Bernard Lewis On Democracy In The Middle East genre: Hip-Gnosis & Just Jihad & Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

Middle East

In our daily political banter, we hear plenty of opinions...and spin...on both the objective and the prospect of bringing democracy to the Middle East. The President argues that the solution to extremism, and therefore terrorism, is freedom...the essence of what has been coined the "Bush Doctrine". At the same time, we witness rampant sectarian violence in Iraq, a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and madrasahs teaching the evils of Western Civilization in much of the Muslim world. The apparent disconnect should be of interest to all Americans and an article by Bernard Lewis at Real Clear Politics attempts to connect some of the dots. The article is lengthy and though I have included some key excerpts below, I recommend reading the entire piece.

By common consent among historians, the modern history of the Middle East begins in the year 1798, when the French Revolution arrived in Egypt in the form of a small expeditionary force led by a young general called Napoleon Bonaparte--who conquered and then ruled it for a while with appalling ease. [...]

Equality is very basic in Islamic belief: All true believers are equal. Of course, that still leaves three "inferior" categories of people--slaves, unbelievers and women. But in general, the concept of equality was understood. Islam never developed anything like the caste system of India to the east or the privileged aristocracies of Christian Europe to the west. Equality was something they knew, respected, and in large measure practiced. But liberty was something else.

As used in Arabic at that time, liberty was not a political but a legal term: You were free if you were not a slave. The word liberty was not used as we use it in the Western world, as a metaphor for good government. So the idea of a republic founded on principles of freedom caused some puzzlement.

The simplicity of the Lewis observation with regard to the distinctions between equality and liberty is important to the U.S. dialogue concerning our efforts in the Middle East. Clearly, our own understandings of exporting democracy are not consistent with basic Islamic understandings...a crucial factor in determining the potential for we define be incorporated into the Islamic world. Unfortunately, in the debate leading up to the invasion of Iraq, that reality was absent from the dialogue and had it been better understood, perhaps our willingness to undertake the task we now struggle to conclude may have been appropriately tempered. Sadly, politics often has little use for nuance and complexity.

That there has been a break with the past is a fact of which Arabs and Muslims themselves are keenly and painfully aware, and they have tried to do something about it. It is in this context that we observe a series of movements that could be described as an Islamic revival or reawakening. The first of these--founded by a theologian called Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who lived in a remote area of Najd in desert Arabia--is known as Wahhabi. Its argument is that the root of Arab-Islamic troubles lies in following the ways of the infidel. The Islamic world, it holds, has abandoned the true faith that God gave it through His prophet and His holy book, and the remedy is a return to pure, original Islam. This pure, original Islam is, of course--as is usual in such situations--a new invention with little connection to Islam as it existed in its earlier stages.

The other important thing that happened--also in the mid-20s--was the discovery of oil. With that, this extremist sect found itself not only in possession of Mecca and Medina, but also of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. As a result, what would otherwise have been a lunatic fringe in a marginal country became a major force in the world of Islam. And it has continued as a major force to the present day, operating through the Saudi government and through a whole series of non-governmental organizations. What is worse, its influence spreads far beyond the region.

As I consider the inference of an awakening in the Lewis piece, I can't help but recall the recent musings by President Bush that the United States seemed to be in the midst of a religious awakening. Add to the equation, the fact that the carefully chosen historical (yet apt to be seen as derogatory) view of Muhammad offered by the Pope has been interpreted as an affront to Islam, the blurring of the lines between church and state in the U.S. that has formed the basis of a dominant Republican political that now includes the Catholic Church and many of its followers, and it isn't difficult to explain the growing polarized tensions.

These tensions are only fomented when the President uses terms like Islamic Fascists and when the war on terror is framed as a clash of civilizations. In reality, what now exists is a growing ideological divide that is accelerated by the absolutist beliefs (fueled by the connotations of an awakening) of the combatants. Instead of moving towards acceptance and tolerance, both sides are actually moving towards the dangerous construct of "good vs. evil".

In addition to the rising spread of Wahhabism, I would draw your attention to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. [...] It was a massive change in the country, a massive shift of power--socially, economically, and ideologically. And like the French and Russian revolutions in their prime, it also had a tremendous impact in the world with which the Iranians shared a common universe of discourse--the world of Islam. [...] I would say that the Iranian Revolution is now entering the Stalinist phase, and its impact all over the Islamic world has been enormous.

The third and most recent phase of the Islamic revival is that associated with the name Al-Qaeda--the organization headed by Osama bin Laden. Here I would remind you of the events toward the end of the 20th century: the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan, the withdrawal of the defeated armies into Russia, the collapse and breakdown of the Soviet Union. We are accustomed to regard that as a Western, or more specifically, an American, victory in the Cold War. In the Islamic world, it was nothing of the kind. It was Muslim victory in a Jihad.

