More on Bernard Lewis

More on Bernard Lewis

Friends, last week I put out an email on Bernard Lewis’ work.  Three of the people on my list, Theo Pavlidis, Alan McCornick and Jack Eisenberg, responded.  Here they are (with Pavlidis first):

My point is not that Islam allows separation of church and  state,
because traditional Islam does not. My point is that for millennia
Christianity did not allow that either. For many “Christian” countries
this is still the case. When the military junta was in power in Greece
(1967-74) Christian civil servants had to attend church on Sunday
or they would lose their job. The following text is part of the last chapter of my notes for the Middle East course that I teach
A thousand years ago the Middle East was ahead of Western Europe in civilization by most measures while the opposite is true today. What has kept the Middle Eastern states back? This question has been asked and answered by several authors and all seem to focus on the role of Islam. In my opinion the best (being both concise and precise) exposure of this view is the book “What Went Wrong?” by Bernard Lewis [], published soon after the 9/11 attacks (although it was written before them).
I like to present here a different explanation that focuses not on religion but on the political powers of the region. The key argument for blaming Islam is that Islam does not recognize separation of church and state while Christianity does. In my opinion this a very weak argument. While, some parts of the Gospels do seem to support such a separation, they have been usually ignored and state and religion have been integrated during most of European history (see Christianity was already a “state within a state” by the time the Roman emperor Constantine decided to rely on it as a way of holding his empire together. The Roman Catholic church maintained a privileged position in Italy and, especially, in Spain well into the 20th century. The concept of separation of church and state does not appear until the American Revolution and even today, it is the subject of controversy in the United States. In this context, it is worth remembering that when it first appeared, Islam was a more liberal religion than the Christianity of that era (see The Arab Golden Age demonstrates that Islam encouraged both economic and cultural development much more than Christianity did (
The use of religion or ideology to enforce thought control has been popular amongst autocratic regimes starting with the Persian empire whose state religion was Zoroastrianism ( The 20th century has seen autocratic states using ideology: Nazism in Hitler’s Germany, Marxism in the Soviet Union, and “Mao’s Thought” in China. Both Christianity and Islam have been used by rulers for similar ends. Thus instead of focusing on the particular religion or ideology we should look for the conditions that allow the emergence and perpetuation of autocratic regimes.
Rather than asking what “went wrong” in the Middle East, the proper question to ask is what “went right” in Western Europe. That region moved not only ahead of the Middle East but also ahead of China that until the 15th century was more advanced than Western Europe. The short answer is that in contrast to China and the Middle East, Western Europe consisted of several warring states.
Another worthy point of view is from my friend Alan McCornick.  I cannot help but think of the pernicious effect of religious parties in Israel, and the influence of religion here in the U.S., in spite of the separation of church and state here.  

This is not the place for church bashing, I realize.  But this is a terribly interesting topic to me and I can’t resist a passing comment.

Christian Europe had the benefit of both Hebrew and Greek traditions long before Constantine saw the usefulness of imposing Christianity as a unifying force, and that meant they carried the seeds of conflict between belief in a divine being and humanist values from the beginning.  When the church began to implode of its own corruption, the Renaissance was there ready and waiting.  This worked as a brake on organized religion and reaction against religion only grew during the French revolution when the zeitgeist was an embrace of the Enlightenment.  We have democracy and pluralism, an appreciation for science and objectivity and a notion of truth as something not revealed but empirically discovered, thanks to the Enlightenment and no thanks to religion.  We are what we are not because of Christianity, but to a large degree in spite of Christianity.  Religion, when it is not toxic, works with imagination and inspiration.  It becomes poetry.  It does not need to be kept separate from politics.  It works on a different plane.   Separation of church and state becomes a necessity when religion becomes toxic, when it makes claim to absolute truth and invades, censors and crushes the human imagination.

Looked at from another direction, we have had lots of time to contemplate how to manage reason and morality together (and I’m not saying morality stems from religion).  When we do it right, it leads to a respect for pluralism, for an understanding of our own limitations and the possibility that the “other” has something going for him/her we might benefit from.

I think the peoples now living throughout the Islamic world have the same abilities.  From where I sit, though, much of that world is still in the grip of the same sort of absolutists like those who run the Catholic Church.  The Catholic hierarchy have been forced to back off from some of this absolutism in order to survive.  Modern Muslims, most of them, are yanked around by absolutist notions without those brakes.  Because some of the worst absolutists in the Islamic world — I’m thinking of the Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia — came into great wealth they have had wide influence, without the benefit of the kind of brakes the Renaissance and the Enlightenment provided.

Hamed Abdel-Samad, an Egyptian who emigrated to Germany, claims that the great heyday of Islamic culture had less to do with religion than with the fact they were a world center of culture and political action.  It was the fact they were open to Jews, open to Greek thought, open to ideas from everywhere that helped make them great, not something inherent in Islam itself.  A radical idea, to be sure.  But a thought worth discussing, it seems to me.

I am always suspicious of claims that the great religions are the source of our well-being.  I see them far more often as a pernicious force.  For that reason, I think the separation of church and state is not the real issue at all.  The issue is what we do with the human weakness that makes us think we can establish certainty where certainty cannot be found.  The problem is not the proper balance between church and state; the problem is absolutism.  Not church and state, but open and closed minds.

In retrospect, I am not surprised that this discussion which began with a review of Bernard Lewis’ memoir has drawn several comments. 

For me it is interesting to think about why church and state in this part of the world is still such a volatile subject.   And is it an omen of some sort, that as I was thinking about this, I received an email from BitterLemons, an on-line magazine, announcing the demise of this website where Palestinians and Israelis could exchange views.  As Ghassan Khatib the Palestinian coeditor of BitterLemons comments about the achievement of having existed for 12 years, “this achievement is bittersweet as the scenery around us grows ever more dark and uncertain.”  

From Jack Eisenberg below:

“This worked as a brake on organized religion and reaction against religion only grew during the French revolution when the zeitgeist was an embrace of the Enlightenment.”  from 1st  response below

This article is generally accurate, but strongly underplays the religious conflicts engendered by the Reformation and the terrible carnage that ensued.
This involved both Catholics vs Protestants, especially with the Spanish conquest of the Netherlands, as well as the Counter Reformation that made the Church much more fanatical and less tolerant.  For that matter its instruments of “salvation” were already well in place by the time Luther came along.
Regarding Luther, it’s also worth noting that most historians agree that his failure to foster needed social reforms led not only to the inability of pre Bismarck
Germany to unite but led to the rise of Nazism.
Second, it was the failure of secular regimes throughout the Arab World that brought about the resurgence of fanatical Islam.  In a small way today’s Israel also reflects such a change but for different reasons.  In  this sense it’s finally joined the Mideast. 
Third, many of our deepest ethical values emerged from our Jewish religion, something your correspondent grossly underplays, and were a bedrock of Zionism as well as secular Zionist values.   But needless to say I regard separation of church (shul) and state as sacred. 

By | 2012-08-29T11:19:00-04:00 August 29th, 2012|Blog|0 Comments

Leave A Comment