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Contentions

Lewis on the Islamic World

Bernard Lewis, one of the world’s preeminent scholars on Islam, is neither sanguine nor gloomy about events unfolding in the Arab world. He is, rather, uncertain. “I think that the tyrannies are doomed,” he tells Bari Weiss of the Wall Street Journal. “The real question is what will come instead.”

Professor Lewis describes himself as “delighted” by the popular movements and believes that the U.S. should do all it can to bolster them. But he also warns 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?

Elections should be the culmination—not the beginning—of a gradual political process. “To lay the stress all the time on elections, parliamentary Western-style elections, is a dangerous delusion,” Lewis says. (It’s not clear from the interview what the best way is to achieve open, tolerant societies apart from elections and holding those in power accountable to the public).

The “main reason” the Islamic world “fell behind the West” is not the want of elections, in Lewis’s opinion. The “greatest defect of Islam” is its treatment of women. “Think of a child that grows up in a Muslim household where the mother has no rights, where she is downtrodden and subservient,” Lewis says. “That’s preparation for a life of despotism and subservience. It prepares the way for an authoritarian society.”

Although he opposes American military action against the Iranian regime, Lewis does not think it can be contained if it does go nuclear. The mullahs “are religious fanatics with an apocalyptic mindset,” he says. “In Islam, as in Christianity and Judaism, there is an end-of-times scenario—and [the mullahs] think it’s beginning or has already begun.”

Mutually assured destruction, then? For Iran it is “not a deterrent,” Lewis says—“it’s an inducement.”

Lewis’s analysis of Turkey is almost equally as bleak. “In Turkey, the movement is getting more and more toward re-Islamization,” he tells the Journal. “The government has that as its intention—and it has been taking over, very skillfully, one part after another of Turkish society. The economy, the business community, the academic community, the media. And now they’re taking over the judiciary, which in the past has been the stronghold of the republican regime.”

As for Islamic fundamentalism. Precisely because it has “no political center, no ethnic identity,” because it is “Arab and Persian and Turkish and everything else,” it is different in kind from the popular Arab movements. Lewis explains:

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. At the moment, both seem equally improbable.

The bottom line, then, seems to be this. The tectonic plates in the Middle East and North Africa are shifting. The world that eventually emerges from the Revolution of 2011 will be fundamentally different. But precisely how this all plays out is impossible to know and, for America, frustratingly difficult to influence.



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