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Bernard Lewis Unplugged

Bernard Lewis Unplugged

Professor Bernard Lewis, the great historian of the Muslim world, talks about bin Laden, the Intifada, and the new threat from Iran.

by Yaron London

Courtesy of www.jewsweek.com

Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton University, is considered by most of his colleagues as the greatest historian of the Muslim world in our generation. He is Jewish, a native of London, in his 80s. Among his many students are teachers and analysts who work in universities in Israel and the Arab countries. His age hardly shows: he moves easily, exhibits an ironic sense of humor, clearly conscious of his importance. He travels a great deal. He frequently visits Israel as a guest of Tel Aviv University, and he sometimes visits the neighboring countries too, but he understandably refuses to talk about that. Government leaders frequently consult with him and he has been in great demand during the past year. The breadth of his knowledge and his decisive views are aimed to assist the ones in power in the West to shape their policy towards the Muslim world.

"The Patriarch of the Islamicists", as he is called in the American press, stands out as a partisan of classic liberal values. He is often attacked because he refuses to comply with the spirit of the times, in which the voice of relativism is strong, which is cautious about judging cultures from the point of view of western culture. In his best-known debate, he faced Edward Said, the well-known Palestinian professor of literature, in whose book "Orientalism" he condemns Lewis and scholars like him. He charges that their studies are another means which the West uses to strengthen its imperialistic rule.

One may assume that the following interview will harden his opponents and hearten perplexed Israelis. Ariel Sharon can find in his words encouragement for his position on the need for complete victory before any gesture.

YOU PEGGED YOUR HOPE ON THE OSLO PROCESS.

That would be correct.

WERE YOU PROVED WRONG?

To my great regret, I must confess I made a mistake.

WHAT DID THE ERROR IN YOUR ASSESSMENT STEM FROM?

Historically, the Palestinian leaders have consistently made the wrong choice. It started with their refusing the terms of the Peel Commission and their rejection of the UN Partition Plan. They made mistakes in their choice of friends: during the Second World War they chose the Nazis, during the Cold War they chose the Soviet Bloc and in the Gulf War they joined with Saddam Hussein. Do they have an astonishing instinct that pushes them to the verge of destruction? Indeed not. They turned to the enemies of their enemies and this is natural. After the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, they once again had no super power patron, and after the Gulf War, even most of the Arab governments were disgusted with them, particularly those that could offer them financial aid. Under these circumstances, I thought the Rabin government was correct in moving as it did, but it erred in its choice of its partner for the process."

ARAFAT?

Yes, the idea of bringing Arafat from Tunis was a mistake.

ISRAEL TRIED TO TALK WITH THE PALESTINIAN LEADERS IN THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES, BUT AT THE MADRID CONFERENCE IT WAS PROVEN THAT THEY HAVE NO LEADER BESIDES HIM.

It's true that according to the resolution of the Arab League, the PLO is the Palestinians' only representative organization. From this distance in time it is hard for me to judge if it would have been better to insist on finding an alternative to it, or perhaps there was no other choice.

IN AN INTERVIEW YOU SAID THAT THE ONES WHO CONDUCTED THE NEGOTIATIONS ON BOTH SIDES WERE COMPLETE AMATEURS. WHAT DID YOU MEAN?

It's clear they were not professional diplomats and they did not have much experience in conducting negotiations.

WHAT WAS THE BIG MISTAKE OF THE NEGOTIATORS AT CAMP DAVID?

They forgot that is not just a matter of negotiations between leaders, but between two differing civilizations. It is easy to slip and interpret your adversary according to your worldview. I will give you an example. I think that Israel was right to enter Lebanon, and I well remember how its army was received as an army of liberation, with flowers and music, but from the moment the job was completed, it was necessary to withdraw from there. The late withdrawal, as it was undertaken without agreement, with abandonment of friends and weaponry, was interpreted by the Palestinians and the other Arabs as a sign of weakness. From the experience of Hizbullah they derived that the Israelis are soft, pampered, and if they are hit -- they will surrender. These things have been said explicitly by the Palestinians.

