One on One: When defeat means liberation

Renowned Arabist Bernard Lewis likens what he calls the 'monstrous perversion of Islam' to the evils of Nazism and Bolshevism.

Bernard Lewis 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Bernard Lewis 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In an exclusive interview with the 'Post,' renowned Arabist Bernard Lewis likens what he calls the 'monstrous perversion of Islam' to the evils of Nazism and Bolshevism - and says that where it leads will depend on how the West responds to it Bernard Lewis is more than slightly amused when asked why many people are surprised to discover that he is a Jew. "I didn't realize there was any secret about it," he chuckles - something he does often throughout our hour-long interview at his pied-a-terre in Tel Aviv, where he and significant other Buntzie Churchill spend three months of every year. During the other nine, he divides his time between Princeton, New Jersey (where the British-born professor taught from 1974 to 1986) and work-related jaunts to other parts of the globe, including places the 92-year-old historian of the Middle East and Islam would rather not name. Which is no wonder, really, considering the complexity of his relation to the subject on which he has written, lectured and advised on extensively throughout his career, first in his native London and subsequently in the US, where he settled. Indeed, Lewis's passion for medieval Arabic texts and respect for what he calls "one of the great religions" has not prevented him from being a caustic critic of radicalization among modern Muslims. On the contrary, if anything, his erudition has led him to assert unequivocally that the extremists have perverted their own traditions beyond recognition. Still, says Lewis, "there are hopeful signs" indicating movement toward change. He cites, for example, his Jordanian friends' reaction to watching Israeli television and seeing Arab Knesset members openly attack the government with impunity. They are at once shocked and envious. Freedom tends to have that effect on those who do not enjoy it. Which is why, Lewis explains, "one of the things that even the most oppressive regimes cannot cope with today is modern communications - the Internet and so on. People know things now in a way and to an extent that were inconceivable in earlier times. They know, for example, how bad things are in their societies, because they see the contrast with the West. And there are more and more people interested in creating open societies." As the prolific author of dozens of books - most recently What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (2002), The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (2003) and From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East (2004) - Lewis was widely acclaimed in academia. But following the 9/11 attacks, the focus - and prescience - of his life's work (it was actually his use of the phrase "clash of civilizations" in 1957 that was first recorded in print) catapulted him into the laymen's limelight, turning him into a household name. But Lewis doesn't consider himself clairvoyant. "If you study the history and culture of a region," he says, shrugging. "You get an idea of what's going on." Growing up in England and serving in the British military, was an issue made of your being Jewish? Was it ever an obstacle? No. When I joined the British army in 1940, I was interviewed by a sergeant who, while taking down all the relevant particulars, asked, "What is your race?" Well, nowadays, I would say "white" or "Caucasian," but at the time, that wouldn't have occurred to me. In England, we never spoke about race. I knew what the Germans meant by it, however. So I asked the sergeant whether I should put "Jewish" in that category. "Nah," he dismissed. "That's your religion, and we've already got that on another line." At that point, I was completely mystified. "What, then," I asked, "am I supposed to put?" "As far as the British army is concerned," he replied, "there are four races: English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish. You are clearly English." So, I went to war with documents that said that I was British by nationality, English by race and Jewish by religion. Is it true that you coined the phrase - and title of Samuel Huntington's book - "clash of civilizations"? I'm not sure. I did use it at a meeting in Washington in 1957, and it is on record, because the transcript of that meeting was published the following year. At the time, I was not aware of coining a phrase, and it's very likely that I had heard it used somewhere. But apparently, mine is the first usage that was recorded in print. And until it became an issue, I wasn't aware that there was anything extraordinary about it. Were you being clairvoyant? I don't think "clairvoyant" is the right word. If you study the history and culture of a region - in the languages of that region - you get an idea of what's going on. You became a feminist before it was fashionable, certainly for men. How did you come to "get an idea of what's going on" in the realm of women's issues? That arose from a specific