Skip to comments.Interview: Bernard Lewis on Islam & the Middle East
Posted on 08/29/2010 6:58:34 AM PDT by canuck_conservative
LAMB: What's the point of the book?
Prof. LEWIS: How shall I put it? Let me s--let me put it this way. Here you have in the Middle East a very ancient and a very great civilization, which for 1,000 years or so was in the very forefront of human endeavor. It was the richest, strongest, most powerful, most wealthy of--of all living societies. It was also on the cutting edge of science, technology, in virtually every field. And then suddenly, within a very short period, this society is eclipsed by--is--is overshadowed, outperformed in almost every respect by what they had hitherto regarded as the ignorant, barbarous infidels beyond the northwestern frontier, namely, Christian Europe.
Suddenly, instead of winning every war, they lost every war. They were beaten in battle again and again, they who had been accustomed to unending triumphs and victories. The defeats on the battlefield at the peripheries didn't matter so much. But when they were defeated at the very center and when the greatest of the Muslim powers, the Ottoman Empire, was forced by victorious enemies to surrender and sign a peace treaty, in effect, imposed by the enemy, that concentrated the mind wonderfully and began a debate. This was just over 300 years ago, in 1699, and the debate has been going on ever since.
It begins with the military. The question is asked at the time, `Hitherto, we have always defeated the infidels. Now the infidels are defeating us. Why? What did--what went wrong?' Then defeat in the battlefield was matched by defeat in the marketplace. Suddenly Western economies began to develop while theirs became stagnant, and so even things which they regarded as peculiarly their own were better done elsewhere. Then they found themselves outperformed politically, and they looked to the reasons for their relative failure compared with Western success, and they tried a number of things. They started with the military. They modernized their armies. They adopted Western wethod--methods, Western weapons, Western drill and so on. But it didn't help. They still lost war after war.
They decided that it must be the economy. So, they tried to industrialize, forced industrialization by the state, and that didn't work very well either. Then they decided that it must be the political systems of the West. The--the magic talisman of Western wealth and power was elected assemblies, something entirely alien to their experience. So they tried that. And none of it has worked, and this has been going on now for three centuries.
And it got worse and worse; not only were they outperformed by the West, they came to be dominated by the West, as most of the Islamic world, with very few exceptions, came under the rule of one or other of the great European imperial powers--Britain, France, Holland and Russia. And this--this is a debate which has been going on for three centuries and has been getting more and more ramified and all kinds of explanations have been offered. And what I try to do in this book is to look at some of the various explanations that have been offered against the background of the changes which have actually been taking place.
LAMB: How long have you been writing about the Middle East, thinking about it?
Prof. LEWIS: Oh, since I was an undergraduate, and that was...
Prof. LEWIS: In the University of London in the mid-1930's.
LAMB: And what got your interest in it going in the first place?
Prof. LEWIS: Idle curiosity. I was going to be a lawyer. It never occurred to me that one could actually earn a living by doing this sort of stuff. I was going to be a lawyer so I could take my BA in whatever amused me, and I did history and then I specialized in Middle Eastern history, and in order to do that better, I learned s--a couple of Middle Eastern languages.
LAMB: What did you learn?
Prof. LEWIS: Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish.
LAMB: Still speak them?
Prof. LEWIS: S--well, I'm getting a little bit rusty in some of them. As I grow older, my fluency diminishes, but I can still read them.
LAMB: Did you travel to that part of the world?
Prof. LEWIS: Oh, yes. I've traveled extensively. And then between 1940 and 1945, I was on his majesty's service and that gave me an opportunity to see the modern Middle East. Until then, my interests have been mainly medieval, and this gave me a chance to make the acquaintance of the modern Middle East and travel around quite a lot. It gave me a somewhat different perspective.
LAMB: Now you're a professor emeritus at Princeton.
Prof. LEWIS: That is right.
LAMB: How long did you spend at Princeton?
Prof. LEWIS: I went to Princeton in '74.
