Islam expert: Conflict seen as mainly religious

Bernard Lewis says moderate countries "looking to Israel for help" in dealing with Iran, which is seen as region's "major threat."

bernard lewis 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bernard lewis 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Muslims view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran's showdown with the West as essentially a religious conflict, an expert on Islam said recently. "I think that in the Muslim perception, [the conflict] is basically a religious conflict," said Prof. Bernard Lewis in an address at the sixth annual Jerusalem Conference. "It is to decide who will dominate Islam, and whose version of Islam will prevail in the Islamic world." The world-renowned historian and Princeton University professor emeritus said that the Iranian nuclear threat has led moderate Arab countries in the Middle East to forge quiet alliances with Israel, as was evident in the recent military operation against Hamas in Gaza. "This represents a mortal threat to established Arab regimes in the region, and like Sadat in his day - but for even more compelling reasons - they are looking to Israel for help in dealing with what they see as the major threat," Lewis said. He made the remarks at the concluding session of the conference in a half-hour-long conversation with Dan Diker of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Lewis said the recurrence of what he dubbed the "Sadat gambit" - a realization that other threats were far more dangerous than Israel - came as for the first time in centuries, the predominantly Sunni Muslim world was seeing Shi'itism as a "mortal threat" to Sunni ascendancy, which has prevailed in the Muslim world since time immemorial. The nonagenarian historian, who first used the phrase "the clash of civilizations" 11 years before the 9/11 terror attacks on the US, noted that nuclear weapons in the hands of an Islamic regime with an "apocalyptic mind-set" represented an unprecedented danger. "Mutual assured destruction was the main deterrent preventing the use of nuclear weapons by the Soviets," Lewis said. "For [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and his group, with their apoclayptic mind-set, mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent but an inducement." He said there was a woeful lack of awareness of both the magnitude and threat of the jihadist goal of radical Islam, stemming from both ignorance and a provincial colonialist outlook of the threat as "some local trouble." Lewis said that the best hope for the future in the Muslim world was the spread of democracy in places where previously it would have been inconceivable - a phenomenon he dubbed "the Sharansky effect" after former MK and prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky, who has argued that democracy is the basis for peace. "It is still limited, precarious and dangerous, but it is happening, and that is the best hope for the future," he concluded.