December 16, 2007
Another 'Just So' Story?By Andrew G. Bostom
Speaking at a December 10-11, 2007 Rome Conference entitled, "Fighting for Democracy in the Islamic World," renowned historian Bernard Lewis intoned,
Lewis, according to the account of his lecture in Adnkronos International, then offered as putatively convincing support for his thesis the non-sequitur observation that during the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan (presumably, in the course of making decisions) consulted all the dignitaries, and when he ascended the throne he would greet the crowds, uttering "Allah is greater than you are."
This ahistorical contention, accompanied by an equally vacuous example of Ottoman era "proof," seems like a desynchronized "Spy Versus Spy" Mad Magazine segment with Lewis playing the role of both "Department of Joke and Dagger" agents, simultaneously, when juxtaposed to Lewis' own entry on hurriyya-Arabic for freedom-which appears in the venerable Encyclopedia of Islam.
Hurriyya and the uniquely Western concept of freedom are completely at odds. Hurriyya "freedom" - as Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) the lionized "Greatest Sufi Master", expressed it - "being perfect slavery." And this conception is not merely confined to the Sufis' perhaps metaphorical understanding of the relationship between Allah the "master" and his human "slaves."
The late American scholar of Islam, Franz Rosenthal (d. 2003), who wrote the first part of the Encyclopedia of Islam entry on hurriyya, analyzed its larger context in Muslim society. He notes the historical absence of hurriyya as "...a fundamental political concept that could have served as a rallying cry for great causes."
An individual Muslim, "...was expected to consider subordination of his own freedom to the beliefs, morality and customs of the group as the only proper course of behavior..."
Thus politically, Rosenthal concludes,
Lewis (in his complementary Encyclopedia of Islam entry on hurriyya) discusses this concept during the Ottoman Empire, specifically, through the contemporary era. After highlighting a few "cautious" or "conservative" (Lewis' characterization) reformers and their writings, Lewis maintains,
Lewis also emphasizes, in sharp contrast to his Rome statement, that Western colonialism ameliorated this chronic situation, and he concludes with a stunningly contradictory observation:
During the period of British and French domination, individual freedom was never much of an issue. Though often limited and sometimes suspended, it was on the whole more extensive and better protected than either before or after. [emphasis added]
In the final revulsion against the West, Western democracy too was rejected as a fraud and a delusion, of no value to Muslims.
The 19th century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt referred to Islam as a despotic (or in 20th century parlance, totalitarian) ideology, the Caliphate being "practically from the outset a despotism," and the Ottoman incarnation of this system exhibiting a "peculiar steadfastness." He explained the (Koranic) origins of this despotic system which fused immutably the religious and the temporal:
And Burckhardt cited as the "strongest proof of real, extremely despotic power in Islam," the legacy of Islamic realms having
How might Burckhardt's conception, contra Lewis, have applied to Ottoman rule? Historian Stoyan Pribichevich's 1938 study of the Balkans "World Without End" provides these illustrations, beginning with his characterization of the Ottoman Sultans:
Although, the Sultan had a Council composed of ranking dignitaries, headed by an erstwhile "Prime Minister," the Grand Vizier, who advised him, Pribichevich notes,
Thus Pribichevich concludes, regarding the Ottoman Sultanate, "Of all known dictators the Sultans were the most dictatorial."
And Pribichevich goes on to explain how this dictatorial Ottoman Sultanate operated within the overall context of Islam's religio-political totalitarian system:
A decade later (in 1950), G.H. Bousquet (d. 1978), one of the most widely acclaimed 20th century scholars of Islamic Law, confirmed Pribichevich's conclusions, unfettered by our current mind numbing, politically correct cultural relativism, which appears to have afflicted even Mr. Lewis:
And Ibn Warraq, in a brilliant, dispassionate contemporary analysis, has described 14 characteristics of "Ur Fascism" as enumerated by Umberto Eco, analyzing their potential relationship to the major determinants of Islamic governance and aspirations, through the present. He adduces salient examples which reflect the key attributes discussed by Eco: the unique institution of jihad war; the establishment of a Caliphate under "Allah's vicegerent on earth," the Caliph-ruled by Islamic Law, i.e., Shari'a, a rigid system of subservience and sacralized discrimination against non-Muslims and Muslim women, devoid of basic freedoms of conscience, and expression.
Sadly Lewis' newly minted "Just So Story" for adults is devoid of Kipling's timeless wit and insight, sharing only the element of pure creative fantasy. The danger is that such an ahistorical pronouncement from on high will engender more apologetic, fantasy-based policies, retarding any progress towards the wrenching reforms required of Islam itself if Muslim societies are to emerge from their current morass of hateful, bellicose totalitarianism. The depressing predicaments observed almost a century ago (in 1909) by W.H.T. Gairdner still hold sway, while his candor is seemingly absent among our contemporary elites: