September 11, 2002: Features

Bernard Lewis discusses the past, present, and future of the Middle East

Considered by many the world’s foremost living historian of the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus, has studied the Muslim world for more than half a century. His work spans the medieval to the modern periods and encompasses multiple aspects of Islamic lands, from the Ottoman Empire to Islam’s relationship with the West. Cultured and refined, he has written with great respect about the Muslim world, which for centuries was the center of civilization. For years and in several books, he has examined Islam’s troubled attempts to encompass modernity. His latest book, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, looks at that region’s “downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression.”

He wrote the book before September 11, 2001.

The rage that fueled the attacks has been building for 300 years, says Lewis, a British-born, naturalized U.S. citizen who turned 86 last May. His phone was ringing off the hook last fall with requests for interviews, lectures, and private sessions with U.S. officials in the Pentagon and the White House.

Attached to British Intelligence during World War II, Lewis has informally advised Washington’s higher-ups for years. At the same time, he’s got his academic rivals, led by Edward Said ’57, a professor of literature at Columbia, who has called him an apologist for imperialism and Zionism.

Lewis, who often composes his written work by speaking into a tape recorder, spoke to PAW’s associate editor Kathryn Federici Greenwood about the Middle East in July at his Princeton home.

In your book you talk about the reluctance of the Muslim world to learn from Europe and the West — how for many years Muslims weren’t interested in reading European literature or learning about its history. Is that still the case?

In some areas yes. But generally speaking they have accepted the need to learn from more advanced societies. They have been doing so in different parts of the Muslim world for up to 300 years. Obviously these changes are very gradual and take place over a wide area and over a long period.

But clearly they have a lot of catching up to do in order to be at the level of modern knowledge. For better or for worse, at the present time what we sometimes call Western civilization is modernity. It’s no longer purely Western. Japan, for example, is as much a part of that civilization as England or France. And China and India increasingly so. And what bothers people in the Middle East is that they are not only falling behind the West, but they are falling behind more recent recruits to modernity such as Korea. An Arab professor of my acquaintance mentioned that in the Arab world today there are more than 200 universities and almost every one of them has a school of engineering. And between them every year they turn out thousands and thousands of engineers. But if they need to do a job requiring sophisticated skills like building an airport, then for the most part they have to bring in contractors and engineers from outside. It was bad enough when they had to bring them from Europe or America. Now they are bringing them from Korea, a country that half a century ago was just emerging from Japanese colonial feudalism.

Why hasn’t the Muslim world been able to catch up with modern societies?

That is the big question. That’s also the question that is asked in a report by Arab intellectuals that was published under the auspices of the UN [in July] in Cairo. The authors of the report examine the normal indicators that you have from the UN, World Bank, and IMF, etc. and they’re devastating. For example, the total GDP of the Arab world is less than that of Spain. The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one-fifth of the number that Greece translates. And these figures are not getting any better. The level of performance in freedom of expression, education, job creation, rights for women, and science and technology is abysmal.

As for science, do they lack the facilities to develop first-rate scientists and technicians?

They have universities. Again to quote this Arab friend of mine: He said, rather bitterly, “We have a faculty of science, but we don’t teach science, we teach history of science.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “What else can you call it when you teach science through textbooks that are 50 years old?”

So what went wrong?

These are not stupid people. They are highly sophisticated, intelligent people who have created great civilizations in the past. And we are not dealing with people who do not understand the value of knowledge. They do, having created so much knowledge themselves. We are not dealing with people who are unaware of these things. They are highly aware, particularly today with modern communications. And why this is so is the most agonizing question. It is debated all the time in those countries where there is enough freedom of expression to allow such a thing.

When you become aware that something is wrong, there are two ways you can pursue the question. You can say, What did we do wrong? In which case, the next question is, How do we put it right? That is the constructive way. That can lead to good results. And it has done so in Turkey, for example. Or you can say, Who did this to us? And that leads you into a twilight world of neurotic fantasies, conspiracy theories, scapegoating, and so on. There’s the classical answer, the destruction of the caliphs by the Mongols in the 13th century. The modern answer is imperialism. They were suppressed and kept back by the European imperial powers. But that is not an answer to the question, it’s merely a reformulation of the question. After all, for a thousand years Muslims were invading Europe. And then suddenly Europe turns around and not only throws them out but counterattacks. One should rather ask: Why is it that suddenly instead of Muslims invading Europe, Europeans began to invade the Muslim world and, moreover, succeeded?

