Islam and the West: A Conversation with Bernard LewisBERNARD LEWIS
Bernard Lewis has often been described as the West's greatest historian and interpreter of Islam. At a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life held on April 27 in Washington, D.C., Professor Lewis, in a wide ranging discussion with an assemblage of American writers and thinkers, gives his views of current and future prospects for the West's relationship with Islam.
The Pew Forum hosted a discussion of these and other issues with Professor Bernard Lewis, who for 60 years has helped interpret the world of Islam to the West. In addition to authoring more than two dozen books, including What Went Wrong and The Crisis of Islam, Professor Lewis has advised government officials and policymakers in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Middle East on the intricacies of the relationships between Islam and the West.
Professor Bernard Lewis, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University
Luis Lugo, Director, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
LUIS LUGO: Good afternoon to all of you and thank you for joining us today. I'm Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which is a project of the Pew Research Center. The Center is a research organization and does not take positions on policy debates.
This luncheon is part of an ongoing Pew Forum series that brings together journalists and policy leaders to discuss timely topics at the intersection of religion and public affairs.
We are delighted to have Professor Bernard Lewis with us today. Professor Lewis is one of the most influential scholars of Islam of our time. For more than 60 years, he has specialized in the history of Islam, particularly in the Middle East, and the relationship between Islam and the West, a relationship that has become arguably the single-most important U.S. foreign policy concern of the 21st century. It was Professor Lewis who coined the term "clash of civilizations," three years before Samuel Huntington used that phrase in his famous article in Foreign Affairs, setting the stage for a vigorous debate about the relationship between Islam and the West.
As everyone acknowledges, more than four-and-a-half years after 9/11, the United States continues to face serious challenges in its relations with the Muslim world. A survey done last year by our sister project, the Pew Global Attitudes Project, captured this rift in numbers. The survey of countries around the globe found that the U.S. draws its most negative assessment from Muslim nations. In fact, solid majorities in five of the six Muslim countries surveyed view the U.S. unfavorably. In Jordan, for instance, just 21 percent of the population held favorable views of the U.S., while in Turkey and Pakistan it was 23 percent. Morocco, by the way, was the lone exception. There, our unfavorable rating stood at "only" 42 percent versus 49 percent favorable.
And the feeling seems to be mutual. Surveys we have done with the Pew Research Center find that only 4 out of ten Americans have a favorable view of Islam, and unfavorable views in this country are driven by what many perceive to be a close association between Islam and violence. It is a sobering fact, as our survey from last summer revealed, that more than half of the American public now believes the terrorist attacks over the last few years are, or soon will be, part of a major civilizational conflict between Islam and the West.
Are we witnessing a deep-seated and long-term clash of civilizations, or is this a serious but perhaps more manageable and short-term clash of policies? And what does this all mean for U.S. foreign policy interests and priorities? I submit that if one is going to have a serious conversation on the topic of Islam and the West, any short list of invitees would surely include the name of Bernard Lewis. We are delighted to have him with us here today. I should mention that Professor Lewis will be celebrating his 90th birthday next month.
BERNARD LEWIS: Celebrating isn't the right word. (Laughter.)
MR. LUGO: A major conference marking that occasion is being held next Monday in Philadelphia under the auspices of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. Professor Lewis, thank you for being with us today. It is a pleasure and honor to have you, sir.
MR. LEWIS: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. It is certainly a privilege and, I hope to discover, also a pleasure to be with you today. As time is short, I shall waste no further time on ceremonial formalities and get straight to the one or two points that I shall have time to make, and leave the rest for you to develop in the course of our subsequent discussion.
Let me begin with the name, which has been given — not by me — to our discussion today: the West and Islam, sometimes also Islam and the West, depending on your perspective. You will surely be struck by a certain asymmetry in this formulation. On the one side, a compass point; on the other, a religion. Now, of course, we use "the West" in a number of different senses, but primarily, they are political, strategic, cultural, even civilizational, but not normally religious. The one religious term I have heard used for the West is the post-Christian world. I needn't develop the implications of that term. Islam, on the other hand, is the name of a religion. And it is a part of human society identified by itself, and therefore also by others; not the other way around, in terms of religion.
But having said that, I think one needs to be more specific. In talking of the Christian world, in English — and, I suppose, in all the other languages of the Christian world — we use two terms: Christianity and Christendom. Christianity means a religion, in the strict sense of that word, a system of belief and worship and some clerical or ecclesiastical organization to go with it. If we say Christendom, we mean the entire civilization that grew up under the aegis of that religion, but also contains many elements that are not part of that religion, many elements that are even hostile to that religion. Let me give one simple example. No one could seriously assert that Hitler and the Nazis came out of Christianity. No one could seriously dispute that they came out of Christendom. In talking of Islam, we use the same word in both senses, and this gives rise to considerable confusion and misunderstanding. There are many things that are described as part of Islam, which are indeed part of Islam, if we take the word as the equivalent of Christendom, but are very much not part of Islam — are even alien or hostile to Islam — if we take the word Islam as the equivalent of Christianity. I think this is a very important point, which one should bear in mind.
The late Marshall Hodgson, of the University of Chicago, in discussing this issue, suggested that we use the word Islamdom to describe the civilization. A good idea, but it didn't catch on, probably because it's so difficult to pronounce.
In that world, religion embraces far more than it does in the Christian or post-Christian world. We are accustomed to talking of church and state, and a whole series of pairs of words that go with them — lay and ecclesiastical, secular and religious, spiritual and temporal, and so on. These pairs of words simply do not exist in classical Islamic terminology, because the dichotomy that these words express is unknown. They are used in the modern languages. In Arabic, they borrow the terminology used by Christian Arabs. They are fortunate in having a substantial Christian population using Arabic, and they therefore have a good part of the modern terminology at their disposal, in their own language. In Turkish, Persian, Urdu and other languages of Islam, they had to invent new words. The word in Turkish and in Persian is laik [from the French word laïque, which describes the prevailing concept of separation of church and state].
In the Islamic world, from the beginning, Islam was the primary basis of both identity and loyalty. We think of a nation subdivided into religions. They think, rather, of a religion subdivided into nations.
In the Islamic world, from the beginning, Islam was the primary basis of both identity and loyalty. We think of a nation subdivided into religions. They think, rather, of a religion subdivided into nations. It is the ultimate definition, the prime definition and the one that determines, as I said, not only identity, but also basic loyalty. And this is quite independent of religious belief. In Islam, there isn't — or rather, there wasn't until recently — any such thing as the church, in the Christian sense of that word. The mosque is a place of worship. It's a building, a place of worship and study. And in that sense, it is the equivalent of the church. But in the sense of an institution with a hierarchy and its own laws and usages, there was no such thing in Islam until very recently. And one of the achievements of the Islamic Revolution in Iran has been to endow an Islamic country for the first time with the equivalents of a pope, a college of cardinals, a bench of bishops and, above all, an inquisition. All these were previously unknown and nonexistent in the Islamic world.
