Few people had heard of Frits Bolkestein until recently. But then, before the referendum on the European Union constitutional treaty, the media began to run scare stories about a mythical Polish plumber poised to come west and undercut honest French workers. Bolkestein, who is the European commissioner for the internal market, is the author of a directive that would allow, for example, a Slovak, working in France for a Slovakian employer, to be paid Slovakian wages. Some supporters of a yes vote presented Bolkestein's proposal as a gesture of solidarity towards east European workers and dismissed those who opposed it as narrow-minded nationalists. Bolkestein might have been surprised to find himself identified with proletarian internationalism: in the early 1990s he was the first politician in the Netherlands, a country which had been associated with tolerance, to assert that the values of Muslim immigrants were incompatible with those of his country.
Bolkestein, speaking recently about Turkey's proposed membership of the EU and "migratory pressure", warned: "If this comes about, the liberation of Vienna in 1683 will have been in vain" (1). He said Europe had stopped "them" at Poitiers, and at the gates of Vienna. Europe would stop them again. To demonstrate the danger, he quoted the historian Bernard Lewis: "Europe will be Islamic by the end of the century" (2).
Bolkestein is not the first, nor the last, politician to emblazon the banner of resistance to the "new barbarians" with Lewis's academic credentials. Lewis has two faces, like the Roman god Janus. He is a British academic who moved to the United States in 1974. He is a recognised expert on Turkey and has produced many publications on the Muslim world. He is also an intellectual with a long-standing involvement in politics, well-known for his unfaltering support for Israeli policy and for excusing the Turkish military dictatorship. He has been condemned in France for denying the Armenian genocide of 1915-17.
Under the Bush presidency, Lewis has become a valued US adviser. He is close to the neoconservatives, particularly Paul Wolfowitz who in 2002, as deputy defence secretary, paid this tribute at a ceremony held in Lewis's honour in Tel Aviv: "Bernard Lewis has brilliantly placed the relationships and the issues of the Middle East into their larger context, with truly objective, original, and always independent, thought. Bernard has taught [us] how to understand the complex and important history of the Middle East and use it to guide us where to go next to build a better world for generations" (3). In 2003 Lewis encouraged the US administration to take the next step in Iraq. He prophesied that the invasion would lead to a new dawn, that US troops would be greeted as liberators, and that the Iraqi National Congress under his friend Ahmad Chalabi, a shady exile with no real influence, would rebuild a new Iraq.
Reviews of Lewis's works in French translation have kept quiet about all this (4). Obviously there is more to his research than a political standpoint, but a single thread runs through it: the idea that the Muslim world is fossilised in fundamental opposition to the West. Lewis coined the expression "clash of civilisations" as long ago as 1957, at a Middle East conference at Johns Hopkins University: "We shall be better able to understand this situation if we view the present discontents of the Middle East not as a conflict between states or nations, but as a clash between civilisations" (5). The Suez war was then barely over and the Middle East was in turmoil. Arab nationalism was spreading like wildfire. Political Islam had been marginalised. But as far as Lewis was concerned, the Arab desire for freedom had nothing to do with politics, but was merely the expression of hostility to western culture.
As subsequent events shook the region, Lewis reacted with indifference and even contempt. Although it was in fact another author, Samuel Huntington, who popularised his clash of civilisations theory, Lewis revisited his argument in an article published in 1990: "The struggle between [Islam and Christianity] has now lasted for some 14 centuries . . . For the first thousand years Islam was advancing, Christendom in retreat and under threat. The new faith conquered the old Christian lands of the Levant and north Africa, and invaded Europe, ruling for a while in Sicily, Spain, Portugal, and even parts of France. The attempt by the Crusaders to recover the lost lands of Christendom in the east was held and thrown back, and even the Muslims' loss of southwestern Europe to the Reconquista was amply compensated by the Islamic advance into southeastern Europe, which twice reached as far as Vienna. For the past 300 years, since the failure of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 and the rise of the European colonial empires in Asia and Africa, Islam has been on the defensive, and the Christian and post-Christian civilisation of Europe and her daughters has brought the whole world, including Islam, within its orbit . . . It should by now be clear that we are facing 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 civilisations - the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judaeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both" (6).