So they have found other explanations. My primary purpose in the book was not to try to explain these things but to try to explain the debate about these things. How the people of the Muslim world have seen it. What different explanations they have offered. And there have been many.

What do you think is the most important single factor for their falling behind?

The position of women. Women are after all half or often slightly more than half the population. Namik Kemal, who was Turkish, wrote an article that was published in 1867 in which he states flatly that the reason for our backwardness is the way we treat our women. He says if we deprive ourselves of the talents and services of half the population how can we hope to keep up? And he gives us a very striking metaphor: He says that compared to the West, our society is like a human body that is paralyzed on one side — which is exactly true.

On the last page of my book I do attempt to give a brief suggestion of what is at the heart of what went wrong and I would sum that up in one word: freedom. Freedom from corrupt and corrupting tyrannical rule, freedom of the economy from pervasive official mismanagement, freedom of women from male domination, freedom of expression and inquiry, and freedom from censorship and repression.

It seems that most of the Muslim nations haven’t been able to balance Islam on the one hand and the need to Westernize/modernize on the other. Do you agree?

I think here we must recognize that part of the damage that has been done to these societies is precisely because of what we would call either Westernization or modernization. What modernization has done is to increase enormously the power of the state, the extent and scope and range of state power, and to weaken or remove the previous limiting powers in traditional society. The modern apparatus of government — the means of surveillance, enforcement, and repression — has given the modern rulers vastly greater power and authority than were ever exercised by any of the legendary caliphs and sultans of the past. They were democrats compared to some of the modern rulers.

How does Islam figure into the political situation in the modern Muslim world?

A lot of people blame Islam. But that’s hard to argue because the Middle East’s great age occurred under Islamic rule.

What about the Taliban? Weren’t they trying to return to a “pure” form of Islamic law?

The Taliban are a different story. The Taliban are influenced by Wahhabism, a movement founded by Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahab. The Wahhabi branch of Islam is very fanatical, to the extent of being totally intolerant, very oppressive of women, and so on. Two things happened in the 20th century that gave Wahhabis enormous importance. One of them was that sheikhs of the House of Saud, who were Wahhabis, and their followers obtained control of the holy places of Islam — Mecca and Medina — which gave them enormous prestige in the Muslim world. And second, probably more important, they controlled the oil wells and the immense resources those gave them.

Imagine that the Ku Klux Klan gets total control of the state of Texas. And the Ku Klux Klan has at its disposal all the oil rigs in Texas. And they use this money to set up a well-endowed network of colleges and schools throughout Christendom, peddling their peculiar brand of Christianity. You would then have an approximate equivalent of what has happened in the modern Muslim world.

I sense a sadness in your book about the situation today in the Middle East.

Well, it’s a sad situation. But I must say I feel rather encouraged during the last few days. There are signs the people are willing to talk about freedom in the real sense. I’m thinking, for example, about this document that just appeared under the auspices of the UN, and of the recent demonstrations in Gaza. For the first time Palestinians were demonstrating against the misrule of their own rulers and not against an external enemy.

I don’t see any hope for these regions until they develop some kind of democratic society. It doesn’t have to be our kind of democracy; there are many kinds of democracy. Once they do that, I think there will be a dramatic change in this area.

It’s often been said that democracies don’t start wars but they do end them. It’s true. Democracies don’t start wars because democratic governments are answerable to their electors. If they do something the electors don’t like, the electors throw them out. And dictators don’t make peace because they need wars to provide a scapegoat in order to divert their people’s attention from their own failures at home. So you can’t get peace between a dictatorship and a democracy except after a clear defeat. You’re very unlikely to get war between two democracies. Therefore the only real hope of peace in the Middle East, or for that matter anywhere else in the world, is democratic government in the sense that they are governments answerable to their people. People anywhere in the world don’t want war, they just want to live peacefully.

You’ve said that President Bush’s various speeches regarding Arafat, the Axis of Evil, and so on have helped the cause of democracy. How is that?

The reformers will know now that if they do try to experiment with freedom and democracy, they will have some support.

How have the U.S. and Europe contributed to the power of tyrannical governments in the Muslim world?

All too often European and American policies toward the Arab world have been predicated on an unspoken assumption: that these people are incapable of democracy, that it’s inevitable that they will be ruled by tyrants, and that they are on a lower level of civilization. We hold them to a lower level both in what we expect from them and what they may expect from us. We don’t expect these people to live by civilized rules. In this perception, the aim of policy is to ensure that they will be ruled by friendly, not hostile, tyrants. I find this approach deeply insulting, morally reprehensible, and, in the world of today, politically unworkable.

