In his most recent article published in "Foreign Affairs" magazine, Bernard Lewis discusses the problems of spreading democracy in the Middle East. Entitled "Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East", the article is based on a lecture that Lewis gave at the prominent Georgetown University in the US capital. This topic fits with Lewis”s longstanding interest in the politics of Islam, both in classical and recent times. The articles has added value, however, as it is concerned with the topic of the hour across the Middle East, namely the US plan for reform in the region, with Lewis being its primary ideological and intellectual supporter.
Without wishing to present too a detailed overview of the article, which, undoubtedly, will cause great debate in the Arab press, I would like to highlight its four main concepts and offer general comments on Lewis” approach.
Firstly, Lewis discusses the relationship, in the Islamic political tradition, between the notion of "freedom" on the one hand, and that of "equality" on the other. He does so in order to oppose the centrality of equality in Islamic thought to the absence of the idea of freedom -as defined in the modern liberal tradition- in both Islamic text and experience. Lewis states in his article that Islam, more than any other religion, insists on equality and opposes racial and hereditary, despite three exceptions regarding women, slaves, and non- Muslims that were widespread in medieval times. In fact, according to Lewis, these exceptions remained in practice until recently, even in such a place as the USA. The notion of freedom, meanwhile, was restricted
to a religious and legal framework. This is why, suggest Lewis, the notion of freedom caused a theoretical and epistemological problem when it entered the Arab cultural dictionary with Napoleon”s expedition in Egypt in 1798.
However, this notion of freedom was not immediately absorbed into and accepted by the Islamic cultural thought until the publication of Rifat Tahtawi”s book, "Takhlis Il Ibriz (or the extraction of gold) in 1834. Lewis informs us that, in his book, Tahtawi equates between freedom and the principle of justice. As such, in Tahtawi”s writings, combines freedom, a liberal modern concept, and the notion of justice, derived from an Islamic framework.
The second notion Lewis talks about in his article is the constant vacillation of Islamic political thought between two distinct traditions, dating back to the earliest era of Islam: the revolutionary tradition based on protest against despotism, and the institutional tradition that encourages obedience to the ruler. Both traditions, Lewis states, continue right through the recorded history of Islamic history and Islamic political thought and practice. In time, the quietist or authoritarian trend grew stronger, and it, therefore, became difficult to place restrictions on the despotism of some rules. In addition, obsessed with the specter of civil war, a majority of Islamic jurists came to the conclusion that the maintenance of order and the avoidance of internal strife took precedence over justice and consultation (shura) in politics. The position of leader in Islam, Lewis reminds us, is based on "Bayah" or vow of allegiance, consent and consultation. Despite these criteria not having been always followed in Islamic societies, they remain, nevertheless, the basis of a legitimate government and its framework.
In his third argument, Lewis refuses to explain the contemporary growth in despotism across the Middle East by appealing to the region”s Islamic background. Instead, he deems this rise in autocratic rule as a contemporary phenomenon related less to the history of Islam than to modern forces and to the impact of Europe on the region. In his argument, Lewis describes how the present totalitarian Middle Eastern model was formed in two stages. In the first stage, followed Napoleon”s Egyptian adventures and lasted throughout the 20th century. It was characterized by the attempts at reform undertaken by the main rulers of the region; the Sultan in Turkey, the Pasha and then the Khedive in Egypt, and the Shah in Iran, to catch up with European countries.
These reforms, while they might have succeeded in modernizing the bureaucracy and the military, did not affect the political realm. As a result, they provided the ruling authorities with more tools for repression, hegemony and control over the people.
The second stage started in the 1940s and was represented by the adoption of a nationalist ideology, similar to the ones popular in Europe at the time, such as Fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism. Arab political parties, modeled after these ideologies, rose to power in several Arab countries, also practicing repression, exclusion, and despotism.
In his fourth and final claim, Lewis presents three obstacles that he believes are hampering the progress of democracy in the Middle East. They are the autocratic model, based on national legitimacy, the absence of the concept of citizenship from the traditional Islamic model, and the dominance of Islamic fundamentalist groups in the "Muslim street". Lewis, however, remains hopeful in his article, indicating that the "values of equality, justice and consultation in the Islamic tradition, the new possibilities created by the modern communications (the internet and satellite television) and the latest developments in Iraq" all point out to a democratic future for the Middle East. Accordingly, Lewis believes that the success of democracy in Iraq, such as the first free and fair elections in which million of eligible voters took part, may well prove a turning point in the history of the Middle East. Iraq, Lewis writes, is ideally placed to become a true democracy in the region with a good infrastructure, educated elite, and a strong participation of women in public life. These latest elections in Iraq, says Lewis, are no less important than the expedition of Napoleon, two centuries ago.
He concludes by saying that, if the Second World War opened the door for democracy in the defeated Axis powers, and the Cold War brought a measure of freedom to the ex- Soviet republics, then after the war in Iraq, with a bit of patience and commitment, the United States of America will succeed in introducing freedom and democracy to the Middle East.
I would like, at this point, to comment briefly on this latest article by Lewis.
Let me start off by saying that the hostile and provocative tone common in Lewis” writings on Islam is conspicuously absent here. Instead, the article attempts to highlight several positive aspects of the history of Islam. It also rejects the tendency to explain the presence of autocratic regimes by invoking the culture of Islam. This shift in Lewis” thought ought to be applauded, even if some of his conclusions should be reexamined. For example, he is wrong to compare the concept of citizenship in the Greek- Western perspective and the principal of religious identity in Islam. I also disagree with the author”s erroneous analysis of Arab Nationalism, a project he reduces to the pro- Nazi Stalinist Baath party, undoubtedly influenced by his own Zionist tendencies. Arab Nationalism is in no way restricted to the Baath party which is one of its worst examples but, instead, is related to calls for Arab modernization and reform, as emphasized by the works of pioneers such as Al Kawakibi, the author of "The Natures of Despotism" in which he attempted to engrain modern liberal values into Arab thought.
What remains to be said, in conclusion, is that the bet that Lewis places on Iraq to act, as a model for accelerating reform in the region is risky, especially given the reality in Iraq where violence and terrorism are rife. However, I agree with Lewis that the Iraqi earthquake was, unintentionally, decisive in moving forward the agenda for reform, which had been previously static for a long period of time.