LAMB: Where were you before that?
Prof. LEWIS: University of London.
LAMB: Teaching what?
Prof. LEWIS: The history of the Middle East.
LAMB: As I got ready to sit down and talk about this book, I read a bunch of articles and I d--you actually couldn't--you couldn't avoid them in the last couple of weeks. And as I did, I--I kept seeing the same thing. I wanted--I don't even know if you've had a chance to see all this. I want to show it--put it on the screen, and these are quotes that I read from others writing about you. Let's start with the--the first one, you'll see it here on the screen in just a second. Now--there we go.
`Bernard Lewis, the great Islamic scholar and author,' Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, October 24th. `Bernard Lewis is first and foremost a historian, arguably the most respected Islamic scholar in the West. James Klurfeld of Newsday. We've got two more. `Mr. Lewis is arguably the West's premier student of the Near East.' That's George Will. `Princeton professor emeritus Bernard Lewis, 85, is arguably the West's most distinguished scholar on the Middle East.' Now these are people that--you know, most observers say on different sides of the political fence.
I happen to have two magazine articles here. I don't know that I've ever seen anybody do this before. Here's the cover of The New Yorker, which you'll see in just a second, and you had the lead story in The New Yorker: Islam in Revolt, and this was just a couple of weeks ago. And then right after that, in--in December, you had...
Prof. LEWIS: ...(Unintelligible).
LAMB: ...National Review and the lead article there. What's going on here? Why are all these people saying these things about you?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, I'm very flattered, of course, by these remarks that you have quoted, and I would be more--or less than human if I didn't enjoy them. On the other hand, it isn't quite true to say `undisputed.' There are people who would disagree very strongly with these assessments of what I have accomplished, but let's not go into that.
Why now, particularly? I think probably for two reasons. I've been writing about the Middle East for years and years and years and--and mainly in the form of books, or articles in learned journals. I did do an occasional newspaper article, first in England and then here, but not many. What suddenly catapulted me into this kind of prominence, I think, was two articles. One was an article which I published in The Atlantic Monthly in September '90, and the editors gave it the title The Roots of Muslim Rage. I was not happy with the title at the time--I complained to the editors--but I must admit that--and I do so publicly, that they were right and I was wrong. It was an appropriate title.
LAMB: What--what was going in this--in the world in September of 1990?
Prof. LEWIS: Nothing very special, it's just that I had been studying the Middle East for a long time. I had been observing current changes in mood. I had been reading current literature, and I have come to realize more and more that there was a growing hostility and more than hostility--rage is not an inappropriate word--towards the Western world in general and the United States in particular. And in this article, I tried to explain what were the sources of this resentment.
The second article was one which appeared in Foreign Affairs in '98. I read an article in an Arabic newspaper, published in London, giving the text of a proclamation by a man I had not previously heard of, called Osama bin Laden, containing the text of his declaration of war on the United States. I thought this was an interesting text, so I published an article analyzing it and translating parts of it. And it seems that when things happened and people were looking around for someone to consult, these two articles are what came up on their computers.
LAMB: When people disagree with you, what's the reason that you hear them disagreeing?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, there are various reasons, of course. There are people who disagree for scholarly reasons, because their assessment of this or that problem or event is different from mine. But mainly the people who disagree are those who regard the whole discipline of orientalist scholarship in which I grew up to be evil, to be a form of imperialism, a form of exploitation.
Prof. LEWIS: Well, you're not asking me to explain their view.
LAMB: But at--at your core of beliefs, your political beliefs or how you see the world, can you give us s--examples? I mean, what would you--what are you politically, or do you even consider yourself political?
Prof. LEWIS: I don't identify myself. I don't always vote for the same party. I vote for the individual rather than the party.
LAMB: Do you consider yourself right or left?
Prof. LEWIS: I consider myself moderately conservative, but this wasn't always true. I have gradually moved towards the center and then slightly to the right, as is normal with the passing of the years.
