Suzanne Fields

Washington has peculiar customs. Every year, the American Enterprise Institute invites hundreds of guests from the chattering class to a feast, typically on tenderloin of beef with wild mushroom ragout, but nobody gets to eat until they've listened to a one-hour lecture by the guest of honor. The other guests often fidget and squirm, devouring the bread, butter and wine put on the table to mollify the multitude.

But not this year. There was red meat in the lecture to go with the strong drink on the table, and when Bernard Lewis, the eminent British historian, offered to cut his speech short when he ran over his allotted time, the audience begged for more. Not many audiences in Washington (or anywhere else) will sit still for overlong scholarly lectures on an empty stomach.

Bernard Lewis, age 90, has studied Islam and the Middle East for more than half a century. The Capital grapevine has it that he strongly influenced President Bush to take the coalition of the willing into Iraq. His books have been important to historians, but he wasn't known to most of the rest of us until after 9/11, when the West woke up to its ignorance of the Middle East and Islam, beyond the fanciful tales of the caliphs, harems and camel drivers of the Arabian nights.

Crucial reading soon included his book, "What Went Wrong," in which Mr. Lewis dissects the sociology and psychology of the Muslim world after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when Muslim humiliation became total. But instead of examining their own responsibilities for their failures, the Middle Eastern governments looked for others to blame for their demoted status. "Who did this to us?" they asked. Blame was variously assigned to the Mongols, the Turks, then the French and the British, and now Israel and America. The Muslims refused to see the source of their weakness, beginning with the brutal mistreatment of women.

"The status of women, though probably the most profound single difference between the two civilizations, attracted far less attention than such matters as guns, factories and parliaments," says Mr. Lewis. Half of the Muslims are forbidden to contribute their creativity to the Islamic civilization.

To understand the Middle East's great antipathy to America, however, he looks to other changes in the modern world. During the Cold War, Arabs and other Muslims learned to manipulate and profit from Western rivalries. When the era of outside domination ended, older, deeper trends in their history, which had been submerged, returned with a vengeance. These include ethnic, religious and regional differences, the particularly destructive internal rivalries.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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