Bernard Lewis, the renowned Islamic scholar, believes that at the root of the protests sweeping across our region is the Arab peoples’ widespread sense of injustice. “The sort of authoritarian, even dictatorial regimes, that rule most of the countries in the modern Islamic Middle East, are a modern creation,” he notes. “The pre-modern regimes were much more open, much more tolerant.”
But Lewis regards a dash toward Western-style elections, far
from representing a solution to the region’s difficulties, as constituting “a
dangerous aggravation” of the problem, and fears that radical Islamic movements
would be best placed to exploit so misguided a move. A much better course, he
says, would be to encourage the gradual development of local, self-governing
institutions, in accordance with the Islamic tradition of
Lewis also believes that it was no coincidence that the
current unrest erupted first in Tunisia, the one Arab country, he notes, where
women play a significant part in public life. The role of women in
determining the future of the Arab world, he says, will be crucial.
described as the most influential post-war historian of Islam and the Middle
East, Lewis, 94, set out his thinking on the current Middle East ferment in a
conversation with me before an invited audience at the home of the US Ambassador
to Israel, James Cunningham, a few days ago. Excerpts:
Does the current wave of
protest in the region indicate that, in fact, the Arab masses do want democracy?
And is that what we’re going to see unfolding now?
The Arab masses certainly
want change. And they want improvement. But when you say do they want democracy,
that’s a more difficult question to answer. What does “democracy” mean? It’s a
word that’s used with very different meanings, even in different parts of the
Western world. And it’s a political concept that has no history, no record
whatever in the Arab, Islamic world.
In the West, we tend to get
excessively concerned with elections, regarding the holding of elections as the
purest expression of democracy, as the climax of the process of
democratization. Well, the second may be true – the climax of the
process. But the process can be a long and difficult one. Consider, for example,
that democracy was fairly new in Germany in the inter-war period and Hitler came
to power in a free and fair election.
We, in the Western world
particularly, tend to think of democracy in our own terms – that’s natural and
normal – to mean periodic elections in our style. But I think it’s a great
mistake to try and think of the Middle East in those terms and that can only
lead to disastrous results, as you’ve already seen in various places. They are
simply not ready for free and fair elections.
One of the most moving
experiences of my life was in the year 1950, most of which I spent in Turkey.
That was the time when the Turkish government held a free and genuinely fair
election – the election of 1950 – in which that government was defeated, and
even more remarkably the government then quietly and decently withdrew from
power and handed over power to the victorious opposition.
What followed I
can only describe as catastrophic. Adnan Menderes, the leader of the party which
won the election, which came to power by their success in the election, soon
made it perfectly clear that he had no intention whatever of leaving by the same
route by which he had come, that he regarded this as a change of regime, and
that he had no respect at all for the electoral process.
And people in
Turkey began to realize this. I remember vividly sitting one day in the faculty
lounge at the school of political sciences in Ankara. This would have
been after several years of the Menderes regime. We were sitting in the faculty
lounge with some of the professors discussing the history of different political
institutions and forms. And one of them suddenly said, to everyone’s
astonishment, “Well, the father of democracy in Turkey is Adnan
The others looked around in bewilderment. They said, “Adnan
Menderes, the father of Turkish democracy? What do you mean?” Well, said this
professor, “he raped the mother of democracy.” It sounds much better in
This happened again and again and again. You win an election
because an election is forced on the country. But it is seen as a one-way
street. Most of the countries in the region are not yet ready for
Yet in Egypt now, for example, the assumption is that we’re
proceeding toward elections in September and that seems to be what the West is
inclined to encourage.
I would view that with mistrust and apprehension.
If there’s a genuinely free election – assuming that such a thing could happen –
the religious parties have an immediate advantage. First, they have a network of
communication through the preacher and the mosque which no other political
tendency can hope to equal. Second, they use familiar language. The language of
Western democracy is for the most part newly translated and not intelligible to
the great masses.
In genuinely fair and free elections, [the Muslim
parties] are very likely to win and I think that would be a disaster. A
much better course would be a gradual development of democracy, not through
general elections, but rather through local self-governing
institutions. For that, there is a real tradition in the
If you look at the history of the Middle East in the Islamic
period, and if you look at their own political literature, it is totally against
authoritarian or absolutist rule. The word they always insist on is
consultation. This is not just a matter of theory. There’s a
remarkable passage, for example, in the report of a French ambassador to the
sultan of Turkey a few years before the French Revolution.
ambassador was instructed by his government to press the Turkish government in
certain negotiations and was making very slow progress. Paris said angrily, “Why
don’t you do something?”