LAMB: Is there a political way of looking at this in--in American terms that you're used to in teaching at Princeton--I mean, if you're on the right or left, are you going to look at this issue in a certain way?
Prof. LEWIS: I don't think so. I think obviously we are all influenced by our basic philosophies. But I'm still old-fashioned enough to believe that history consists of facts as attested by evidence. I realize this is no longer generally accepted nowadays, and evidence is unimportant, accuracy is unimportant. All that matters is narrative and the intention which inspires the narrative, but I don't share that view.
LAMB: There's a quote in one of these articles--and I--I'm trying to find it right here--I can't put my finger on it--but basically you say Americans don't know much about history.
Prof. LEWIS: My point is that, in this country, there isn't a great deal of interest and, therefore, of knowledge of history, and the phrase `that's history' means something is unimportant and irrelevant to present concerns. It is dismissing history as such. And one is constantly astonished, and, I may say, appalled at the lack of knowledge of history, even among educated people. This is the more remarkable if one thinks that the universities of the United States are full of tenured historians. There must be tens of thousands of them turning out hundredweights of books, monographs and so on on history, all of very high quality--well, mostly of very high quality, and yet the--the ignoran--the general ignorance of history remains, and tested in a number of ways. You make an allusion to something that happened not so long ago, within my lifetime, even educated, well-informed people look blank. This is a major difference between the United States and these various cultures of the Middle East, where they have a very acute sense of history, a very keen awareness of the past.
Now I'm not saying that their perceptions of history are necessarily accurate. I mean, we all have our own particular slant to the--the way in which we view the past, but at least they know. I mean, for example, in the Iraq-Iran war, between 1980 and 1988, the war propaganda of both sides, of both the Iraqis and the Iranians, made frequent allusions to events of the seventh century. Now they didn't describe them or discuss them, they just alluded to them in passing, in the secure knowledge that their readers on both--their listeners and readers, on both sides, Iraqi and Iranian, would pick up these allusions and understand them. The allusions were to the advent of Islam, to the coming of Islam to Iran and the struggles between different factions in earlier Islam. They could allude to these in the sure knowledge that they would be understood.
When Osama bin Laden, in one of his recent pronouncements, said, `We have suffered this shame and humiliation for more than 80 years,' I haven't the slightest doubt that all his intended audience knew exactly what he was talking about. They didn't have to start scurrying around and looking up reference books and saying, `Eighty years? What happened 80 years ago?' Now we did that here; they didn't.
LAMB: What was it 80 years ago?
Prof. LEWIS: Eighty ye--well, slightly more than 80 years ago was the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was the last great Islamic empire. In 1918, along with its German and Austrian allies, the Ottoman Empire was defeated; not only defeated, but occupied, partitioned, its capital occupied, its sultan a prisoner and so on. This was seen as the ultimate point in the de--degradation and humiliation of the Islamic world.
LAMB: Who defeated the Ottoman Empire?
Prof. LEWIS: The allies; that's to say Britain, France and the United States.
LAMB: And what was the center of the Ottoman Empire? How big was it, both in territory and in population?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, at its height, the Ottoman Empire extended from the suburbs of Vienna to the frontiers of Iran and the Persian Gulf in the East, across north Africa, as far as the frontiers of Morocco, and a large part of southeastern Europe. It was a very mighty power.
LAMB: How--how was the Ottoman Empire defeated?
Prof. LEWIS: In a series of wars in which they were the losers. Sometimes they managed to rally--sometimes they managed to rally, but it was a slow and painful process, and the end result was that they were driven from one province after another and eventually lost control, even of their capital and their heartlands. Later, they were able to get out of that because of a remarkable man called Mustafa Kemal, later--later surnamed Ataturk, led a rising in occupied Anatolia, and was able to drive out the allied occupation forces and reassert Turkish independence. But this was not an Islamic victory. This was another Islamic defeat, because Kemal Ataturk was a secularist and a modernist and believed in separation between religion and the state. So that although this was in a s--from a Turkish national point of view, it compensated for the final defeat and destruction of the Ottoman Empire, from the Muslim point of view, it was a worsening of the situation because the Kemalists, having restored the independence of Turkey, proceeded to abolish the sultanate and the caliphate.