On the question of loyalty, let me give you an example. We all know from the history books of the exchange of Turks and Greeks, which took place after World War I when, after the war ended, there was a further war between Greece and Turkey, at the end of which, the Greek and Turkish governments agreed on an exchange of populations. And as it appears in the history books, the Greek minority in Turkey was sent to Greece; the Turkish minority in Greece was sent to Turkey. That's what it says in the history books. But if you look at the treaty in which this agreement was incorporated, it says something different. The parties to be exchanged are defined as Turkish subjects of the Greek Orthodox faith and Greek subjects of the Muslim faith. And if you look more closely at who the people actually were, they were, to a very large extent, Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians from Turkey and Greek-speaking Muslims from Greece. This was not an exchange of two ethnic minorities. It was a deportation of two religious minorities.
And this remains very much the perception to the present day. Religion is the primary identity, and that is quite unrelated to belief and worship. An Egyptian scholar even wrote a book with the odd title — odd, that is, to the Western reader — the odd title of Atheism in Islam. It seems a rather absurd title on the face of it. But it isn't at all. He was talking about Islam as a culture, as a civilization, and there, as elsewhere, there were atheists and atheist movements, a perfectly legitimate title of a perfectly valid study. It is very difficult for us in the West to understand and appreciate this and all its implications. Separation of church and state was derided in the past by Muslims when they said this is a Christian remedy for a Christian disease. It doesn't apply to us or to our world. Lately, I think some of them are beginning to reconsider that, and to concede that perhaps they may have caught a Christian disease and would therefore be well advised to try a Christian remedy.
That's all by way of introduction; I can elaborate on these points if you wish later. I want to tackle one specific question that has been very much in the news of late and will appeal to you professionally, I hope. That is the question of the Danish cartoons. Now, this is a very curious story. The news story, as it broke, was that a Danish newspaper had published a series of cartoons offensive to the Prophet, and that this had led to spontaneous outbursts of indignation all over the Muslim world. Now, there are several problems in this. One of them was that the spontaneous outbursts of indignation didn't occur until slightly more than four months after the publication of the cartoons. It's a little difficult to follow, I think you'll agree. The second problem was that when the spontaneous outbreaks of indignation did occur all over the Muslim world, in the remotest parts of northern Nigeria, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and elsewhere they had an ample supply of Danish flags of suitable size and texture for trampling or burning, as required. Obviously, this was something carefully prepared over a period of time.
What exactly was it about? Well, fortunately we have a little background on this, which makes it easier to understand. About 18 years ago, you may recall, the Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a sentence of death against the novelist Salman Rushdie, who was living in London at that time. The crime for which he sentenced him to death was insulting the Prophet. For a Muslim to insult the Prophet is tantamount to apostasy, and that, as we were recently reminded in Afghanistan, is widely seen as a capital offense.
But this is a different matter. And after a time, I got interested in what was happening, and therefore made a study of the literature relating to this offense, which probably I would not otherwise have bothered with. A number of interesting things emerged. By the way, when we talk of Muslim law, I would remind you that we are talking about law. Sharia is a system of law and adjudication, not of lynching and terror. It is a law that lays down rules, rules for evidence, for indictment, for defense and the rest of it, quite a different matter from what has been happening recently.
The first point made was that it is forbidden to portray the Prophet, that making images of the Prophet of any kind is against the Muslim religion. That is true, though not always strictly observed by Muslims. But the point is that they want to avoid any kind of deification of the Prophet. Muslims are shocked when they go into churches and they see pictures and statues being worshipped. This they see as idolatrous. And if you go into the interior of a mosque, it is very austere: no pictures, no statues, only inscriptions. The ban on the portrayal of a prophet is intended to prevent the development of idolatrous worship of the Prophet. I don't think there was any danger of that from the Danish cartoons.
What was much more at issue was another ban, and that is on insulting the Prophet, which is, of course, an offense. This raises a number of interesting questions that I think are of direct relevance to the whole issue at the present time. Insulting the Prophet is an offense in Muslim law. This raises two issues: one of substantive law, the other of jurisdiction. Muslim jurists discuss this at some length, and there is a considerable body of case law concerning it in Muslim states.
The first point of disagreement: What is the range of jurisdiction of Muslim law? And here you have two opinions. According to the Shi'a and a minority among the Sunnis, Muslim law applies to Muslims wherever they may be in the world. A Muslim who commits an offense against Muslim law, wherever he may be in the world, is subject to Muslim law and must therefore be punished in accordance with Muslim law.
What is never discussed at all — it is never considered — is an offense committed by a non-Muslim in a non-Muslim country. That, according to the unanimous opinion of all of the doctors of the holy law is no concern of Islamic law, which brings us back to the case of Denmark.
The majority Sunni view is that Muslim law only applies in countries under Muslim government. What happens outside is no concern of the Muslim authorities. One distinguished jurist makes his point with an extreme example: A Muslim traveling in the lands of the unbelievers commits robbery and murder. He returns to the lands of Islam with his loot. No action can be taken against him or against his loot because the offense was committed outside the jurisdiction of Islam, and it is therefore up to the juridical and legal authorities of the infidels to take action, if they can and will.
Here you have two different opinions relating to an offense committed by a Muslim. That is not the case for the Danish cartoons. This is an offense committed by a non-Muslim. And here the plot thickens. This is discussed by all of the juridical authorities only in the case of a non-Muslim subject of a Muslim state. If a non-Muslim subject of a Muslim state says or does something offensive to the Prophet, he is to be tried — accused, tried, and if necessary, punished. The jurists on the whole tend to take a rather mild view of this offense. They say, well, he is not a Muslim; he doesn't accept Mohammed as the Prophet; we know that. So saying that Mohammed is no prophet does not constitute this offense. It has to be more specifically insulting than that. And, as I say, there is an elaborate juridical literature and case law on this subject.
What is never discussed at all — it is never considered — is an offense committed by a non-Muslim in a non-Muslim country. That, according to the unanimous opinion of all of the doctors of the holy law is no concern of Islamic law, which brings us back to the case of Denmark. Does this mean that Denmark, along with the rest of Europe is now considered part of the Islamic lands, and that the Danes, like the rest, are therefore dhimmis, non-Muslim subjects of the Muslim state? I think this is an interesting question, which can lead to several possible lines of inquiry.
MR. LUGO: Excellent. Thank you so much.
Before taking your questions, I did want to introduce to all of you my two partners in crime in this Pew Forum luncheon series, E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution and The Washington Post, and Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. We take turns moderating these events.
MR. LEWIS: There is one thing I wanted to add.
MR. LUGO: Please do.
