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Letters from an alumni about PAW's Bernard Lewis story in the September 11, 2002, issue.

October 24, 2002

Two poorly reasoned critiques of Bernard Lewis appear in the latest issue of the PAW.

Richard Cummings ’59 claims that Western colonialism justifies Muslim rage, and, by implication, its terrorism. Many peoples, however, suffered under colonialism, and have not resorted to mass murder. Why aren't Indians, Filipinos, Guatemalans, Chinese, Chileans, South Koreans, Mohawks, Ghanians, South Africans, Aborigines, and Arab Christians, flying planes into packed skyscrapers or blowing up crowded nightclubs?

Bernard Lewis suggests that the imposition of a 7th century desert law, characterized by a lack of rights (especially for women) onto a modern world, cripples Muslim civilization, making a once-great people insecure about their failures. Randolph Hobler ’68, rebuts that if treatment of women were important, why is Japan successful? This argument simply displays ignorance. In Japan, women vote, serve in parliament, speak their minds, create art, run companies, and are not forced into unwanted marriages or pregnancies. Even during Japan's terrible recession, the 2001 female unemployment rate was 4.7 percent and, as of 1997, women comprised 41 percent of the workforce.

Nothing justifies the violence against innocent civilians coming from radical Muslims. Other nations and religions around the world have suffered as much, if not more so. Rather than picking up arms, these other peoples have democratized, capitalized, liberalized, and improved their lives. Muslims must take the hard step of dropping their ancient religious law and joining the rest of the world in the 21st century.

Matthew Schwartz ’00
New York City, N.Y.

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October, 24, 2002

Is Japan truly an example
of a nation that succeeds economically despite keeping women down? Hardly. Women in Japan are far freer than most of their counterparts in the Arab world. (Of course they are far less free than they are here.) If this is the best we can do against Bernard Lewis's arguments, so much the better for his arguments.

Rob Slocum '71
Stamford, Conn.

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October 18, 2002

I read Randolph Hobler '68's letter accusing Prof. Bernard Lewis of bias against Arabs with incredulity and a strong sense of irony. He complains that Prof. Lewis's irrefutable observation — that the Arab world is, essentially, what we used to call "backward in the areas of free expression, economics, science, and fairness — lacked merit, because "he is simply stating a truism about the entire third world, of which the Arab world is a part." 

The incredulity I experienced was that Mr. Hobler did not recognize the irony of his own claim of bias. Anyone with any familiar with Prof. Lewis's work, or even the article in question, understands that Prof. Lewis's thesis is that the decline of the Arab world is remarkable because, centuries ago, the Arab world was at the forefront in progress in every area (save women's roles) in which it now lags so far behind. 

It is this contrast that Prof. Lewis urges us to consider, especially because it demonstrates — contrary to Mr. Hobler's j'accuse — not an inherent inferiority but quite the contrary: A demonstrated capacity for a kind of national greatness. The same cannot be said of the rest of the third world, if such a gross term — meant to encapsule scores of nations, ethnic groups, and political, religious and social systems, is indeed of any use at all in analyzing history and world events.

Ronald D. Coleman '85
Clifton, N.J.

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October 11, 2002

The September 11 cover promises instruction from the world's foremost living historian of the Middle East.

From him we learn that Arab universities annually turn out thousands of incompetent engineers, the Arab world's GDP is less than that of Spain, the Arab world translates but one-fifth of the books that Greece does, and that members of the House of Saud are fanatical Wahhabis, the branch of Islam driving the Taliban. Also mentioned was the Middle East’s "downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression," led by "brutal and corrupt" Arab "tyrants, starting with Arafat."

But does Professor Lewis know that the largest Islamic population in the world is in Indonesia? That there are more Muslims in China than in Saudi Arabia, the Arab homeland? That Arabic followed the spread of Islam because, to Muslims, both the written and the spoken words of the Koran are holy? Are students made aware that a number of states in the area, where Arabic may be spoken, are not Arab?

Egyptians are not Arabs. Iranians are not Arabs. Turks, adamantly, are not Arabs. Neither are Kurds, Afghans, Uzbeks, Pakistanis, Tajiks, nor Armenians. Across Arabic-speaking North Africa, many Libyans, Tunisians, Algerians, etc., are not Arab, and, in many of the states mentioned above, as in Lebanon, there are numbers of Christian Arabs.

Professor Lewis mentions a couple of classic alibis for the area’s problems: destruction of the caliphs by the Mongols and imperialism.

