on to discuss the value of the Islamic faith to millions of people over many, many years, that has enable the poor and disenfranchised to survive the most dire circumstances. He does note, however, that every once in a while, a segment of the Islamic faith carries out behaviors that do not reflect the teachings of Islam. That there are different perspectives in non-Christian countries of the workings between church and state does not mean that these countries, i.e. Muslim nations, are inherently evil. Those involved in attacking the US because of the hatred they harbor are not representative of the majority of Muslim countries. I guess he is saying that different is not necessarily wrong.
Differing sects of Islam believe different things, but many of the workers and underclass are undereducated and led by leaders who do not necessarily believe what they preach. The difference between Western secularism/acceptance of different religions and Islam is that most other religions today aren't bothered by opposing viewpoints. Islam is directly offended by differing beliefs. I can't speak to the intellectual honesty of the article; it seems deliberately placating instead of objectively probing, but then again Lewis is speaking from a position of knowledge, "as a historian of Islam who is not a Muslim."
Lewis points to a fundamental clash of worldviews between Western-style secularism and the understanding of the relationship between religion and society espoused by Muslim intellectuals. Secularism is not in and of itself a threat-he argues that Soviet-style state secularism wasn't scary, because few Muslims were attracted to the way of life in the USSR. But Western-style secularism, tied up as it is with material wealth and consumerism, represents an enticing alternative to "traditional ways of thought and life." What is more, he argues, "Fundamentalist leaders are not mistaken in seeing in Western civilization the greatest challenge to the way of life that they wish to retain or restore for their people." They are thus inclined to see, as we weren't in 1990, the differences between their society and that of the West as grounds for a Manichean struggle between good and evil payed out on a world stage. I read this as an attack on those who received the news of the collapse of communism with smug satisfaction, and to scholars like Francis Fukuyama, who saw the "end of history" in the victory of western-style liberal democracy and capitalism over state socialism. It was a sobering message.
Do you have a specific point you would like us to discuss with regard to this article?
To me, the point Lewis makes that is hardest to take is the idea that there is nothing we can do to affect which strain of Islam comes to power. He argues that this is an intra-Muslim dispute and that our attempts to influence them might well backfire.
This is very hard to swallow because we are a country that likes to think that we can and should have a great deal of influence world-wide. It is also much harder to take today (post-9/11) than when Lewis wrote this in 1990.
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