Bostom versus Lewis on Islamic anti-Semitism

In a review essay at American Thinker on Andrew Bostom’s new book, The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism, historian Robert Kaplan of Cornell (not the Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic) contrasts Bostom’s critical view of Islamic anti-Semitism with the far softer view of that same topic held by the most distinguished Islam scholar in the history of the Milky Way galaxy, the esteemed, the inestimable, the divinely illustrious Bernard Lewis.

Kaplan writes:

The structure of Lewis’s and Bostom’s arguments are also quite different. Employing a genetic approach, Bostom shows that Islam’s holy books, the Koran, the hadith and the sira all have sharply negative things to say about Jews, that these have been emphasized and reinforced by Moslem thinkers, jurists and preachers throughout the history of Islam, and that the attitudes and ideas engendered by them have directly influenced the actions of Moslem rulers, clergy and mobs both in their oppression of Jews as dhimmis and their aggressive excesses against Jews which have included pogroms, forced conversion, pillage and expulsion. The status of dhimmi to which Jews and Christians are relegated under Islamic law is one entailing serious suffering and indignity in the best of circumstances. Frequently circumstances were far from the best.

Lewis puts Islam’s record regarding Jews in a favorable light mainly with the generalizations he makes rather than the particular facts he marshals. These generalizations, which crumble under the slightest scrutiny, are of four general types. One holds that the least onerous version of Moslem oppression is typical of Moslem practice [Lewis writes “dhimmitude was a minor inconvenience Jews learned to live with …under Muslim rule the status of dhimmi was long accepted with gratitude by Jews.” In making this improbable claim he gives no evidence or explanation. Could he mean that the Jews were grateful for not being killed?]

Kaplan goes on in thrilling detail eviscerating Lewis’s rationalizations and excuses for Islam and his radically unfair treatment of Christianity:

A second type of generalization claims that the worst of the behavior of Christians towards Jews was the norm. [“Jews of Christendom suffered incomparably greater persecution (than Jews of Islam). Persecution (under Islam), that is to say violent and active repression was rare and atypical. Jews and Christians (dhimmis) under Moslem rule were not normally called upon to suffer martyrdom for their faith. …They (the Jews) were not often obliged to make the choice which confronted Muslims and Jews in reconquered Spain, between apostasy and death.” Besides employing a peculiarly narrow definition of “oppression” which excludes all disabilities of dhimmitude, Lewis implies that Jews in Christendom were often obliged to suffer martyrdom for their faith or make a choice “between apostasy and death”—both of which are simply untrue.]

A third variety of generalization employed by Lewis claims that Muslim abuses are far less bad than the worst imaginable abuses by non-Moslems.[“Dhimmitude involves some rights…and is surely better that no rights at all. It is certainly preferable to the kind of situation that prevails in many states at the present time where minorities and for that matter where the majority enjoy no civil or human rights.” Offering no evidence or examples, Lewis writes as if there is any place on Earth where the majority of residents have “no rights at all.”]

A fourth type of generalization ascribes to “human nature” rather than Islam, with no basis of evidence, the unattractive characteristics exhibited by Moslems [After describing the intense anti-Semitism in the Arab world today Lewis tacks on the generalization that “No people is immune from the universal disease of ethnic or social hostility and the Arabs are no exception. Obviously Arabs are as liable (my italics) as Germans, Russians or Jews or anyone else to develop hostilities against other peoples; and their history and literature bear ample witness to this.” Lewis’s suggestion that hatred is a trait shared by all peoples equally—Germans, Russians and Jews, Britons, Italians, Canadians, Australians—as if raging mobs, as familiar in the annals of Moslem history as to today’s television viewers, are typical of all peoples; as if hate filled speeches by clerics are common in all religions; as if survey statistics of harbored hatred are not vastly higher among Moslems than among others; as if Moslem converts to Christianity do not regularly report their revulsion at the hatred which saturates the Moslem religion with which they were familiar. Replace Moslems with Danes, British, Russians Jews, Brazilians, Japanese or whoever and imagine, if you can, raging mobs rioting and killing over a newspaper cartoon.]

In addition to his generalizations Lewis employs clever reasoning to arrive at conclusions that are at least semantically if not in substance favorable to Islam. To reach the conclusion that Moslems were not until recently “anti-Semites” he begins by stating that “anti-Semitism” [has] “hitherto been regarded as a specifically Christian disease—a certain attitude to Jews arising from the gospel narratives of the foundation of the Christian faith” and goes on to say “…anti-Semitism [is] a hatred which is unique in its persistence, its universality, its profundity and above all its theological and psychological origins…. In what follows the term anti-Semitism will be limited to …that special and peculiar hatred of Jews which has its origins in the role assigned to Jews in certain Christian writing and beliefs concerning the genesis of their faith, and which has found modern expression in such works as the Protocols and similar portrayals of a universal Jewish plot against both God and mankind. In this special sense anti-Semitism did not exist in the traditional Moslem world.”