LAMB: So Osama bin Laden referred to 80 years ago, everybody in the whole Islamic world then...
Prof. LEWIS: I feel reasonably sure that everybody in the Middle East at least, and probably elsewhere, too, knew what he was talking about.
LAMB: What happens to somebody who is in that part of the world when they hear him say something like that? What's their reaction to it?
Prof. LEWIS: The caliphate is the headship of Islam, and Islam is seen as a single community. We in the Western world tend to think of a nation subdivided into religions. There, it's rather a religion subdivided into nations. The basic identity is the religious identity. One is first a Muslim or whatever other religion it may be and then subdivided. Now these nation states in that part of the world are very new, very recent and many of them are creations of the Western imperialist powers, invented by Britain and France for the most part. But that doesn't mean to say that they are not ancient civilizations. They are very ancient civilizations, but they did not see themselves--they did not define themselves in national or territorial terms. They defined themselves by religious identity and political allegiance.
LAMB: When you're referring to the seventh century, I assume one of the things you're referring to is the prophet Mohammed.
Prof. LEWIS: Yes, the rise of Islam.
LAMB: What can you tell us about him that might help us better understand why he is so revered and how he started?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, he's revered because he was the founder of re--this religion. He--he wrote them a book called the Koran, which...
LAMB: Did he write it?
Prof. LEWIS: According to Muslims, it is of divine authorship, divine, eternal and uncreated. It was revealed to Mohammed through the archangel Gabriel and he brought it to the Muslim people--to the people who became Muslims, I should say.
LAMB: Where was he?
Prof. LEWIS: In Arabia, in Mecca and Medina. He was born in Mecca. He--this is, again, an interesting point. Life in Mecca became difficult for him and he was oppressed by the pagan rulers of Mecca. So he moved to Medina, where he imagined to build up his strength and eventually returned to Mecca. This theme of exile and return is a recurring theme in Muslim history.
LAMB: Now, Mecca and Medina, the two holy cities in Saudi Arabia...
Prof. LEWIS: Yes.
LAMB: ...how far apart are they physically?
Prof. LEWIS: Oh, not very far apart.
LAMB: Now can you go, or can I go?
Prof. LEWIS: No. Non-Muslims are not allowed to set foot in the hijjahs.
LAMB: Why? Does--do they say? Is it in the Koran?
Prof. LEWIS: No, but it's a saying attributed to the prophet, that none--that there shall not be two religions in Arabia, and some take this as being limited to the hijjahs, some take it to apply to the whole of Arabia. But it--certainly in the hijjahs non-Muslims are not allowed to set foot.
LAMB: Because you talk about Osama bin Laden as being first upset about what's going on between the two worlds over the American troops...
Prof. LEWIS: In Arabia.
LAMB: ...in Arabia. Now why would that be an insult?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, it is not hijjahs, but it is still part of Arabia, and for a Muslim, not only Osama bin Laden, but for any Muslim, an--a non-Muslim military presence on the Arabian peninsula is, shall we say, troubling to say the very least, and for many, much worse than that. I mean, even in the greatest days of the British empire, the British empire nibbled around the edges of Arabia--Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Aden--but they took good care not to get involved in the mainland of the Arabian peninsula, because they realized that this would really stir up a hornet's nest.
LAMB: Go back to the prophet. Wh--what--what was he like? Why was he--what was his life all about? How long did he live?
Prof. LEWIS: I think the important difference between the prophet Mohammed and his predecessors is that he was successful during his lifetime. Moses, you will recall, was not allowed to enter the prof--promised land. He led his people through the wilderness, was not permitted to enter the promised land. Jesus was crucified. Mohammed did not suffer either of these disagreeable fates. It was not he that was put to death, but his enemies. He triumphed during his lifetime, so he created a state, first in Medina and then in Mecca, which he was able to conquer.
