Bernard Lewis

Went to hear Middle East expert Bernard Lewis last night at Penn. The 92 year old Lewis has a great facility for speaking and writing in clear, jargon-free language. When asked whether Islam is a “religion of peace” or violence, he allowed that Islam isn’t, as its apologists like to claim, like “Quakerism without the aggression.” Nor is it, he said, personified by the “wild-man galloping out of the desert with a scimitar in one hand and a Koran in the other.” He also gave Muslims their due for allowing, centuries ago, Jews a relative freedom that they didn’t experience in Europe at the time. He also noted that suicide bombing and terrorism are a perversion of Islamic teaching, which clearly specifies what is and isn’t permitted in war. He blamed the current “deformation” of Islam on wahhabism originating from what is now Saudi Arabia.

He offered no definitive answer on whether Islam is inherently peaceful or violent, other than to note that, unlike Christianity whose founder was crucified and whose followers were persecuted for centuries before gaining political power through conversion rather than war, Mohammed was a conqueror and a ruler, thus establishing an unequivocal link between religion and the state.

He did offer an answer to the rhetorical question liberals are so fond of asking – Why do they hate us? He noted that if you take out the oil, the entire gross national product of all of the Muslim countries combined equals that of Finland. He also said that despite “graduating” many engineers from their schools, they must import engineers from the West and countries like South Korea (which only recently emerged from the Middle Ages) to plan construction projects. Nowadays with modern communications, Lewis observed, Middle Eastern Muslims are painfully aware of their backwardness, which enrages them and leads them to fanatacism and violence.

He described himself as somewhat of an optimist on the Middle East. He noted that the Arab countries were pretty much silent about the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah and were privately hoping that the Israelis would finish off the Iranian proxy in Lebanon. He believes that the Arab nations recognize that the threat from Iran is much more virulent than anything they could, in their worst nightmares, imagine coming from Israel.

My favorite part was a story he told about his recent visit with an Egyptian friend in Cairo. They were talking about the last Egyptian election, and his friend expressed satisfaction that the elections were “free.” Well, not really free, the Egyptian said, but the freest election “since the British occupation.”

The other speaker at Penn was the radio talk-show host Dennis Prager, whom I found to be pompous and long-winded.

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