What should the U.S. government and the West be doing to nurture democratic movements?

I think what we’re doing now is exactly right — encouraging genuine democratic movements and refusing to have dealings with these brutal and corrupt tyrants, starting with Arafat. I think the most immediate thing we should concentrate on is Iraq and Iran — helping the vigorous democratic movements in those countries, one way or another.

As for places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, I think we should refrain from reinforcing and encouraging their autocracy. If you have regime changes in Iraq and Iran you’ll no longer need their help.

Do you think it’s possible to incorporate Islam in a democratic state?

I think it’s possible. It’s not easy but it’s possible.

Did Osama bin Laden expect the U.S. to respond as it did to the attacks?

No. Bin Laden’s very clear — from his various writings and broadcasts, it’s not so much hatred as contempt. The message that comes again and again from him and others is that Americans have gone soft. They are pampered. They can’t take casualties. Hit them and they will run. And then they use the same litany: Vietnam, Beirut, Somalia. The swift response to September 11 brought some reconsideration.

What I’m afraid of is that subsequent statements and actions may have brought them back to their earlier evaluation.

To what do you refer?

The immediate reaction to September 11 really scared them. I was at a joint meeting of the European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Istanbul in February, and the impact was palpable. But then came the postures and gestures of hesitation and propitiation; the anxious concern not to give offense and the talk about the need to keep on good terms with our Arab friends — friends being understood in a very special way; the anxious tours asking for help and advice. This has exactly the opposite effect, and might lead bin Laden to think, We were right after all.

That would be the strongest incitement to continue the campaign of terror. We must avoid even the appearance of rewarding terror.

How does bin Laden see himself and his cause in terms of Islamic history?

Bin Laden has an intensely historical view of the world. He frequently refers to his enemy as “crusaders.” The Crusaders, it may be recalled, were neither Americans nor Jews. His general vision comes through fairly clear: He sees this as an ongoing struggle for more than 14 centuries between the two rival world religions. For a long time Christians were in retreat, Muslims were advancing. Then came the series of bitter defeats: the loss of Spain, the invasion of the Muslim lands by European Christian imperialists, and what he calls the final humiliation, the defeat in 1918 of the last of the great Muslim states, the Ottoman Empire. Its ruler was captured, its territory partitioned. And he sees himself engaged in the great counterattack, of which phase one is to oust the unbelievers from the lands of Islam and thus prepare the stage for the next and final stage: the battle for world religious leadership and, with it, domination.

I thought the Prophet Muhammad respected and even learned from Christians and Jews — was that the case?

He does not speak very respectfully of the Christians and the Jews. He insists that they must be tolerated. The Islamic doctrine is very clear: no compulsion in religion. You must not force people. Jews and Christians from a Muslim point of view are possessors of a sort of earlier version of religion that was authentic but was corrupted and has been superseded. Therefore, they have the right to practice, provided that they accept the supremacy of Islam and the rule of the Muslim state. And then after the Prophet’s death, not during his lifetime, it was decided that they may not live in Arabia. So Jews and Christians were evicted from Arabia except for the southeast and southwest, in Oman and Yemen, where they were allowed to stay. And the Jews and Christians from central and northern Arabia were removed to Syria, Iraq, and Palestine.

Some people refer to you as pro-Western. How do you feel about that description of your work?

Is that a crime? I don’t believe that being pro-Western is a bad thing. I don’t feel that I need to believe my country is wrong, just because I’m from the West. I of course recognize the possibility, and can see many examples, of Western guilt. But I do not believe in the original sin of the West and the innate sinlessness of the rest.


Lack of freedom to blame for troubles in Muslim world, writes Lewis

To a Western observer, schooled in the theory and practice of Western freedom, it is precisely the lack of freedom — freedom of the mind from constraint and indoctrination, to question and inquire and speak; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive mismanagement; freedom of women from male oppression; freedom of citizens from tyranny — that underlies so many of the troubles of the Muslim world. But the road to democracy, as the Western experience amply demonstrates, is long and hard, full of pitfalls and obstacles.

If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression, culminating sooner or later in yet another alien domination; perhaps from a new Europe reverting to old ways, perhaps from a resurgent Russia, perhaps from some new expanding superpower in the East. If they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavor, then they can once again make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a major center of civilization. For the time being, the choice is their own.

From What Went Wrong? By Bernard Lewis © 2002 by Bernard Lewis. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.

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