MR. LEWIS: Insulting the Prophet is something that has been going on in Europe for a very long time. In Dante's Inferno, if you're interested in the 28th Canto, where Dante is being taken on his conducted tour of hell and guided by Virgil, he comes across the Prophet Mohammed in the course of his eternal damnation. He is punished — I quote Dante's words, as a seminator di scandalo e di scisma, a sower of scandal and of schism. Now, this is very insulting. In the great Cathedral of Bologna there is a wonderful set of pictures painted, if I remember rightly, in the 15th century depicting scenes from Dante's Inferno, including some very graphic pictures of Mohammed being tortured in hell by the devil — very graphic.
Nobody did anything about this. A couple of years ago, the leaders of the Italian-Muslim community sent a polite request to the cathedral saying these are insulting to Muslims; would they mind covering those pictures. The cathedral administration said they would consider it. Nothing happened. The pictures are still in view.
MR. LUGO: Thank you.
MR. LEWIS: May I take the latter part of your question first? No, it has not turned out the way I had anticipated. I had underestimated our capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Well, let's not go into that.
BARBARA SLAVIN, USA TODAY: Professor Lewis, it is a pleasure to see you again. I want to drag you into the present, but not about the controversy over the cartoons. We have witnessed the most extraordinary conflicts now between the West, in the personage of the United States, and the Muslim world, with the attack on Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. I wanted to get your views on how this has affected the mentality of people in that part of the world, and specifically on Iraq. The last time I talked to you, you were very supportive of this. I wonder if you still are, whether it has turned out the way you have anticipated. Thank you very much.
How do they perceive it? I think this is the important thing. And on this, fortunately, we are very well documented. Thanks to modern media and modern methods of communication, we are able to follow their thinking, their debate among themselves fairly closely. And I think one can get a fairly good understanding of how this conflict is seen by Osama bin Laden, by al Qaeda generally, and by many other parallel movements including the Iranian leadership personified by [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.
It goes something like this: You spoke before of the conflict of civilizations, a term that has been much used and even more misused. When I first used it, I was using it in one strictly limited sense, not as a general principle. Some have even written as though civilizations had foreign policies and could form alliances, and so on. I would never go that far. I was referring to one specific conflict between two specific civilizations. Christendom — I'll call it that for the present purpose — and Islam. And it is a conflict that arises not from their differences but from their resemblances.
These two religions, and as far as I am aware, no others in the world, believe that their truths are not only universal but also exclusive. They believe that they are the fortunate recipients of God's final message to humanity, which it is their duty not to keep selfishly to themselves like the Jews or the Hindus, but to bring to the rest of mankind, removing whatever barriers there may be in the way. This, between two religiously defined civilians, which Christendom was at that time, with the same heritage, the same self-perception, the same aspiration, and living in the same neighborhood inevitably led to conflict, to the real clash of rival civilizations aspiring to the same role, leading to the same hegemony, each seeing it as a divinely ordained mission.
We can date it precisely with the advent of Islam, which spread very rapidly by conquest. If you have ever been to Jerusalem, you must have been to the Dome of the Rock. That in itself is a mark of the conflict. It is built on a place sacred to both Jews and Christians. It is built in the style of the early Christian churches, the Church of the Nativity, the Holy Sepulchre and others. And the inscriptions on the wall are very explicit: He is God. He has no companion. He does not beget. He is not begotten — in other words, a clear challenge to Christianity. (Laughter.) The caliph who built that place in the late seventh century was sending a message. He put the same message on the gold currency. In other words, he is saying to the Christian emperor, your religion is superseded; your time has past; move over; we are taking over the world.
The caliph who built that place in the late seventh century was sending a message. He put the same message on the gold currency. In other words, he is saying to the Christian emperor, your religion is superseded; your time has past; move over; we are taking over the world.
That was the beginning of a conflict that has been going on ever since. Now, we in the Western world, and particularly in the United States, don't seem to attach much importance to history. And even what happened three years ago has become ancient history. I find, for example, people seriously arguing that 9/11 was the result of our invasion of Iraq. This kind of reversal cause and effect is quite common.
In the Muslim world, on the contrary, they have a very lively sense of history, a very keen awareness of history and a surprisingly detailed knowledge of history. If you look at, for example, the war propaganda of Iran and Iraq during the eight-year war between those two countries, '80 to '88 — this is propaganda addressed to the general public, the largely illiterate general public — it is full of historical allusions, and I mean allusions; not telling them historical anecdotes, but a rapid, passing allusion to a name or an event in the sure knowledge that it would be picked up and understood.
Osama bin Laden, in one of his pronouncements, said, "For more than 80 years we have been suffering humiliation" (we meaning the Muslim world). That sent all of the experts scurrying to find out what on earth he was talking about, the old ones to reference libraries; the young ones to their computers. (Laughter.) And they came up with a wide variety of different answers.
To anyone who studies Islam or what goes on in the Islamic world, the meaning was perfectly clear. He was referring the suppression of the caliphate by the Turkish Republic in 1924. The caliphate was established on the death of the Prophet as the headship of the Muslim world. And as Muslims see it, the world of Islam was headed by a succession of caliphs of different dynasties, ruling in different places, Medina, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo. The last one was in Istanbul, and it ended catastrophically after World War I, when the last of the caliphs was deposed, and the last of the great Muslim empires was partitioned, its territories divided between the victorious Western allies. That is what he meant by humiliation, and essentially there could be no doubt about that.
And just as the Muslim world was ruled by a succession of caliphs, so the world of the infidels and more particularly the Christian world, which was the main rival, was ruled by a succession of powers, first the Byzantine emperors, then the Holy Roman emperors, then the Western European empires, and — I'm quoting Osama bin Laden: "In this final phase, the world of the infidels was divided between two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United Sates."
We think of the defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union as a Western victory in the Cold War, and some of us credit President Reagan more particularly with that victory. For Osama bin Laden and his followers, this was a Muslim victory in the jihad. And if one looks at what actually happened, this is not an implausible interpretation. It was, after all, the Taliban in Afghanistan that drove the Red Army to defeat and collapse. And, as he put it, "We have now dealt successfully with the more deadly, the more dangerous of the two infidel powers. Dealing with the soft, pampered, and degenerate Americans will be easy."
In order to understand what is going on, one has to see the ongoing struggle within this larger perspective of the millennial struggle between the rival religions now, according to this view, in its final phase.
This impression was confirmed through the '90s when they launched one attack after another and evoked only angry words and misdirected missiles to remote and uninhabited places.
In order to understand what is going on, one has to see the ongoing struggle within this larger perspective of the millennial struggle between the rival religions now, according to this view, in its final phase.
Let us turn to the Shi'a equivalent of this through the Iranian revolution — the word revolution is much used and much misused in the Middle East for virtually every change of power. In fact, it is the only generally accepted title of legitimacy. The Iranian revolution was a real revolution, not just a coup d'etat or a putsch or whatever. It was a genuine revolution in the sense that the French and the Russian revolutions were revolutions. It brought a massive change, social, economic, ideological — not just a change of regime. Like for the French and Russian revolutions in their day, Khomeini had had a tremendous impact everywhere they had a shared universe of discourse, that is to say, the Muslim world. Just as the French and Russian revolutions in their day, and for some time after, had such an impact, so did the Iranian revolution, and it was not limited to the Shi'a world.
