THE release of American hostages in the Middle East is a welcome move. But it raises more questions than it answers. Who took them? What did they want at the time? What do they want now? To whom do they owe allegiance? Those weren't exactly the questions Bernard Lewis had in mind when he stepped to the podium in Washington last Wednesday evening to deliver this year's Thomas Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. Yet his lecture could not have been more timely.
His subject: Western society as viewed from the Islamic perspective.
His theme: the ``revulsion'' against Western values and manners that is spitting forth from fundamentalist segments of the Islamic world.
His conclusion: that America, as the ``heir of European civilization,'' has become ``the focus on which [the Muslim world's] pent-up hate and anger converge.''
Well, so they hate us. Why? And so what?
Those were exactly the questions that Professor Lewis, a historian who is Cleveland E. Dodge professor of Near Eastern studies emeritus at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., wanted to raise.
``It should be clear by now,'' he said, talking about Islamic fundamentalism, ``that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations....''
That's a strong statement.
But Lewis built his case carefully. For 14 centuries, he noted, Islam and Christianity have been bitter rivals. In its first 1,000 years, Islam was advancing while Christianity was ``in retreat and under threat'' - not only in the Levant and North Africa, but in Sicily, Spain, Portugal, and parts of France.
In recent centuries, however, the tide has turned. Once-dominant Islam, on the defensive, has lost three vital things: its political domination in various regions of the world; its authority within its own nations, as ``foreign ideas and laws and ways of life'' swept in; and even two hallowed domestic customs, shattered by worldwide trends toward ``the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women.''
The result? The rise of an Islamic fundamentalism that the West, comfortable in its successes and in its separation of church and state, finds difficult to fathom. If, in Lewis's phrase, this fundamentalism is ``perhaps irrational,'' it is nevertheless deeply rooted in history. So it is that today's fundamentalists preach a return to the old virtues (and they are many) of Islam.
They are engaged, Lewis explained, in a ``conscious and explicit'' war against secularism. They are also engaged, however, in something unconscious and obscure - something Lewis called ``the war against modernity.''
Which brings us back to the hostages. From the long, quiet, and impartial view that the best of history gives us, what is the West to do? Lewis's answer is clear: ``We of the West can do little or nothing.''
Why? Because what the fundamentalists (and, by extension, the hostage-takers) want is not ours to give. We cannot turn back modernity, however much the conservatives want to do so. And we will not flatten the wall between secularism and religion, however insistent the theocrats. In the end, the struggle is not ours. It is within Islam, and it is for the hearts and minds of the Muslims themselves.
Lewis is right. The issue here is not one of our policies and diplomacy - or even of our governments - and their citizens. Odd as it sounds to pragmatic, matter-of-fact Westerners, those things are superficialities. Far below them, in the darkness of half-realized historical and religious impulses, the real struggle is going on.
Little wonder that successive American administrations have stumbled over Middle Eastern policy. They kept their eyes firmly fixed on symptoms. Bernard Lewis deserves tremendous praise for the clarity, patience, and skill with which he turns us back to causes.