New crises produce new experts. A high-profile trial means that we'll see defense attorneys and prosecutors airing their differences on CNN. An election logjam means we'll hear from political consultants and campaign reporters. The events of September 11 dramatically altered the news agenda. Americans now care about Islam, and a group of scholars has emerged to explain it to them. A Princeton professor talks with Charlie Rose on PBS; a Johns Hopkins academic sits next to Dan Rather during the CBS nightly news; a Georgetown teacher entertains questions on CNN. Since the attacks of September 11, these scholars are in the spotlight, and at stake is not only whether the West can come to terms with Islam, but whether the world can prevent the destruction of suicidal extremism.
The public arena demands simplicity. One way of understanding the current conflict is to say that it is "us versus them." The expert here is the eminent Princeton historian, Bernard Lewis. Born and raised in England, Lewis, 85, has written nearly 20 books. An eloquent storyteller, he says that today's terrorism is part of a long struggle between Islam and the West. In a recent article in The New Yorker, he wrote that "Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda followers may not represent Islam... but their actions do arise from within Muslim civilization." Lewis has long been a proponent of the idea that Islam espouses a different moral system than the Judeo-Christian one. While he is careful not to say that one is superior to the other, he also is not shy about holding aloft verses of the Quran that endorse violence toward non-Muslims.
The erudite Lewis is a skilled linguist, fluent in Arabic, Turkish and several other Near Eastern languages, and he reserves some of his greatest scorn for academics who can't read and understand what Muslims say in their own languages. During the current crisis, he has embraced the role of expert. He believes that this is a war between religions, because that is what it is for bin Laden and his ilk; it is "us versus them," because that is how our adversaries perceive it.
Like Lewis, Edward Said, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, is both respected and controversial. Born in what is now the occupied territories and raised in Cairo, the fiery Said has been one of the most public and prominent advocates of Palestinian rights, and he has long been known for his critiques of Western prejudices about the Middle East. Over the past few months, he has been constantly in the news. He and Lewis have been sparring for decades, especially since Said attacked Lewis in his landmark 1978 book, "Orientalism," for propagating the false notion that such simple things as "the West" and "Islam" even exist. He also accuses Lewis of rampant disdain for Arabs.
Said argues that there is no "us" and no "them." American politics and European divisions are acrimonious and have at times been intensely violent. The same is true for conflicts between Muslims. Unless governments make huge propaganda efforts, Said suggests, no one fights and dies for abstract things like "the West" and "Islam," and viewing the world this way serves only those who want to dominate and destroy. Those who say that "Islam" is brutal and bloody, says Said, give "the West" license to dominate the Muslim world. Said is equally critical of those who invoke Islam: labeling "the West" as corrupt and godless, as bin Laden does, provides a justification for the attack on the World Trade Center.
Not all academics are as polarizing as Said and Lewis. Others try to assess why the Muslim world in general and the Middle East in particular have had such a rough time in the modern world. Why has democracy not flourished in the Middle East? The most prominent voice here is that of Fouad Ajami of John Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Born in Lebanon, Ajami is a distinguished social scientist as well as a commentator for CBS News. Ajami asks why the modern Middle East is the way it is, and he argues that the only people who can truly answer that question are its inhabitants. It doesn't do much good, he says, for Americans or Europeans to diagnose what ails Arabs or Afghans--first because Arabs and Afghans won't listen and second because Americans and Europeans are rarely able to fully understand. "Americans must accept," he wrote in a recent New York Times piece, "that they are strangers in the Arab world."
If real change is to occur in the Arab world, contends Ajami, it must come from within. The great failing of Arab intellectuals, he believes, is that rather than look inward with a critical eye, they have looked elsewhere for people to blame. And where the intelligentsia have gone, the Arab people have followed. For that reason, Arabs have been stuck in a cycle of victimization and self-delusion. Only when they can take a cold look at their own cultural shortcomings will they be able to emerge from the mire of economic stagnation and social malaise. Ajami does not claim that there is anything innate about Islam or about Arabs that has led to the present state of affairs, only that by dint of history and culture, many Muslim societies are struggling to cope with the modern world. Bin Laden is simply a violent byproduct of that struggle.
In an even more liberal vein, Georgetown University's John Esposito has spent years examining the question of whether Islam and democracy are compatible. His answer: a resounding yes. Esposito heads Georgetown's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in Washington, and he has been writing about Islam, fundamentalism and democracy for decades. A straight-talking Catholic, Esposito has little patience for those who fail to appreciate Islam's diversity. He is quick to point out that there isn't one Islam, and he notes that there isn't even one "fundamentalism." Some of the harshest critics of the Taliban in Afghanistan have been the Shiite clerics of neighboring Iran. Divisions among fundamentalists, Esposito notes, can be every bit as acrimonious as divisions among evangelical Christians.
Democracy has had a hard time in the Muslim world, Esposito says, but that has little to do with Islam. The problem is that the Middle East is suffering from growing pains. Just as it took the West a long time to change from feudal monarchies to free-market democracies, the transformation of the Muslim world will not be swift or peaceful. But, he says, it will happen.
Unlike the pundits who typically shout at one another during political scandals, the most prominent academic experts on Islam actually have, well, expertise. They aren't the product of PR firms; they are bona fide scholars who acquired their wisdom over many years of study. Punditry has gotten a deservedly bad rap in the past few years, but it seems that wars summon forth true experts along with true leaders. Agree or disagree, their insights are crucial to how this conflict will be fought. Eventually, this crisis will fade, and these experts will recede from public view. Let's hope that the level of public debate doesn't recede with them.