Well-founded in Turkish history and culture, the professor certainly knows that when Tamerlane returned to Samarkand and died, shortly after pushing Turks into the Aegean, the Mongol invasion collapsed, the troops went home, and the Turkic Mamluks, and then the Ottomans, were perfectly happy to revive and take over the. caliphate, without a backward look!
Regarding imperialism: Going back in time, most of the current Islamic states in the area were European colonies, and previously part of monarchic empires, Ottoman, Byzantine, or Persian. Neither colonial powers, nor sultans or emperors, were concerned with responsibility for social welfare and development. The interest was get the income and forget the people. As a result, the people have been oppressed for centuries.

Historically described as an aggressive warlike people, the ancient Israelites followed Abraham out of Mesopotamia millennia ago. Famine forced them into refugee servitude in Egypt, from where they were led back by Moses. They conquered Canaan under the charismatic warrior Joshua, who divided the land among the 12 tribes. A few hundred years later, the Assyrians drove the tribes out of the north, and, subsequently, the Babylonians conquered the more southerly Judah, destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon's Temple I, and took the Jews back to Babylon in slavery. Not long after, the Persians sacked Babylon, and Cyrus permitted the Jews to return for a long period of recovery and development. Finally, the Maccabees revived the Kingdom of Judea, with Roman intervention Herod emerges and rebuilds Temple II, only to have the Jewish revolt in 66 A.D. lead to another destruction of Jerusalem and the outcast of the Jews by the Romans in 70 A.D.

I wonder if Professor Lewis has had the imagination to credit the Romans for the most successful and enduring of Israelite invasions of Palestine? After all, centuries of the diaspora have equipped the Jews with Western education, sophistication, technological skills, and capabilities that are clearly advantageously superior to the poor, disadvantaged, backward, incapable. downward spiraling Middle Eastern Muslims (read Arabs).

Note that the Israelis daily continue to display their aggressive warlike behavior (aided by U.S. munitions), much to the dismay, sorrow, and anger of the Islamic Mid East.

Moose Joline ’51
Southampton, N.Y.

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October 7, 2002

I was chagrined to read your staff interview with Professor Bernard Lewis, "What Went Wrong?".

By way of introduction let me say that I have nothing but admiration for women's intellectual potential, which I have had ample opportunity to observe in academic life during a lifetime of teaching.

However, the hypotheses — increasingly popular in the press and academic writing — that the backwardness of the Islamic world is principally due to the low cultural status of women is nothing but a politically correct calumny used to make our anti-jihad jihad palatable to the liberal segment of our intellectual classes.

At any rate, this preposterous proposition is not supported by historical analogy. Our own western world had its renaissance, age of discovery, industrial and scientific revolutions, all without measurable direct input from women, whether as a result of sheer cultural bias or rational calculation.

While the western world had no harems, until most recently its leading classes had been quite content to exclude women from political life, economic entrepreneurship, or scientific research.

A leading light of modern utilitarianism, like Jeremy Bentham, could spend hundreds of pages of his work (Principles of Morals and Legislation) arguing that women were congenitally different from men, and he was by no means alone.

Yet Britain built a global empire, while the US and West Europe emerged as the hubs of a global material civilization. Given its empirical flimsiness, the argument appears to reflect the universalist's groping for an intellectually acceptable expression of a radical form of particularism, and a potential ideological justification for holding a prospective adversary inferior and repulsive.

This job, if to be done at all, should be left to politicians and avoided by academics.

Andrew C. Janos *61
Berkeley, Calif.

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October 1, 2002

In the latter half of the 1980s, I studied history under John Gaddis at Ohio University. His field, of course, was American foreign policy with an emphasis on the Cold War. The Cold War has indeed passed into history now. It had not yet done so when I was matriculating.

I had four areas of concentration, of which the Middle East was one. My studies began with the prophet Mohammed and extended to the situation as it stood in the 1980s. Our Middle East professor was not a power in the history department. The library was not very well stocked with the best up-to-date research. Our focus was fixed on Moscow. We had no idea the communist world was staggering to its collapse. The topics of the day revolved around nuclear stockpiles, Russian history, war games, superpower diplomacy, and international theory. How quickly those concerns have become obsolete. I would have done better to study southwest Asia instead of concentrating on Europe and Russia.

I lived among many Palestinians in Athens, Ohio. I knew some Lebanese people and Malaysians too. They grew up under Islam. The Lebanese and Malaysians were cosmopolitan, and they interacted with the Western world with ease and grace. I do not know how religious they were. The Palestinians were a whole other story. They allowed their children to play with our children, but otherwise they kept themselves rigidly apart. Once a week, a revamped station wagon came to the Mill Street apartment complex where we lived. In short order, it became a bazaar of Middle Eastern groceries. Sometimes I would buy exotic produce or cheese, but the purpose of this enterprise was to help the Palestinian community remain separate. Ramadan was always tense because the Palestinians fasted and became ill-tempered.