I remember being on a tour of Islamic religious universities in Indonesia, which is a solidly Sunni country, and in the student dorms they had pictures of Khomeini hanging on the walls. The Iranian revolution has gone through many phases. It has had its Jacobins and its Gizondins, its Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, its terror. And I would say it's now in the Stalinist phase, and that also has a global impact.
JAY TOLSON, U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT: Professor Lewis, you mention a fascinating fact, which is how effective Osama bin Laden's talk was, arguably, in drawing the U.S. into a response that, in some ways, as you say, has worked out as an unhappy case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I wonder what the parallels might be with Ahmadinejad's current posture toward the West, and particularly that very similar style of taunting. I would like to get into a lot of other things with you about Ahmadinejad as well, but I will just limit myself to that.
Do you think that that represents something new, particularly within the Iranian context, a Persian context, of, in a way, speaking for the larger Islamic world, or do you think Ahmadinejad is simply a cunning opportunist using religion to solidify his Iranian political base? Or, is he actually trying to compete on the pan-Islamic level with Osama bin Laden, and in fact using the very successful tactic, I would say, or strategy, of Osama bin Laden, of taunting the great Satan who, so far, has proved very ineffective in responding?
MR. LEWIS: I am inclined to believe in the sincerity of Ahmadinejad. I think that he really believes the apocalyptic language that he is using. Remember that Muslims, like Christians and Jews, have a sort of end-of-time scenario in which a Messianic figure will appear. In their case, in the case of the Shiites, the hidden imam who will emerge from hiding, who will fight against the powers of evil, the anti-Christ in Christianity, Gog and Magog in Judaism, and the Dajjal in Islam, a role in which we are being cast now. And he really seems to believe that the apocalyptic age has come, that this is the final struggle that will lead to the final victory and the establishment of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Others in the ruling establishment in Iran may share this belief. I am inclined to think that most of them are probably more cynical and regard it as a useful distraction from their domestic problems and also a useful weapon in their external relations, because he has been doing very well and he seems to be succeeding, for example, on the question of nuclear weapons. And every time they make an advance, we move the point at which we won't tolerate it anymore, and this has happened again and again. Each time, we say, the next step we will not allow. We have shown ourselves to be, shall we say, remarkably adaptable in this respect, and this is no way to win friends and influence people.
I think that the way that Ahmadinejad is talking now shows quite clearly his contempt for the Western world in general and the United States in particular. They feel they are dealing with, as Osama bin Laden put it, an effete, degenerate, pampered enemy incapable of real resistance. And they are proceeding on that assumption.
I think that the way that Ahmadinejad is talking now shows quite clearly his contempt for the Western world in general and the United States in particular. They feel they are dealing with, as Osama bin Laden put it, an effete, degenerate, pampered enemy incapable of real resistance. And they are proceeding on that assumption. Remember that they have no understanding or experience of the free debate of an open society. Where we see free debate and criticism, they see fear, weakness and division; they proceed accordingly, and every day brings new evidence of that from Iran.
I think it is a dangerous situation. And my only hope is that they are not right in their interpretation of the Western world. I have often thought in recent years of World War II — you were told earlier that I'm ancient myself. The most vividly remembered year of my life was the year 1940. And more recently I have been thinking of 1938 rather than of 1940. We seem to be in the mode of Chamberlain and Munich rather than of Churchill.
MASSIMO CALABRESI, TIME: Sir, you have presented Islamdom, as you called it, as rather inhospitable to democracy. You just described them as part of — the populations have no understanding of free debate and understanding.
MR. LEWIS: I said the present rulers of Iran.
MR. CALABRESI: In your description of Sharia law, you also indicated it had some transnational primacy. You described the contrast of a nation divided into religions with a religion divided into nations. Religion is the primary identity, you said, for followers of Islam around the world. The question is simply, how realistic a policy of spreading democracy in the Islamic world is it at this point?
MR. LEWIS: Thank you. I was hoping someone would ask me that question. I am very grateful to you.
A lot of things are being said about Islam now. There is a view, for example, that could be summed up this way: These people are incapable of decent, civilized, open government. Whatever we do, they will be ruled by corrupt tyrants, therefore, the only aim of foreign policy should be to ensure that they are friendly tyrants rather than hostile tyrants. We know versions of this approach produced well known results in Central America, in Southeast Asia and other places.
I would say that this is a totally false approach because to say that they are incapable of anything else is simply a falsification of history. What we have now come to regard as typical of Middle Eastern regimes is not typical of the past. The regime of Saddam Hussein, the regime of Hafiz al Assad, this kind of government, this kind of society, has no roots either in the Arab or in the Islamic past. It is due — and let me be quite specific and explicit — it is due to an importation from Europe, which comes in two phases.
Phase one, the 19th century, when they are becoming aware of their falling behind the modern world and need desperately to catch up, so they adopt all kinds of European devices with the best of intentions, which nevertheless have two harmful effects. One, they enormously strengthen the power of the state by placing in the hands of the ruler, weaponry and communication undreamt of in earlier times, so that even the smallest petty tyrant has greater powers over his people than Harun al-Rashid or Suleyman the Magnificent, or any of the legendary rulers of the past.
The whole Islamic political tradition is strongly against despotism. Traditional Islamic government is authoritarian, yes, but it is not despotic.
Second, even more deadly, in the traditional society there were many, many limits on the autocracy, the ruler. The whole Islamic political tradition is strongly against despotism. Traditional Islamic government is authoritarian, yes, but it is not despotic. On the contrary, there is a quite explicit rejection of despotism. And this wasn't just in theory; it was in practice too because in Islamic society, there were all sorts of established orders in society that acted as a restraining factor. The bazaar merchants, the craft guilds, the country gentry and the scribes, all of these were well organized groups who produced their own leaders from within the group. They were not appointed or dismissed by the governments. And they did operate effectively as a constraint.
There is a wonderful quote I like to use; it is the letter written in 1786 by the French ambassador in Istanbul — three years before the French revolution — He is trying to explain why he is not making good progress with his assignment. And he says, here things are not as in France where the king is sole master and does as he pleases; here the sultan has to consult with all kinds of people, with all kinds of holders of office, and even with retired, former holders of office. And it's true; that is how it was. All of that disappeared with the process of modernization, which, as I say, strengthened the government and weakened or eliminated the previous limiting factors.
The second, really deadly phase came — and here I can date it precisely in the year 1940. In 1940, the government of France decided to surrender and, in effect, changed sides in the war. The greater part of the colonial empire was beyond the reach of the Axis, and the governors therefore had a free choice: Vichy or de Gaulle. The overwhelming majority chose Vichy, including — and this is what concerns us specifically — the governor, high commissioner, he was called, of the French-mandated territory of Syria-Lebanon. So, Syria-Lebanon was wide open to the Nazis, and they moved in on a large scale, not with troops, because that would have been too noticeable, but with propaganda of every kind. It was then the roots of Ba'athism were laid and the first organizations were formed, which ultimately developed into the Ba'ath Party.