So you have a prophet, the founder of religion, who was also a statesman, who during his lifetime, became a head of state, which means that he promulgated and enforced laws, that he made peace and made war, and did all the other thing that is a head of state does, and those events formed part of the core of memories that Muslims all over the world share. This is the sacred history, the structural history of Muslims, and it is, therefore, political in a sense that Christianity never was and that Judaism has long ceased to be.
LAMB: Do you have any sense whether people who follow Islam revere Mohammed more or less as much as Christians revere Jesus?
Prof. LEWIS: Oh, no. They make that point quite explicitly. For Muslims, Mohammed is not divine. He is a prophet, a prophet--the chosen, the last, the greatest prophet of God, but not more than a human being. This is very clearly stated in Muslim teachings. They also revere Jesus as a prophet, but they say that the Christians made a monstrous error in calling him the son of God. That, from a Muslim point of view is blasphemy.
LAMB: From a history standpoint, you also mention that Napoleon had something to do with the way people in that part of the world feel about the West.
Prof. LEWIS: Well, I wouldn't quite put it that way. Let me put it this way. The--most historians of the region agree that what we might call the modern history of the Middle East begins in 1798. In 1798, the process of defeat and withdrawal had already been going on for some time, but it was at the edges, so to speak.
In 1798, the French Republic sent an expeditionary force to Egypt, commanded by a young general called Napoleon Bonaparte. At that stage, he wasn't yet Napoleon, he wasn't yet emperor. He was simply General Bonaparte in the service of the republic. And General Bonaparte went to Egypt and taught the first appalling lesson, that even a small West European army could enter, conquer, occupy and govern one of the heartlands of the Islamic Middle East with impunity.
And the French stayed there for several years and their departure--their arrival was the first terrible lesson. Their departure was the second one. The departure of the French from Egypt was not achieved by the Egyptians, nor by their suzerains, the Turks. It was accomplished by a squadron of the British Royal Navy, commanded by a young admiral called Horatio Nelson. Now the second--the first lesson is the European power can come and do what they please. The second lesson is that only another European power can get them out.
And that began 200 years when the scenario was more or less the same, though the roles were played by different actors, when the Middle East was the more or less passive object of the rivalries and power plays of greater powers from outside the region. Sometimes it was Britain vs. France, sometimes it was Britain vs. Germany or vs. Russia. In the final phase, it was the United States vs. the Soviet Union, the two superpowers, still playing the same game that was initiated by Bonaparte and Nelson. But that was the end of it, because President Bush and Gorbachev ended what Bonaparte and Nelson had started. They ended this imperial rivalry over the Middle East because they both withdrew, the Soviets--the Russians, I should say, since the Soviet Union collapsed--the Russians because they couldn't; the Americans because they wouldn't. They didn't choose to. That is not the American way, the point I was trying to make in the National Review article.
LAMB: By the way, back to The New Yorker piece--and I'll give the dates here because folks might want to go get either The New Yorker piece or the National Review. The New Yorker was November 19th, 2001, and the National Review was December 17th, 2001. It might be interesting, because one is a magazine that I think most people would think--say would be left of center and the other one would be right of center. How did the invitation come to you to write both of those pieces, and what were they asking for in both of those pieces?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, they didn't tell me what to write. They--they both asked me to write something about the current crisis and to deal with it in whatever way I chose, which I did.
LAMB: They didn't care about your particular political persuasion when they asked you to do that?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, if they did, they didn't let me know about it.
Prof. LEWIS: I didn't have any complaints.
LAMB: Had you written for either magazine before?
Prof. LEWIS: Had I written for--no, I hadn't.
