What Went Wrong? That was the explosive title of a December 2001 book by historian Bernard Lewis about the decline of the Muslim world. Already at the printer when 9/11 struck, the book rocketed the professor to widespread public attention, and its central question gripped Americans for a decade.
Now, all of a sudden, there’s a new question on American minds: What Might Go Right?
To find out, I made a pilgrimage to the professor’s bungalow in Princeton, where he’s lived since 1974 when he joined Princeton’s faculty from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Two months shy of his 95th birthday, Lewis has been writing history books since before World War II. By 1950, he was a leading scholar of the Arab world, and after 9/11, the vice-president and the Pentagon’s top brass summoned him to Washington for his wisdom.
“I think that the tyrannies are doomed,” Lewis says as we sit by the windows in his library, teeming with thousands of books in the dozen or so languages he’s mastered. “The real question is what will come instead.”
Lewis is “delighted” by the popular movements and believes that the US should do all it can to bolster them. But he cautions strongly against insisting on Western-style elections in Muslim lands. “We have a much better chance of establishing—I hesitate to use the word democracy—but some sort of open, tolerant society, if it’s done within their systems, according to their traditions. Why should we expect them to adopt a Western system? And why should we expect it to work?” he asks.
“After World War I, the victorious Allies tried to impose the parliamentary system on Germany, where they had a rather different political tradition. And the result was that Hitler came to power. Hitler came to power by the manipulation of free and fair elections,” says Lewis, who fought the Nazis in the British army. For a recent example, consider the 2006 electoral triumph of Hamas in Gaza.
Elections, he argues, should be the culmination—not the beginning—of a gradual political process. Thus “to lay the stress all the time on elections, parliamentary Western-style elections, is a dangerous delusion”.
Not because Muslims’ cultural DNA is predisposed against it—quite the contrary. “The whole Islamic tradition is very clearly against autocratic and irresponsible rule,” says Lewis. “There is a very strong tradition— both historical and legal, both practical and theoretical—of limited, controlled government.”
But Western-style elections have had mixed success even in the West. “I don’t think we can assume that the Anglo-American system of democracy is a sort of world rule, a world ideal.” Instead, Muslims should be “allowed—and indeed helped and encouraged—to develop their own ways of doing things.”
In Middle Eastern history “consultation is the magic word. It occurs again and again in classical Islamic texts. It goes back to the time of the Prophet himself”, says Lewis. It meant political leaders had to cut deals with others—the leaders of the merchant guild, the craft guild, the scribes, the land owners and the like. Each guild chose its own leaders from within. “The rulers,” says Lewis, “even the great Ottoman sultans, had to consult with these different groups in order to get things done.”
It’s not that Ottoman-era societies were models of Madisonian political wisdom. But power was shared such that the Arab and Muslim communities of the vast Ottoman Empire came to include certain practices and expectations of limited government.
Americans often think of limited government in terms of “freedom”, but Lewis says that word doesn’t have a precise equivalent in Arabic. “Liberty, freedom, it means not being a slave... Freedom was a legal term and a social term—it was not a political term. And it was not used as a metaphor for political status.” The closest Arabic word to our concept of liberty is “justice”, or ‘adl. “In the Muslim tradition, justice is the standard” of good government.
The traditional consultation process was a casualty of modernization, which helps explain modernization’s dubious reputation in parts of the Arab and Muslim world. “Modernization... enormously increased the power of the state,” Lewis says. “And it tended to undermine, or even destroy, those various intermediate powers which had previously limited the power of the state.” This was enabled by the cunning of the Mubaraks and Assads, paired with “modern communication, modern weapons and the modern apparatus of surveillance and repression”. The result: These autocrats amassed “greater power than even the mightiest of the sultans ever had”.
So can today’s Middle East recover this tradition and adapt it? He reminds me that he is a historian: Predictions are not his forte. But the reluctant sage offers some thoughts.
First, Tunisia has real potential for democracy, largely because of the role of women there. “Tunisia, as far as I know, is the only Muslim country that has compulsory education for girls from the beginning right through. And in which women are to be found in all the professions.”
