Skip to main content


East and West at Arm’s Length

A Conversation with Bernard Lewis

HUMANITIES, July/August 2006 | Volume 27, Number 4

National Endowment Chairman Bruce Cole talked recently with Bernard Lewis, the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University.

A scholar on the history of Islam, Lewis has written more than twenty books, among them What Went Wrong: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East and The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror.

Bruce Cole: Members of one culture are sometimes reluctant to understand enough about another culture, or even learn the other's language. What causes this?

Bernard Lewis: There have been many civilizations in the world, and the normal practice of civilizations has been to dismiss with contempt those outside. The world is divided into civilized people—that means us—and barbarians.

Cole: Us and them.

Lewis: Them. "Them" usually are regarded as barbarians. The Greeks and the Romans ruled the Middle East but did not bother to learn any of the languages.

Cole: I understood that the word "citizen" doesn't exist in Arabic. Is that correct?

Lewis: Yes, I'm afraid it is. The word which we use in English, "citizen," which has its equivalence in the other languages of Christendom, citoyen and so forth, has a connotation going back to the ancient Greeks. A citizen is a member of the city-state. He takes part in the governance of the city. This is a notion which is absent from most other civilizations.

The word that is used in modern Arabic for citizen is the word muwatin. But muwatin has the literal meaning of compatriot. The very notion of the city is not there.

Cole: The fact that there isn't a word for citizenship and presumably not a concept for it, does that pose obstacles to the kind of changes that we are hoping for in that part of the world?

Lewis: We talk about democracy. It's a word which is used in many different senses. Remember that when Germany was divided, it was the Communist dictatorship that was called "The People's Democracy." The term democracy was used by General Franco in Spain to describe his regime. It was used by the Greek colonels and all sorts of other people. So let's be careful when we talk about democracy. We should avoid going to the opposite extreme and assuming that democracy means our type of government; that anything that differs from our type of government is not democracy and that all things that are not democracy are equally bad and evil. These are self-flattering delusions.

Democracy comes in many different forms. I think we should also shed the illusion that democracy is the natural, normal human condition and that any deviation from it is either a disease to be cured or a crime to be punished. It isn't. For most of human history, most of the world could get along without democracy. Even where democracy does come, it doesn't have to be our kind.

Cole: In writing about the present-day Arab world, you characterize Turkey as a successful democracy. What's the makeup of a successful democracy as you see it? How do you define it?

Lewis: Well, I like Sam Huntington's definition of that. He said, "You can call a country a democracy where it has changed its government twice by elections." Once isn't enough. There are a number of cases where a government, either on principle or through inadvertence, has allowed itself to be voted out of power, and where then the new lot that came in made damn sure they would not leave by the same route they came.

Cole: So you've got to have it two times?

Lewis: Yes. When you have a country where the government has been changed twice—well, in Turkey the government has been changed many times by elections, three times also by other methods. But Turkey is the only Muslim country which has really developed a functioning democracy, and that democracy is now in danger from the present government of Turkey.

Cole: We were talking about taking interest in other parts of the world.

Lewis: What we know of the ancient Middle East is from Middle Easterners: Egyptians, Babylonians, Jews who learned Greek and wrote books in Greek.

When the Islamic world was at its height, extending from the Atlantic to India and China, they learned the Islamic languages: Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. They did not learn the languages of antiquity of their own ancestors, such as ancient Egyptian or ancient Babylonian, and they did not learn the languages of their neighbors such as Chinese or Indian languages, still less the languages of the benighted barbarians in Europe.

This business of learning languages for, shall we say, cultural reasons begins in Europe when European universities took to the study of Arabic and started establishing chairs of Arabic in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

There is a school of thought which says that this is Orientalism and it's part of the imperialist enterprise, part of the attempt to dominate the Arab lands. This is absolute nonsense. It collapses, first of all, on the simplest chronological examination. In the sixteenth century when the first chairs of Arabic were established in France and in the Netherlands, and even in the early seventeenth century when the first chairs of Arabic were established in England, the question of Europeans dominating the Islamic world was an absurdity. The Islamic world was still threatening Europe. The Moors had only just left Spain and were threatening to come back. The Turks were advancing into southeastern Europe and had already conquered a large part of the Balkan peninsula.