DO THE TWO CULTURES INTERPRET DIFFERENTLY THE CONCEPTS OF "FAIR COMPROMISE" AND "VIEWING REALITY OUT OF A CONSIDERATION FOR THE ENEMY'S POINT OF VIEW?

Let me be precise: Muslim culture stands out in the generosity of its victors. The victor does not push the face of the vanquished in the dust, but the result of the struggle has to be clear to both sides. A struggle that ends indecisively is an invitation for trouble. The Ottomans provided us with many examples of this conduct: they crushed rebels with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, but did not humiliate the defeated, they showed generosity toward them and even helped them rehabilitate themselves. If the one with the power does not exhaust his ability to bring about such a victory, his conduct is interpreted as cowardice.

Another example of differing interpretations of conduct is the is significance of manners and customs: I visited Jordan some time after the signing of the peace agreement on which the Jordanians bed much hope, and I found the Jordanians agitated over the conduct of the Israeli tourists which they saw as provocative and humiliating. It was difficult for me to explain to them that Israelis behave that way even to each other. The Israelis, who seem to be the least polite people in the world, are not understood by the Arabs, who have the most well-mannered culture in the world. It is not a matter of insignificant etiquette, but of conduct that has a bearing on relations between the peoples. The lack of courtesy of the Israeli solders at the checkpoints has terrible repercussions and something needs to be done about this matter.

DON'T YOU HAVE A TENDENCY TO OVERSTATE THE CLASH OF DIFFERENCES BETWEEN CULTURES?

There is tremendous importance in these differences. Look, the Christian world and the Muslim world had friction with each other and fought against each other on many fronts during the course of a millennium. At the end of the 18th century the universities in the west had dozens of departments for eastern studies and hundreds of translations of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish works were printed. The western world longed to know its historic adversary, but a share in this curiosity was not given to the Muslim world. There they did not learn the languages of the West, didn't take an interest in western history and thought and did not translate much literature into Arabic. Things changed somewhat when the power of the threat of the west became clear to them, but even now, if you go into a book store in Israel, you will easily find translations from Arabic literature and books about Arab and Muslim history. In contrast, if you go into a bookstore in an Arab capital and look for books on Israel, on Judaism and even on Christianity, practically all you will find is propaganda. Curiosity about one's fellow is a striking western phenomenon. In all the great cultures, except western culture, the matter of one's fellow arises only in the presence of a threat."

IS THIS SITUATION REGARDING CULTURES PERMANENT, OR A RESULT OF CIRCUMSTANCES THAT ARE LIKELY TO CHANGE?

It is definitely not permanent, but it is deeply rooted, more than many people like to think. For example, many point to the fact that only 2 of the 57 Muslim countries have semi democratic governments, but this does not say that Muslims lack the ability to develop their own version of democracy, that will not resemble any western democracy.

WHICH TWO COUNTRIES DO YOU MEAN?

Turkey and Bangladesh. Turkey is a wonderful example, which proves that it is very difficult to establish a liberal democracy in a culture with an ancient autocratic tradition, but it also proves that it is not impossible.

THE OUTBREAK OF THE SECOND INTIFADA HAS BEEN INTERPRETED BY MANY ISRAELIS, PERHAPS A MAJORITY, AS DECISIVE EVIDENCE THAT THE PALESTINIANS ARE NOT INTERESTED IN A COMPROMISE, BUT ARE DRIVING TOWARDS A COMPLETE VICTORY. HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THE INTIFADA?

I already told you that the withdrawal from Lebanon had a great influence on the decision of the Palestinians to renew the armed struggle. Israel is depicted as a country that resembles America and the Americans, who fled from Vietnam and extracted themselves suddenly from Lebanon and Somalia, proved by this conduct that they are pampered and not adapted to absorb losses. Likewise the Israelis, who became rich and got soft and pampered themselves. America and Israel are close friends and the Palestinians took a page from the conduct of America in analyzing the expected conduct of Israel.

A FEW YEARS AGO YOU PUBLISHED AN ARTICLE WHICH HAD GREAT RESONANCE: "THE ROOTS OF MUSLIM RAGE". WOULD YOU AGREE TO ENCAPSULATE THE BASIC IDEAS IN THE ARTICLE AND UPDATE THEM IN LIGHT OF WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE IT WAS PUBLISHED.