Does this mean there was not hatred of Jews in the traditional Moslem world? Not at all. Lewis writes regarding Arabs during World War II:

“the Nazi war against the Jews won enthusiastic support …Hatred was deep and violent, and expressed in the strongest language, but it was still in the main traditional rather than anti-Semitic in its terms.”

Does this mean the emotion driving the plundering, expulsions, forced conversions and slaughter of Jews in the “traditional Moslem world” was not hatred? Although an unwary reader might get the impression that the answers to these questions is “yes” a reading of Lewis’s words and a moment of thought should make it clear that the answer to both is “no.”

How does Lewis reach the conclusion that anti-Semitism is unknown to classical Islam? He defines “anti-Semitism” as hatred of Jews according to Christian doctrine, not simply hatred of Jews. In doing so he distorts the ordinary meaning of “antisemitism” which in contemporary English means hatred of Jews.

In conclusion, Bostom in this book appears to have performed on Islamic anti-Semitism the same indispensable operation he performed on Islamic jihad in his previous collection, The Legacy of Jihad. That is, he shows how the demonization of Jews—and the mandate to demonize Jews—have been central to the most authoritative Islamic writings from the start, and that Muslims in their hatred, oppression, dehumanization, and killing of Jews during the 1,400 years since then have simply been following the sacred dictates of their religion. And Bostom’s analysis remains true, even though it is also the case, as Kaplan argues near the end of his article, that Koranic-dictated Jew-hatred has been intensified over the last century by Nazi, Communust, and Eurabian propaganda emanating from Europe. Bostom and Kaplan thus make mincemeat out of Lewis’s anti-European, anti-Christian argument that Islamic anti-Semitism is only a modern export from Europe, and that Christian anti-Semitism is uniquely wicked and indeed the only real anti-Semitism.

Just as Bostom’s exposure of the Koranic roots of Islamic anti-Semitism is analogous to his earlier exposure of the Koranic roots of Islamic jihad, Lewis’s rationalization of Islamic anti-Semitism is analogous to his rationalization of Islamic extremism generally. Modern militant Islam, he has said over and over, has nothing to do with the core teachings of Islam, but is Muslims’ understandable response to the traumatic experience of having been “left behind” by the modern West. If pursued logically, Lewis’s “left-behind” analysis must lead to a counter-intuitive conclusion that no one seems to have noticed. Since, according to Lewis, the poor Muslims’ extremism is the result of their having lost their previous power and dominance, the cure for their extremism must be … to restore them to power and dominance. You know. Bring back those halcyon multicultural days when Islam had conquered and subdued half the world and almost conquered Europe.

For Lewis, Islam is essentially good, and everything seriously bad about it is ultimately a result of, or a response to, the West.

It’s great that Andrew Bostom and Robert Kaplan are bringing out the truth about Islam and about Bernard Lewis’s cover-up of same, so that now for the first time to my knowledge, the real role of this conservative god as an Islam apologist is being critically discussed in a mainstream conservative publication.

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Paul Gottfried writes:

This book seems to be presenting an argument that I’ve been making for forty years: Western Jews, as opposed to the more perceptive ones who lived under Islam, have an unrealistically positive view of Islam, which operates in conjunction with a very hostile picture of Christianity. This is derived from the search for a true sister or daughter religion in contrast to Christianity, which is typically identified with anti-Semitism and idolatry. In terms of Lewis’s two world religions, Euro-American Jews have identified Islam with a partly fictitious “Golden Age in Spain” while they associated Christianity with the Inquisition, Tsarist pogroms, and the Klan. Significantly, Christians like Jews more than non-Sephardic Jews like Christians; while Muslims hate Jews more than non-Sephardic Jews would ever be willing to recognize.

Eugene V. writes:

Thank you so much for this. Lewis’s positions on Islam etc have always been a bit of a puzzle to me. I read a slender paperback by him some years ago and read it front to back without learning a single thing about anything.

LA replies:

My experience too. Going back to around 1990, I would hear of and read articles by and even borrowed from the library a couple of books by Bernard Lewis, and they were flat, I never got anything out them. It was in the last five years that his rationalizations of Islam began to come into focus.

Terry Morris writes:

You wrote:

“Since, according to Lewis, the poor Muslims” extremism is the result of their having lost their previous power and dominance, the cure for their extremism must be … to restore them to power and dominance.”

One wonders about people like Lewis! Has it ever occurred to him in all his insignificant theorizing about why Muslims hate Israel and the West, that it was precisely because they were not morally or intellectually equipped to handle their previous power and dominance that they lost it and were “left behind” by the West? In other words, Muslims are prisoners to their own psychotic worldview; a worldview that only recognizes one form of power and dominance—militant, murderous extremism. Why does he deny the obvious fact that Islam has always lived and died by its extremism, and is therefore perpetually relegated to being left behind?

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 19, 2008 01:30 AM | Send

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