If their purpose had been practical, they wouldn't have done Arabic; they would have done Persian and Turkish. Instead, they learned classical Arabic. In the universities, there were always chairs of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Arabic was added as the language of scripture and classics. This was quite useless for practical purposes. For one, it was classical Arabic, not modern Arabic.

The original interest was cultural, the desire to know something about other civilizations. For a long time this was uniquely European. You don't find it in China. In China, they had a very advanced civilization, but they never showed the slightest interest in anything beyond their borders. The same was true of the Arab Islamic civilization.

Cole: The NEH has played a role in a lot of this. We sponsor things like the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon and the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary.

Lewis: I know I'm preaching to the converted here.

Cole: I credit all this to the Renaissance.

Lewis: The Renaissance has a lot to do with it, certainly. The Europeans used the same methods. They evolved certain scholarly methods for the study of Latin and Greek texts. Then, they extended it to Hebrew, meaning, of course, the Hebrew Bible. Then they went beyond that to Islamic texts.

Cole: But, of course, the West owes the Arab Middle Ages a great debt.

Lewis: Oh, yes. An enormous debt. In the sciences, especially in such things as algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and astronomy, we owe an enormous debt to the medieval Islamic contribution.

Cole: How did this interest of yours in languages develop?

Lewis: My father was a businessman to earn a living and an opera singer for his enjoyment and amusement. I learned Italian from my father, who didn't know any Italian. Hearing my father singing in Italian every morning in the bathroom, I thought, well--he had the sheet music--I could look up the texts. I was doing both French and Latin at school, so it wasn't too difficult. My father didn't know Italian, but he could pronounce it beautifully.

I vividly remember the first Italian book that I read was by Edmondo de Amicis, called Cuore, "heart." After that, I became insanely ambitious and got a copy of Dante's The Divine Comedy and tried to read that.

If I have to date the beginning of my interest precisely I would start it with my bar mitzvah when I had to learn an Oriental language and a strange script. I'm using the word "Oriental" in the English sense. In British usage, as in other European languages, the Orient begins in the East and Mediterranean.

Cole: So you began Hebrew. No comprehension, right?

Lewis: Normally, all that's required is that you know enough of the writing to be able to read it aloud with the appropriate cantillation and that's it. But, as I said, I was always fascinated by languages, and another language to play with was too good an opportunity to miss, so I insisted on being taught the language. After I had finished with the bar mitzvah, I insisted on continuing my Hebrew lessons. I went on and I learned to read Hebrew and I proceeded from biblical to modern. That, of course, led to other related languages: first to Aramaic and then to Arabic. At the same time, I was developing my interest in history. At that time, history at primary and secondary level in English schools meant English history and the rest of the world as far as it affected England.

Cole: Lots of red on the globe to mark England's holdings.

Lewis: Exactly. But, I developed this curious desire to see history from more than one point of view. Primary school in England consists very largely of wars with the French, starting with the Norman Conquest and the other wars--the Hundred Years War and so forth. I had an irrational desire to see what this looked like from the French point of view. My father was able to procure me a French book on French history, in English. I think that was the beginning of my career as a historian of the Middle East--wanting to see what things looked like from the other side.

Cole: Which had always been taught in England from the Western perspective.

Lewis: Exactly. When a Jewish boy has a bar mitzvah, he gets a lot of bar mitzvah presents. One of these was a book called Outlines of Jewish History. The Jewish history isn't just in England. It isn't just in Europe. So this took me to such exotic places as Córdoba under the Arabs, the caliphate of Baghdad, the Ottoman sultans and so forth, which gave me an insight into other places and other periods, very different from the school history.

