A brief perusal of the news this morning before turning to the last day to work on the paper (not a good thing--there is yet much to be done) yielded this warm tribute by Fouad Ajami to Bernard Lewis, full of deepest respect for Lewis as a gifted and perceptive historian. The following four paragraphs struck me particularly, further brightening the proverbial light bulb. (Any emphasis added is mine.)
The rage of Islam was no mystery to Mr. Lewis. To no great surprise, it issued out of his respect for the Muslim logic of things. For 14 centuries, he wrote, Islam and Christendom had feuded and fought across a bloody and shifting frontier, their enmity a "series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests." For nearly a millennium, Islam had the upper hand. The new faith conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa--old Christian lands, it should be recalled. It struck into Europe, established dominions in Sicily, Spain, Portugal and in parts of France. Before the tide turned, there had been panic in Europe that Christendom was doomed. In a series of letters written from Constantinople between 1555 and 1560, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, imperial ambassador to the court of Suleyman the Magnificent, anguished over Europe's fate; he was sure that the Turks were about to "fly at our throats, supported by the might of the whole East." Europe, he worried, was squandering its wealth, "seeking the Indies and the Antipodes across vast fields of ocean, in search of gold."
But Busbecq, we know, had it wrong. The threat of Islam was turned back. The wealth brought back from the New World helped turn the terms of trade against Islam. Europe's confidence soared. The great turning point came in 1683, when a Turkish siege of Vienna ended in failure and defeat. With the Turks on the run, the terms of engagement between Europe and Islam were transformed. Russia overthrew the Tatar yoke; there was the Reconquista in the Iberian Peninsula. Instead of winning every war, Mr. Lewis observes, the Muslims were losing every war. Britain, France, the Netherlands and Russia all soon spilled into Islamic lands. "Europe and her daughters" now disposed of the fate of Muslim domains. Americans and Europeans may regard this new arrangement of power as natural. But Mr. Lewis has been relentless in his admonition that Muslims were under no obligation to accept the new order of things.
A pain afflicts modern Islam--the loss of power. And Mr. Lewis has a keen sense of the Muslim redeemers and would-be avengers who promise to alter Islam's place in the world. This pain, the historian tells us, derives from Islam's early success, from the very triumph of the prophet Muhammad. Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land; he had led his people through wilderness. Jesus had been crucified. But Muhammad had prevailed and had governed. The faith he would bequeath his followers would forever insist on the oneness of religion and politics. Where Christians are enjoined in their scripture to "render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things which are God's," no such demarcation would be drawn in the theory and practice of Islam.
It was vintage Lewis--reading the sources, in this case a marginal Arabic newspaper published out of London, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, in February of 1998--to come across a declaration of war on the United States by a self-designated holy warrior he had "never heard of," Osama bin Laden. In one of those essays that reveal the historian's eye for things that matter, "A License to Kill," Mr. Lewis would render into sublime English prose the declaration of bin Laden and would give it its exegesis. The historian might have never heard of bin Laden, but the terrorist from Arabia practically walks out of the pages of Mr. Lewis's own histories. Consider this passage from the Arabian plotter: "Since God laid down the Arabian Peninsula, created its desert, and surrounded it with seas, no calamity has ever befallen it like these crusader hosts that have spread in it like locusts, eating its fruits and destroying its verdure; and this at a time when the nations contend against Muslims like diners jostling around a bowl of food. . . . By God's leave, we call on every Muslim who believes in God and hopes for reward to obey God's command to kill the Americans and plunder their possessions whenever he finds them and whenever he can."
Mr. Ajami's full article is here, do give it a read. (I wouldn't be surprised if TigerHawk comments on the same thing when he's out from under the weather. But consider this recommendation for now.)