The ambassador replied that “you must understand that
here things are not as they are in France, where the king is sole master and
does as he pleases. Here, the sultan has to consult with the holders of high
office. He has to consult with the retired former holders of high office. He has
to consult with the merchants, the craft guilds and all sorts of other
This is absolutely true. It’s an extraordinarily revealing and
informative passage and the point comes up again and again through the 19th and
You have this traditional system of consultation with
groups which are not democratic as we use that word in the Western world, but
which have a source of authority other than the state – authority which derives
from within the group, whether it be the landed gentry or the civil service, or
the scribes or whatever. That’s very important. And that form of consultation
could be a much better basis for the development of free and civilized
And therefore, for an anxious West which is trying to work
out what signals it should be sending and what processes it should be
encouraging, what opportunity does America and the free world have to influence
I’d rather take it from the other side and say what signals you
should not be sending. And that is not pressing for elections. This idea
that a general election, Western-style, is a solution to all these problems,
seems to me a dangerous fallacy which can only lead to disaster. I think
we should let them do it their way by consultative groups. There are various
kinds. There are all sorts of possibilities.
It’s happening now in Iraq,
Yet the sense one gets is that the people in the streets, in
Egypt, for example, want to have elections quickly and have a new leadership.
That is the signal that they’re sending. Won’t it be supercilious and
arrogant of the West to try to talk them out of it?
They’re all agreed that they
want to get rid of the present leadership, but I don’t think they’re agreed on
what they want in its place. For example, we get very, very different figures as
to the probable support for the Muslim Brothers.
Yes, we’ve seen 20, 30,
40 percent and we’ve seen attitudes from that Pew Poll, from a couple of months
ago, that were very extreme.
This is my point. And it’s very difficult to
rely on these things. People don’t tell the truth when they’re being
Broadly speaking, the notion of the Muslim Brotherhood,
which is much disputed – from being perceived as essentially benign,
unthreatening, even secular, according to one remark (later corrected, by US
National Intelligence Director James Clapper), to being perceived as a radical
and terrible threat. How would you judge it?
To say that they’re secular would
show an astonishing ignorance of the English lexicon. I don’t think [the Muslim
Brotherhood in Egypt] is in any sense benign. I think it is a very dangerous,
radical Islamic movement. If they obtain power, the consequences would be
disastrous for Egypt.
I’m an historian. My business is the past, not the
future. But I can imagine a situation in which the Muslim Brotherhood and other
organizations of the same kind obtain control of much of the Arab
world. It’s not impossible. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but it’s not
And if that happens, they would gradually sink back into
Remember that according to their own statistics, the
total exports of the entire Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less
than those of Finland, one small European country. Sooner or later the oil age
will come to an end. Oil will be either exhausted or superseded as a source of
energy and then they have virtually nothing. In that case it’s easy to
imagine a situation in which Africa north of the Sahara becomes not unlike
Africa south of the Sahara.
As we look at this region in ferment, how
would you characterize what is unfolding now? Can we generalize about the
uprisings that are erupting in the various countries? Is there a common theme?
There’s a common theme of anger and resentment. And the anger and resentment are
universal and well-grounded. They come from a number of things. First of
all, there’s the obvious one – the greater awareness that they have, thanks to
modern media and modern communications, of the difference between their
situation and the situation in other parts of the world. I mean, being abjectly
poor is bad enough. But when everybody else around you is pretty far from
abjectly poor, then it becomes pretty intolerable.
Another thing is the
sexual aspect of it. One has to remember that in the Muslim world, casual
sex, Western-style, doesn’t exist. If a young man wants sex, there are only two
possibilities – marriage and the brothel. You have these vast numbers of young
men growing up without the money, either for the brothel or the brideprice, with
raging sexual desire. On the one hand, it can lead to the suicide bomber, who is
attracted by the virgins of paradise – the only ones available to him. On
the other hand, sheer frustration.
So you have this explosion, which
different regimes are handling in very different ways. Were you surprised with
the ease with which, in Tunisia and Egypt, autocratic leaders were ousted? Do
you see other countries where a similar process is likely to unfold?
expecting a wave of such movements. I didn’t think it would be as quick
and easy as it was in Egypt. But I expect that there will be more. We can see in
so many countries, the regimes are already gravely in danger.
