Know Your Enemy

I have mentioned Bernard Lewis in these pages before; he is perhaps the West’s greatest living scholar of Islamic history and culture. This evening, as I was poking around over at the Maverick Philosopher’s place, I ran across, in a comment by Sam Graf to a post about appeasement of our foes, a link to a lecture given by Lewis earlier this year. In it he talks about the meaning of freedom and justice in Islamic societies, and of the historical events and forces that have brought us to our present crisis. The essay is brief, but Lewis is peerless, and you will learn more from these few paragraphs than from a year’s worth of the self-serving partisan din that passes for political debate these days.

Lewis begins:

What is the possibility of freedom in the Islamic world, in the Western sense of the word? If you look at the current literature, you will find two views common in the United States and Europe. One of them holds that Islamic peoples are incapable of decent, civilized government. Whatever the West does, Muslims will be ruled by corrupt tyrants. Therefore the aim of our foreign policy should be to insure that they are our tyrants rather than someone else’s—friendly rather than hostile tyrants. This point of view is very much favored in departments of state and foreign offices and is generally known, rather surprisingly, as the “pro-Arab” view. It is, of course, in no sense pro-Arab. It shows ignorance of the Arab past, contempt for the Arab present, and unconcern for the Arab future. The second common view is that Arab ways are different from our ways. They must be allowed to develop in accordance with their cultural principles, but it is possible for them—as for anyone else, anywhere in the world, with discreet help from outside and most specifically from the United States—to develop democratic institutions of a kind. This view is known as the “imperialist” view and has been vigorously denounced and condemned as such.

To provide historical context, Lewis describes the traditional Islamic society as being, if not strictly democratic, one in which power was checked by a social diffusion: there were various groups – guilds, scribes, landowners, etc. – that selected their leaders from within, and which had by necessity to reckon with one another’s influence. Heads of state could not act without consulting these powerful blocs. But in modern times a sense that Muslim culture was increasingly being left behind led to an attempt to remove these brakes on the ruler’s power, leading to increasingly autocratic and repressive governments.

Next, the conquest of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina by the followers of the radical fundamentalist Ibn Abd al-Wahhab gave that harshly intolerant sect control of the Hajj, and thereby tremendous influence of the course of Islamic affairs generally. At the same time, oil was discovered in the region, which offered the new masters of Islam’s holiest shrines vast wealth, and with it the security to consolidate their power.

In 1940 France fell to the Nazis, and a puppet French state was created in Vichy. At the time, Syria and Lebanon were ruled loosely under a French mandate, and once the strings were in the hands of Vichy France’s Nazi masters, it was easy for pro-Nazi regimes to be installed in various parts of the region. Though the Allies later drove the Nazis out, they too left once the war ended, and the vacuum was filled by the Soviets, who easily imposed their Stalinist model on the dormant Nazi apparatus. From these roots grew Baathism.

Lewis is clear about the foes we face today, who see the current battle as just another phase of a conflict that has lasted almost 14 centuries:

As Osama bin Laden puts it: “In this final phase of the ongoing struggle, the world of the infidels was divided between two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union. Now we have defeated and destroyed the more difficult and the more dangerous of the two. Dealing with the pampered and effeminate Americans will be easy.” And then followed what has become the familiar description of the Americans and the usual litany and recitation of American defeats and retreats: Vietnam, Beirut, Somalia, one after another. The general theme was: They can’t take it. Hit them and they’ll run. All you have to do is hit harder. This seemed to receive final confirmation during the 1990s when one attack after another on embassies, warships, and barracks brought no response beyond angry words and expensive missiles misdirected to remote and uninhabited places, and in some places—as in Beirut and Somalia—prompt retreats.

What happened on 9/11 was seen by its perpetrators and sponsors as the culmination of the previous phase and the inauguration of the next phase—taking the war into the enemy camp to achieve final victory. The response to 9/11 came as a nasty surprise. They were expecting more of the same—bleating and apologies—instead of which they got a vigorous reaction, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. And as they used to say in Moscow: It is no accident, comrades, that there has been no successful attack in the United States since then. But if one follows the discourse, one can see that the debate in this country since then has caused many of the perpetrators and sponsors to return to their previous diagnosis. Because remember, they have no experience, and therefore no understanding, of the free debate of an open society. What we see as free debate, they see as weakness, fear and division. Thus they prepare for the final victory, the final triumph and the final Jihad.

Read the complete essay here.


  1. pdg says

    Hi there Mac et al,

    Is Osama claiming that NATO’s bout against the USSR as being won by the forces of Islam?
    I thought the Reagan claim to that title pretty spurrious but Islam had pretty little to do with the decay of the Soviets. They imploded. Sure the arms race and Afghanistan drained and undermined the soviets, but the Poles – Lech Walensa and the late Pope John Paul II had more to do with paving the way for those under the commy boot to say no more…And as predicted by H. Marcuse the Soviets themselves eased up their grip internally & on Eastern Europe. The fight against muslems in Chechnya seems on-going with no true victory there for anyone -yet.
    And just as the fiction of Soviet might has been dispelled so will the Jihadist’s be shown as another paper tiger.
    They had been loosing adherants, until Bush I betrayed the Iraqi freedom fighters, Clinton’s brutal sanctions, and Bush II’s neo-con juggernaut gave them new blood and reason d’etre. (Just as the military/industrialists wished).
    The new movie “Iraq for Sale” gives a clear (and biased) account of how the US has mis-used its might to enrich the real evil doers.
    Osama was/is a puppet claiming to be a puppeteer.
    I would like to see more info on the Wahhabists/Carlyle group connections via Saudi Royalty, come to the public notice.
    “Why We Fight” did not dig deep enough.