When I went to university, I had to choose my subject. I was going to be a lawyer. The normal practice was to go to university and take a degree in whatever amuses you and then go to one of the four Inns of Court.

I had decided from the start that I would do Middle Eastern history. The only university that offered a program in Middle Eastern history was the University of London. For that, of course, Arabic was a requirement.

Cole: Which weeded a lot of people out, I'm sure.

Lewis: Yes. It was a degree with very few students taking it.

In my BA degree I came out first. This carried a prize of one hundred pounds, which in 1936, the year when I got my BA, was a considerable sum of money. There was a condition attached: that you continued into graduate studies. I was more than happy to do that.

My professor, the late Sir Hamilton Gibb, suggested that I should go Paris for that year. He said there were some interesting people in Paris who had different specializations. So I went to Paris and did a lot of interesting work on Middle Eastern history and literature. I also started learning Turkish and Persian.

I completed my year in Paris and my one hundred pound studentship, and I went back to London and I went to see Sir Hamilton. He wasn't Sir Hamilton then. He was then Mr. Gibb. He said to me, "You've now been studying the Middle East for four years. Don't you think it's time you saw the place?"

I'd never been to the Middle East and I said, "Yes. I'd be delighted to." But the problem was money. This was at the height of the Depression and nobody, including my family, had much money to spare. I could no more go to the Middle East than I could go to the moon.

Gibb understood that. He said, "I think we can help you." He persuaded the Royal Asiatic Society to give me a traveling studentship in the even more princely sum of one hundred and fifty pounds. I spent the greater part in Egypt and a fair amount of time in Syria and shorter visits in Palestine, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Cole: What was the first thing you saw?

Lewis: Port Said. I went to the Middle East by surface travel, which was the usual in those days. I went by train across France to Italy, then from Italy by boat to Port Said, and landed there and went to Cairo. That improved my Arabic considerably and gave me my first beginning of colloquial Arabic. Colloquial Arabic differs from written Arabic as much as Italian differs from Latin.

Cole: Really?

Lewis: Oh, yes. Even to this day in every Arab country they have two languages, the written language and the spoken. The written language is the same all over the Arab world with very minor variations, but the spoken Arabic differs as much as, say, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese. I learned to handle Egyptian Arabic fairly well. Then, when I went to Lebanon and Syria, they all laughed. They found it screamingly funny, you know, this foreigner speaking like an Egyptian.

But I managed to get by. I also paid my first brief visit to Turkey for about three weeks. Then I went back to London, and I had to get down to serious work.

Two things happened at about the same time. The University of London offered me a position as assistant lecturer at the salary of two hundred and fifty pounds a year. The other thing was that in my legal studies the next thing I had to do was real property and conveyancing. I don't know if you are acquainted at all with the law, but it is monumentally boring.

That was the moment of truth, as they say in Spain. It was 1938 and the university offered me this job. I didn't yet have my PhD.

Cole: But you had already started your dissertation?

Lewis: Oh, yes. I was already working on my dissertation. It was on a sect in medieval Islam, the Ismailis. I was interested in it because it was, to use a Christian term, a heretical movement within Islam, a movement of dissent, even of rebellion, which eventually triumphed for a while.

Cole: What years did it span?

Lewis: It developed during the ninth and tenth centuries. It achieved power in the eleventh and after that deteriorated inevitably. It was a very interesting intellectual rebellion within the Islamic world.

So I taught one course in my first year. That was a tutorial in which I had four students: one Egyptian, one Palestinian Arab, and one Iraqi and one Persian. One of them, the Iraqi, later became president of the University of Baghdad. The Palestinian later went to join his uncle, the mufti, in wartime Germany, and after the war was executed for the murder of King Abdullah. The other two, the Egyptian and the Persian, went back to their countries and taught at university.

Cole: Then the war came, right?

