What Went Wrong: Revisiting Bernard Lewis 20 Years Later From the Left

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Bernard Lewis’ seminal essay “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” So profound was the impact of this work, it inspired Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” – a term coined by Lewis in the essay. Lewis wrote the piece in the shadow of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, yet he makes no mention of that invasion. Two Gulf wars and a 9/11 later, perhaps it would be useful for us to revisit “Roots” in an attempt to understand, indeed, what did go wrong – for American progressives.

The observation that socio-economic developments precede ideological ones is fundamental to the progressive worldview. Progressives believe that if you want to improve the way people think, you must improve their living conditions. Progressives also believe intolerance, racism, sexism and discrimination are ideas that sustain social inequity and that they can only be cured by the prevalence of greater socio-economic justice. Although the call for equality still resonates among American progressives in a mutated “cultural” form domestically, in foreign policy, American progressives have no overarching principle. Multiculturalism has actually been used by the right to inhibit the American left; neoconservatives insist it is “us” versus “them,” yet since the left has abandoned the economics of justice, it is not in a position to insist the tension is actually between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

The central thesis of Lewis’ essay is “something in the religious culture of Islam” is inimical to the West and western values. The overall theme of “Roots” is that the West now faces “a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilization – the perhaps irrational, but surely historic, reaction of an ancient rival (i.e. Islam) against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.” What is so troubling about this statement for a progressive is that it paralyzes discourse and debate, another fundamental feature of progressivism. We progress because we can rationally talk about policies to improve them, but for Lewis, Muslim rage “transcends” policies, meaning socio-economic issues, and is, instead, rooted in “the religious culture” of Islam. This idea is at the heart of neoconservative attitudes toward the region and gave intellectual ballast to George Bush’s imperial venture in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, now and then, too many on the left conceded to this prejudice and failed to mount an effective challenge to Lewis’ very conservative thesis in its post 9/11 form.

In order for Lewis to make his point, he systematically addresses other possible explanations of “Muslim rage.” One by one, Lewis dismisses imperialism, Western support for Israel and propensity to shore up dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world. For Lewis, Western imperialism in Muslim lands “is given a distinctly religious significance … and denoting a form of attack that includes the Crusades and as well as the modern colonial empires.” In other words, Muslims are not responding to imperialism, but to the Christianity of the imperialists. According to this type of logic, it is no wonder we are engaged in a supposedly perennial battle with the Muslim world. Imperialism, as policy, is not popular. A democratic society is usually opposed to such projects; at the very least, we can debate such policies. But if those Muslims “over there” oppose the West’s Christianity, then conflict is inevitable and intractable: We began to assume we need to be “over there” to “protect ourselves.” There is nothing to debate, hence the sort of fatefulness and endlessness that characterized Bush’s “War on Terror.” For nine years now, we have spent billions and remain mired in war, yet are unable to mount an effective campaign for a modern health care system. Instead, our real concerns have been suffocated by a fictitious perennial battle between the West and the Muslim world.

A scholar of Lewis’ stature should know better, but Lewis’ scholarship had for a long time been driven by a political agenda and not by objective analysis. Furthermore, Lewis’ attitude pervades all contemporary discussion of the Middle East. Terrorism is presented by the so-called experts as a fundamental part of proselytizing Islam, rather than as a militant tactic. This past December, after the Christmas Day bombing attempt, some began to question the would-be bomber’s psychology. Peter Bergen, CNN’s so-called terrorism expert, asserted that such explanations are neither “here nor there,” terrorism is a fundamental part of their “world-view.” We can address possible psychological or even political problems through discourse. When experts claim that terrorism is endemic to the Muslim worldview, however, war becomes inevitable. And for the last nine years, war has made some men in this country extremely rich. It should be obvious to us by now that al-Qaeda’s operatives have been reduced to a rag-tag group of largely incompetent kids. As an organization, they have been squarely defeated. But it was Lewis – and thinkers like him – who equated political violence with Islam, instead of with the particular Muslims who had political differences with the West, differences that led to terrorism. Civic controversies, like that swirling around the New York City Islamic Center, and imprudent foreign policies, like the brutal invasion of Iraq, reflect Lewis’ ideological sentiments. And we, as a people, have suffered for it. Lewis observed, 20 years ago:

“Certainly nowhere in the Muslim world, in the Middle East or elsewhere, has American policy suffered disasters or encountered problems comparable to those in Southeast Asia or Central America. There is no Cuba, no Vietnam, and no place where American forces are involved as combatants or even as advisors.”