    Posted September 22, 2006 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  2. the one eyed man says

    The view that “Islamic peoples are incapable of decent, civilized government” is negated by the decent and civilized governments of Indonesia, Turkey, Bengladesh, and Morocco.

    Posted September 22, 2006 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    No, I interpreted Osama’s remarks as meaning that the jihadists had defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan, although I’m sure he doesn’t mind helping himself to credit for the fact that they are weakened in the world generally. And their might, though now dissipated, was no fiction.

    As much as you would like to blame the USA for all the evils in the world, fundamentalist Islam has struggled with the West for over 13 centuries. Please disabuse yourself of the notion that they would be all warm and fuzzy toward us had we not been mean to them. The failure of Islamic states to be competitive in the modern world predates the founding of the United States by hundreds of years.

    Agreed. Those governments are not exactly our idea of modern democracies, but they are at least arguably civilized.

    Posted September 22, 2006 at 3:58 pm | Permalink
  4. the one eyed man says

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been to Turkey and Indonesia, and in addition to being civilized and decent, I also found them to be welcoming and hospitable. (Great food, too). They also have governments based on the same basic principles as ours.

    Moreover, if you want to consider things like the 2000 Florida vote count, gerry-mandering, the influence of lobbyists, and the electoral college, you might conclude that our democracy is less than perfect.

    Posted September 22, 2006 at 5:09 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    I haven’t been to either country – I am sure they they are welcoming and decent (most people and places are), and I know the food is good.

    I do admire Turkey for its steadfast insistence on being a modern democracy, in spite of considerable innner pressure to become a Sharia-based Islamic republic. The biggest fly in the ointment is the free-speech issue, which has just been in the news a bit lately. But yes, they are basically “one of us”, and I would not be surprised to see Turkey join the EU soon.

    Likewise Indonesia – there are some fairly serious human-rights issues over there, but they have come a long way, and are working on it.

    And you are quite right that there is ample room for improvement in our own election process as well. While there are reasoned arguments on both sides of the electoral-college question, it’s clearly not ideal, and I have always been astonished by what a transparent power-manipulation artifice gerrymandering is. Lobbying is more difficult – certainly we don’t want to forbid the petitioning of our elected officials, but I agree that it gets awfully smarmy, as we have just seen in the Abramoff case.

    Let’s face it, squeaky-clean politics is about as attainable a goal as a sterile sewer. At least we are free to bitch about it over here.

    Posted September 22, 2006 at 5:30 pm | Permalink
  6. pdg says

    There is little I have written that puts blaim on the good ol’ USA. I blaim the Military Industrial Complex- ( which is international and has no allegence to anything but profits), – for much of this world’s ills and creating the Iraqi quagmire at this time.
    I do have some doubts about the voting public’s ability to keep our democracy vital. There is a lack of knowledge regarding our constitution, rights and responsibilities etc. which worries me.
    Peter’s point is also a good one – there is a habit of civilization in many Islamic nations. Egypt may have claim to the oldest habit of civilization in any nation-state still existing as such. America has little claim to a habit of civilization, we are still pretty rough and tumble as a society…Which I happen to enjoy!
    My larger point is that MY real enemies are those who create these wars of proxy, dispoil the environment, ignore science and world opinion regarding the consumption of fossil fuels, all in the name of profits. This, disguised as protecting the comfy status quo.
    We should be using our abilities to wean ourselves from oil not prolonging and improving the profits for the military/Industrial/oil companies’ hegamony on the reins of our leaders, and thus of our society’s priorities.
    We have been misdirected in these matters. Arabs are not such villians as a lot. The USSR was not the holly terror we were asked to believe in order to keep the arms race alive.
    You agree in several threads how the USA has a spotty record, yet now when the reasons to make THIS war are shown to be lies the gist of the Bush argument is still believable to you. Why is this time a good and just war?
    You give power to your “enemies” by allowing them to dictate the terms of ingagement. If we had threatened the Saudi’s and said its Mecca as home plate in a new ball game – our sandlot our rules – that would have made tactical sense to me. We may have lost many fence-sitters to Bin Loose too long but if it was hand him over or no Hadj this year -he’d be cooled.
    I just believe this conflict was devised to create war-profits …as most of our past dozen wars have been. The longer the conflict the better. That is also why I like what Murtha is doing saying no more pretense. Fight to win or don’t fight. My view is it should have been Saudi Arabia not Iraq we went after.
    Going after Iraq was just a way to stir up some action for the MIC to rake in the bucks. At best our leaders are tools and willing dupes of these dirtbags, at best.
    I enclude Clinton in that lot as well.
    It may be you have no arab/muslem friends. Thats too bad. I have had a few over the years and we agreed and disagreed much as you and I do on various issues. But they were/are not my implacable enemies. I have a Jewish last name and if they had a closed mind-set we never could have become friendly.
    The Wahhabis are a danger to all civilization. But they were created in Saudi Arabia -as you noted, and they are still supported by the royalty in no small part.
    They are not the Iraqis. the Iraqis were just the most ripe for the MIC to make the next boogie men and pick as a target of opportunity. Shifting the status of enemy from the Saudis to the Iraqis was easy to do, when we just wanted to kick some arab ass, any arab ass.
    The lies and obfuscations are now comming out clearly, the debacle is being exposed for what it is, misdirection.

    Posted September 22, 2006 at 5:49 pm | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    Today’s New York Times reported on a bill pending in the California legislature which, if enacted by all fifty states, would effectively eliminate the electoral college without a constitutional amendment. The bill requires the legislature to send electors who will vote for the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of how California votes. In my opinion, a darn fine idea.

    Posted September 22, 2006 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

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