Lewis: Then the war came. For the first month of the war I sat in the Foreign Office. Then I wrote to the War Office offering my services, setting forth my qualifications. I was summoned for an interview and asked a lot of questions, some silly questions, some serious questions. A couple of weeks later they called me back and asked me a lot more questions, and they said, "Well, we will accept you if you will serve as an intelligence officer, but first you have to have the basic military training. And there is a cavalry OCTU"—OCTU in the British Army is an Officer Cadet Training Unit—"which will be starting in January"--that January, 1940--"and we'll send you to that."

I said in utter horror, "Did you say 'cavalry'?"

He said, "Yes."

I said, "You mean horses?"

And he said, "Of course."

And I said, "But, you know, this is 1939. We don't use cavalry anymore."

He gave me a very severe look and he said, "Young man," he said, "have you ever heard of Lawrence of Arabia?"

I said, "Yes. Of course."

He said, "Would he have been able to do what he did if he had not been able to ride?" And that, of course, silenced me.

So I hunted around and found a riding school run by a retired cavalry man. I said, "Can you teach me to ride cavalry style?"

He said, "Yes. Of course." I spent the winter of the end of 1939, the beginning of 1940, spending my spare time careering around the countryside in Buckinghamshire brandishing an imaginary saber in my right hand and holding the reins of my horse in my left hand.

In the meantime, the director of the School of Oriental and African Studies where I held my post had other ideas. He intervened and had my arrangements canceled with the War Office. I spent the next few months teaching Arabic to people who were already in the armed services. Then, when my turn came, I did go into cavalry, but it was mechanized cavalry, to a tank regiment. I wasn't there for very long. Either because of my ineptitude with tanks or my aptitude with languages, I was transferred from my tank regiment to intelligence.

Eventually, I was posted to more secret intelligence. The formula is "attached to a department of the Foreign Office." If you know what that means, I don't need to tell you. If you don't know what it means, I'm not allowed to tell you.

Cole: A little bit like the CIA, working through cultural agencies?

Lewis: Secret intelligence. I spent the rest of the war there.

Cole: Did your work in intelligence shape your work once you got back?

Lewis: Certainly it did. I think my knowledge of the medieval Middle East gave me a better understanding of the modern Middle East, but my war experience gave me a more direct involvement in the modern Middle East. Then I got more and more interested in the period between the classical and the modern, namely the Ottoman period.

Cole: You were able to get to Turkey and into the archives?

Lewis: Yes. It was simply good fortune. The Turkish archives are the richest in the Middle East. They are enormously important for Middle Eastern history, from the rise of the Ottoman Empire until the present day. In the academic year of 1949–1950, the university gave me a leave of absence to spend time in the Middle East and refamiliarize myself. I applied for permission to work in the Turkish archives. To my utter astonishment, I was given permission. They had decided in the postwar period that they would be more tolerant, more liberal, and no longer limited to their own nationals. My application came at the right moment. They said, "Yes, you can come." So I did. I spent several months working in the Turkish archives, like a child in a toy shop. They were very good record-keepers.

Cole: It was a vast empire. Were records sent back from the various outposts?

Lewis: Yes. They were not very good at keeping incoming documents, but they did transcribe them and enter them in their registers so that we have the content of the original. They kept very meticulous records of population and taxation.

Cole: That's very important.

Lewis: Very important. You have several different kinds of records. They divide them into two kinds by their physical form: registers and papers. A lot of the records consist of bound registers, huge volumes in which they copied important documents. This is what you might call their filing system. The other is papers, individual documents, and they have literally millions of those.

There are several kinds of bound registers. For example, one contains a copy of every order sent out from the sultan's government. Whether at home or abroad, in the city, in the provinces, wherever, every order issued by the imperial secretariat was copied in this. There are hundreds of these volumes in strict date order.

Then you have the registers of complaints. There would be a complaint of misbehavior by this officer or this governor or this official or that official. These complaints were conscientiously investigated and a report issued, a ruling. So there are hundreds of registers of reports on complaints, again, classified by region and, within region, by date.