incident that occurred when I was teaching at the University of London, soon after World War II. One of my honors students, a young woman who must have been around 19 or 20, asked for an appointment to talk to me. Prior to our meeting, I looked up her record and saw she was one of our best students. When she arrived at the meeting, she said she had come to inform me that she would be leaving the university, and didn't think it appropriate to disappear without letting me know. Thinking that perhaps this was due to financial concerns, I delicately indicated that if this were the case, there were ways in which we could help her. "No, no, it's nothing like that," she said, explaining that she was engaged to be married. The man whom she was going to marry had a very poor high-school record, and therefore wasn't able to get a place in any university. So, at 18 or so, he went straight out to get a job. And this young lady said very primly - I remember it vividly, as though it were yesterday - "I don't think it would make for a happy marriage if the wife is educated to a higher degree than the husband." I was appalled! The question that came into my mind was, "If you happened to fall in love with a man with one eye, would you feel obliged to poke out one of your own?" I didn't say this, of course. I said what I could, but it had no effect. She disappeared, and I've not heard of her since. Why were you appalled? Wasn't that common wisdom at the time? Well, it wasn't as far as I was concerned. Don't forget that at that time, women had already made fairly good progress in Britain. We had women professors holding major chairs in illustrious universities. In fact, my own first published article was thanks to a woman, the famous Eileen Power, a professor of medieval history at Cambridge - and that was in the 1930s. Women in Britain were far better off than women in the United States in those days. So I hadn't confronted the question in that form until I met that young student who, I thought, was committing intellectual suicide - and for such a reason. That encounter made me much more conscious of the issue than I otherwise would have been. Then, when I went from England to America [in 1974], I became still more aware of this phenomenon, because the position of women in the American academic community was much worse than that of women in Britain. I found that women students had to confront all kinds of problems in terms of academic advancement. They had to be better than their male counterparts. It gave me a feeling of unease. The effect this had was that I was able to listen more sympathetically to women students - which is probably why I had a vast number of them [he laughs]. The word got around. And I had some really excellent ones, whom I was able afterwards to help get fellowships and jobs and so on. What is the place of women in the Muslim-Arab world? Another aspect of the same question is the place of women in society. Still today, the place of women in the Western world is very far from one of equality, and in the past it was even worse. But even at its worst, it was incomparably better than the position of women in the Muslim world. As far as I know, Christianity is the only religion which totally prohibits polygamy and concubinage. Even Jewish law has been somewhat equivocal on both these subjects at different times and in different places. This has an effect. In Christendom, you have women playing a major role - like Queen Elizabeth of England, Queen Isabella of Spain, Queen Catherine of Russia, Maria Theresa of Austria - something which would have been inconceivable in other societies. It also makes a difference to what we know about rulers. For example, if you look at the history of the Western world, you see we have biographies of major figures. If you look at the Islamic world, on the other hand, although there are many major figures, you will see that there are very few book-length biographies. Why is that? Because women can't appear in them. And a biography without mothers or wives or mistresses lacks all context. I mean, if you write the history of Louis XIV of France, the ladies in his life, starting with his mother, are very important. You have this to some extent in the very early Islamic period. We know, for example, something about the wives and mothers of the very earliest caliphs; they were free Arab ladies. But the later ones were slaves in the harem. What effect has this had on Muslim countries? It's a great source of weakness. The mid-19th-century Turkish writer Namik Kemal, as far as I know, was the first to raise this point. By that time in history, the Muslims were becoming keenly aware that they were falling behind the previously despised West. And not only were they falling behind, but they were falling increasingly under Western domination, because they were no longer capable of resisting. There was a long argument, which had been going on for more than a century, on why these "infidels" were succeeding, while "we inheritors of the true faith" were failing. They came up with all sorts of answers and tried all kinds of military, economic and political reforms, none of which worked