It was then that the Nazi style of ideology and government became known, eagerly embraced simply because it was anti-Western rather than because of inherent attraction. From Syria, they succeeded in spreading it to Iraq, where they even set up a Nazi-style government for a while, headed by Rashid Ali. It was possible to deal with that, and they were driven out of the Middle East. But after the war, the Western allies also left and the Soviets moved in, taking the place of the Nazis as a champion against the West. To switch from the Nazi to the communist model required only minor adjustments.
I think that the prospect, not of our creating democratic institutions, but allowing them to develop their own democratic institutions is definitely a possibility.
This is not the part of the historic Arab or Islamic tradition and, for that reason, I think that the prospect, not of our creating democratic institutions, but allowing them to develop their own democratic institutions is definitely a possibility. I would go a step further. I think we could have done much more than we have done, and I think that it's still not a lost cause, but it is now becoming very much endangered. And if they go on, if we help them, there have been many signs of a developing democratic movement not only in Iraq, where the news is much better than you would think, but also in Iran, in Syria and in other places — stirrings of popular democratic movements — Egypt, for example, and North Africa and elsewhere.
The movement is there. It is dangerous to say or do such things, so they have to be very careful, but it's there, it's growing, and there is a lot we could do that we are not doing to help them. And what are the alternatives? As far as I can see, there are many possibilities; let me give you the worst-case and best-case scenarios and you can work out the intermediate possibilities. My worst-case scenario is that Europe, and possibly also the rest of the West, and the Islamic world destroy each other, and the future belongs, or is contested between, India and China as the superpowers of the second half of the 21st century — my best case scenario is that, somehow, with our help, or at least without our hindrance, the peoples of the Middle East succeed in developing open, democratic societies, in which case the Middle East would be able to resume its rightful place, which it has had twice before, in world civilization.
ADAM GARFINKLE, AMERICAN INTEREST: When you answered Barbara's question before, you stood back and gave a very magisterial, historical view of perceptions in the Muslim world about the character of world dynamics.
The follow-up question is, you're obviously describing the views of Osama bin Laden and Musab al-Zaqawi and so forth, but if one were going to do a kind of a thumbnail stratification of attitudes in the Muslim world, and especially in the Arab world, there are some who say that a majority of Muslims, whatever their place in life, essentially agree with Osama bin Laden's analysis, which is why he's so popular in many, many places. There are others who say, no, this is still a very small percentage — other people just want to be left alone, or, they're stratified somewhere in between traditional piety and this new interpretation of Islamic thinking. Where do you think that balance lies, for the most part, and how has it changed, if it's changed at all, in the past five years?
MR. LEWIS: We have no way of measuring opinion in these countries. These are countries under more or less ruthless dictatorships, and people are afraid to express their opinions, particularly to impudent strangers who come and ask them all sorts of personal questions. I don't place much reliance on polls and other ways of measuring public opinion. The only way we have is by talking to people we know and talking to other people who talk to people they know, and so on and so on, and also by looking at the occasional public expression of something. I think here we can get a fairly clear impression of the growth of the democratic idea in these countries. I have been following the Middle East now for more than half a century and traveling practically every year to one or another Middle East country; and I have noticed a quite dramatic change in the things that people are prepared to say in private conversation, the kind of attitudes that people express. This is something new, and I think very heartening, and I hope that it will continue and that we won't betray them.
JOHN BARRY, NEWSWEEK: Anyone who works in Washington knows that this is a town where there are more people with opinions than knowledge, but this seems particularly true of the Arab world. There are self-proclaimed experts of the Arab world here who don't speak a word of Arabic — I don't mean around this table, but in this town. The same is true across both the United States and across much of Western Europe. There is a paucity of knowledge. If you were advising a young person where they should go to study, which colleges they should attend to study the modern Arab world so that they could understand both its modern nature and its roots, where would you advise them to go to study?
MR. LEWIS: Well, Princeton, obviously. (Laughter.) It's more difficult. During the Cold War there was a time when departments of Far Eastern studies at American universities were almost entirely controlled by Maoists. We're approaching a similar situation in Middle Eastern studies today, so I would hesitate. Princeton is still holding out. How much longer it will be able to do so, I don't know.
JANE LITTLE, BBC: Professor Lewis, you mentioned there's a debate happening now about the need for a separation of church and state in Islam. I'm wondering where you see that debate being the most vibrant and whether Islamic thinkers, largely living in the West, really can influence the emergence of some form of Islamic secular democracy, and how far you really believe that the discussions about the compatibility of Islam and democracy drawing on Islamic concepts of shura consultation. How realistic do you believe that is, whether we're thinking of democracy in our own image here?
MR. LEWIS: It doesn't have to be in our own image. I don't see why we should assume that what is variously known as the Westminster model or the Jeffersonian model should apply here universally. I think that trying to impose our kind of democracy is foredoomed to failure. What I think one may reasonably hope for is that they will be able to develop some form of democratic government of their own. There are certain principles that are enshrined in the holy law of Islam — for example, the principle of limited and responsible government. That is part of the holy law. The government is limited and the law says obey; the Quran says obey those who hold authority over you, but the law also says — and this is a tradition ascribed to the Prophet — there is no obedience in sin. That means, if the ruler commands something that is sinful, not only is there no duty of obedience, there is a duty of disobedience, which is more than the right of disobedience we have in Western thought.
There are many other examples of that. There is the contractual element. According to traditional Muslim law, the head of the state is the caliph, and the caliph are being chosen and appointed — it goes through a procedure that is called, in Arabic, the bay'a. This is usually translated to "homage," but it is a mistranslation. The word bay'a in Arabic does not mean homage. It comes from a root meaning to buy and sell. In other words, it's a deal, a contract. The bay'a is a contract agreed between the ruler and those who appointed him ruler, which imposes duties on both.
So, limited, contractual, consensual government is part of the Islamic tradition, and was a living part of it until the process of modernization came and destroyed everything. Therefore, I think we have a good chance of getting back to that. But we must be realistic. As I say, they must develop their own form of limited, moderate, contractual, consensual government. What they don't have, which is an essential part of ours, is the idea of elected representation. They have representation in the sense of the leader of a group, who comes from within the group, but the idea of elections on the corporate bodies is new; and this is difficult, but not impossible.
MS. LITTLE: Just to go back to the first part of the question, where do you believe the best thinkers are in Islam who can influence this debate, and can they really influence it?
MR. LEWIS: There are thinkers in many places. In the Arab world now, I would say, there are interesting lines of thought in Egypt, in Iraq, in Lebanon, but they have to be very careful. Thinking is dangerous, or at least if you talk about it, it is.
ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE, THE ECONOMIST: I wanted to ask about the failure of assimilation of Islamic communities in Europe. You seem to be very optimistic.
MR. LUGO: All right, a very important question. Let me put that in line here, okay, Adrian?
MR. WOOLDRIDGE: Okay.
MR. LUGO: We'll get right back to you.
PHILIPPE GELIE, LE FIGARO: Do you see a common trend in the series of electoral victories of Islamic parties throughout the Middle East recently? And, more broadly, you mentioned that there are many voices in the Islamic world. Do you think they manage to be heard and influential on the society? Thank you.
MR. LEWIS: Obviously, they have scared Mubarak. It's interesting that in the recent Egyptian election he allowed the Muslim Brothers to win a certain number of seats but ruthlessly suppressed the democrats. The purpose was clear: The democrats were a real danger; the Muslim Brothers enabled him to turn to the West and say, you see, it's them or me. The tactic I think is perfectly obvious.
MR. GELIE: And a common trend or —
MR. LEWIS: Hmm, difficult to talk about a common trend. Things vary from place to place. At one time, I was very hopeful about Tunisia, which seemed to be moving very favorably, and then things went a different way. The most interesting things that are happening are, for the most part, illicit, underground, so it's difficult to assemble comparative data for academic study.
BILL GERTZ, THE WASHINGTON TIMES: I cover the Pentagon. They like acronyms there, and they've reduced the war on terrorism to GWOT, global war on terrorism. And if you ask some of the policymakers there, they'll tell you that this war has three components. One is the kinetic or bang-bang part, the other is the law enforcement and intelligence part, and the third is what they call the war of ideas or the battle of ideas. I think you answered some of this in referring to Islamic law, but is it possible to wage a successful war of ideas against Islamist extremism? Would it be possible to define Islamist extremism as un-Islamic and then develop more of an ideological counter? It seems that the current method is to apply democracy — concepts of democracy and freedom to something that is dominated by a religious tone.
Take, for example, the suicide bomber. Now, the classical Islamic legal and religious texts are quite clear on the subject of suicide. Suicide is what Christians would call a mortal sin. Even if a man or a woman had lived a life of unremitting virtue, by committing suicide they forfeit paradise and go straight to hell...
MR. LEWIS: Regarding the war against terror, I am familiar with this slogan. I feel that while we are indeed engaged in a war against terror, it is inadequate and even misleading. If Churchill had informed the country in 1940, we are engaged in a war against bomber aircraft and submarines, that would have been an accurate statement but not a very helpful one. To say we are engaged in a war against terror is of the same order. Terror is a tactic. It's a method of waging war. It is not a cause, it is not an adversary, it is not anything that one can identify as an opponent, and I think we need to be more specific in fighting a war. It's useful to know who the enemy is. I think you would agree.
MR. GERTZ: If I could just follow up. I didn't mention this, but President Bush has said that the problem of Islamist extremism is that it's a perversion of Islam. Do you agree with that or do you think that there is some doctrinal legitimacy to this use of terrorism?
MR. LEWIS: Well, a lot of what is being done is certainly a perversion of Islam, simply in the light of their own texts. Take, for example, the suicide bomber. Now, the classical Islamic legal and religious texts are quite clear on the subject of suicide. Suicide is what Christians would call a mortal sin. Even if a man or a woman had lived a life of unremitting virtue, by committing suicide they forfeit paradise and go straight to hell, where, according to the sacred texts, the eternal punishment of the suicide consists of the eternal repetition of the act of suicide. So, if you poison yourself, an eternity of bellyache; if you strangle yourself, an eternity of strangling; and presumably for these people, an eternity of exploding fragments.
We ask, well, why do they do it? How does it happen? This is a very recent development. It came in stages. Stage one is a question that was asked quite a long time ago: Is it permissible to throw oneself against a superior enemy, knowing that this will lead to certain death? Is this permissible or does it count as suicide, which is forbidden? And the jurists consider this permissible. And that was where it stood for centuries and centuries. Even the famous Assassins of the Middle Ages never died by their own hands and never killed anyone but the marked target.
And it isn't until comparatively recently that they asked another question: Is it permitted to kill yourself in attacking the enemy, provided you take a sufficient number of the enemy with you? And the answer was, yes, if you take a sufficient number of the enemy with you, it is permitted to kill yourself. Now, this is a radical departure from more than a thousand years of Islamic theology and law, and you ask, where does it come from? Well, like so much else of what has gone wrong with Islam, we can trace it quite specifically to Wahhabism. Wahhabism is about as central to Islam as, shall we say, the Ku Klux Klan to Christianity. It originated in Najd, what is now part of Saudi Arabia, in the 18th century. It was a reaction to the general perception of that time that things were going wrong.
Wahhabism is about as central to Islam as, shall we say, the Ku Klux Klan to Christianity. It originated in Najd, what is now part of Saudi Arabia, in the 18th century. It was a reaction to the general perception of that time that things were going wrong.
There have always been two reactions in the Muslim world to an awareness of things going wrong. One is, we are falling behind the modern world; the answer therefore is to modernize, to catch up with the modern world. The other is, as we see now, what has gone wrong is that we have tried to ape the modern, i.e., infidel world and the right answer is to return to the true and authentic traditions of Islam. That was the Wahhabi line, and Wahhabism is a peculiarly violent and fanatical version of this.
This would have remained an extremist fringe in a marginal country except for the unfortunate combination of two circumstances. One was the creation of a Saudi kingdom in the mid-‘20s. The House of Saud were the local tribal sheikhs of the area where the Wahhabis flourished and followed the Wahhabi faith. By creating the kingdom, controlling the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and also therefore the pilgrimage, it gave them enormous power and influence in the Islamic world. And the other, of course, was oil and money, which gave them resources beyond the dreams of avarice.
So what you are getting now in the Muslim world, all over the Muslim world, and more particularly among the Muslim communities in non-Muslim countries is the spread of the Wahhabi version of Islam, which, as I said, is about as typical of what you might call mainstream Islam as the KKK of mainstream Christianity. Wahhabism is the major trend of that sort. There are others, the so-called Salafia. It's run along parallel lines to the Wahhabis, but they are less violent and less extreme — still violent and extreme but less so than the Wahhabis. And now, of course, also the Iranian Revolution.
JAAP VAN WESEL, THE JERUSALEM REPORT: Professor Lewis, you mentioned the Ba'ath, which originated in Nazidom. What about Nasserism and Arab nationalism? How would you place that? And the other question is, you have proposed in the past that the Hashimites should be candidates for power in Iraq. Why did you think then it was a good idea, and do you still think so?
MR. LEWIS: I'll take your second question first. You can't beat somebody with nobody, and overthrowing a regime always raises the question of what are you going to do to replace it? Now, the Hashimites have several advantages. They have legitimacy within the Muslim context. They have historic claims to the holy places and elsewhere. And it seemed, therefore, that they could provide a legitimizing argument for major change in this part of the world.
