TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- For the third time in its history, Islam is trying to bring "the true faith" to the rest of the world. However, this time is particularly dangerous, according to one of the world's leading authorities on Muslim history.
In a series of lectures at Israeli academic institutions, Princeton University Professor Bernard Lewis talked of the widespread Muslim-Shiite belief that time has come for a final global struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.
"The fact that some of the societies are acquiring, or will soon acquire ... weapons of destructive power beyond Hitler's wildest dreams ... is something that we should be very concerned about," he said.
Muslim believers consider themselves "the fortunate recipients of God's final message to humanity and it is their duty not to keep is selfishly to themselves ... (but) to bring it to the rest of mankind," Lewis noted.
In their first attempt to do so, they emerged from the Arabian Peninsula and conquered vast territories from Iran across North Africa to Spain, Portugal and parts of Italy. Converts conquered Russian lands and established an Islamic regime in Eastern Europe. There are even reports of an Arab raid into Switzerland. But that attempt to conquer Europe failed, and the Crusaders recovered the Christian holy places in Jerusalem.
In the second round, the Ottoman Turks crossed southeastern Europe and reached Vienna. Twice they tried to capture it and failed. Western imperialism halted and reversed the Ottoman push.
The current, third invasion, is not done by armed conquest or with migrating hordes, but by a combination of migration, demography, "self denigration and self abasement, totally apologetic," Lewis said.
Nevertheless, it arouses a fair and very alarming possibility that it could lead to a long, dreary race war between different communities in Europe.
Signs of it are already visible in the form of neo-Fascist racist movements. If that "is going to be the only response of Europe, apart from self-abasement, the outlook is grim," he predicted.
Meanwhile, among Muslims there is a competition over who should lead their cause. This is one of the keys to understand the present situation, Lewis continued.
On the one hand stand Osama bin Laden and his movement. He is a Saudi-Wahabi; in other words an ultra-conservative puritan Sunni-Muslim. The Saudi establishment considers him a rebel but they all belong to the same branch of Islam.
And then there are Muslim Shiites. They assumed a modern form and new vigor since the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1978.
Past friction, for example between the Ottoman Empire and Iran, was due to a rivalry over influence, not over religion.
The current rivalry has acquired, "a new acuteness ... It became more violent than in any time in the recorded history of Islam," Lewis said.
The Iranian revolution is resonating far and wide. It represents a major threat to the West but also to the Sunni establishment. It has led some Sunni leaders to re-evaluate the situation in the Middle East and their attitude towards Israel.
Those leaders may dislike Israel and disapprove of it. However, they consider an uninterrupted line from Shiite Iran, across Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, and the large and growing Shiite populations around the coast of Arabia, to be "a truly major threat."
"There are signs of ... a willingness on the part of many in the Sunni world to put aside their hostilities to Israelis ... in order to deal with the greater, more immediate and more intimate danger," he said. "We may see shifts in the policies of some Arab governments at least comparable with the great shift in Egyptian policy," when President Anwar Sadat opted for peace with Israel.
The leaders contemplating such a change are very cautious. One reason is that their populations have been indoctrinated with hatred of Israel for so long that it is difficult to change tunes.
There is another reason: Some uncertainty over how far they can trust the Israelis, Lewis said.
During the summer's war against the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, many Sunni Muslim governments discreetly cheered the Israelis, hoping they would finish the job. Some of them could hardly conceal their disappointment that Israel failed to do so, he said.
Western-style anti-Semitism of the crudest type, meanwhile, is spreading and occupying a central role in many Muslim countries. One finds it in textbooks, schoolbooks, and in university doctoral dissertations, he noted.
Lewis said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "really believes ... (in) the apocalyptic message that he is bringing." (Israeli experts noted that Ahmadinejad prepared a wide boulevard in Tehran for the return of the Mahdi who disappeared some 1,000 years ago.)
"Islam has a scenario for the end of time, a final global struggle between the forces of good, God, and his anointed, and the forces of evil," Lewis argued.
With such beliefs, the strategy that prevented a nuclear war between the West and the Communist blocs, during the Cold War era, may not apply.
"Mutually assured destruction, which kept the peace during the Cold War, though both sides had nuclear weapons ... doesn't work. It is not a deterrent. It is an inducement," Lewis said.