The Historical Context: The West and Islam
by Marco Mua
Bernard Lewis and Edward Said are both intellectuals who have opposite views regarding the relationship between Islam and the West. Lewis strongly believes in Samuel Huntington’s assertion that the major source of global conflict in the future will be cultural. In actuality, Huntington’s popular writings were derived from Lewis’s work! Lewis felt that the Islam versus the West would be a major source of conflict. On the other hand, Said feels that Lewis’s views regarding Islam and the West are much too simplistic.
Lewis points out some interesting historical events. He says that there was violent conflict between the Protestant and Catholic sects of Christianity during the 16th and 17th century. The conflict was violent and intense. Christians believed in crushing or killing non-believers. Violent conflict could be avoided only by depriving religious institutions of their power. This led to secularization which removed religious power from government power. Both powers were separated.
Lewis mentions that Islam was very tolerant during historical times. Islam was tolerant to those who had alternative religious beliefs. Therefore, Lewis felt that there was no need for secularism in Islam. I disagree with that point. Turkey had a need for secularism, which derived from their historical experience. Lewis’s points are way too simplistic.
Lewis mentions that historically, the Islamic world emulated and admired the West. During modern times, admiration of the West has changed into an attitude of hostility and rejection. Lewis does a good job of explaining why this is the case. He mentions that western-style economic methods brought poverty in the Middle-East. Western-style political institutions have brought tyranny and oppression to the region. This resulted in a desire for Islamic rule and institutions.
I agree with Lewis in regards to why the Islamic world switched from admiring the West to rejecting the West. I would like to add that Western institutions and political structures that have been imposed on the Middle East are designed to serve the West! No wonder why Middle-Easterners reject western institutions and values.
These western values are imposed on the Middle-East in order to serve the West. In other words, economic and political structures are designed to give America and Great Britian control over oil and other Middle-Eastern resources. These structures are designed to benefit Western politicians and corporations! That is exactly why most Muslims turned to Islamic institutions. The trouble with this is that Islamic leaders are not well educated in finance or science. They are only educated in Koranic studies. Most religious leaders weather they are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim are poorly educated. That is why I believe their power should be curbed or put in check.
Said disagrees with Lewis on one key point. He disagrees with Lewis and Huntington about Islam and the West being the main source of future conflict. Said feels that generalizing people into such simplistic categories such as the West and Islam, is way too simplistic. He feels that the reality is much more complicated. Said believes that identity and culture are hugely complicated matters that cannot be generalized into the categories of the West versus Islam.
The major conflict in most cultures is in regards to how to define and interpret each culture. Huntington puts civilization and identity into simplified groups. This has allowed for imperial conquest and religious wars to take place. Politicians make these simplified generalizations in order to mobilize collective passions in order to support political ideals. A good example of this is George W Bush stating, “You are either with us or against us.”
Said did an excellent job of pointing out that Huntington and Lewis’s view of the
West versus Islam is way to simplistic. It is also very dangerous. Said believes that education and learning about why other cultures favor certain systems is a good way of preventing future conflict. That will make it harder for politicians to convince us in supporting war and violence. Said makes a stronger case the Lewis.
The West and Islamic world isn’t as different as politicians make it out to be. American Idol is obviously a Western creation. On the BBC I saw pictures of Libyan idol! Gaddafi personally approved this. It is too simplistic for Lewis to say the Middle-East completely rejects the West in modern times. Many Middle-Easterners watch American movies, listen to American music, wear European and American clothes, and eat fast food. I agree with Said’s assertion that the world is too interconnected to have such a blatant cultural divide as the West versus Islam.
Future sources of conflict will continue to be over natural resources such as oil, water, and cultivable land. The world is too interconnected for cultural conflicts. Whenever there is a cultural conflict, it is usually caused by politicians trying to advance their interests. It does not occur on it’s own. The imaginary Shia versus Sunni divide is an example of this. Said understands that the reality of the world is disorganized and complicated, while Lewis’s world view is overly simplistic and not grounded in reality.