very well. Kemal said that the reason "we have fallen behind is the way we treat our women." He used two very striking metaphors about women and society. "We treat our women, at best, as jewels or musical instruments," he said, indicating something pretty and entertaining, but with no independent existence. The result, he said, using a second metaphor, is that "compared with the West, our society is like a human body that is paralyzed on one side." He said that women are not less capable than men, and by depriving ourselves of the services and talents of half the population, we are committing a double error. Not only are we losing the women, but we are subjecting the men, for their first years, to be brought up by ignorant and downtrodden mothers. A little later, there was an Egyptian - Qasim Amin - who came up with a similar argument. Amin had studied in Paris and acquired a French girlfriend. And he was passionately concerned about the position of women in the Muslim and Arab world. He wrote and argued about it. And there was some response. He was really the one who began the movement. Kemal had been a mere voice in the wilderness. Aren't such reformers only heard when they move to the West? Don't forget that most of the Muslim world is under more or less authoritarian regimes, in which one has to be very careful about what one says in public. In the West, one can speak out freely. What effect can such movements have, then, if they only come from outside? This is precisely the difficulty. But there are some Muslim countries where there has been real change. This may come as a surprise to you, but among the Muslim countries, Iraq is one of the best in this respect - where women have made the most progress. I'm not talking about rights, which has no meaning in that context. I'm talking about opportunity and access. Women in Iraq, even under the dictatorship, had access to professions like law and medicine. This meant that their children had a better start in life. Do you make a distinction between Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries in this regard? What is the status of women in Iran, for example, which is not an Arab country? The status of women in Iran had been improving steadily until the revolution, and then it got set back. The Ayatollah Khomeini was very explicit on this. He thought that the emancipation of women was one of the great crimes of the shah and his regime. As for the distinction between Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries, it varies from country to country. Are there as many dissidents in the Arab and Muslim world as there were in the Soviet Union? There is certainly a movement, but it's difficult to answer how many dissidents there are. In the Soviet Union, we know where it led. In the Islamic world, it hasn't led there yet. Still, there are many indications that it is moving in that direction. One of the things that even the most oppressive regimes cannot cope with today is modern communications - the Internet and so on. People know things now in a way and to an extent that were inconceivable in earlier times. They know, for example, how bad things are in their societies, because they see the contrast with the West. And there are more and more people interested in creating open societies. Naturally, this worries the existing rulers. This is where Israel comes in so handy - as an outward-directed grievance, serving as a safety valve for internal dissatisfaction. One great irony, in terms of attitudes toward the West, is that there are Muslim countries with pro-American regimes and therefore anti-American populations - because they regard America as responsible for supporting and maintaining these oppressive regimes; and countries with anti-American regimes and therefore, for the same reasons, pro-American populations. Like Iran? Indeed. I was told by someone still living in Iran that "there is no country in the world where pro-American feeling is stronger, deeper and more widespread than Iran." Yet, you oppose a military invasion of Iran by the US, on the grounds that it would arouse patriotic sentiment among the Iranian people. Does this not contradict what you are saying here? Not necessarily. One has to distinguish between nationalism and patriotism. If you look at the map of the Middle East and North Africa, with very few exceptions, the countries are all modern creations, delineated for the most part by British and French diplomats with pencils and rulers. That's why their frontiers are straight lines. But Iran is one of the few that could be described as a real nation, with a history going back thousands of years, and with a strong sense of national awareness and identity. Though there's great ethnic diversity in Iran - a significant proportion of the country consists of different ethnic groups speaking different languages - the people are united by a sense of Iranian identity that I think can genuinely be called patriotism, as distinct from nationalism. Now, the Iranian regime at the present time has not enjoyed the support of Iranian patriotism, and I don't think it would be wise for us to give it that support as a free gift. I'm not