224 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-0812967852
The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror is a slim, elegantly written guide to the history the Islamic World that put into context some of the terrorist attacks committed by Islamist groups. The book was written in 2003 and was clearly intended to explain and put into context the terrible events on September 9th 2001 when Al-Qaida suicide bombers deliberately killed thousands of people, including many non-Americans and even Muslims, in New York and Washington. The British-born and educated writer, Bernard Lewis, was a professor at Princeton University and an expert in the history of Islam and the Middle East. His understanding of this area of study led to him being consulted by George Bush in trying to understand the nature of the hatred that most Muslims apparently have to the United States of America despite that nation's efforts to bring peace and stability to the Middle East. Having read the book, the hopes of America succeeding in this enterprise appear forlorn to me.
My recent reading of books about this whole subject has put these contrasts into context. First of all, Lewis reminds us that Christianity and Islam are very similar faiths in which the similarities far outweigh the differences. We should not forget that the history of Christendom has seen many of its own atrocities. I believe that economic and social factors matter more than religious ones and get the feeling that had Islam spread to Europe 1,500 years ago and the Middle East remained Jewish/Christian, the ways of life and course of history would not have been different. In the writer’s view, the behavior of Islamists is not very “Islamic” at all: for example, the Koran specifically forbids suicide – so suicide bombing breaks all Islamic laws – and fatwas are not contracts to kill (e.g. a supposed blasphemer like Salman Rushdie), but simply legal judgments.
The most cogent explanation for the recent behavior of Islamists has been the unprecedented oil wealth enjoyed by Saudi Arabia which has enabled the spread of the Wahhabi sect of Islam, which has promulgated a particularly intolerant strain of belief. Many converts to the Islamic faith have learned their faith through this sect simply because it is the most active body even though it, to Lewis’ mind, distorts and selectively quotes the essential message (Lewis likens Wahhabi within Islam to the Ku Klux Klan within Christianity).
The Crisis of Islam ends on a chilling note: Lewis points out that Osama Bin Laden’s declaration of war against the US marked the resumption of the struggle for religious dominance of the world that began in the seventh century: “If the leaders of Al-Qaida can persuade the world of Islam to accept their views and their leadership, then a long and bitter struggle lies ahead, and not only for America…And a dark future awaits the world, especially the part of it that embraces Islam.”