Islam and Terrorism for Dummies


EspañolThe rise of Islamic nationalism, embodied in the Islamic State, begs a litany of questions: what motivates this depravity; is such terrorism a sign of more to come; are the perpetrators straying from or applying Islamic doctrine; and why do they identify the United States as the “Great Satan”?

For those seeking to understand Islam, its relationship with the West, and terrorism, Bernard Lewis offers a sharp starting point. (<a href="" target="_blank">Amazon</a>)
Benard Lewis, one year away from his 100th birthday, gets readers acquainted quickly with Islam and terrorism. (Amazon)

Correspondingly, analysis of such sensitive topics begs a great deal of care; as my philosopher uncle tends to say, “it’s complicated.” In fact, we published a debate here at the PanAm Post to explore at least one key question: is Islam a threat to the West?

Many observers, skeptical of media commentators, will wonder where to start to grasp what is going on. Here is where Bernard Lewis steps in — a British-American professor emeritus from Princeton University pushing 100 years old — and his book, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (224 pages).

Published back in 2003, a friend gave this to me during my college years, at which point it began to gather dust. Recent developments, however, have made it age like a fine wine, as its contents carry evermore significance, so I waded in.

The Crisis of Islam does succeed in providing a concise starting point, and in answering the overarching questions that observers are likely to have regarding the rise of Islamism. Its impeccable editing also makes it easy to read and understand — albeit with a sprinkling of academic jargon.

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Lewis does not shy away from the less comfortable elements of Islamic doctrine. He details examples of illiberalism, such as the death sentence for apostasy under shari’a law. He also explains why the separation of church and state is so problematic for Muslims — given their understanding of the prophet as simultaneously a religious and political leader.

Further, Lewis dismisses Islamic fundamentalism as a misnomer, since any sort of evolving understanding of the Koran has yet to take hold. On the contrary, its “literal divinity and inerrancy … is a basic dogma of Islam, and although some may doubt it, none challenge it.”

That does not go to show that Islamism, the virulently nationalist and political strand of the religion, complies with Islamic tradition. Whether based on the Koran or not, though, its callous adherents believe it is, and they show a much greater tendency to dismiss, downplay, and even welcome the deaths of innocent bystanders.

Lewis charts history to show that this strand has arisen out of pragmatism and coincidence as much as out of doctrine, and that its current form is new and adapted to the needs of the day. With the rise of Wahhabism in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, this rigid form of Islam is now the best funded and most widely taught around the world. It also has dominance in Mecca, the destination for Islamic pilgrimages.

However, the greatest strength of The Crisis of Islam is also its greatest weakness. Lewis writes dryly, to be as objective and neutral as possible. This conveys academic rigor and builds trust with the reader, but at the same time it lacks the punch and urgency one can find in so many other books on the matter. Only near the end does he take the gloves off somewhat, so the vast majority is not a page-turner.

Lewis acknowledges a “resumption of the struggle for religious dominance of the world that began in the seventh century,” which suggests any concessions of land or governance will never satiate the Islamists. He even foresees a “long and bitter struggle” ahead and a dark future, with the hardest hit being those in the Islamic regions of the world.

But that is it: no solutions, no plans, no clarity as to how address the problem, aside from a hollow assertion that the West “could do much to help.”

The narrow angle of the content may well be by design, to avoid intimidating the reader. Those who make it through then will find themselves better informed but hungry for more.

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