One must be profoundly affected and saddened by reading the above statement today. Of course, the fact that Lewis played such an important intellectual role in the invasion of Iraq, where we have soldiers serving now as “combatants or even as advisors,” is what is most ironic. But we should remember that the vast majority of the country approved of the invasion of Iraq, Seventy percent, in fact, believed in a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. We would hope an expert like Lewis would have clarified for us the unlikelihood that a secular, scotch-drinking Arab nationalist like Hussein would have anything to do with an ultra-traditionalist anti-secularist like bin Laden. But our hope would have been misplaced: in fact, in an essay published in the neoconservative Frontpage Magazine in April 2003 on the heels of the invasion, Lewis argued that Saddam’s regime was the product of Nazi and later Communist models. In his explanation of “Muslim rage,” Lewis cites that “among the components of the mood of anti-Westernism, and more especially anti-Americanism, were certain influences coming from Europe.” Those influences are, as you might have guessed, Nazism and Communism. Thus, whether an Islamic puritan or Arab secularist, you get your ideas from the same place, Nazism and Communism – two of the most evocative and loaded ideologies to the American mind.

Lewis was wrong then and continues to be wrong now, but why has the left not been able to mount a considerable effort to combat Islamophobic stereotypes, let alone major policies predicated on stereotyping the entire Muslim world? Because the left has abandoned its principles of economic social justice and adopted a weaker cultural-social ideal of justice that emphasizes multiculturalism. When 9/11 happened, the left was pinned into a corner painted with patriotism and neoconservatives were armed with a compelling, albeit superficial, doctrine that rewrote history to advance their agenda. How could the left oppose the war when it would seem they were defending Islam or Muslims? Especially when people like Lewis were claiming that Muslims are culturally prone to a “clash of civilizations”? With the abandonment of a progressive economic agenda, the left had relinquished essential tools with which to challenge the Iraq war for what it was – among other things, an extreme capitalist crusade to plunder resources and enrich literally a handful of politically well-connected oil men, at the expense of poor American soldiers and even poorer Iraqis. But let us return to Huntington for a moment.

In his “Who are We?” Huntington defines multiculturalism in “its essence [as] anti-European civilization … it is basically an anti-Western ideology.” The conservative emphasis on Western culture being a homogenous, static thing can be seen in both Lewis and Huntington and it is no wonder the latter borrowed the “clash of civilizations” theme from the former. But Huntington also asserts that sociologically “to define themselves people need an other.” It is this issue of identity that is, of course, so important for progressives, however; whereas for conservatives, identity is a value, for progressives identity is also a mechanism of control. Ethnic and cultural hierarchies correspond to economic and political hierarchies; some groups are privileged over others, thereby consolidating inequity in the name of raw liberty and cultural pride. As George Lipsitz, an American sociologist observes, the cold war established “patriotism as the site where class antagonisms between men could be reconciled in national and patriotic antagonisms against foreign foes and internal enemies.” Thus, today across the country, we are seeing the convergence of both Lewis’ and Huntingtons’ worldview; people are opposing Islamic centers due to the belief that Islam is somehow inherently anti-American (Lewis) and America is somehow inherently Christian (Huntington). This frame has defined our political discourse, so instead of galvanizing the middle class on behalf of greater socio-economic progress, the middle class, which is as viable an identity as any, as been divided against itself along “cultural lines.” Huntington, who employs conservative sociological perspectives, undermines the viability of class identity by arguing that America is at its core an Anglo-Christian country. It seems the eminent political scientists forgot the words of John Adams who said: “[In] the formation of the American government … it will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of heaven…. These governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.” America is not a traditionalist country in its origins, as Huntington presumes; it is progressive, as reason is at the heart of progressive thinking.

It is, of course, absurd to believe that an Islamic center in New York City is somehow “offensive,” I live in America and I am Muslim, I do not have the luxury of assuming my presence is offensive anywhere in America, if I do, then what next? But liberals who support a multicultural project like the Islamic center are not distinguishing themselves from libertarians who should support the same thing. Multiculturalism reflects the equity demanded by the left as well as the liberty insisted on by the right, thus multiculturalism reconciles the spectrum; but why the xenophobia of the Tea Party then? The racist politics of the far right does not give voice to a political philosophy; it is, rather, a campaign tool that undermines the common concerns of all sorts of middle-class Americans and replaces those concerns with cultural vanities. Liberals need to go further than supporting the Islamic center; liberals need to emphasize the philosophical bankruptcy and incoherence of the far right and reclaim the middle class. Liberals, without fearing being called “socialist,” must point out that defense of our supposed Anglo-Christian heritage is just an attack on the middle class. The right has distinguished itself vividly, how will the left?

Multiculturalism must be reinvigorated by a greater emphasis on social equity; it is the pursuit of greater equity that characterizes the left. By this, I mean we must galvanize support for multiculturalism, not merely as a value in its own right, but as part of a larger fundamental understanding that cultural supremacism and discrimination are mechanisms the right employs to justify the inequitable distribution of political and economic power. Until then, the diversity of the left will continue to inhibit its rational and progressive political agenda, while enabling the more homogeneous far right to turn the vices of intolerance into the virtues of patriotism. The left must remember that, in spite of our cultural differences, we are united in our pursuit of more just policies.