In the whole Muslim world in our day a feeling of frustration and crisis prevails. Everything is mixed up. For more than a thousand years the Muslims became accustomed to the belief, justified in its time, that they represented the most advanced part of the world, and that they are the ones who set the standards in politics, economics and science. In the new age the Muslims came to realize that their power had weakened and that even adopting western technology wasn't any help. The western ideas of socialism and capitalism did not halt the economic deterioration, and then the belief arose that redemption was to be found in adopting the western democratic brand of government. Most unfortunately it was proven that the only western brand that succeeded in taking root in the Muslim world was dictatorship, based on a single party. Political independence did not give rise to freedom. The reaction to these disappointments is resistance to any ideas imported from the west and blaming the west for all the unhealthy evils that stemmed from the failed attempt to imitate its culture.

Now there are two options: some feel that the failure stems from abandonment of the earlier traditions, leaving behind the authentic Islamic culture. The two main versions that have stemmed from this feeling are Wahabi Fundamentalism which is disseminated by the Saudis, and the Iranian-Shiite Fundamentalism. The other option, which adherents to the modern hold, says that the failure stems from the Muslims having adopted the shell of western culture and not its deep content, and therefore it is necessary to introduce western values in their full depth. In all of the Muslim world there are people who think that way, but the dictatorships make it difficult for them to express their opinions openly.

IS OSAMA BIN LADEN THE EXTREME EXPRESSION OF THE FIRST OPTION?

Of course. But here one must stress the importance of Arab oil. The tremendous profits that the Saudis accumulated have enabled them to develop a network of schools with many branches that cultivates Wahabi Fundamentalism. It is possible that if not for the oil, this movement would have remained an otherworldly phenomenon in a marginal country. In general, the oil is the Arabs' disaster, because it enabled governments to accumulate enormous wealth which strengthens their political and military power and destroys democracy and freedom in the bud. It is no accident that the only countries in which the beginnings of a civilian society are growing are Morocco and Jordan which have no oil.

IS AMERICA HATED IN THE MUSLIM WORLD BECAUSE IT SUPPORTS ISRAEL, OR IS ISRAEL HATED BECAUSE IT IS PERCEIVED AS A FORWARD STRONGHOLD OF THE WEST IN THE MUSLIM WORLD?

Both. Of course, the bond with Israel does not help America's popularity, but the Mideast is not the only place in the world in which they loathe this large wealthy empire. It is hated because it is so successful and local figures exploit the resentment for their special needs. For example, for Bin Laden the main problem is his country, Saudi Arabia, which he wants to rid of the presence of infidels. He mentions Israel, if at all, in the third place on his list of targets. In one of his speeches he called it "a lowly little country", in other words not something substantial or very important and in an interview he gave some years ago he said that if the Americans leave Saudi Arabia he would be prepared to sign a peace agreement. Israel is an easy target for propagandists in the Arab world because attacking it does not endanger them, while in some Arab countries they are looking for trouble if they disseminate attacks against America. The propagandists know that in America and Europe there is a willing ear for anti-Israel propaganda and the reason is that directing an assault against Israel eases the burden of the accusations that are spread on them in the west. This is where the aggression towards Israel in the Sabra and Shatila affair comes from, as compared with the leniency towards the deeds of Hafez Assad in the city of Hama, or towards the chemical weapons attack on the Kurds in Halbaja.

WHAT ARE THE LONG RANGE RESULTS OF THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN?

People in the West are accustomed to ask "why don't they like us" and the simple answer is that you can't be wealthy, strong and successful and be liked, especially considering that for a few hundred years you have won every battle. The correct question is: "why have they stopped respecting you, or at least fearing you?" I mentioned earlier that men like Bin Laden believed that the west was pampered and soft. I hope that the war in Afghanistan changed this perception, because it proves that the idea that America and the other western countries are soft is an invention, and that they are afraid to fight when their civilization is attacked. Now there are two possibilities: either the people in the Muslim world, and particularly the Arabs, decide that in order to establish a better society it is necessary to turn to the path of peace and cooperation with the west, or they will believe that the defeat in Afghanistan was a painful episode but they need to continue in the same path. I hope that the first way will win, but I can't exclude the possibility that the second idea will take hold.