Then you have the special categories like the different minority communities. You have the Christian register and the Jewish register and the Greek register and so on. You have the registers for the various foreign consulates, dealings with them.

You have fiscal matters, the whole empire from Buda to Baghdad, or from Buda to Basra, house by house. They didn't give the names of the females. Then, of course, for each village there is a financial statement: what they grow, how much they get, and what they paid. It's mind-boggling.

Cole: You have this vast treasure trove of documents. What did you want to ask of them?

Lewis: I was interested primarily in what happened immediately after the Ottoman conquest. What I wanted to do was work on the Ismaili areas in Syria. In Syria there is a small community of Ismailis—followers of the sect on which I did my PhD thesis. The problem was that I couldn't go to Syria because there was no way the Syrians would give me a visa. The only place in the provinces where I could work with any comfort was in Palestine. So I worked on the archives relating to the Ottoman administration in Palestine, which had the advantage of my being able to come and go and move around freely and look at local records.

Cole: What was the state of western study of the Ottoman Empire then?

Lewis: A certain amount of work had been done and some of it was very good, but it was all based on Ottoman chronicles—not documents for the chronicles—and Western documents. For example, an English embassy was opened in Istanbul by Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth century, and it remained there until the capital was shifted to Ankara.

Cole: You had the opportunity of getting into these archives and looking at it from a different perspective.

Lewis: Imagine the situation. Queen Elizabeth, at the urging of the Levant Company, which is a trading corporation, decides to open an embassy in the Ottoman Empire. For the Queen of England, in the sixteenth century, it would have been a pointless expense to open an embassy in Istanbul. Why should she bother? Why should she spend the money?

The Levant Company was a trading corporation. They wanted to have an embassy and some consulates because it would be useful to them in their work. So they made a proposition to the queen. They said, we will provide the staff and cover all the costs, if you will just give us the necessary authorization saying that we are your embassy. And the queen agreed. From then until the Napoleonic Wars, the English—later British—embassy was owned and operated by the Levant Company.

Cole: That's fascinating.

Lewis: During the Napoleonic Wars, the British government finally decided this was too important to be left to a commercial corporation, so the government took it over. From then onwards, it was the Foreign Office.

Thirty-five or forty years ago, the administration of the Public Record Office in London decided that they would like to publish all documents older than 1600. They asked me if I would look at them. I made a very interesting and rather alarming discovery. In the late sixteenth century, there was not a single person in England who knew any Turkish.

Cole: I was going to ask about the language.

Lewis: There was not a single person in Turkey who knew any English. Communication was through a two-stage interpretation, the intermediate stage being Italian. At that time, Italian was the main cultural language of Europe. Queen Elizabeth herself knew Italian. John Milton even wrote poems in Italian. This was the cultural language of Europe. The Ottomans had Levantines—Ottoman residents, but not Turks or Muslims—mainly Catholic or Greek Orthodox, who knew Italian, too.

Let's say the queen wrote a letter to the sultan in English. This was translated by an English dragoman into Italian. It was then translated by an Ottoman Levantine dragoman from Italian into Turkish. The reply comes the same way. The sultan sends a letter in Turkish. An Italian translation is provided by the dragoman and then translated from the Italian into English and so on.

I was fascinated by this.

Cole: What was lost in the translation, indeed?

Lewis: And gained. I came across a consistent pattern of systematic, purposeful mistranslation. This continued right through the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, and not only in the British but also all the other embassies.

The government in London sends what they think is a strong note of protest to the British ambassador in Istanbul, and he reports that he has delivered the strong note of protest to the sultan's government. He hasn't. The Levantine dragomans were Ottoman subjects, and they didn't want to do anything to annoy the sultan and his government. Anything in the least bit troublesome was either omitted or toned down. What has happened is that the interpreter has produced a sort of meek and feeble murmur, you know, "I don't want to be difficult, but would you really mind. . . ." This is, as I say, a consistent pattern right through the whole period.