In Syria we
don’t see, so far, any major expression of an effort at people
power. It’s a more ruthless regime. In Iran, the stakes are much higher.
It requires much more courage to go out on the street when the regime is
presumably prepared to go to greater lengths to hold onto power. Do you see
these kinds of processes taking hold in the more repressive and ruthless
As far as one can judge, these movements of opposition are very strong,
even in Iran for example. Now, as you say, the Iranian regime is very
repressive. Nevertheless, there are ways in which people can communicate,
notably by telephone, e-mail and the rest, and the messages coming out of Iran
are unequivocal. It makes it clear that the regime is extremely
unpopular. There are two oppositions, opposition to the regime, and
opposition within the regime. I think that with even a little help from outside
it would be possible to do something. As the saying goes, “You can’t beat
something with nothing.”
A little help from outside? It’s a subtle
process. If the help is overt, it can be used by the regime in Iran, for
example, to suggest unwarranted and untenable Western influence. How do you give
help to people seeking the overthrow of these regimes?
One method is by
political warfare, by having some sort of propaganda campaign against the
regime. This would not be difficult. There’s a vast Iranian population
now in the Western world, particularly in the United States, who I’m sure would
be willing to help in this, and thanks to modern communications, it would not be
too difficult to get the message across. The messages coming out of Iran make
this very clear. You must have heard when the American forces went into Iraq,
lots of Iranians wrote e-mails or telephoned, saying, “You should have tackled
your problems in alphabetical order.”
Tell us more about the nature of
the Arab masses, their sense of their own religion, their sense of the agenda
that Islam sets out for them.
Well, you see, two things have
happened. One is that their position on the whole has been getting worse.
The second, which is much more important, is that their awareness of that is
getting much greater. As I said before, thanks to modern communications, they
can now compare their own position with that in other countries. And they don’t
have to look very far to do that. I have sat with friends in Arab countries,
watching Israeli television, and their responses to that are
What is so striking to them?
One particular instance that I
remember: There was a little Arab boy whose arm was broken by an Israeli
policeman during a demonstration and he appeared the next day on Israeli
television with a bandage on his arm, denouncing Israeli brutality. I was in
Amman at the time, watching this. And sitting next to me was an Iraqi, who had
fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and he looked at this with his jaw dropping and he
said, “I would gladly let Saddam Hussein break both my arms and both my legs if
he would let me talk like that on Iraqi television.”
Take us a little
deeper into the mindset. Help us reconcile the discord in Egypt, for
example, between hundreds and thousands of people coming out onto the streets
and demanding to be rid of a dictatorial leadership, which most people in the
West have interpreted as a push for freedoms and Westernstyle democracy, at the
same time as we read opinion surveys which show overwhelming proportions of
Egyptians taking very bleak views on some aspects of human rights, supporting
terrible punishments for adultery, benighted attitudes to homosexuality and so
It’s not easy to define what they are for. It’s much easier to
define what they are against. They are against the present tyrannies, which as
they see it, not only oppress them, but dishonor their name, their religion,
their nationality. They want to see something better in its place. Now
what that something better would be is differently defined. They are not usually
talking in terms of parliamentary democracy and free elections and so
on. That’s not part of the common discourse. For different groups
it means different things. But usually, it’s religiously defined. That doesn’t
necessarily mean the Muslim Brothers’ type of religion. There is also an
Islamic tradition which is not like that – as I referred to earlier, the
tradition of consultation. It is a form of government.
If we have
different potential Islamic paths that these peoples could now go down, how
strong is a more moderate Muslim tradition? How likely is it that that would
prevail? I ask you that because of your bleak characterization of the Muslim
Brotherhood which, again, some experts claim is relatively benign.
don’t know how one could get the impression that the Muslim Brotherhood is
relatively benign unless you mean relatively as compared with the Nazi
There are other trends within the Islamic world which look back to
their own glorious paths and think in other terms. There is a great deal
of talk nowadays about consultation. That is very much part of the
The sort of authoritarian, even dictatorial regimes, that rule
most of the countries in the modern Islamic Middle East, are a modern creation.
They are a result of modernization. The pre-modern regimes were much more
open, much more tolerant. You can see this from a number of contemporary
descriptions. And the memory of that is still living.