I knew only one Palestinian family. Abid and Huda had brought their little boys to America, and my son played with them. Sometimes gulfs can be crossed by way of the games of children. Abid always helped newcomers by carrying their furniture from the van to their new apartments. He didn't care who they were or where they came from. He was a good, decent man. When Ramadan ended one year, Huda shared her feast with us. The first intifada was in progress then. Abid and Huda lived in Nablus on the West Bank. Every day at six o'clock, their little boys had to go inside to watch the television news so that they would learn that they would be expected to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers some day.

Abid was working toward a doctorate in communications. Ohio University had an outstanding communications program.

It also had an outstanding history department. In addition to Professor Gaddis, the faculty included Charles Alexander, the great writer of intellectual and baseball history; Steven Miner, the author of Stalin and Churchill, a dual biography highly praised in the international humanities community; and Alonzo Hamby, the renowned American political historian. Quite often, the faculties of American universities lean rather leftward politically. Ohio University was a pretty Republican school. We were internationalists, and we respected differences of culture and religion. We didn't subscribe to notions that whatever the U.S. did was wrong, imperialistic, and immoral. But we gave the fanatics in the Muslim world too much respect. We deluded ourselves that we were open-minded and understood their point of view. The destruction of the World Trade Center has jolted me away from that stance. The U.S. isn't perfect, but it is good and we're always trying to do better.

In the Palestinian community at Ohio University, there was a strict hierarchy. The father could shout at anybody in the family. The son could shout at anybody but his father, even if he was only four years old. The mother could shout at her daughters. The daughters couldn't shout at anybody. Any of the heads-of-household, including Abid, would have been proud to fly airplanes into American skyscrapers for Allah.

Literalist Islam really is the enemy. It cannot operate successfully in the 21st century. In an age of technology and rapid change, Islam generates no creative power. It has only destructive power. The Palestinians of my acquaintance resented the common American practice of linking the word "terrorist" to the word "Palestinian." It is that very resentment that culminates in the horrors of 9/11. Democracy and freedom are incompatible with fundamentalist Islam. Religious toleration on our part is suicidal. I don't suggest burning mosques or nuking the holy places in Mecca and Medina. But I do suggest that we need to wake up and see our adversary for what he is. I have no problem with people wanting to bow toward Mecca five times a day, but I have a huge problem with terrorism. I don't want to leave the Muslim world behind, but it has to change radically if it intends to keep up. I hope Muslims all over the world take that message to heart. Otherwise, the international landscape will consist of Islam against everybody else, with no hope of surcease.

Derrick Smith

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October 1, 2002

A thought on the question that was put to Dr. Lewis regarding the current plight of the Arab culture, "What went wrong."

The one word answer is: oil.

What else do the arab nations produce in any significant quantity? And the revenues generated by oil production are controlled by dictatators and monarchies. With nearly all of the economic power concentrated in the hands of the vicious and entitled, is it surprising that this culture has stagnated and its young become so frustrated and hateful? Why bother breaking one's back to create an economy when you are sitting on the world's largest oil reserves.

Islamic self-destruction festers in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, then spreads and infects the non-oil producing nations. The Palestinians are not victims of Israeli oppression, they are merely petrochemically-challenged.

Joseph Zobian, MD

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September 30, 2002

Thank you for the enlightening interview with Professor Bernard Lewis. A better understanding of the Muslim world is vital to the West's future.

I found it odd, though, that the article identified his leading "academic rival" as Columbia's Edward Said '57. Since when is a professor of English and Comparative Literature considered an academic rival of a world-leading scholar of Near East Studies? Shouldn't an academic rival be in the same field, or at least a related one?

Why should Professor Said's musings on the Middle East be considered any more authoritative than Prof. Lewis's thoughts about literature?

Jason H. Elbaum '92
Modiin, Israel

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September 28, 2002

Although I do not question Emeritus Professor Lewis's general expertise on the MIddle East, in his interview by Ms. Greenwood (September 11), I feel that he may have so much detailed knowledge of the trees that he fails to see the forest.