In the late eighteenth century, beginning of the nineteenth century, the Western governments finally decided that they had to produce their own dragomans. The French were the first to do it. They had what they called les jeunes de langue, young men chosen for their linguistic aptitude. They were sent to Turkey as apprentices, working in the embassy, and they were supposed to master the language and the script. Then the other European powers followed: the English, the Austrians, the Prussians, and so on. Even so, they continued to rely to a large extent on dragomans, and their misrepresentations. It still continues.

In one of my books, I quoted an Arabic broadcast. Now, Arabic broadcasts were monitored by an agency of the BBC. They prepared English translations, which were made available in the reading room of the British Museum.

I found them very useful, and I quoted one of them in a book that I wrote. It so happened that when I got the proofs of this book I was in the United States visiting. Something looked wrong with the quote, and I thought, I better check this. I couldn't check the BBC one, which was in London, but some American agency prepared similar translations and they were also available in libraries. I consulted these, and the things which I had quoted weren't there at all. I thought to myself, now that's absurd.

I telephoned to a friend in London and said, do me a favor. Go to the reading room of the British Museum and look at such-and-such a broadcast, which he did, and I had it correctly. We looked at them together and what we discovered was this: In the translations or the summaries prepared by Arabs employed by the British government, anything anti-British was either toned down or omitted. Anything anti-American was still there full strength. In the ones which were done for the American government, anything anti-American was toned down or omitted. Anything anti-British was kept full strength.

And this was perfectly consistent over the years. This is not because these people were being dishonest or because they were playing some dark and dirty scheme. It was that they were employees, and they didn't want to do anything that would offend their employers, which is very natural.

Cole: What's the situation now?

Lewis: It's becoming increasingly necessary for people to have people available who know these languages. Some efforts have been made, but the results are still greatly inadequate. We still rely to a very large extent on native speakers of these languages. That may be very good for some purposes, but it's hazardous, shall we say, for others.

Cole: This is something we're very interested in, how we can encourage the teaching of critical languages, especially Arabic.

Lewis: Yes. Arabic is a major language of civilization, of human history, comparable to Latin and Greek in that respect.

Cole: Exactly.

Lewis: Therefore, I think it is extremely important to have people who know Arabic and can read it and understand it and understand the implications of what they are reading. Very often a choice of words can be very revealing. But you have to have a pretty good knowledge of the language to appreciate these things.

Cole: Was there trade and intellectual cross-pollination going on between East and West?

Lewis: It depends on what period you're speaking of. It becomes important from the nineteenth century onwards. During the Middle Ages there was a great deal of influence from the Islamic world on the West, but not the other way around. There was precious little that the West had to offer.

Cole: In Renaissance painting where they borrowed Arabic motifs and lettering.

Lewis: Yes. Art is a very interesting aspect. If you look for elements of Western civilization entering the Islamic world, it begins with art. I always like to draw attention to the Nuruosmaniye Mosque. Have you ever seen that?

Cole: No.

Lewis: It's a mid-eighteenth century mosque in Istanbul. It is sort of an imperial cathedral mosque, we might call it, in the grand style, except that some of the decoration is Italian. Clearly, they had Italian craftsmen working on this. After a while, they didn't even need Italian craftsmen. They had their own people doing that sort of thing.

Even earlier we had portraits. Mehmet II the Conqueror had his portrait painted by the Venetian painter Bellini. The portrait is not in Turkey. It's in the National Gallery in London.

Cole: There you have connections, of course, with trade.

Lewis: Yes. The first area where you can really see influence is art and architecture. If you look at Persian miniature painting chronologically, you can see they were beginning to look at European pictures, which gave them certain new things of which they were previously totally unaware.

Cole: Why is this so important? Why should we know about the Arab Middle Ages? Why should we know about the Ottoman Empire? What relevance does that have for us today?

