De Tocqueville Versus Lewis and Pipes

Summary ... Israeli policy-makers and opinion-makers — and those who organize international conferences in Jerusalem involving Islam — should be wary of relying too much on the views of Messrs. Lewis and Pipes.

Anyone who has read Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America knows of his extraordinary mind. He was not only a wise, penetrating, and prophetic, but his was an aristocratic mind: magnanimous, urbane, and free from sectarian prejudice. Hence one should take all the more seriously his assessment of Islam:

I studied the Quran a great deal. I came away from that study with the conviction that by and large there have been few religions in the world as deadly to men as that of Muhammad. So far as I can see, it is the principal cause of the decadence so visible today in the Muslim world and, though less absurd than the polytheism of old, its social and political tendencies are in my opinion more to be feared, and I therefore regard it as a form of decadence rather than a form of progress in relation to paganism itself.

Can anyone imagine scholars like Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes hinting, let alone saying, such a thing today about Muslims? True, when de Tocqueville was writing in the second third of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was in decline; but I do not see how this could affect his evaluation of Islam.

There were no "Islamists" in de Tocqueville's time, to be distinguished from Islam per se, as "Islamists" are so distinguished by Messrs. Pipes and Lewis. There were no Muslim suicide bombers whose barbarism was cheered by the Islamic world. If de Tocqueville were alive today, he would surely see that Islam is now more decadent than it was in the 19th century.

So how shall we account for the "polite"or should I say "politically correct"attitude of Lewis and Pipes vis--vis Islam? Comparisons are invidious, but these American scholars Lewis was born and educated in England are not more magnanimous or urbane than de Tocqueville. Of course, unlike de Tocqueville, Lewis and Pipes are Jews, and this alone might deter them from disparaging Islam.

They are also the products of the 20th century, the century of triumphant democracy and triumphant secularism, which would prompt them to regard all religions as equal or with skepticism. Nor is this all.

Both Lewis and Pipes are historians, and there is a strong tendency among historians to succumb to historicism, i.e., historical relativism. Historicism is a denial of trans-historical or absolute truths. If Lewis and Pipes have been influenced by historical relativism, they would tend to be non-judgmental vis--vis Islam.

Of course they can still write, as Lewis does, about "Islamic rage," or as Pipes does, about "militant Islam." But here it could be said they are being descriptive, not judgmental, even thought neither of these scholars approve of Islamic rage or Islamic militancy. Common sense or reality trumps historical relativism.

It should also be noted that Professor Lewis, the doyen of Islamic scholarship, is well-received in various Islamic countries, which of course would be impossible if he were critical of Islam. As for Dr. Pipes, he is a public official, a board member of the U.S. Institute of Peace, which also precludes his being judgmental about Islam.

Hence, with all due respect for their eruditions and achievements, but in view of their being Jewish as well as secular democrats, I do not believe that either of these scholars can be wholly relied upon for a candid assessment of Islam.

I will go even further. If Lewis and Pipes were citizens of Israel, I dare say their view of Islam would not differ substantially from that of Professor Moshe Sharon and of the late Professor Yehoshafat Harkabiboth of the Hebrew University. Even though these two Israeli academics represent, respectively, the right and left ends of the political spectrum, they agreed on the militant and mendacious nature of Arab-Islamic culture.

Therefore, Israeli policy-makers and opinion-makers and those who organize international conferences in Jerusalem involving Islam should be wary of relying too much on the views of Messrs. Lewis and Pipes, which is not to say these two scholars should not be seriously studied. One should bear in mind, however, that what may be "politically correct" and even commendable scholarship in America may be deadly in Israel.

[ Professor Paul Eidelberg | Published: December 15, 2004 ]