'The Iranians do not expect to be attacked'

Prof. Bernard Lewis: Ahmadinejad has 'a very low estimate' of the forces arrayed against him.

By DAVID HOROVITZ
January 31, 2007 22:57
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Seating himself in the center of The Jerusalem Post's conference room, Prof. Bernard Lewis preferred to eschew any kind of opening remarks, and instead simply invited our questions. Arguably the preeminent Islamic historian and scholar of his age, Lewis, who turned 90 last May, handled the resulting avalanche with absolute equanimity. His English accent undimmed by recent decades spent living in America, Lewis, who was born in London into a middle-class Jewish family, sketched out a vision of extremist Islamic ambition at chilling odds with his placid, soft-spoken delivery. For President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran, he noted dryly, the notion of mutual assured destruction, of certain devastation so immense as to have kept the United States and the Soviet Union from firing their missiles at each other through the Cold War, was "not a deterrent," but rather "an inducement." Given the apocalyptic messianism of Ahmadinejad and his supporters, "if they kill large numbers of their own people, they are doing them a favor. They are giving them a quick free pass to heaven and all its delights, the divine brothel in the skies." He dismissed Europe in a few sentences, a continent doomed to Islamist domination by dint of its own "self-abasement... in the name of political correctness and multiculturalism." What did this mean for Europe's Jews? The future, he said without hesitation, was dim. Nonetheless, Lewis, whose recent bestsellers have included What Went Wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East and the post-9/11 The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, was not unremittingly bleak in outlook. He argued that Iran's goals could yet be thwarted, by encouraging the Iranian people to turn against their regime. "There is a level of discontent at home, which could be exploited," he said strikingly. "I do not think it would be too difficult to bring it to the point when the regime could be overthrown." An Iranian-wrought holocaust was not impossible, he acknowledged. But more likely, he said, was that "sooner or later," we and our leaders would "awake from our slumbers." How will the Iranians be stopped? Do you think they are going to be stopped? I do not know what Washington intends to do, or what Israel intends to do. My own preference would be to deal with the Iranian regime by means of the Iranian people. All the evidence is that the regime is extremely unpopular with their own people. I am told that the Israeli daily [radio] program in Persian is widely listened to all over Iran with rapt attention and it is the only one that they believe. Iranians were furious over the Lebanese war, feeling that they had been dragged into it and their resources were being squandered on promoting this dubious cause when things are deteriorating from bad to worse at home. I think there is a level of discontent at home, which could be exploited. I do not think it would be too difficult to bring it to the point when the regime could be overthrown. What should Israel be doing, therefore? Israel should be doing everything that it can to change the regime in Iran. That is the only answer. Overtly? Yes, I think so. What the [discontented Iranians] are asking for is not a military invasion. My Iranian friends and various groups are unanimous on that point. They feel a military invasion would be counterproductive. What do the Iranians think of their nuclear program? That is a delicate issue because the nuclear program has become a matter of national pride. Look at it from the Iranian point of view: The Russians in the north have it, the Chinese in the east have it, the Pakistanis in the south have it, and the Israelis in the west have it. "Who is to tell us that we must not have it?" I think one should try to make it clear at all stages that the objection is not to Iran having [a nuclear capacity] but to the regime that governs Iran having it. I am told now that in Iran most recently, support has virtually disappeared for the nuclear program. Previously it had some support, but it is now increasingly being realized that this is a method of strengthening the regime, which means that it is bad. What would the Iranian regime do with a nuclear bomb if it got one? That depends entirely on the balance of forces within the regime. There are people in Iran who know that using nuclear weapons, even threatening to use nuclear weapons, could bring terrible retribution upon them. On the other hand there are people with an apocalyptic mindset, and their supporters... Do you have a sense of how far Arab states are willing to go to change things in Iran? Will they cooperate with the Israelis and the Americans? The Arab states are very concerned about the Shia revolution. They see a militant, expansionist Shia movement which already seems to be spreading from Iran to Iraq, through Syria to Lebanon, all the way across to the Mediterranean and eastward to Afghanistan and Pakistan and so on. One has to bear in mind that there are significant Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia and all around the Gulf, all the Gulf States. Yemen is in a sense a Shia state, though not of the same branch. From the Saudi point of view, the Shia revolution really constitutes a major menace. That is why they were so quietly supportive of Israel in the Lebanon war, and I think they would take that line again if there is a further clash. Or, should I say, when there is a further clash. Does the Iranian regime believe that a military attack on its nuclear sites would strengthen it? Do they think that it can be avoided - that they can manage to keep the West from attacking them? My guess is that they do not expect to be attacked. Remember, they have no experience of the functioning of a free society. The sort of self-criticism and mutual criticism that we see as normal is beyond their understanding and totally outside their experience. What we see as free debate, they see as weakness and division and fear. Therefore I think they have a very low estimate of the forces that oppose them, whether in the US or Israel or elsewhere. They expect to have it their way, whatever way they choose. Does that attitude stem from something inherent in Islam? No, it is not inherent in Islam. It is inherent in the