Islam and Europe
AEI Newsletter

On March 7, 2007, Bernard Lewis, the legendary historian of the Middle East, delivered the Irving Kristol Lecture at AEI’s Annual Dinner. Edited excerpts follow.

The Muslim attack on Christendom . . . has gone through three phases. The first is from the very beginning of Islam, when the new faith spilled out of the Arabian Peninsula, where it was born, into the Middle East and beyond. It was then that the Muslims conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa--all at that time part of the Christian world--and went beyond into Europe, conquering a sizable part of southwestern Europe and occupying for a while parts of France.

Bernard Lewis, winner of the 2007 Irving Kristol Award
Bernard Lewis, winner of the 2007 Irving Kristol Award
After a long and bitter struggle, the Christians managed to retake part, but not all, of the territory they had lost. They succeeded in Europe, and in a sense Europe was defined by the limits of that success. They failed to retake North Africa or the Middle East, which were lost to Christendom. Notably, they failed to recapture the Holy Land. . . .

That was not the end of the matter. The Islamic world, having failed the first time, was bracing for the second attack, this time conducted not by Arabs and Moors, but by Turks and Tatars. They conquered Anatolia and Russia and captured the ancient Christian citadel of Constantinople. They conquered a large part of the Balkans. Twice they conquered half of Hungary. Twice they reached as far as Vienna. Barbary corsairs from North Africa--well known to historians of the United States--were raiding Western Europe. They went to Iceland--the uttermost limit.

Again, Europe counterattacked, this time more successfully and more rapidly. They succeeded in recovering Russia and the Balkan Peninsula, and in advancing farther into the Islamic lands, chasing their former rulers from whence they had come. For this phase of European counterattack, a new term was invented: imperialism. When the peoples of Asia and Africa invaded Europe, this was not imperialism. When Europe attacked Asia and Africa, it was. This European counterattack began a new phase which brought the European attack into the very heart of the Middle East. In our own time, we have seen the end of that domination.

***

Osama bin Laden had this to say about the war in Afghanistan, the war which led to the defeat and retreat of the Red Army and the collapse of the Soviet Union. We tend to see that as a Western victory--more specifically an American victory--in the Cold War against the Soviets. For Osama bin Laden, it was nothing of the kind. It was a Muslim victory in a jihad. . . . As bin Laden put it, "We have met, defeated, and destroyed the more dangerous and the more deadly of the two infidel superpowers. Dealing with the soft, pampered and effeminate Americans will be an easy matter."

This belief was confirmed in the 1990s when we saw attacks on American bases and installations with virtually no effective response of any kind--only angry words and expensive missiles dispatched to remote and uninhabited places. This was a sequence leading up to 9/11. It was clearly intended to be the completion of the first sequence and the beginning of the new one, taking the war into the heart of the enemy camp.

The third phase has clearly begun. We should not delude ourselves as to what it is and what it means. This time it is taking different forms--two in particular--terror and migration.

***

Where do we stand now? The Muslims have certain advantages. They have fervor and conviction, which in most Western countries are either weak or lacking. They are self-assured of the rightness of their cause, whereas we spend most of our time in self-denigration and self-abasement. They have loyalty and discipline, and perhaps most important, they have demography, the combination of natural increase and migration leading to major population changes which could lead within the foreseeable future to significant majorities in some European countries.

But we also have some advantages, the most important of which are knowledge and freedom. The appeal of genuine modern knowledge to a society which, in the more distant past, had a long record of scientific and scholarly achievement, is obvious. They are keenly and painfully aware of their relative backwardness and welcome the opportunity to rectify it.

Less obvious but also powerful is the appeal of freedom. In the past, in the Islamic world the word "freedom" was not used in a political sense. Freedom was a legal concept, not a political concept as in the West. But the idea of freedom in its Western interpretation is making headway. It is becoming more and more understood, more and more appreciated, and more and more desired. It is perhaps in the long run our best hope--perhaps even our only hope--of surviving this developing struggle.

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