It was a British
naval officer called Slade who put it very well. He was comparing the old order
with the new order, created by modernization. He said that “in the old order,
the nobility lived on their estates. In the new order, the state is the estate
of the new nobility.” I think that puts it admirably.
Are you leading
toward the possibility that the unraveling of these modern, non-consultative
regimes could return us to a genuine, potential, wider peopleto- people
partnership between the Muslim world and the West? And if so, how do we go about
The only time when they began to look favorably on outside
alliances is when they see themselves as confronting a still greater danger.
Sadat didn’t make peace because he was suddenly convinced of the merits of the
Zionist case. Sadat made peace because Egypt was becoming a Soviet colony. He
realized that on the best estimate of Israel’s power and on the worst estimate
of Israel’s intentions, Israel was much less of a danger to Egypt than the
Soviet Union at that time. That is why he set to work to make peace, and he was
of course, right.
One sees similar calculations later than that. Consider
for example, the battle between the Israeli forces and Hezbollah in 2006. It was
quite clear that the Arab governments were quietly cheering the Israelis and
hoping that they would finish the job and were very disappointed when they
failed to finish the job. The best way of attaining friendship is by confronting
a yet more dangerous enemy. There have been several such [enemies] in the Middle
East and there are several at the present time. That seems to me the best hope
of understanding between the Arabs on the one hand and either the West or the
Israelis on the other hand.
People talk about American imperialism as a
danger. That is absolute nonsense.
People who talk about American
imperialism in the Middle East either know nothing about America or know nothing
about imperialism. American imperialism is a term which might justly be used to
describe some of the processes by which the original 13 states increased to the
present 50. But as applied to American policy in the Middle East at the present
time, it is wrong to the point of absurdity. Take the classical examples of
imperialism: When the Romans went to Britain 2,000 years ago, or when the
British went to India 300 years ago, an exit strategy was not uppermost in their
When you look around the region, which are the potential enemies
which may be regarded as the greater threat?
At the moment, principally the
Iranian revolution. On the one hand they’re afraid of what you might call
Iranian imperialism, and on the other hand of the Iranian Shi’ite
The Sunni-Shi’ite question is obviously different according
to which country you’re in. In a country like Iraq or Syria, where you
have both Sunnis and Shia, the distinction between Sunni and Shia, the clashes
between them, are very important. In a country like Egypt where there are no
Shia, which is 100% Sunni, it’s not an important issue. They don’t see the Shia
threat as an issue.
There’s one other group of people that I think one
should bear in mind when considering the future of the Middle East, and that is
women. The case has been made, and I think there is some force in it, that the
main reason for the relative backwardness of the Islamic world compared to the
West is the treatment of women. As far as I know, it was first made by a Turkish
writer called Namik Kemal in about 1880. At that time an agonizing debate had
been going on for more than a century: What went wrong? Why did we fall behind
He said, “The answer is very clear. We fell behind the West because of
the way we treat our women. By the way we treat our women we deprive ourselves
of the talents and services of half the population. And we submit the early
education of the other half to ignorant and downtrodden mothers.”
further than that. A child who grows up in a traditional Muslim household is
accustomed to authoritarian, autocratic rule from the start. I think the
position of women is of crucial importance.
That is why I am looking with
great interest at Tunisia. Tunisia is the one Arab country that has really done
something about women. In Tunisia there is compulsory education for girls, from
primary school, right through. In Tunisia, women are to be found in the
professions. There are doctors, lawyers, journalists, politicians and so
on. Women play a significant part in public life in Tunisia. I think that
is going to have an enormous impact. It’s already having this in Tunisia and you
can see that in various ways. But this will certainly spread to other
parts of the world.
Elsewhere, the question of women and the role of the
women is of crucial importance for the future of the Muslim world in
A key country which has not been enveloped in these uprisings
yet is Saudi Arabia. Why do you think that is? Is that going to change?
not much prospect of its changing for the time being. But sooner or later oil
will be either exhausted or superseded, and then of course the change will be
And what of our other immediate neighbors in Jordan and among
the Palestinians. From a security point of view, Israel is worried about
what might unfold...
With good reason... Until recently I would have said
that the Hashemite kingdom is fairly safe. I used to go to Jordan every year for
many years and there was no doubting the popularity of the regime. Members of
the royal family would travel alone, driving their own open two-seater cars
across the city, without feeling in the slightest degree endangered, and even be
greeted with cheers and kisses whenever they passed. That again could
The king would appear to be above the
And by changing his government, has defused at least
some of the protest?
