Philadelphia, Asharq Al-Awsat—Bernard Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University and the author of many critically acclaimed and bestselling books, including two number one New York Times bestsellers: What Went Wrong? and Crisis of Islam. The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Internationally recognized as the greatest historian of the Middle East, he has received fifteen honorary doctorates and his books have been translated into more than twenty languages. Lewis’ latest work is Notes on A Century: Reflections of A Middle East Historian.
Asharq Al-Awsat‘s editor-in-chief Adel Al Toraifi recently met with Bernard Lewis for an interview in Philadelphia, during which he provided his sweeping overview of the region. Lewis reflected on the future of the region after the Arab Spring, as well the history and literature of the Middle East. Sharing personal anecdotes as well as his own analysis and judgment, Lewis offered a nuanced and informed perspective on a region he has devoted his life to studying and experiencing. A noted scholar as well on Islam and the West, Lewis also reflected on how the West can and should engage the region to avoid the pitfalls of past decades and missed opportunities. He importantly stressed that the answers to the region’s predicaments lie not in Washington or London, but in the region itself.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What are your predictions on Arab world after the Arab Spring?
Bernard Lewis: I don’t think the historian can reasonably be expected to predict the future but there are certain things that the historian can and should do. He can discern trends. He can look at what has been happening and what is happening and see change developing. From this he can formulate, I will not say predictions, but possibilities, alternative possibilities, things that may happen, things that may go this way or that way, in evolving interactions. It is of course much safer to predict the remote rather than the immediate future.
Q: What possibilities then do you see emerging from the Arab Spring?
I am to some degree pessimistic about the Arab Spring. Developing a democracy is a slow and difficult business. We must be patient and give emerging democracies a chance to develop. 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.
The Arab masses certainly want change. And they want improvement. But what does “democracy” mean in a Middle Eastern context? It’s a word that is used with 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. We can’t impose western models of democracy and judge the Middle East by them.
Many believe the Arabs want freedom and democracy. Westerners tend to think of democracy in our own terms—that’s natural and normal—to mean periodic elections in our style. But it’s a mistake to try to think of the Middle East in those terms and that can only lead to disastrous results, as we’ve already seen in various places. Hamas did not establish a democratic regime when it came to power through a free and fair election. I am mistrustful and view with apprehension a genuinely free election—assuming that such a thing could happen—because religious parties have an immediate advantage.
Q: Why do you see religious parties as a potential regression in terms of democracy?
Political Islam did change over time but not necessarily for the best. A dash toward Western-style elections, far from representing a solution to the region’s difficulties, constitutes a dangerous aggravation of the problem and I fear that radical Islamic movements are ready to exploit so misguided a move. In genuinely fair and free elections, the Muslim parties are very likely to win. We get different figures from polls as to the probable support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is a very dangerous, radical Islamic movement. The consequences could be disastrous for Egypt. 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. I would not say it’s likely, but it is not unlikely. If that happens, they would gradually sink back into medieval squalor.
Q: What path then should the Middle East take?
A much better course would be a gradual development of democracy, not through general elections, but rather through civil society and the strengthening of local institutions. For that, there is a real tradition in the region.
There is an Islamic tradition which is not like that of the Brotherhood’s brand of religion—the tradition of consultation. It is a form of government. If you look at the history of the Middle East and its own political literature, it’s totally against arbitrary and tyrannical rule. Islamic tradition always insisted on consultation. This is not a 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. The French 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 one 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 merchants, the craft guilds, and all sorts of groups. This is absolutely true. It’s an extraordinarily revealing and informative passage and the point comes up again and again through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
There was a traditional system of consultation with groups which were not democratic, as we used that word in the Western world, but which had a source of authority—other than the state-authority—which derived from within group, whether it be the landed gentry, the civil service, the scribes or whatever. That could be a better basis for the development of free and civilized government.