kind of government under which they have lived for the last 200 years or so. In the earliest stages of Islam, the government was more open. Traditional Islamic governments devoted great importance to consultation, to content, to limited authority, to government under law; all these things are part of the traditional Islamic background. That all ended a couple of hundred years ago. Nothing remains of it. It ended in two phases. Phase one, modernization, mainly in the 19th and early 20th century - modernization which strengthened the power of the state and either weakened or eliminated all those intermediary powers which had previously acted as constraints on government. The second phase, the crucial one, is Vichy, when the French government surrendered in Syria and in Lebanon, a crucial Arab country, and half of the Middle East came under German control. They were able to extend from there into Iraq, which is where the Ba'ath Party's foundations were laid. The Ba'ath Party has no roots in the Arab or Islamic past. It is the Nazi party. Later, when the Germans left and the Russians came, it wasn't too difficult to switch from the Nazi model to the Soviet model. It only needed minor retouching. How do you see the Arab-on-Arab violence in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories being resolved? The developments in the Middle East are both alarming and encouraging, depending on the angle of vision. The bad news on the general situation now is the increasing violence, the increasing support which the various extremist and terrorist movements seem to be getting. Most alarming of all is the steady increase in the area [in which] they have influence or dominate, which before long will probably include Europe. A Syrian philosopher published an article not long ago in which he said the only question about the future of Europe is: "Will it be an Islamized Europe or Europeanized Islam?" And I am inclined to agree with him about that. In that respect, it is discouraging. Particularly alarming is the apocalyptic mood, which we see in Iran now. This is something which Jews in particular should be able to understand very well. The messiah is coming. There is a well-known scenario of the course of events, the battle of Gog and Magog and so on and so forth. There is a final struggle ending with the final victory. Muslims generally believe that one can somehow expedite the process. I have no doubt at all, and my Iranian friends and informants are unanimous on this, that Ahmadinejad means what he says, and that this is not, as some people have suggested, a trick or device. He really means it, he really believes it and that makes him all the more dangerous. MAD, mutual assured destruction, [was effective] right through the Cold War. Both sides had nuclear weapons. Neither side used them, because both sides knew the other would retaliate in kind. This will not work with a religious fanatic. For him, mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent, it is an inducement. We know already that they do not give a damn about killing their own people in great numbers. We have seen it again and again. In the final scenario, and this applies all the more strongly if they kill large numbers of their own people, they are doing them a favor. They are giving them a quick free pass to heaven and all its delights, the divine brothel in the skies. I find all that very alarming. We turn now to the encouraging signs, the good news, such as it is. I would put it at two levels. One is that a number of Arab governments are coming to the conclusion that Israel is not their most serious problem and not their greatest danger. This is very similar to what happened with [former Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat. If you go back to the Egyptian peace process, Sadat didn't decide to make peace because he was suddenly convinced of the merits of the Zionist case. Sadat decided to make peace because he realized that Egypt was becoming a Soviet colony. The process was very visible. There were whole areas of Soviet bases and no Egyptian was admitted. Sadat, I think, realized that on the best estimate of Israel's power and the worst estimate of Israel's intentions, Israel was not a threat to Egypt in the way that the Soviet Union was. So he took the very courageous step of ordering the Soviet specialists out of Egypt, facing the danger they might do what they did in Czechoslovakia or Hungary. They didn't, fortunately. Then he hoped that Washington would help him, instead of which Washington produced the Vance-Gromyko Agreement, a sort of diplomatic carve up, in effect giving Egypt back to the Soviets. That was [former president Jimmy] Carter's real contribution to the peace process. All the rest of it is imaginary; imaginary is the polite word. That persuaded Sadat that he had to go to the Israelis. I think that a number of the governments in the region have been through a similar process of reevaluation. During the recent war in Lebanon, it was quite clear that several Arab governments were quietly hoping that the Israelis would go in and finish the job. They were very disappointed that they didn't. That disappointment was certainly not a help, but that mood is still there. There is a willingness to reach some sort of a compromise to enable them to deal with what they see as the more pressing and more dangerous problem. That could be a short-term advantage. It might even lead to some sort of a peace process. But as the Egyptian example I spoke of shows, that doesn't lead to any real cordiality. There is a peace process with Egypt, there is an exchange of diplomatic representatives and so on, but one would hardly talk about relations between Israel and Egypt, at the present time, as a model that one wants to extend to the rest of the Arab world. So it can bring some benefits, which might be quite substantial in the short range, but one should have no illusions about the long range. The other encouraging sign, very faint and very distant, is of a genuine change of mood among people in some Arab countries. Talking to people in Arab countries in the last few years, some of those people express attitudes which I have never met before. I do not know how deep this goes and how strong it is, but it is there and it never was before. That is a good sign. Can you elaborate? And does this include people in Syria? No, it doesn't include Syria. It does include Syrians. There is a Syrian migr group called the Syrian Reform Party, headed by a man called