It’s too early to say.
And on the Palestinian front,
what you said before about the overstated assumption that elections are the
panacea, that seems to be what unfolded with the Palestinians. There was
a dash for elections, when the only choices were between Fatah and Hamas. I
don’t see people-protests [against the regime] in Gaza, but in the West Bank
could there be some replication of what happened in Egypt, directed against
I don’t see elections, Western-style, as the answer to the problem. I
see it rather as a dangerous aggravation of a problem. The Western-style
election is part of a very distinctively Western political system, which has no
relevance at all to the situation in most Middle Eastern countries. It can only
lead to one direction, as it did in Germany, for example.
Two weeks ago,
I interviewed Natan Sharansky. He gave an enthusiastic endorsement of the push
for freedom. But a caveat was: Don’t have this sense that elections equals
democracy. Therefore, his recipe was: Go slower. But he still seemed to be
pushing in the Western, democratic direction. He was saying, you need to take
time; you need to create a climate in which opposition parties can organize,
other parties can organize, so you don’t only have the Muslim Brotherhood; you
need to have a media environment in which their message can be fairly reported;
and then people have to be confident that they can make their choices without
fear of persecution. That sounds very smart to me, but it also sounds very
Western. Are you suggesting that might be a path or that it fails to
understand the differences between the West and the Muslim world?
One has to
understand not so much the differences between the two as the differences in the
political discourse. In the Western world, we talk all the time about
freedom. In the Islamic world, freedom is not a political term. It’s a
legal term: Freedom as opposed to slavery. This was a society in which slavery
was an accepted institution existing all over the Muslim world. You were free if
you were not a slave. It was entirely a legal and social term, with no political
connotation whatsoever. You can see in the ongoing debate in Arabic and other
languages the puzzlement with which the use of the term freedom was first
They just didn’t understand it. I mean, what does this have to
do with politics or government? Eventually, they got the message. But it’s still
alien to them. In Muslim terms, the aim of good government is
The major contrast is not between freedom and tyranny, between
freedom and servitude, but between justice and oppression. Or if you like,
between justice and injustice. If one follows that particular discourse in the
Arab and more generally the Muslim world, it would be more
So while we look at these protests as a demand for a
greater stake in self-government and a push for what we consider to be freedoms,
what you’re diagnosing here is outrage against injustice?
is that demand met?
Corruption and oppression are corruption and oppression by
whichever system you define them. There’s not much difference between their
definition of corruption and our definition of corruption.
So, if the
leaderships in these countries were not corrupt and were just, they would not
have been confronted? It’s that they’ve not governed fairly?
resonates with what happened in Iran. You had elections and the results were
announced before the votes had been counted...
The people felt they were
It’s the sense of injustice at the core?
Yes. I think one
should look at it in terms of justice and injustice, rather than freedom and
oppression. I think that would make it much easier to understand the mental and
therefore the political processes in the Islamic world.
And so to the
Israel question. Israel, like everybody else, was taken completely by surprise.
How should Israel be responding to these protests?
Watch carefully, keep silent,
make the necessary preparations.
And reach out. Reach out. This is a real
possibility nowadays. There are increasing numbers of people in the Arab world
who look with, I would even say, with wonderment at what they see in Israel, at
the functioning of a free and open society. I read an article quite recently by
a Palestinian Arab whom I will not endanger by naming, in which he said that “as
things stand in the world at the present time, the best hope that an Arab has
for his future is as a second class citizen of a Jewish state.” A rather
extraordinary statement coming from an Arab spokesman. But if you think about
it, he’s not far wrong. The alternative, being in an Arab state, is very much
worse. They certainly do better as second class citizens of the Jewish state.
There’s a growing realization of that. People would speak much more openly about
that if it were safe to do so, which it obviously isn’t.
There are two
things which I think are helpful towards a better understanding between the
Arabs and Israel. One of them is the well-known one, of the perception of a
greater danger, which I mentioned before. Sadat turned to Israel because
he saw that Egypt was becoming a Russian colony. The same thing has happened
again on a number of occasions. Now they see Israel as a barrier against the
The other one, which is less easy to define but in the
long run is probably more important, is [regarding Israel] as a model of
democratic government. A model of a free and open society with rights for women
– an increasingly important point, especially in the perception of
In both of these respects I think that there are some hopeful
signs for the future.