saying that one must totally exclude the possibility of military action, and I can imagine a situation in which that may be the only option. But if it can be avoided, I think one should aim at change within the country and at helping the very strong and widespread opposition to the regime among Iranians. Furthermore, what you are beginning to see in the Middle East that wasn't there before are people who actually see some advantage in having dealings with Israel - people who see the existence of a vibrant, noisy, modern democracy in the Middle East as something positive - and even some people who are willing to say so. I have sat with friends in Jordan watching Israeli television, and they see something they wouldn't see in any Arab country: an Arab member of parliament attacking the government and its policies on national television, and then going home safely. No member of parliament in an Arab country could denounce his government the way Arab members of the Knesset do in Israel. Do they acknowledge this about Israel? They're not stupid. They realize the significance of it, and it has an effect. Notice that whenever there's any suggestion of ceding even an Arab-inhabited part of Israel to a Palestinian state, it brings howls of indignation among Israeli Arabs. They know they're much better off under Israeli rule. Yet they also see the "downside" of Israeli and other Western societies - such as sexual freedom, pornography on the Internet and general decadence. Doesn't this give them the sense that their radical political and religious leaders are right to call for the destruction of the "great Satan" and "small Satan"? It does. And the leaders use that, of course. Look, imperialism, sexism and racism are all Western words, not because they're uniquely Western, but because Western societies name them and identify them as evil, in order to eradicate them. In other societies, they are so much an integral part that they don't even have names. The Arab leaders have adopted those words to use them against the West, though, haven't they? They have. So, too, do radical Western intellectuals, who accuse America of being afflicted by these evils, while defending Islamic countries. Why is that? It's the application of different standards. Is it a form of multiculturalism? Yes, and multiculturalism is a superiority complex. Multiculturalists never express this openly, but their attitude is that Arabs are a bunch of hopeless barbarians anyway, so Western moral standards cannot be applied to them. As a scholar of Islam and Arabia, are you not a multiculturalist yourself? Would you really have the West impose itself on ancient cultures? There are things you can't impose. Freedom, for example. Or democracy. Democracy is a very strong medicine which has to be administered to the patient in small, gradually increasing doses. Otherwise, you risk killing the patient [he laughs]. In the main, the Muslims have to do it themselves. Will their doing so require reforming Islam? Let me tell you something. We use the word "Islam" in too many different senses. When we talk about the Christian world, we say "Christianity," which means a religion, and "Christendom," which means a civilization. For example, nobody could seriously maintain that Hitler and the Nazis came from Christianity, but nobody could deny that they came out of Christendom. Unfortunately, we use the word "Islam" in both senses. We use it to mean a religion, and we use it to mean the civilization which grew up under the aegis of that religion. What word would you use to make this distinction? There was a suggestion to call it "Islamdom," but that never caught on. Still, it's a very important distinction to bear in mind. What we are seeing now in much of the Islamic world could only be described as a monstrous perversion of Islam. The things that are now being done in the name of Islam are totally anti-Islamic. Take suicide, for example. The whole Islamic theology and law is totally opposed to suicide. Even if one has led a totally virtuous life, if he dies by his own hand he forfeits paradise and is condemned to eternal damnation. The eternal punishment for suicide is the endless repetition of the act of suicide. That's what it says in the books. So these people who blow themselves up, according to their own religion - which they don't seem to be well-acquainted with - are condemning themselves to an eternity of exploding bombs. Another example is jihad. Jihad has a number of meanings. Jihad, in the sense of war, is a religious obligation, which means that it is elaborately regulated. Indeed, the laws relating to jihad are quite specific. One should not attack women, children or the elderly, for instance, unless they attack you first. Weapons of mass destruction are also generally disapproved. This is discussed in medieval texts. For instance, poisoning the water supply of an enemy under siege was disapproved, as was the mistreatment of prisoners. In other words, these people are totally disregarding their own tradition. Don't all religions become perverted by certain people? I'm not saying that this kind of perversion is exclusive to Islam - just that it is