I think that by now that opportunity has passed. The Hashimites could have played a useful role in Iraq if we had chosen to go that way, and even in Saudi Arabia in a somewhat different combination of circumstances. But that is obviously not in the cards at the moment, and it is almost impossible to persuade Americans that it's a good idea to restore a monarchy.
Sorry, the first part of your question?
MR. VAN WESEL: It was about Nasserism and Arab nationalism.
MR. LEWIS: Yes, you have what you might call classical Arab nationalism. This was, again, an imitation of Europe. In the 19th century you had two important events in Europe: the unification of Italy and the unification of Germany, and both of these had a tremendous impact in the Arab world. They saw in this, a model for what they should be able to do, and they tried for a long time to do it. Nasserism is probably the final phase of that movement and, as you know, it failed. Now all the Arab states are independent but no union of Arab states has ever worked. They always fall apart through internal dissension.
ELSA WALSH, THE NEW YORKER: I wondered why you said that you thought we were more in the era of 1938, in the Chamberlain and Munich era, rather than the 1940 era — or you worried that we were.
MR. LEWIS: Well, you know, let's meet — let's negotiate this in our time. If Chamberlain had taken a tougher line, the probability is that the German military command would have removed Hitler and World War II could have been avoided. But they didn't. We encouraged him. We gave him Czechoslovakia and he then took Poland. And what I'm afraid of is that they seem to be doing the same thing now, as moving from retreat to retreat on each of the points as it arises. I hope I'm wrong.
MS. WALSH: Are you talking specifically about Iran and Iraq or —
MR. LEWIS: More particularly, but also in general, yes.
MR. WOOLDRIDGE: You are quite optimistic about our capacity to spread democracy and —
MR. LEWIS: No, not our capacity, their capacity.
MR. WOOLDRIDGE: I beg your pardon. But if you look at controlled experiments, taking let's say, 3 million Muslims and putting them in Britain, it doesn't seem to have been an assimilation that worked very well. It seems to be an assimilation that's actually going in reverse.
MR. LEWIS: Let me go back to the point of developing democracy in those countries. I didn't say that we could develop it. What I said was that we could remove obstacles and give them the opportunity to develop it. The only way it can work is if they develop it themselves, and I see genuine possibilities for that.
I was asked the other day at a lecture I gave what my view was on the development of democracy in the Arab world and elsewhere in the Islamic world, and I said I would describe my position as one of cautious optimism. My optimism derives from there, my caution from here. (Laughter.)
Regarding the Muslim populations of the Western world, I spoke a few moments ago about the Wahhabi menace. This is particularly strong among the Muslim communities in Europe and America. And just think, for example, for a Muslim living in Hamburg, Birmingham, Los Angeles, or whatever it may be, it is very natural that he should want to give his children some sort of grounding in his religion and culture. So he looks around for evening classes, weekend schools, holiday camps and the like. These are now almost entirely controlled, financed, funded by the Wahhabis, so that you get, among the Muslims in the Diaspora more than among the Muslims in Muslim countries, an intense indoctrination from the most radical, the most violent, the most extreme and fanatical version of Islam.
I'll give you a specific example. In the German constitution there is strict separation of church and state, but Germany, unlike the United States, allows time in the school curriculum for religious instruction. The way they do it is this: Time is provided in the curriculum of the German schools for religious instruction. Attendance at these classes is entirely optional, and the state provides neither teachers nor textbooks. The religious communities said, if they want this, provide the teachers and the textbooks.
The Muslim community in Germany is largely Turkish, and when they reached sufficient numbers they went to the German authorities and asked if they could have religious instruction in Islam in the German school curriculum. The Germans said, yes, you're entitled to that, according to the law, but you will have to provide the textbooks. And the Turks said, no problem, we have excellent textbooks, which are used in Turkish schools and we can use those. And the German authorities said, no, that you cannot do. These are government-controlled textbooks. We cannot have government textbooks on religion. You have to produce them from your own community, with the result that Islam, as taught in Turkish schools, is a sort of modernized, semi-secularized version of Islam, and Islam as taught in German schools is the full Wahhabi blast. The last time I looked, 12 Turks had been arrested as members of al Qaeda. All 12 of them were born and educated in Germany, not in Turkey. Does that answer your question?
MR. WOOLDRIDGE: To some extent.
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Professor Lewis, if this is 1938 — and I assume your sympathies lie with Churchill (laughter) — what Churchillian policy would you therefore advocate — and I'll name three crises — for the U.S. to follow: one, versus Iran, two, in relation to Hamas and three, in relation to the insurgency in Iraq?
MR. LEWIS: Well, in two simple words: Get tough. I have not suggested that we should launch an armed attack on Iran. I don't think that's necessary. I don't think we should do anything that would either offend or tickle Iranian national pride. We're doing both at the present time. We're offending them by saying you mustn't have nuclear weapons, and we're tickling them by allowing their leaders to present themselves as defying the mighty West, standing alone and successfully defying the United States. I think that's the wrong way to do it. There are other things that one can do to indicate displeasure and to help those there who want a big change.
MR. LUGO: Hamas? He said there were three points he wanted a Churchillian response to. The first was Iran but then Hamas — response to Hamas?
MR. LEWIS: Hamas is a dangerous — Hamas and Hezbollah — I'll throw in too — these are dangerous terrorist organizations and should be treated accordingly.
MR. LUGO: And, finally, the Iraqi insurgency?
MR. LEWIS: What do you want to know about the Iraqi insurgency? (Laughter.)
MR. LUGO: Go ahead, Charles.
MR. KRAUTHAMMER: Your preferred policy — Churchill's preferred policy.
MR. LEWIS: The policy would be to deal with it by suppressing it, and one can't do that half-heartedly by looking as though one is trying to reach a compromise with the insurgents at the same time. You know, the classical approach, what have we done to offend you; what can we do to put it right, these are not the questions we should be asking them.
MICHAEL HIRSH, NEWSWEEK: Thanks. If you could just elaborate a little more on your response to Iran — what should we be doing specifically that's different from what the Bush administration has been doing regarding confrontation with the regime. I also just wanted to pick up on something you said earlier and ask you to elaborate, because you also issued a warning earlier in your remarks about your fear that we might be betraying the people of the Middle East, the Arab countries. In what way do you fear we might be doing that? That too seemed to contain an implied criticism of current administration policy.
MR. LEWIS: What can one do? Now, as I said before, I don't think it's a good idea to launch an armed invasion. There is a great deal one can do short of that to indicate displeasure, to make things difficult and to encourage resistance among the subjects of the Iranian government. And there is ample evidence of widespread unhappiness and discontent among the people of Iran. I think we could do more to encourage and help them in a number of ways.
MR. LUGO: And that may perhaps connect to your second question, which is in what way might we be betraying the people of the Middle East?
MR. LEWIS: Betraying them by doing what we are often accused of doing, and that is, making friends of tyrants and having tyrants as our puppets and not worrying about the suppression of their people. This is an accusation that is frequently made concerning many of the rulers of the region, and while it is often exaggerated, it is not by any means entirely baseless.