“My own feeling is that the greatest defect of Islam and the main reason they fell behind the West is the treatment of women.” He makes the powerful point that repressive homes pave the way for repressive governments. “Think of a child that grows up in a Muslim household where the mother has no rights, where she is downtrodden and subservient. That’s preparation for a life of despotism and subservience. It prepares the way for an authoritarian society,” he says.
Egypt is a more complicated case, Lewis says. Already the young, liberal protesters who led the revolution are being pushed aside by the military-Muslim Brotherhood complex. Hasty elections, which could come as soon as September, might sweep the Brotherhood into power. That would be “a very dangerous situation”, he warns. “We should have no illusions about the Muslim Brotherhood, who they are and what they want.”
And yet Western commentators seem determined to harbour such illusions. Take their treatment of Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi. The highly popular, charismatic cleric has said that Hitler “managed to put [the Jews] in their place” and that the Holocaust “was divine punishment for them”. Yet following a sermon Qaradawi delivered in Cairo after Mubarak’s ouster, New York Timesreporter David D. Kirkpatrick wrote that the cleric “struck themes of democracy and pluralism, long hallmarks of his writing and preaching”. He added: “Scholars who have studied his work say Sheikh Qaradawi has long argued that Islamic law supports the idea of a pluralistic, multiparty, civil democracy.”
Lewis has been here before. As the Iranian revolution was beginning in the late 1970s, the name of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was starting to appear in the Western press. “I must confess I never heard of Khomeini. Who had? So I did what one normally does in this world of mine: I went to the university library and looked up Khomeini and, sure enough, it was there,” he says. “It” was a short book called Islamic Government—now known as Khomeini’s Mein Kampf— available in Persian and Arabic. Lewis checked out both copies and began reading. “It became perfectly clear who he was and what his aims were. And that all of this talk at the time about [him] being a step forward and a move toward greater freedom was absolute nonsense,” recalls Lewis.
“I tried to bring this to the attention of people here. The New York Times wouldn’t touch it. They said ‘We don’t think this would interest our readers.’ But we got The Washington Post to publish an article quoting this. And they were immediately summoned by the CIA,” he says. “Eventually the message got through—thanks to Khomeini.”
Now, thanks to Tehran’s enduring Khomeinism, the regime is unpopular and under threat. “Most Iranian patriots are against the regime. They feel it is defaming and dishonouring their country. And they’re right of course.” Iranians’ disdain for the ruling mullahs is the reason Lewis thinks the US shouldn’t take military action there. “It would give the regime a gift that they don’t at present enjoy—namely Iranian patriotism.”
The correct policy, he says, is to elevate the democratic Green movement, and to distinguish the regime from the people. “When President Obama assumed office, he sent a message of greeting to the regime. That is polite and courteous,” Lewis deadpans, “but it would have been much better to send a message to the people of Iran.”
Let’s hope the Green movement is effective. Because—and this may be hard to square with his policy prescription—Lewis doesn’t think Iran can be contained if it goes nuclear. “During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States had nuclear weapons but both knew that the other was very unlikely to use them. Because of what was known at the time as MAD—mutually assured destruction. MAD meant that each side knew that if it used a nuclear weapon the other would retaliate and both sides would be devastated. And that’s why the whole time during the Cold War, even at the worst times, there was not much danger of anyone using a nuclear weapon.”
But the mullahs “are religious fanatics with an apocalyptic mindset. In Islam, as in Christianity and Judaism, there is an end-of-times scenario—and they think it’s beginning or has already begun.” So “mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent—it’s an inducement”.
Another key variable is Turkey, Lewis’ particular expertise. He was the first Westerner granted access to the Ottoman archives in Istanbul in 1950. “In Turkey, the movement is getting more and more toward re-Islamization. The government has that as its intention—and it has been taking over, very skillfully, one part after another of Turkish society...” Ten years from now, Lewis thinks, Turkey and Iran could switch places.
So he keeps a wary eye on the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. It is challenging because it has “no political centre, no ethnic identity... It’s both Arab and Persian and Turkish and everything else. It is religiously defined. And it can command support among people of every nationality once they are convinced. That marks the important difference.”
“I think the struggle will continue until they either obtain their objective or renounce it,” Lewis says. “At the moment, both seem equally improbable.”
The Wall Street Journal
Bari Weiss is an assistant editorial features editor at The Wall Street Journal
Edited excerpts. Comments are welcome at email@example.com