The authoritarian, even dictatorial regimes that rule most of the countries in the modern Islamic Middle East are a modern creation, the result of modernization. The pre-modern regimes were much more open, much more tolerant. You can see this from a number of contemporary descriptions. A nineteenth-century British naval official named Slade put it well. Comparing the old order with the new order, created by modernization, he said, “In the old order, the nobility lived on their estates. In the new order, the state is the estate of the new nobility.”
Q: You have mentioned that the West often misunderstands the difference between freedom and justice when it comes to communicating their support for democratic change in the Arab world. What is the difference between these terms?
In the Western world, we talk all of the time about freedom. In the Islamic world, freedom is not a political term. It’s a legal term: Freedom as opposed to slavery. In the past 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 debate in Arabic and other languages the puzzlement with which the use of the term “freedom” was first perceived. They just didn’t understand it. They wondered what this had to do with politics or government. Eventually, they got the message. But it’s still alien to many. In Muslim terms, the measure of good government is justice. The closest Arabic word to our concept of liberty is “justice”.
The major contrast is not between freedom and tyranny, between freedom and servitude, but between justice and oppression, or, between justice and injustice. Looking at it this way makes it much easier to understand the mental and therefore the political processes in the Islamic world.
Q: How best then can the West respond to the changes taking places in the Arab world?
What bothers me about the Middle East at the present day is not so much what they are saying and doing but what we are saying. We face a present moment where we are unable to affect the change on the ground, but admittedly so, the importance of the Middle East is declining for the West. We are transmitting the wrong signals. We must be clear and more definite on the need for freedom in the Middle East and our desire to help those who work for freedom. There is question of whether democracy can work in the Arab world.
There are different views. One, the so called pro-Arab point of view, which says that these people are not like us; they have different ways, different traditions. We should admit that they are incapable of setting up anything like the kind of democracy we have. The aim of our policies should therefore be to maintain stability and ensure that they are ruled by friendly rather than hostile tyrants. In fact, of course, it is in no way pro-Arab. It shows ignorance of the Arab past, little concern of the Arab present, and even less for the Arab future.
The other point of view says that these are the heirs of an old and great civilization. They have gone through some bad times but there are elements in their society which will help, which can be nurtured to develop some form of limited consensual government in their own cultural tradition. I think it shows far greater respect for the ambitions and aspirations of the people of the region. Western ideas may have helped precipitate such Middle Eastern crises of transition as the Suez War of 1956, and more recently the Arab Spring of 2011, but only the people themselves can resolve these crises. We must be aware proposing solutions which, however good are discredited by the very fact of our having proposed them. Our politics and diplomacy are not welcome, though our weaponry and money are.
Q: Considering the Middle East’s future after almost a century of your own engagement with the region, what challenges do you see the region facing in the coming decades?
I think the Middle East faces two critical problems. One, as I have mentioned earlier, a clash of ideas and identities, and also, importantly, its relevance declining with the transition away from oil as the main energy source for the global economy. 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. Oil will either be exhausted or superseded as a source of energy and then they will 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, with growing emigration.
Q: What are your impressions of Bashar Al-Assad? How will the sectarianism play itself out in Syria?
Assad is an accidental President and should not have been President. He would have been a better Londoner. I have observed that when minorities are under threat, instead of coming together, throughout history, they have often been used against one another.
Q: Looking at the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty over 30 years on, what are your recollections of this moment of peace?
During my occasional visits to Egypt I used to see the more or less the same people every time. If you go to a country at intervals and talk to the same people you have an opportunity to measure changes in mood and changes in attitude. It gives you a cross-section of opinion, using the same samples. After an absence of several years I had gone back to Egypt in 1969. Nasser was still alive and in control. Although I did meet Nasser I had no serious conversation with him, but I saw a lot of people, including old friends, and I was very much struck by the change of mood. I came away with a clear impression that Egypt was ready for peace. I even wrote an article, published in Encounter under a pseudonym, in which I said that. I said that I thought Egypt was ready for peace and that negotiations could really lead to a treaty between Egypt and Israel. That was almost ten years before it happened.