LAMB: And going back to what we were talking about, Napoleon and the Middle East, you--you mentioned in one of these pieces--I've read so much about what you said, I'm no--I'm not sure where I found it--that the two big items that you need to talk about, Israel and oil, when it comes to the Middle East.
Prof. LEWIS: No, when it comes to defining American interests, not when it comes to the Middle East. That's not the same thing. But one defining American interest in the Middle East, oil, a vital source of supply and I think probably in many respects, the main problem of the region, both for its people and for outsiders. And the other is Israel, the small country which is surrounded by hostile neighbors and in which clearly the United States has an interest. Yes, it seems to me that those are the only two...
LAMB: Start with oil.
Prof. LEWIS: ...major--yeah.
LAMB: When was oil found over in that part of the world?
Prof. LEWIS: It was the mid--oh, well, it was earlier--in--in the 20th century. It came in various stages and--from the beginning of the century in Iran and then onwards. The development of oil made a tremendous difference in every respect, one of which I think is important and has not been generally mentioned. The kind of Islam that is represented by Osama bin Laden, this radical, extreme kind of Islam, did originate in Arabia and--as far back as the 18th century--and it would have remained in Arabia, had it not been for oil.
Let me explain what I mean. Imagine that some such group as the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Nation or one of th--one of those were suddenly to come into the possession of unlimited wealth and use that money to set up schools and colleges all over the world, promoting their particular version of Christianity. Then you get an idea of what has happened to Islam as a result of the enormous wealth that oil has brought to some people in Saudi Arabia. It has enabled them to set up schools and colleges all over the Muslim world, teaching their brand of Islam, this kind of fanatical, extremist version of Islam which has thus acquired a--a scope, an expanse--an expansion which it could never otherwise have had. Without oil money, this kind of Islam would have remained a fringe group in a marginal country.
LAMB: Are you saying, in effect, in--by us buying all the oil we do, we're really funding this confrontation.
Prof. LEWIS: Indirectly, yes. Yes, indirectly we are.
LAMB: And you also make a point in one of your articles that the Far--the Far East and the European nations use far more oil than we do.
Prof. LEWIS: No, they use far more Middle Eastern oil.
LAMB: That's what I mean.
Prof. LEWIS: Yes. Yes, I think so.
LAMB: Why is that?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, because they ha--the Western Hemisphere's sources of oil.
LAMB: So go back to the oil again; 1930s or so, oil is founded out there and...
Prof. LEWIS: And then it develops very rapidly. And, of course, it suddenly transforms these rather simple pastoral economies with an injection of immense wealth. It has a very disruptive effect, and on the whole, I should say that oil has been a curse to the Arab world.
Prof. LEWIS: Precisely this reason. You know, there's this old American dictum: no taxation without representation. What is sometimes overlooked is that the converse is also true: no representation without taxation. And with our revenues, they didn't need taxes; therefore, they didn't need assemblies to levy taxes. And they were made independent of public opinion in their own countries with this untold wealth accruing from oil revenues. This greatly strengthened the power of autocratic governments, far greater than it had ever been in the past. Now if traditional Islamic government is authoritarian, but it is not dictatorial or despotic, it is governed under certain rules and so on. In modern times, the power of the author--the power of the ruler has been vastly augmented by these huge revenues so that he doesn't need public support or public approval of his taxes. It has also been increased by all kinds of modern devices for surveillance and repression so that any tin pot dictator today wields far greater powers than were ever wielded by Suleyman the Magnificent or Harun al-Rashid or any of the legendary rulers of the Islamic past.
LAMB: Are they ever going to run out of oil?
Prof. LEWIS: Either they'll run out of it, or it will be superseded by some other source of energy.
LAMB: You imply that we'll get out of it some way through technology?
Prof. LEWIS: I hope so.
LAMB: Do you see any evidence of that?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, there are various projects that I hear of, deriving energy from wind and water and the sea waves and so on. But these are technical questions on which I wouldn't be competent to ...(unintelligible).