Lewis: I think it's always important to understand both sides of a relationship. The relation between Christendom and the Islamic world begins with the advent of Islam in the seventh century. When Islam came into the world, the whole of the Middle East and North Africa were Christian. They were part of Christendom. So Islam first expanded—apart from Iran—largely into Christian territory and even into Europe. That started an ongoing relationship, which has continued ever since.

I would make the further point. This ongoing conflict between Christendom and Islam arises not so much from their differences as from their resemblances. There are many religions in the world and there are many civilizations in the world, but as far as I am aware, Christianity and Islam are the only two religions which claim to be the possessors of God's final and exclusive truth.

Most religions have a sort of "relativist approach." That's the term that is used by the Catholic Church to indicate disapproval, but I'm using it to indicate approval. The relativist view would be something like this: Just as men have invented different languages to talk to each other, so they've invented different religions to talk to God, and God understands all of them. Perhaps not all equally well, but he understands all of them.

There is an interesting passage in one of the sermons of Saint John Capistrano, a Franciscan. In one of his collected sermons, he says the Jews propagate this monstrous and absurd idea that everyone can be saved in his own religion. Now, Saint John Capistrano says many things about the Jews and the Muslims—both of whom he disliked intensely—but on that particular one he's right. The Talmud says the righteous of all faiths have a place in heaven. That's not the Christian or the Muslim point of view.

We—whichever the "we" may be—we are the fortunate recipients of God's final message to mankind. If you accept that message, you will be saved. If you don't accept it, then your religion is either incomplete and superseded or false—incomplete and superseded if it's previous, false if it's subsequent. Where you have two religions making the same claim with the same self-perception and the same geographical area, you get this uninterrupted sequence of jihad and crusade. But that, I think, is also some ground for hope. I tried to make this point at a conference in Morocco. The theme of the conference was: Is a dialog of civilizations possible? I tried to make the point that the conflicts have arisen from resemblances rather than from differences, and this should, with goodwill on both sides, make a dialog possible.

Cole: Is goodwill on both sides feasible?

Lewis: Goodwill on both sides is so far rather conspicuously lacking. But not entirely. I think there are people on both sides of goodwill. The late pope was trying to open a dialog with other religions. I don't know where the new one stands on this, but so far his utterances have been quite positive.

Cole: I think there are very few people who don't have strong opinions on Huntington's book, The Clash of Civilizations.

Lewis: As far as I'm concerned, what really matters is the clash between Christendom and Islam, which begins with the advent of Islam and is continued to the present day.

As I said before, there is the long history of jihad and crusade, attacking each other, invading each other. But, as I also said, the clash arises from their resemblances more than from their differences. Christians and Muslims could argue meaningfully. They did so right through the Middle Ages in areas where they met--Spain and Sicily and so on. When a Christian said to a Muslim or a Muslim said to a Christian, "You are an infidel and you will burn in hell," each understood exactly what the other meant because they meant the same thing. Saying that to a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Confucian would just get a blank stare.

Cole: Are we in jihad or crusade at the moment?

Lewis: More jihad than crusade. The Crusades were a late, limited, and unsuccessful response to the jihad.

The most extraordinary moment was when Monsieur Jean-Pierre Raffarin—then French prime minister—in a speech in the National Assembly on October 8, 2002, was speaking of Saddam Hussein. He said, "One of Saddam Hussein's great heroes is Saladin." And in case his listeners in the French chamber didn't know, he said, "It was Saladin who was able to defeat the Crusaders and liberate Jerusalem."

When a French prime minister talks of Saladin's capture of Jerusalem from the Crusaders as liberating—and Raffarin is a devout Catholic, I am told—if he uses the word "liberate" to talk of Saladin capturing Jerusalem from the Crusaders—we are in strange times indeed.

Cole: Well, this has been terrific. Thank you for coming and spending time with us.

Lewis: Thank you. I am delighted.