Last week, I was privileged to attend a lecture by Bernard Lewis at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The audience greeted the nonagenarian scholar with a degree of reverence and adulation that probably no other academic in the world commands. Many stood at the end of his presentation, and I fully expected to hear cries of “Bravo! Bravo!” Younger members of the audience will one day tell their children how they heard Lewis, still in full command of his subject, in much the way that aging baby-boomers regale their offspring with memories of Grateful Dead concerts.
Lewis was part of a double feature that began with the screening of Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West, a powerful documentary that has been widely shown on American TV, but for some inexplicable reason has yet to appear on Israel TV. One of the film’s great merits is the prominence given to the testimony of Arabs and Muslims. Nonie Darwish, daughter of the Egyptian military commander of Gaza in the ’50s, killed in battle with Israeli forces; Walid Shoehat (an alias), a former PLO member and Israeli security prisoner, Brigitte Gabriel, a black Lebanese Christian, raised to hate Jews, and The Jerusalem Post‘s own Khaled Abu Toameh, whose courage and reporting it would be impossible to praise too highly, all appear frequently.
Equally powerful is the late Alfons Heck, a commander in the Hitler Youth, who compares the indoctrination of Muslim youth to that of Nazi Germany, and wonders at the world’s inability to see the parallel. Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, recounts how Churchill saw himself as a failure for his inability to make his countrymen see the looming danger posed by Hitler.
Gilbert clearly feels the same sense of frustration today at the Western world’s refusal “to connect the dots” and see radical Islam as a global problem. Recognizing radical Islam as a single problem, Gilbert archly observed, would obligate the West to do something – and that it has no more interest in doing than Chamberlain had in confronting Hitler. (Incidentally, the film contains clips of the smugly smiling Chamberlain on his return from Munich, as he proclaims “peace in our time” to a roaring throng.)
The pairing of Obsession and Bernard Lewis proved a happy one. No one is better positioned to comment on the deformations that have seized the Muslim world than he. He has been studying the Muslim world for 70 years, and writes with great affection and respect for the historical achievements of Muslim civilization and religion. At the same time, he has become the leading student of what went wrong with the Muslim world and led to the radical Islam, seeking world dominion, so horrifyingly portrayed in Obsession.
Lewis noted, for instance, that classical anti-Semitism, in the sense of attributing cosmic evil to Jews, has no historical antecedents in the Muslim world. The Ottoman sultans were adamant in rejecting the blood libel. European anti-Semitism is a late import into Islam, fostered by the close association of the Nazis with the Mufti of Jerusalem and Ba’athist groups in Iraq and Syria.
ONE OF the most important points made by Lewis concerned the historiography of the Islamists. Most in the West view the fall of the Soviet Union as a consequence of the Reagan administration’s decision to confront it and engage it in an arms race that proved ruinous to the Soviet economy, but that is not how the Islamists see things. In their view, the Soviet Union was destroyed by mujahideen in Afghanistan, who drove the mighty Soviet army from the country. And that view, says Lewis, is not entirely implausible.
Osama bin Laden wrote at the time that Muslims had defeated the more dangerous of their two main enemies, and that defeating the effeminate Americans would prove easier. The appetite of the Islamists in Teheran to expand the area under their control has been similarly whetted by ongoing Western fecklessness.
“Iran is a mortal threat,” says Lewis. And he does not believe Ahmadinejad will be deterred from using nuclear weapons by the fear of retaliation. Mutual assured destruction does not work – indeed it may even be an incentive – to those who view a nuclear conflagration as hastening the advent of the hidden 12th imam. If they martyr their own people in the process, Lewis commented, they have only done them a favor by providing them a quick pass to the great brothel in the sky.
THE DAY after the Lewis lecture, I had lunch with a senior American official in the country for the Herzliya Conference, and mentioned Lewis’s point about jihadist historiography. The need to avoid providing further credence to that narrative, he replied, is precisely why the United States cannot allow Iran to go nuclear or be perceived as fleeing Iraq. Either event would only confirm the narrative of Islam’s advance and Western weakness. Iranian possession of the Bomb would cause to skyrocket the status of a state with an explicitly expansionist agenda under the banner of Islam. Every anti-Western terror group in the world would seek protection under Iran’s nuclear umbrella.
To stress the point, the official emphasized one of Obsession’s main points – appeasement of expansionist powers only leads to a far more destructive confrontation later on – and referred me to a nearly 20-year-old Commentary article on the Munich agreements. Had France and England adopted a tough stance at Munich, Hitler’s generals were prepared to unseat him. Instead, Czechoslovakia was stripped of its main defense line in the treacherous Sudeten mountains. It was, in Hitler’s words, “served up to me,” and a clear path to Eastern Europe provided for the Germans. Czechoslovakia’s wealth and well-developed military industries thereafter played a major role in powering the Nazi war machine.
Unfortunately, the West still remains divided between America and a Europe unwilling to acknowledge the threat at its doorsteps, and in many cases within its gates. That same divide exists within America itself. As Jeff Jacoby points out, every Republican presidential hopeful lists the battle against the jihadists/global jihad/radical Islam/totalitarian Islam at the top of their priorities for the years to come. That battle barely rates a mention on the Web sites of any of the eight declared Democratic candidates.
The future depends on who wins the debate in the West no less than it did at Munich.
Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.