LAMB: Do you have any sense why we haven't moved to the alternative--in any strong way to an alternative fuel source for automobiles and trucks?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, oil is so easy and so entrenched.
LAMB: Are you surprised, though, in a time like this, when we're being threatened and--with the terrorists that we don't begin talking about...
Prof. LEWIS: Yeah. I am surprised at that, yes. I would have thought that this is a good moment for seeking--trying to develop other sources of energy which would make us less dependent on this dangerous and unstable region. I think also that while the oil has been a nuisance to us, I think it has been a curse to them.
Prof. LEWIS: For the reason I mentioned before. It has pr--it has strengthened--many ways reinforced autocratic government. It has made government more oppressive and more effectively oppressive than it had been in the past. It has inhibited the development of other forms of gainful economic effort. I mean, the--by all the normal indicators, the economic performance record of the Middle East is abysmal. The--whether you look at GNP, GDP, per capita figures, job creation and so on, they--they come really low on the international lists. One of the reasons for that is oil money, which made it unnecessary to seek gainful employment to develop industries, to develop other forms of activity.
LAMB: Let me go back to your life just for a moment. You--you came here in 1974.
Prof. LEWIS: '74, yes.
LAMB: Wh--why did you make the move?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, Princeton made me an offer I couldn't refuse...
LAMB: But y...
Prof. LEWIS: ...and you'll get the expression, which ...(unintelligible).
LAMB: But you'd been at the University of London for years?
Prof. LEWIS: Oh, yes. And I had been to this country many times as a visitor. First time I set foot in the United States was in 1954, when I came on a lecture tour around the country. Then the following year, I went to UCLA as a visiting professor, and after that, a number of short appointments, including two in Princeton, one at the university and one at the Institute for Advanced Study. And then in '74, I moved over entirely.
LAMB: Now did you notice a difference in your students between the University of London and Princeton?
Prof. LEWIS: Yes, of course. You bring me on to delicate ground. Let me generalize it, not refer to those two specific universities, but to the l--university education generally in both countries. Because I have some idea of the universities besides the two with which I was particularly connected. I would say, putting it briefly, and therefore with some measure of oversimplification, that undergraduate education is better in England than graduate education is better here. So that students who do a first degree here and a higher degree in England managed to get the worst of both worlds. I would never do that.
LAMB: So whe--so when you came to teach, did--how about interest in the Middle East? Did you find more interest in Britain or here?
Prof. LEWIS: Oh, a little more there, but I don't think it was a big difference. It rather depended on the news; I mean, at Princeton, for example, and I suppose the same is true in other universities. In 1991, there was an upsurge in enrollment in Middle Eastern courses, which then died away again. There's an upsurge now, of course.
LAMB: Are you still teaching at...
Prof. LEWIS: No, I'm emeritus.
LAMB: How long have you been emeritus?
Prof. LEWIS: Since '86.
LAMB: Are you surprised at 85 years old, you're working as hard as you are, people want to talk to you?
Prof. LEWIS: I'm more than surprised. I'm astonished.
LAMB: And then you've had a lot of people in--in this town want to talk to you.
Prof. LEWIS: Yes.
LAMB: Can you give us a sense of how manic that is?
Prof. LEWIS: They--they wanted--well, I think they want to talk to me. What's even more remarkable, they want to listen to me.
LAMB: What kind of people?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, I really shouldn't discuss that.
LAMB: But give us--I mean, without naming--if you don't want to name them, what--I mean, have you been to the White House?
Prof. LEWIS: People in various branches of government, let me put it that way.
LAMB: Have you--have you missed talking to many people on bo--both sides of the political fence?
Prof. LEWIS: If by s--political front, you mean Republicans or Democrats...
Prof. LEWIS ...government or opposition, yes, I've been talking to people on both sides.
LAMB: What do they want to know from you?
Prof. LEWIS: Mostly what you want to know.
LAMB: Do you sense that they know anything about that part of the world?