ISRAEL SEES IRAN AS A GREAT MILITARY DANGER. ARE CHANGES HAPPENING IN IT THAT COULD EASE OUR MINDS?

The Iranian politicians who are depicted as moderates, are nothing but makeup whose purpose is to enable the regime to continue acting as it wants, but many signs indicate that the regime has become very unpopular, and will be thrown out if an opportunity presents itself. Here I want to mention a paradox: the masses in countries that declare their opposition to America love America, while the masses in countries whose governments support America, exhibit resentment towards America. It is no accident that the terrorists who attacked the twin towers and the Pentagon indeed came from Egypt and Saudi Arabia while in Tehran there were large spontaneous, authentic demonstrations, in which people expressed sorrow. It is clear that the hatred for America in Egypt and Saudi Arabia stems, first and foremost, from the hatred for the corrupt regimes there. The demonstrations for joy in Kabul will seem like funeral processions compared to the demonstrations for joy that will break out in Baghdad, Tehran and perhaps even Damascus, if the west brought about the expulsion of the despotic inefficient regimes that rule in these countries.

This article originally appeared in Hebrew in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot and was translated by Jonathan Silverman, zalmanaron@msn.com. The translated version originally appeared on www.jewsweek.com

Published: January 26, 2002


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Visitor Comments: 9

(9) Hans Andresen, October 15, 2012 12:16 AM

Ideological support for islamic terrorism

I cann't find the ideological support that could explain, or justify islamic terrorism. There is no line in the Qur'an; on the contrary, it seem to condemn terrorism. Could you help me? Thanks

(8) Anonymous, November 26, 2007 12:06 PM

Bernard Lewis' superb article in WSJ Nov. 26 2007

Please send a copy of your article to the Secretary of State. How does she plan to resolve the Israel Palistine problem when the Palestinean moderate leadership she is promoting will nor even recognize Israel as a Jewish state to this day. As long as the Palestenians insist on a 2 state solution both Arab, there will be no peace. I lived in Bombay when the Panjabis poured in tens of thousands into the town right after India and Pakistan declared their Independence. None of them are refugees and India did not have any petrodollars. Were it not for the UN and the European Union, the Palistine problem would have been resolved long ago. Your appearances on CSPAN are great too !

(7) Richard White, March 2, 2002 12:00 AM

an excellent synopis of world events in the middle east.


I currently live and work in the Middle East as an educator and what you have said is extremely accurate. The modern day despots in my area of the world love very much the chaos that emits currently out of Palastine for it provides a very effective smoke screen that hides reality from the masses.

(6) S. R. Lewis, February 1, 2002 12:00 AM

Encourages further serious examination

Thank you for publishing this excellent article. Professor Lewis is such a serious thinker that I can enjoy reading even those of his thoughts with which I disagree.

For example, Professor Lewis seems to attribute to politics the Palestinian leaders’ habit of making wrong choices – “They turned to the enemies of their enemies and this is natural.”

But “natural” isn’t necessarily right or moral. Joining with gross barbarians like Hitler and Saddam Hussein goes far beyond “making a mistake”. We are endowed by our Creator with the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and to the extent that we choose wrong, we yield to the evil and unholy forces of barbarianism. The question that I am exploring is whether the Palestinian leaders make immoral choices because they are immoral individuals intentionally allying themselves with evil supporters, or – not entirely alternatively – the Islamicism that bred them is a barbarian culture.

(5) Irwin Mann, January 29, 2002 12:00 AM

thank you

I liked theobjectitivity depth and self criticality of this article. t corroborates what the refuseniks (soldier in the settlements) charge essentially escalatory precipitous rudeness. Coming from this site I believe its valid. It takes 2 sides to make a conflict.I prefer prof Lewis to one sided polemics. There are great rewards I feel by relating empathically as Martin Buber said in I- thou, not I-it. oNE OF OUR GREAT RABBIS SAID the whole torah = what is haeful to us don't do to others

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