Pop Culture's Lure: Islam's Greatest Villain

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 2

Pop Culture's Lure: Islam's Greatest Villain

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 2

Pop Culture's Lure: Islam's Greatest Villain
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 13 2001 1:03 PM

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 2



Dear Ted, Judith, Geraldine, and Chris,


My New Yorker hasn't come yet (it's probably out in Ohio getting electromagnetized for anthrax), and the magazine has reserved Bernard Lewis' piece for subscribers, withholding it from the Web-plebs, so I'll have nothing to say about it. Maybe I can deal with it later in the week.

I have to agree that The Multiple Identities of the Middle East is the best general introduction to the region—even if it was not intended as such. I don't know whether it's the best introduction to Lewis since he's a scholar of such vast range that no one who's not a scholar of the region can possibly hope to follow him. He has written on Turkish economics, Iranian love poetry, Arab travel literature, and Hebrew scripture, and this in a field in which it takes half a life's worth of learning even to get to the starting line—learning the unrelated languages of Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, for one thing. Not just his erudition but his judgment and (less often noticed) elegant prose are a wonder.

So I must profess myself shocked, Ted, that you, a historian, take no side in the disagreements between a scholar like Lewis and Edward Said, whose project is a political rather than a scholarly one. At any rate, I don't think such neutrality could survive a reading of Lewis' gentle (and good-humored) discrediting of Said in "The Question of Orientalism," which appears in the collection Islam and the West.

Lewis is not one to flinch from the drawbacks of Islamic society, but he has a way of cutting against cliché, as when he warns us against generalizations on the supposed intolerance of Islam toward other religions. It's true that Islam claims an absolute truth and that the dhimma rules under which religious minorities lived were discriminatory in a modern sense. But, Lewis notes, "unlike Judaism and Christianity, Islam squarely confronts the problem of religious tolerance," and until the 17th century, minorities were on balance probably better off in Muslim lands than in Europe. The problem came later. In the wake of the 30 Years' War, Europeans solved the problem of religious tolerance with reference to Matthew 22:21 ("Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's"), which in retrospect turns out to have been as momentous an utterance as any in history. "From the seventeenth century onwards, the situation of non-Christians under Western Christian rule was no worse than that of the dhimmis under Muslim rule," Lewis writes, "and gradually became considerably better."

This leads to the sort of historian's insight that has more to tell us about our current predicament than any nattering about "current events." For it is through a discussion of tolerance that Lewis gets to the specific kind of Muslim rage that has recently led to mass murder.

Such tolerance becomes much more difficult when not truth but error (in Muslim eyes) enjoys the advantages of wealth and power and when one's unbelieving compatriots and neighbors, no longer appropriately submissive, enjoy the support and encouragement of mighty, outside powers committed to various forms of unbelief. These powers and their local acolytes now challenged the supremacy of the believer, first in the world, then in his own country, finally even in his own home, where his previously assured authority was questioned by emancipated women and rebellious children, both misled by infidel ideas from abroad.

To a person who thinks this way—an Osama Bin Laden or a Mohamed Atta, let's say—there can be no greater villain than the attractiveness of pop culture, which erodes the claims of Islam to have a total solution. It seems the more villainous because they can feel the attraction within themselves. "It was to this attraction," Lewis notes, "that Khomeini alluded when he called America 'the Great Satan.' Satan, it will be remembered, is not a conqueror, not an exploiter. He is a tempter, a seducer, most dangerous when he smiles."

This morning's New York Times reportof the liberation of Taliqan from the Taliban included one account of a shopkeeper, Muhammad Asif, who dug up his VCR out of the backyard, where he'd buried it when the Taliban arrived.

Khomeini, whatever else he was, wasn't stupid.