The professor asserts that Islam's greatest problem is in its oppression of women: Half the population is not allowed to be educated or productive. I do not disagree, but I believe this is caused by a universal disability that particularly affects men, the inability to use logic and reason, to think clearly and honestly about matters that do not immediately affect or concern them individually. Male chauvinism, found here and everywhere to some degree, is one example of immature, selfish, and poor judgment. We all accumulate prejudices and neurotic misperceptions much more easily than we do wisdom.

O. W. Holmes 100 years ago made the general observation that "the greatest need is for education in the obvious." I believe it to be an imperative possibility, but no classroom in the world offers education in HOW to think with balanced objectivity, how to use basic logic and critical thought. The world has not yet made the hard effort required or is incapable of seeing this obvious problem.

With rare exception, the world's religions, whether immensely wealthy and powerful or a tiny sect, all zealously guard their exclusive possession of access to God and Heaven.

Christians, Muslims, and Jews are all trapped in holy-political wars of hate, death, and destruction, led mostly by conservatives and fundamentalists in their respective faiths/countries.

All religions rely on ancient myths, fantasies, and customs, prejudices that demand the unquestioning faith of followers, while they encourage divisiveness and the aggressive defense of their vision of truth and God.

Fundamentalist "thinking" is primitive, absolutist, and merciless, aggressive and prowar, simplistic. Such thinking is well nurtured by extremes of wealth and success, or poverty and failure. Conservatives have adversely affected the atmosphere far and wide, by damning an open mind, tolerance, and analytic thinking.

Narrow and shallow, the thinking of "rightists" is very much at odds with my own theory of (intellectual) maturity. That theory bears mentioning.

Man is born intelligent, barring brain damage, but only a tiny percentage of even the well-educated develop or broaden their cognitive abilities. Mature thinking is never directly taught in a classroom; few learn the art and science of thinking clearly. Of course we all have personal areas of interest and "expertise," but we accumulate prejudices, misinformation, and neuroses far more easily than we do wisdom. The more aware we become, the more mature is our outlook. The more our Id and our Superego merge with, become part of our Ego, the greater our maturity.

A collorary: Blind faith in a remote, rigid, and vengeful deity precludes an inquisitive mind, deters awareness of and faith in the inner God of Conscience, the Superego that too often is remote from consciousness. We go to church to be blessed in our pursuit of victory over infidels, the enemy, to kill and destroy others.

Conscience, our inner sense of responsibility and spiritual power, is avoided, mute.

In the introduction to this interesting article, we are advised that Mr. Lewis's positions are opposed by another distinguished scholar, Professor Edward Said '57 of Columbia University. He has called Lewis an "apologist for Zionism and imperialism." I translate that to mean, a conservative who favors the establishment and the status quo, that Said has a more open (liberal) outlook.

It would be instructive on an extremely important subject were PAW to publish an interview with Professor Said.

Walter Hewitt ’42
Lansdale, Pa.

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September 21, 2002

Many statements by Bernard Lewis in your cover story of the September 11 issue about Muslims, in particular Arabs, defy common sense and do not exhibit the critical thinking that is a cornerstone of a Princeton education and end up betraying his bias (cited by Edward Said ’57 in the article) against Arabs. I’ll just cite two.

When he says “The level of performance in freedom of expression, education, job creation, rights for women, science and technology is abysmal in the Arab world,” he is not enlightening us about the Arab world, he is simply stating a truism about the entire Third World, of which the Arab world is a part. To carry his argument to its logical conclusion would force him to decry the entire third world on these points. To single out the Arab world for such criticism is not only reflects his bias, it does not serve to usefully inform the reader what, in particular, distinguishes the Arab world from the Third World. This, in turn, further serves to confuse any rational analysis of Middle Eastern politics.

When asked, “What do you think is the most important single factor for their [the Arabs] falling behind?” his illogical reply concerns their treatment of women and lack of women in the workforce. If employment of women is a necessary principle of economic success, how in the world does Dr. Lewis explain the economic success of Japan?

What he did not say is what’s different about the Arab world, is the impact of the U.S. media and special interest groups that—for ulterior political motives--have been systematically demonizing Arabs for over 50 years to the point where the average American equates “Arab” with “terrorist”. The fact that Dr. Lewis must revert to illogical arguments demonstrates his bias. If you have truth on your side, you can be logical and fair.

Randolph W. Hobler ‘68
Dobbs Ferry, N.Y..

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September 20, 2002

Burdening women with excessive pregnancies and childbearing is one form of male domination common in Muslim countries. In my work in the fwnlly-planning programs of several countries, I found that Muslim men considered it their religious duty to procreate many children, regardless of the effect on their wives or on the children themselves. In several Islamic countries in Africa and Asia, women still average six or more births, and the Palestinian Territory is reported to have the world's highest annual rate of natural increase (excess of births over deaths), 3.5 percent.