NEIL KING, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: You had said that our efforts to spread democracy were not a lost cause but very much endangered, and I was just curious what your preferred methodology would be on that front and what it is you think we're doing wrong in the region.
MR. LEWIS: I think the main thing we're doing wrong is psychological. We're showing hesitancy and weakness and fear.
MR. LUGO: On the positive side, what should we be doing?
MR. LEWIS: We should be doing what we started out doing in Iraq, and you saw the immediate effect of that in Syria, in Lebanon, in Egypt and elsewhere. Things seemed to be going well. In Syria there was the moment when the first Mehlis report was published in June last year and the regime really seemed to be on the point of collapse. Then Ahmadinejad paid a state visit to Syria and restored them, and now they're stronger than before and we did nothing, nothing at all.
ALAN COOPERMAN, THE WASHINGTON POST: How central is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the conflict between Islamdom and Christendom?
MR. LEWIS: Obviously it's very important, but it's not the only one. If you look around the bloody perimeter of the Islamic world — I'm using the word "bloody" in the physiological sense, not the British colloquial sense. (Laughter.) If you look around, there's one place after another where there is conflict — Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, South Philippines, Timor and so on — this is a pattern that goes all the way around the perimeter and through parts of the interior. In that respect, the Palestine question is just one of a larger series.
It is given more attention for two reasons. One of them is that Israel is an open society, and therefore journalists can come and go and report and mis-report freely, which is not true in the other places I mentioned, and that makes it very much easier for them to get media attention. The other thing is that Jews are involved. And you know the old saying, Jews are news. For much of the Middle-Eastern Arab world, Israel is a very useful topic. It is the licensed grievance. There is a pent-up rage in all these countries directed primarily against their own rulers, and therefore rulers make every effort they can to deflect it elsewhere. It surely is the "licensed" grievance and serves a very useful purpose in that respect. If that grievance were ever resolved they would have to find a new one, which would be a lot of trouble.
By all this I didn't mean to say that it's unimportant. It's obviously very important, but I think it is the general conflict that is preventing us from solving the Palestinian problem, rather than the Palestinian problem that is preventing the solution of the general one.
PAUL STAROBIN, NATIONAL JOURNAL: Professor, what, in your opinion, would be the impact on the mindset of the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran if they actually possessed an atomic weapon?
I think that they would become impossibly arrogant. Remember that Ahmadinejad in particular, and his circle, as I said before, are in an apocalyptic mood. They believe in the end of time; it's imminent, and, therefore, the use of a nuclear weapon would not bother them in the least.
MR. LEWIS: I think that they would become impossibly arrogant. Remember that Ahmadinejad in particular, and his circle, as I said before, are in an apocalyptic mood. They believe in the end of time; it's imminent, and, therefore, the use of a nuclear weapon would not bother them in the least. And they would not, of course, use it in an aerial bombardment. What preserved us from nuclear warfare during the Cold War was what was known as MAD — mutually assured destruction. If they use it, it won't come with a return address on it; it will come from terrorist action. And that, I think, is the most likely way that they would use a nuclear weapon if they get one — no return address.
MR. DIONNE: Professor Lewis, I've been thinking about that intriguing date metaphor. I was wondering if it's 1946 and we didn't give Eisenhower enough troops and not a good enough plan, because this goes back to what you said at the very beginning about the problems that you see now in Iraq. And I'd like you to elaborate on your answer to Charles' [Krauthammer] question by asking, at this point, what is the best outcome in Iraq and how to achieve it? Because, from what you said, it sounds like you think we actually should send more troops and really get the job done. And what, from your point of view, would be the minimally acceptable outcome, or the least damaging outcome, given where we are today? I know it's unfair to ask a historian to change present history. (Laughter.)
MR. LEWIS: Remember, Churchill was asked how he thought history would treat him, and he said, "Very well; I intend to write it myself." (Laughter.) And he did, of course.
Coming back to Iraq, obviously the situation has been getting worse over time, but I think it is still salvageable. We now have a political process going on, and I think if one looks at the place and what's been happening there, one has to marvel at what has been accomplished. There is an old saying, no news is good news, and the media obviously work on the reverse principle: Good news is no news. Most of the good things that have happened have not been reported, but there has been tremendous progress in many respects. Three elections were held — three fair elections in which millions of Iraqis stood in line waiting to vote and knowing they were risking their lives every moment that they did so. And all this wrangling that's going on now is part of the democratic process, the fact that they argue, that they negotiate, that they try to find a compromise. This is part of their democratic education.
So I find all this both annoying and encouraging. I see that more and more people are becoming involved in the political process. And there's one thing in Iraq in particular that I think is encouraging, and that is the role of women. Of all the Arab countries, with the possible exception of Tunisia, Iraq is the one where women have made most progress. I'm not talking about rights, a word that has no meaning in that context. I'm talking about opportunity, access. Women in Iraq had access to education, to higher education, and therefore to the professions, and therefore to the political process to a degree without parallel elsewhere in the Arab world, as I said, with the possible exception of Tunisia. And I think that the participation of women — the increasing participation of women is a very encouraging sign for the development of democratic institutions.
I see that more and more people are becoming involved in the political process. And there's one thing in Iraq in particular that I think is encouraging, and that is the role of women.
I would quote Ataturk, who began his career as a politician in 1923 by making a series of speeches demanding political rights for women. Now, at first blink it would be difficult to imagine anything more improbable than an Ottoman pasha and a general beginning his political career on a feminist program, but that's exactly what he did, and he gave a good reason for it. He said, with his usual terseness and clarity, "Our most urgent task today is to catch up with the modern world." He said, "We will not catch up with the modern world if we only modernize half the population." "We" meaning Turkey, of course. Simple, clear and, I think, overwhelmingly true.
And I think the same is true in the Arab world today, and that's why I think this is one of the more encouraging factors in Iraq, where women have done better than in most other places, and I think women will play an increasingly important role in the Iraqi political society.
MR. LUGO: Well, in all these years, I've never regretted having done my doctoral studies at the University of Chicago. But I have to tell you, just for today, I wish I had gone to Princeton. Thank you so much, Professor Lewis, for being with us.
MR. LEWIS: Thank you.
MR. LUGO: Thank you all for coming.
Bernand Lewis. "Islam and the West: A Conversation with Bernard Lewis." The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Thursday, April 27, 2006 Hay-Adams Hotel Washington, DC.
Speakers at Pew Forum events are given an opportunity to review and approve their remarks. This transcript also has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.
Reprinted with permission of The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. All rights reserved.
Bernard Lewis, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, is often described as the West's greatest historian and interpreter of the Near East. He is the author of twenty nine books, including: What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East, The Middle East and The Arabs in History are required reading for anybody who hopes to understand the region and its people. His latest book is The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror.
Copyright © 2006 The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life