I went to Egypt again several times after that, in 1970, 1971, 1974, both before Nasser’s death in 1973 and after the Yom Kippur War. I did not meet Sadat, who took over the presidency on Nasser’s death in 1970 but I met some of his close advisers and was absolutely convinced that a direct approach to Egypt would produce results.
At the first opportunity after my return from my trip in 1969 I went to Israel, sought out Golda Meir and tried to convince her that the Egyptians were ready, and that a direct approach would almost certainly produce results. She didn’t believe me. She indicated that I had allowed myself to be duped by the Egyptians and that it was all nonsense.
I put it to Golda, I put it even to Dayan, I also put it to Rabin. I even wrote Rabin a letter to that effect. But it fell on deaf ears; they didn’t believe me or didn’t want to believe me. Menachem Begin did.
Q: You mentioned your interactions with Golda Meir, what were your impressions of her?
The students of Princeton have a noted debating society. It had become the custom that from time to time the society would invite a distinguished person to come to Princeton as their guest. In 1975 they invited Golda Meir, who had just ceased to be the Prime Minister of Israel. She accepted and had a very lively visit with many events. At one point an earnest student admonished her that she shouldn’t smoke so much as it was bad for her health. “Well,” replied the seventy-seven year old “I’m not going to die young, am I?”
During the several days she was on campus the female students, who were still a novelty at Princeton and quite defensive, put up a poster with her photo on it and the caption, “But can she type?” The high spot, in this as in similar visits, was a public address in the largest lecture hall of the university. The auditorium was overflowed. The chairman, a senior university dignitary, made the appropriate speech introducing our distinguished guest and called on Golda Meir to speak.
She went to the lectern and said, “I think you will agree with me on occasions like this speech is usually a bore. What is interesting is the question and answer period. If the chairman will agree, I would suggest that we skip the speech. You know who I am, you know where I come from, you know what I am likely to say, so let’s eliminate the speech and get straight down to the questions.”
At that time, UNESCO had refused to admit Israel but had admitted the PLO. A student asked, “Why did UNESCO reject Israel and admit the PLO?” Golda Meir, with a perfectly straight face, “As you know UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and one must assume that these gentlemen, after due and careful consideration, decided that the PLO has more to contribute to education, science and culture than Israel.” It brought the house down.
Golda Meir was very tough, very committed. Golda was fitted with a kind of personal filtration system – she only heard what she wanted to hear. If she picked up anything in what I was saying to fit within her pattern of thought, she would immediately grasp and use it. Anything that didn’t fit just went straight past her as, for example, when I came to her in 1969 with my story of Egypt being ready for peace negotiations.
Q: From your numerous travels around the Arab world, have you spent any time in Saudi Arabia?
Unfortunately not, though I wanted to very much. I received invitations to visit more than once over the years but sadly was unable to take them up at the time. There was one occasion I remember when I entered the north of Saudi Arabia without a visa.
Q: Can you tell us the story?
For many years I traveled almost every year to Jordan, where I had a personal relationship with the royal family. I knew and respected King Hussein. This helped me keep in touch with what was going on in the Arab world. On this particular occasion I was traveling around with King Hussein’s driver near the border with Saudi Arabia and I asked if it was possible to enter. The driver said it was probably not possible but he went and spoke with the border guards anyway and the result was that they let us through, so I spend a few pleasant hours wandering around the small towns of northern Saudi Arabia, albeit illegally.
I also paid frequent visits to Turkey, Egypt, and when possible, Lebanon. I have not been to Iran since the Revolution, though I did once, to my surprise, receive an invitation to participate in a conference on religious dialogue there. The subject is a very interesting and important one, but I did not feel inclined to discuss it under the auspices of the current regime.
Q: From your long and distinguished encounters with the Middle East both professionally and intellectually, who is your favorite contemporary writer on the Arab world?
Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, who studied in European universities and spent his life in Egypt in the mid-19th century, wrote several important works about Islam and its compatibility with modernity during an important period of change as the Muslim World interacted with Europe in the 19th century. His perspective and arguments were enriched by his understanding of Europe and how principles of Islam and European modernity could complement one another.