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.
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.