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Least worst system?

Faith and Power: religion and politics in the Middle East Bernard Lewis

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 208PP, £14.99 ■Tablet Bookshop price £13.50

T 01420 592974

his collection of essays, lectures and occasional talks by Bernard Lewis, emeritus professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, is a valuable introduction to its subject. While being very approachable, it is clearly backed up by a lifetime’s study of the history, the languages and the dilemmas of the region, as well as with many contacts among the personalities involved. It contains a wealth of information hidden beneath the surface, and is therefore of great value to the non-specialist who wants to understand what is going on. (How many Tablet readers know, for example, that the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein in Iraq had its origins in a pro-Nazi group in Vichy-controlled Syria?) The author begins by emphasising that what he is discussing is faith and power, not Church and State or religion and politics. For in Islam there is no such distinction: no “sacred” over against “secular”, no religious as distinct from political authority. Unlike Christianity, which developed from the ashes of the Roman Empire until it absorbed and sacralised Latin culture, language and habits of thought, Islam began with the creation of a new empire and a new form of authority over people. Christ’s lack of power over others was the source of his strength. But Muhammad was simultaneously a prophet of God and a successful empire builder. Indeed the two were simply aspects of one and the same thing. He was both the carrier of God’s message and a sovereign who commanded armies, levied taxes, enforced the law and made war and peace. To do the one simply was to do the other. This raises the question for Westerners of

whether Islam is really a religion at all. But Lewis insists this very question makes no sense for the Muslim. Here is perhaps the most fundamental difficulty for those engaged in dialogue across the divide. For of course, Islam has had to cope with the irruption of Western influence in modern times (ever since Napoleon’s adventure into Egypt in 1798) and has in some ways adopted Western categories in order to maintain itself. But today this clothing in Western habits – in commerce, law, education etc., not to mention military and information technology – is under challenge from those Muslims who want to reinvigorate their own tradition, whether by appeal to their ancient Qur’anic heritage or to more modern and often aggressive ideologies like Wahhabism. But each choice is difficult for the Westerner to understand, since both take for granted the identity of religion and politics, faith and power. To

26 | THE TABLET | 2 October 2010

make progress in dialogue, we have first of all to recognise an identity where we Westerners assume a distinction. Much of Lewis’ book is about the possibility of democracy within Islam. He quotes a Muslim writer visiting London in 1799 who was astonished to discover that the House of Commons made laws. For in Islam there was only one system of law, namely the sharia: and that is made by God. How then could democracy possibly exist in an Islamic society? The so-called “fundamentalists” (so dubbed in America by analogy with extremist Protestants), who want to restore what they regard as authentic Islam, think the answer has to be that it can’t. But Lewis makes much of the fact that in Sunni Islam the caliph was elected, or at least emerged from a contract or “deal” which set up obligations between ruler and ruled. The caliph undertook to perform certain duties specified by the jurists. He was subject to the law, not above it. Here is possibly the germ of a democratic set-up within Islam itself. Unfortunately, however, in Arabic there is no word for “citizen” or “citizenship”. Although various groups chose their leaders in the classical period, electing individuals to represent the citizens in an assembly is foreign to Muslim experience. Lewis is not confident that democracy can be made to work, let alone flourish, in Islamic societies. But there is some room for manoeuvre, and people who want peace rather than conflict need to exploit and develop it. He welcomes the free and fair election held in Iraq in January 2005, but says it was not enough. Democracy also requires a loyal opposition that can fairly but rigorously scrutinise the actions of government: and that has not yet been realised in most of the Middle East. Lewis also points out how Muslims see historical events differently from us. For example, whereas in the West, and especially in America, people tend to see the collapse of the USSR as a Western “victory” which ended the Cold War, many Muslims tend to see it either as the loss of a valuable patron or as the result of an heroic struggle between Muslim warriors and Soviet invaders in Afghanistan. Now that the most serious, because most ruthless, enemy (the USSR) has been vanquished by war, the “pampered and effeminate Americans” (as Osama bin Laden calls them) can perhaps be vanquished by less familiar means: hence 9/11 and the earlier strikes against embassies, warships and barracks in the Middle East and East Africa. Lewis also tackles the issue of female emancipation. He gives various examples to illustrate his “cautiously optimistic” thesis that, while there are powerful forces repressing them, “women … probably represent the best hope for progress in the Islamic world”. This book is an excellent introduction to

Islam for Western readers. Because it has so much to offer, it is a great pity that there is no index to access its riches. Brian Wicker

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