In Iran, however, where Khomeini sought to outlaw all birth control, there has been a complete reversal of policy, and the present government actively promotes contraception and sterilization. Birth rates have also fallen substantially in Bangladesh and several other non-Arab Muslim countries.

George Immerwahr '30
Kenmore, Wash.

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September 20, 2002

With regard to Kathryn Frederici Greenwood's interview with Bernard Lewis (September 11), I feel compelled to take note of Mr. Lewis's call for a regime change in Iran to further democracy. In fact, Iran had something of a fledgling democracy in the early 1950s, headed by Prime Minister Mohammahd Mossadegh.

When he nationalized the oil fields that had been exploited by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the British, when they had lost in the World Court, persuaded the Americans to get them back for them. Kermit Roosevelt, head of the CIA mission in Teheran, organized the CIA-backed coup that overthrew the legitimate government of Iran and engineered the return to the throne of the Shah, an absolute dictator who used his secret service, SAVAK, to brutally torture his political opponents. The Shah received unqualified support from the United States.

Is it any wonder that there is deep suspicion of American motives in the Middle East, given this kind of history? The U.S. has uniformly supported the worst and most repressive regimes in order to control the natural resources it needs. Besides this, there is the rather abysmal colonial record of both Britain and France in the Islamic world, including the destruction of Beirut by the French. Britain invented Iraq, Kuwait and Trans Jordan (later, Jordan) and placed dubious kings on thrones that suited British hegemony.

The Jordanian royal family and the former royal family of Iraq are both descendants of Hussein ibn Ali, King of the Hejaz, who lost the war for control of Arabia to the House of Saud and Abdul Assiz Ibn Saud. As an ally of the British, Hussein got a consolation prize for his Hashemite family. When Britain was finally obliged to give Egypt its independence, did it give the Egyptians democracy? No. It gave them King Farouk. The legacy of the Middle East and the Islamic world is something Fanon understood perfectly. The kind of rage the West has engendered will go away only if this history is acknowledged.

Richard Cummings '59
Bridgehampton, N.Y.

(The writer served as attorney-advisor with the Near East South Asia region of U.S.A.I.D., as the lawyer for the A.I.D. program in Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. He gave a lecture cosponsored by the Arab Society of Princeton and the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, at Princeton this past February entitled, "Now Or Never-Human Rights, International Law and the Prospects for Peace in the Middle East," which was posted on the PAW website. A graduate of Columbia Law School, he holds a Ph.D. in Social and Political Sciences from Cambridge University. He has taught at the University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and the University of the West Indies, Barbados.)

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September 16, 2002

With all due respect to Bernard Lewis, I believe that it is ingenuous to equate free elections with democracy. A free election is merely a mechanism to select recipients of political power. It is how these recipients then wield that power that really determines the nature of democracy. A free election can provide a government by the people, but not necessarily of the people or for the people. It may be necessary but is not sufficient for democracy. In other words, it is only the beginning of democracy, not its end.

Once in power, an administration may be less than forthcoming with the electorate. It may promote policies that further the fortunes of particular interests against those of the general public, and the public may be none the wiser. On a sinister note, these interests are liable to be those which have provided the greatest financial support. An administration does not really have to do a good job, so long as it is seen to be doing a good job, and can sell itself successfully to the electorate at the right time. A roomful of spin-doctors may be more important than anything else in winning elections.

There are one thousand and one ways of manipulating public opinion, and they are becoming more and more sophisticated every year. What good is a free election if the public is misinformed, or saturated with diabolically clever emotional appeals, or drugged on sound-bytes? Given the nature of modern marketing techniques the "freedom" of "free elections" becomes problematic. It is not the better man who wins, but the one who is the most adept (or ruthless) campaigner, and often the better financed.

Dr. Lewis avers that democracies do not start wars. Of course they do, and there is no theoretical reason why they shouldn't. With the skilled use of propaganda and the support of the press, an administration may start a war and cultivate public approval. The Spanish-American war comes to mind, but there are others more recent. There is usually little difficulty in getting public support. No population is so inveterately peace-loving or so immune to the call of patriotism, that it can not be willingly led into battle. But if that fails, there is always the draft. And what can be more appealing than a war without any casualties on your side?

Free elections are no guarantee that political leaders will be sensible men of peace. Fine leadership can arise within any political system. A democracy based on a fickle, misled, apathetic electorate may be no improvement over a monarchy, and no less prone to war.

Stephen E. Silver
Waterford, Conn.

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