A Chat With Middle East Expert Bernard Lewis

Princeton professor emeritus Bernard Lewis is awful smart about the Middle East, having made that the specialty of his entire scholarly life. How smart? Smart enough to already have a book out like What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East when the terrorists struck on September 11, 2001, and so made it a best-seller among those trying to fathom just what it is about that part of the world that would make human beings commit such acts.

Wolfgang G. Schwanitz of the German newspaper Die Welt popped by Princeton recently for a visit, and the resulting interview transcript appears today on the Die Welt website. The point Lewis makes in the conversation that Schwanitz picks out to be his teaser is interesting enough (the interview’s title is “Europe Will Be Islamic By the End of the Century”), although he advances it at the interview’s very end, almost as a throw-away, telling Schwanitz that demographic trends clearly indicate that Europe can look forward to becoming nothing more than an extension of Arab North Africa (the Maghreb) in a few decades’ time, and not any sort of world-counterweight to America.

But Lewis makes a number of other interesting points as well in the interview.

Just to list a few:


  • The historian sees some progress in the chance for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute: from absolutely none to slight. The parties involved are slowly grasping realities that they refused to grasp before. On the Palestinian side, that means realizing that it’s not Israel that is primarily responsible for their misery, something that was the general consensus for decades. Now a majority point to Palestinian leaders as the key ones responsible, something Lewis labels “great progress.” Unfortunately, Yasser Arafat continues to stay on the scene, and in Lewis’ estimation that is largely due to the millions of dollars he receives yearly, most from the European Union, and all of that with no requirements to account for what he does with that money.
  • But in a strange way, the existence of Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians is actually a good thing for most Arab states. As Lewis puts it, “if they had no Israel, they would have to invent one,” for those states are now economically behind even equatorial Africa, and their peoples know it. In this context Israel is an awfully-handy foil to draw off much of the anger of their populations whose full force these Arab governments (none of them democracies, of course) would otherwise have to face full-force.

    This is interesting, but then again you hear the same point all the time from New York Times international affairs columnist Thomas Friedman. But he’s currently on vacation for a while, to write a book.

  • Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was actually quite an anomaly, as it regularly repressed and even did away with alternate sources of legitimacy that are ordinarily part of any Arab society – tribes, countryside notables, religious leaders, and even bazaar traders. The Arab world traditionally knows autocracy and obedience, to be sure, but not despotism and dictatorship. Actually, the pattern for Hussein’s regime can be found in Naziism, and that makes sense, since up through the middle of the last century Europe was the model of what it means to be modern for the Arab world. In fact, the Nazis succeeded in installing a short-lived regime in Iraq in 1941, before the British moved in to overthrow it.
  • Things have been going backwards in Iran, too, since the Islamic revolution of 1979 – socially, economically, indeed says Lewis “in every respect.” And that apparently goes double for women; one example Lewis cites is that, under the Shariah law prevailing in Iran, girls as young as nine years of age can be given up for “marriage.”

    On the bright side, Lewis expects to see “democratic revolutions” in both Iran and Iraq. “But it will be neither fast nor easy.”

  • And the juiciest for last: In Lewis’ opinion, the fight against al-Qaida and similar Islamic terrorist movements will certainly last for decades, and there is no assurance that these movements will not “win” in the end. For he likens such movements to what international Communism used to be earlier in the last century, namely a very appealing movement that provides people with answers to their important questions; it gives its believers conviction and certainty and even an uplifting feeling of mission. That – and the successes it has had recently, e.g. in intimidating Spain and the Philippines to do its bidding – makes Islamic terrorism appeal not only to those in Arab lands but also to those growing Islamic minorities in the West – in Europe particularly, you remember, those who with their nine children and those children’s children are soon going to make Europe itself Islamic.

And so Die Welt’s Bernard Lewis interview comes full circle.

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