what we happen to be confronting at the present moment. Do you see a chance for an Islamic reformation? I do. There are Muslims who do not go along with this perversion, but they have to be careful. The time is not ripe, then? No, the time is not ripe. But there are hopeful signs, as I've said. There is also something quite different going on, for example, that I call the "Sadat Syndrome." The late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat didn't make peace with Israel because he was suddenly convinced of the case for Zionism. He did it because in the late 1960s and early '70s, Egypt was becoming a Soviet colony. And Soviet domination was more oppressive than British domination had ever been. Sadat was keenly aware of this, which is why he took the very courageous step of ordering the Russians out. And they went. He tried to get American help. What he got instead was the [1977] Vance-Gromyko agreement, effectively handing Egypt back to the Soviets. In desperation, he turned to Israel, on the perfectly correct assumption that on the worst assessment of Israel's intentions, and on the best assessment of Israel's power, Israel was less dangerous than the Soviet Union. That was what led to the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state - and what led others with similar calculations to follow. What we see now is a similar process in a number of Arab governments. You will have noticed that in 2006, when Israel was fighting Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Arab governments did not break out in the usual chorus of indignation. On the contrary, they seemed to be waiting hopefully for Israel to finish the job, and they seemed to be rather disappointed when that didn't happen. I think that now, particularly due to the Iranian radical movement and its increasing Shi'ite network all over the Arab world, many Arab leaders consider it to be much more of a menace than Israel could ever be. What about the Muslims in the West? In free countries, there are networks spreading radicalism throughout Europe and America, after all. Yes, if you are a Muslim in America or Europe, of course, you would want to give your children some kind of education in their own religion and culture - the way Jews do. And you look around to see what there is, and you find after-school classes and camps, etc. The difference is that these now are overwhelmingly Wahhabi - Saudi-funded - and the version of Islam that they teach is the most fanatical and uncompromising. This has had more of an impact on the immigrant populations in the West than within Muslim countries, because Arab governments have some experience in controlling these things. The European governments have no experience in controlling them, and in any case are far too politically correct and multiculturalist to make the effort. Is this not cause for despair? On the one hand, there is an attempt to moderate the Arab world, while within free societies radical Islam is allowed to flourish and spread. This is an ongoing struggle. In the West, there are also many Muslims who take the other view, and who work for democracy, peace and understanding. Isn't the attempt to eradicate the radical elements while encouraging the moderates like finding a needle in a haystack in a country like the US? It is difficult, yes. Then how is it that you seem and speak like an optimist? I describe my optimism as very cautious and very limited. There is much to worry about, and I don't know where it's going. What I'm trying to say is that the picture is not entirely bad. There are some glimmers of hope within the Muslim and Arab world. A lot will depend on what the Western governments do about it. To quote the wonderful phrase of retired University of Wisconsin professor J.B. Kelly, a great authority on the Arabian Peninsula and a strong critic of the diplomatic approach to Middle Eastern issues, the "diplomacy of the preemptive cringe" is not the way to go. People of my generation have not forgotten Neville Chamberlain's Munich Agreement with Hitler. That was a perfect example of "preemptive cringe" diplomacy. It was the sort of thing which gave the previously innocent word "appeasement" a bad name. What we are facing now is the third major threat to the world. The first was Nazism, the second Bolshevism and now this. There are parallels. Germany is a great nation, and German patriotism is a perfectly legitimate expression of the pride and loyalty Germans have for their country. But Nazism was a monstrous perversion of that and a curse to the Germans, as well as a threat to the rest of the world. The aspiration for social betterment and social justice is very noble. But Bolshevism was a monstrous perversion of that, as well as a curse to Russia and a threat to the rest of the world. Now we have a third similar situation. Islam is one of the great religions that sponsored one of the greatest civilizations in human history. But it has fallen into the hands of a group of people who are the equivalent of the Nazis and the Bolsheviks. They are a curse to their own people, as well as a threat to the rest of the world. In all three cases, defeat means liberation.