Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Bernard Lewis On Communism And Islam

The following are extracts from an essay by the renowned historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis, published in the journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in 1954. Despite his now unfortunately highly apologetic stance towards Islam, this essay, entitled "Communism and Islam", demonstrates a couple of things:

1) That once, Professor Lewis viewed Islam itself (i.e. not "Islamic fundamentalism") honestly as inherently opposed to Western conceptions of freedom and democracy

2) That once, it was acceptable in academic circles to criticise Islam without being labelled a bigot and a racist.

Although Communism isn't now the threat it once was, Lewis' observations are just as relevant today as they were back then.

Finally, before reading Lewis' well-reasoned analysis, take a look at these words written by philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1920:

Bolshevism combines the characteristics of the French Revolution with those of the rise of Islam.

Marx has taught that Communism is fatally predestined to come about; this produces a state of mind not unlike the early successors of Muhammad.

Among religions, Bolshevism is to be reckoned with Mohammedanism rather than with Christianity and Buddhism. Christianity and Buddhism are primarily personal religions, with mystical doctrines and a love of contemplation. Mohammedanism and Bolshevism are practical, social, unspiritual, concerned to win the empire of the world.

It is sad that in the modern day, those few souls who dare publicly to compare Islam to the totalist despotism of Communism are either hauled before a court on charges in "offending a group of people", or praised as heroes for simply saying what men used to be able to say understatedly and as a matter of course only a few decades ago.

From Bernard Lewis' 12-page article, with some key passages highlighted:

I turn now from the accidental to the essential factors, to those deriving from the very nature of Islamic society, tradition, and thought. The first of these is the authoritarianism, perhaps we may even say the totalitarianism, of the Islamic political tradition...The political experience and traditions of Islam, though very different from those of Eastern Europe, do nevertheless contain elements which might, in certain circumstances, prepare the way for Communism.

Many attempts have been made to show that Islam and democracy are identical - attempts usually based on a misunderstanding of Islam or democracy or both. This sort of argument expresses a need of the uprooted Muslim intellectual who is no longer satisfied with or capable of understanding traditional Islamic values, and who tries to justify, or rather, re-state, his inherited faith in terms of the fashionable ideology of the day. It is an example of the romantic and apologetic presentation of Islam that is a recognized phase in the reaction of Muslim thought to the impact of the West...In point of fact, except for the early caliphate, when the anarchic individualism of tribal Arabia was still effective, the political history of Islam is one of almost unrelieved autocracy. I say autocracy, not despotism, since the sovereign was bound by and subject to the Holy Law, and was accepted by the people as rightful ruler, maintaining and maintained by the authority of the Holy Law. But still, it was authoritarian, often arbitrary, sometimes tyrannical. There are no parliaments or representative assemblies of any kind, no councils or communes, no chambers of nobility or estates, no municipalities in the history of Islam; nothing but the sovereign power, to which the subject owed complete and unwavering obedience as a religious duty imposed by the Holy Law...

Quite obviously, the 'Ulama [scholars] of Islam are very different from the Communist Party. Nevertheless, on closer examination, we find certain uncomfortable resemblances. Both groups profess a totalitarian doctrine, with complete and final answers to all questions on heaven and earth...Both groups offer to their members and followers the agreeable sensation of belonging to a community of believers, who are always right, as against an outer world of unbelievers, who are always wrong. Both offer an exhilarating feeling of mission, of purpose, of being engaged in a collective adventure to accelerate the historically inevitable victory of the true faith over the infidel evil-doers. The traditional Islamic division of the world into the House of Islam and the House of War, two necessarily opposed groups, of which the first has the collective obligation of perpetual struggle against the second, also has obvious parallels in the Communist view of world affairs. There again, the content of belief is utterly different, but the aggressive fanaticism of the believer is the same. The humorist who summed up the Communist creed as 'There is no God and Karl Marx is his Prophet' was laying his finger on a real affinity. The call to a Communist Jihad, a Holy War for the faith - a new faith, but against the self-same Western Christian enemy - might well strike a responsive note.


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