As he sees it, and as his followers see it, there has been an ongoing struggle between the two world religions--Christianity and Islam--which began with the advent of Islam in the 7th century and has been going on ever since. The Crusades were one aspect, but there were many others. It is an ongoing struggle of attack and counter-attack, conquest and reconquest, Jihad and Crusade, ending so it seems in a final victory of the West with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire--the last of the great Muslim states--and the partition of most of the Muslim world between the Western powers.

With the above analysis, Lewis has completed an explanation of the ideological terrain and the difficult environment in which we are now conducting our efforts to export democracy. Not only are our efforts viewed as a further partitioning of the Muslim world, they are perceived to be premised upon extinguishing Islamic beliefs...despite the efforts of the President to assure peaceful Muslims of the contrary. Beliefs of an awakening by both sides exacerbate the mutual skepticism. Our mere presence in Iraq and Afghanistan provides the proof for those who argue that the conflict is, in fact, a holy war. Additionally, the assertion that we want to bring freedom and liberty is seen as the Trojan horse within which lurk those sent to bring Islam to its end.

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.

What Lewis is arguing is that there remains a fundamental divide in communication and comprehension. Much of the Middle East, guided by the precepts of Islam, remains convinced that our liberty (viewed as the open and allowed dissention and debate that exists in Western Civilizations...perhaps viewed by many Muslims as the failings of secularism) is evidence of our flawed culture because it fails to provide the absolutist structure upon which Islam is predicated. This mindset might best be captured in the notion of the infidel...whereby all those who subscribe to Western Civilization have chosen the very flawed existence that many in the Middle East oppose. Further, that perceived act of free choice likely provides some of the justification for indiscriminate killing.

Lewis then offers his summations, which I am less inclined to accept. Essentially, his conclusion is that "Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us". He points to the elections in Iraq and Afghanistan as hopeful signs that the region can adopt some semblance of democracy. He also suggests that pro-American sentiment among the citizenry of Iran is indicative of their acceptance of, and desire for, democracy. His conclusion is somewhat ambiguous as to the methods by which we should bring them the freedom he advocates. Given his more positive assessment of the Iraq effort, it appears he may believe that our current approach is the correct way to achieve that goal. I’m not convinced he’s right.

The outlook at the moment is, I would say, very mixed. I think that the cause of developing free institutions--along their lines, not ours--is possible. One can see signs of its beginning in some countries. At the same time, the forces working against it are very powerful and well entrenched. And one of the greatest dangers is that on their side, they are firm and convinced and resolute. Whereas on our side, we are weak and undecided and irresolute. And in such a combat, it is not difficult to see which side will prevail.

I think that the effort is difficult and the outcome uncertain, but I think the effort must be made. Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us.

I concur that the outlook is mixed and I accept that we have some responsibility for leaving both Iraq and Afghanistan functional. Nonetheless, I struggle to imagine the scenario that allows democracy to flourish in the Middle East…in our likeness. Sectarian and religious beliefs continue to prevail and if democracy is to succeed, those groups would need to abandon some of their absolute ideology in order to craft a social contract that allows their diverse sectarian beliefs to mutually exist.

The fact that the people of Iraq and Afghanistan acted out the democratic process of voting does not necessarily predict that they can coexist or that that desire was the motivation behind the casting of their votes. The fact that an ineffective government exists in the midst of rampant sectarian violence suggests that, while they were willing to vote, they may have done so with nothing more than the motivation of winning the election in order to have the authority to impose their beliefs on those defeated…and because it was the framework we imposed.

I don't see the presence of the fundamental impetus needed for democracy to take hold at the moment. Perhaps with years of guided incubation it could emerge but given the historical background provided by Lewis, any expectation that can happen under the watch of American soldiers (infidels) seems doubtful. In fact, it seems more likely that our presence heightens religious ideologies and foments holy war ideations far more than it serves to instill democracy. The expectation that these people will set aside an ideology that sees Western Civilization as the antithesis of Islam is tantamount to pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Lastly, I see no evidence that this conflict can be won militarily. I also accept that there may be instances where military intervention could be required. However, it is my opinion that our ultimate objective can only be achieved politically over a lengthy period of time. Further, I'm not convinced that our efforts in Iraq have done anything more than to undermine our ability to achieve the end result we espouse. In the end, democracy must be a groundswell that is cultivated and allowed to germinate before it can take hold. Our efforts to turn the soil and impose the crop are, in my opinion, likely to yield little more than retrenchment and further ideological extremism. I wish it were otherwise...but I just don't think George Bush is actually the magician he may fashion himself to be.

Daniel DiRito | September 20, 2006 | 12:00 PM
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