Farid Ghadry. He publishes a journal and also has a Web site. He makes no secret of his admiration for Israel and his very positive attitude toward Israel. He lives in Washington, D.C. The fact that a man who has ambitions, [who] hopes to lead a revolution, makes no attempt to pursue an anti-Israel, anti-Zionist line, but on the contrary he has a friendly one, that in itself is quite remarkable. Another example on a very different level is the people in Jordan. In Jordan, Israel television is widely watched and they get the message of how a free society works. I have heard that the same thing happens elsewhere but for technical reasons it is more difficult. As one fellow put it, it is amazing to watch these great and famous people banging the table and screaming at each other. They are used to people banging the table and screaming, but not at each other. They can get different points of view, but they have to tune in to different stations. The sort of free debate on Israel television and, even more striking, the fact that Arabs can denounce the Israeli government on Israeli television, that has an impact. I have heard people mention this again and again. It doesn't go unnoticed. Is there a perception in the Arab world that Hizbullah won the war in the summer? The feelings about Hizbullah are very mixed, but always very strong, either for them or against them. Some see them as Arab heroes, the people who won a great victory for the Arab cause, and others see them as a major danger. In a sense both are right. I had a telephone conversation with a Christian friend in Beirut not long after the Lebanon war. I asked his views on this. He said, "Israel has lost the war, but Hizbullah has not won." I asked him what he meant by that. He said that there was a swelling tide of anger against Hizbullah in Lebanon for having brought all this misfortune on the country, which is even gaining ground among the Shia population. That was a couple of days after the end of the war. Whether that is still true, I do not know. I am inclined to think that Hizbullah has gained some ground since then. Given the civil unrest between Hizbullah and the Lebanese government, can Israel strengthen the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora without undermining it? As things are now, Israeli support is the kiss of death. For Israel it is much better to refrain from expressing any support for anyone, except for certain causes like freedom and democracy, and so on. In your writings you have spoken of the feelings of humiliation and rage in the Muslim world. When will their rage subside, if at all? One way [for them] to alleviate their rage is to win some large victories. Which could happen. They seem to be about to take over Europe. "About to take over Europe?" Do you have a time frame for that? It sounds pretty dramatic. No, I can't give you the time frame, but I can give you the stages of the process: Immigration and democracy on their side, and a mood of what I can only call self-abasement on the European side - in the name of political correctness and multiculturalism, to surrender on any and every issue. I was talking only the other day at the Herzliya conference with a German journalist. We were chatting informally over a cup of coffee. He was expressing his profound alarm at the mood of what he called self-abasement among the Germans at the present time. "We mustn't do anything to offend them. We must be nice to them. We must let them do things their way," and so on and so on and so on. What does that mean for the Jewish communities of Europe, even in the short term? The outlook for the Jewish communities of Europe is dim. How do you explain the strength of the Islamic cultural psyche? There are third-generation Muslims in England who play cricket but whose loyalties to Muslim values are far stronger than anything they have picked up in England. That is true. The loyalty is very strong, in Europe particularly. One sees a difference here between Europe and the US. One difference is that Europe has very little to offer. Europeans are losing their own loyalties and their own self-confidence. They have no respect for their own culture. It has become a culture of self-abasement. The diplomacy of what David Kelly called the "preemptive cringe." Naturally that is only going to encourage them in the worst aspects of their own. If you look at the US, it is apparently somewhat different. There is much more, I hesitate to use the word assimilation, which in Jewish context has a negative connotation, [so] let us say acculturation. There is also the fact that it is much easier to become American than to become European. To become American is a change of political allegiance. To become a Frenchman or a German is a change of ethnic identity. That is much more difficult for those who come and those who receive them. Do you think that Arab nationalism will make a comeback? Is there any chance of achieving democratization when you talk about religion dictating trends? I do not think that Arab nationalism is faring very well now. It has failed monumentally in every country. It has brought them greater tyranny, worse government and in many places lowered standards of living. What I hope might be a more positive development is not nationalism but patriotism. It is a very different thing, which is much more compatible with the development of democratic institutions and liberal values. Wouldn't there be a much greater chance of achieving liberalism and democracy through nationalism rather than religion? No. That is why patriotism would give a better chance. Though you are soft-spoken and eloquently spoken, you have given an utterly apocalyptic outlook. Are you of the view that Iran will get the bomb, that extremists will prevail, that they will use it, that the West in its self-abasement will allow this domination to succeed? Should we just go home now and hide under the covers, or is there a strategic process that, if followed, has a reasonable chance of thwarting this? There is a real danger that these things will go the way of Benny Morris [the Israeli historian who chillingly described an Iranian-wrought holocaust in the January 19 Jerusalem Post], but that is less likely. What is more likely is that sooner or later we will awake from our slumbers, and our leaders will find time to devote themselves to issues other than their own province. And then, as I said, there are things that can be done in Iran.


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