Put simply, they don't like us, not because of what we do, but because they reject our love of freedom and because they have been on the losing side for 200 years. Why did Nasser nationalise the Suez Canal Company in 1956? Out of Muslim hatred of the West. What caused the fall of the Shah of Iran and the revolution of 1979? Muslim hatred of the West. Why do the Palestinians constantly rise up against the occupation of their lands? Hatred of the West. Iraqi resistance? Hatred of the West. The conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia? Muslims' refusal to be ruled by infidels. It's all obvious. And it explains why they hold democracy in such contempt.
According to Lewis, Islam's weakness over the past two centuries has forced it to seek allies in its battle against western democracy. Hence its disastrous support for the Axis powers against the Allies during the second world war and for the communists against the US (7). It is curious how other observers failed to notice this alliance between Riyadh and Moscow, or between Islam and communism, during the war in Afghanistan.
Lewis as a historian prefers to indulge in flights of fancy, rather than address concrete facts such as oil, the Palestinian exile and western intervention. "For centuries," he writes, "the world view and self-view of Muslims seemed well-grounded. Islam represented the greatest military power on earth . . . The Renaissance, the Reformation and the technological revolution passed virtually unnoticed in the lands of Islam, where they were still inclined to dismiss the denizens of the lands beyond the western frontier as benighted barbarians."
Of the 17th century he says: "While generally contemptuous of the infidel West, Muslims were not unaware of western skills in weaponry and warfare" (8). In fewer than 10 pages, Lewis skims over almost 1,000 years of history, with its rival centres of power, schisms and alliances (some with Christian powers), loftily summing up what "the Muslims" thought, whether they were leaders or ordinary people, nations or classes, Sunni or Shia.
His premise is that they are fundamentally different from us. They don't even like western music (9). Tourists rushing through the streets of Cairo don't hear Mozart or Brahms wafting from shops in the souks, but are the cafes of Paris or London any different? Edward Said, who was a great lover of opera and classical music, protested: "Several major Arab capitals have very good conservatories of western music: Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Tunis, Rabat, Amman, even Ramallah on the West Bank. These have produced thousands of excellent western-style musicians who have staffed the numerous symphony orchestras and opera companies that play to sold-out auditoriums all over the Arab world. There are numerous festivals of western music" (10).
Said wondered why Lewis used western music to condemn Islam. What about the extraordinary richness of the Muslim musical tradition? As Said pointed out elsewhere: "The core of Lewis's ideology about Islam is that it never changes . . . that any political, historical and scholarly account of Muslims must begin and end with the fact that Muslims are Muslims" (11). It cannot be long before a US scientist discovers an Islamic gene, which will explain why they are so different from the rest of civilised humanity.
Translated by Donald Hounam
(1) Le Monde, 10 September 2004.
(2) See Die Welt, Hamburg, 28 July 2004. In 732, at the Battle of Poitiers or Tours, the Franks under Charles Martel defeated an army from Muslim Spain. The defeat of the Turkish army outside Vienna in 1683 was the turning-point in the struggle between Europe and the Ottoman empire.
(3) Lamis Andoni, "In the service of empire", Al-Ahram Weekly, Cairo, 12-16 December 2002.
(4) See Eric Conan, "Lewis, pilier de l'Islam", L'Express, Paris, 23 May 2005.
(5) see Lewis of Arabia, by Charles Glass, posted August 30, 2004.
(7) See Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem, 11 March 2004.
(8) What went wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, Phoenix, London, 2004.
(10) Edward Said, "Impossible histories: why the many islams cannot be simplified", Harper's, New York, July 2002. See http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intre...
(11) Edward Said, cited by Shahid Alam, Counterpunch, Washington DC, 28 June 2003.