Prof. LEWIS: Oh, some of them do. There are people that are very well informed about the Middle East.
LAMB: But do you go awa...
Prof. LEWIS: There are others that are remarkably ill-informed.
LAMB: I just wonder, do you ever go away from these conversations saying, `We've got problems here, these folks don't know anything.'
Prof. LEWIS: No, I haven't been to those departments.
LAMB: We first are asking about oil and then about Israel.
Prof. LEWIS: Yes.
LAMB: What role has Israel played in all this?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, if you look at the published statements, you would think that the Israel/Palestine question is of primary importance. Certainly, it is important, but I don't think it's of primary importance. It is given importance because it is the only grievance that can be freely and safely expressed in Arab countries. Other grievances against the policies and behavior of their rulers cannot be expressed and--that and also anti-Americanism--anti-Israel, anti-American. These are the two safety valves for letting it out.
Now why do I think that's exaggerated? Because if you look at bin Laden's earliest statements, his first major grievance is the American presence on the holy soil of Arabia, infidel soldiers on the heartland of Islam. The second grievance is using that place as a base from which to attack Iraq. Iraq is not holy from a Muslim point of view, but for half a millennium, it was the seat of the Khalifate, the greatest and most glorious period of Islamic history. And only in third place does he mention Jerusalem, not Palestine, just Jerusalem. I think that is an honest statement of his priorities and a fairly general one. Since then, he has learned different tactics. And nowadays, he gives more emphasis to Palestine, knowing that this will raise support for him in Europe and some other places.
LAMB: You've written about something called the assassins.
Prof. LEWIS: A long time ago, yes.
LAMB: What--if we know more about the assassins, what will that help us understand about what's going on here?
Prof. LEWIS: I don't think it will help very much, quite honestly. It was a different type of movement, different inspiration. (Clears his throat) Excuse me.
LAMB: Sure. And if you--if you don't mind going back to between the 11th and 13th century and just give us a little idea of who the assassins were and--and why it doesn't apply to today.
Prof. LEWIS: Well, in the first place, the assassins were, in a sense, a very marginal movement. They were from the Ismaili sect, which is a branch of the Shia sect, which means from the point of view of the generality of Muslims, they were a heresy of a heresy, not very far from what you might call mainstream Islam. The second difference is in their tactics. This was what I think is nowadays called targeted assassination. The assassins set out with a definite person in mind. The person was normally a ruler, a military commander or a religious dignitary. These are the three because they believed that the removal of this person would further their cause.
Now their cause was nothing less than taking over the Islamic world. And in this, I may say there is a resemblance between them and the modern ones, the aim to get rid of what they regarded as the apostates and usurpers who were ruling Islam and establishing what they regarded as an authentic Islamic regime, which of course most Muslims would not accept as such. In that respect, there is a resemblance because these people also have as their main target their own rulers. The--the fight against the West is, in that sense, incidental to their main aim, first to drive out the Westerners, which they regarded until a couple of weeks ago as competitively easy. They may be changing their mind on that now, but th--the main task ...(unintelligible).
Now the main difference between the assassins then and terrorists now is that there was no collateral damage. The assassins set out on a mission to kill a person. He killed that person and made no attempt to escape. The assassins made almost a sacrament of the assassination. They only use knives. There were other ways of killing people, even in the Middle Ages. They never used missiles of any sort, no bows and arrows, no crossbows, no catapults. They never used poison and so on. This was a quite different approach to that of the modern terrorist who is prepared to destroy thousands or tens of thousands of people entirely at random. This is a 20th century innovation...
LAMB: By the way, you've wr...
Prof. LEWIS: ...not part of Islam.
LAMB: ...you--you've written about a dozen books, I understand.
Prof. LEWIS: More than that, actually.
LAMB: How many--what's the total number?
Prof. LEWIS: About 20.
LAMB: Of all those books, how many of them are still in print?
Prof. LEWIS: Most.
LAMB: If somebody wants, in your opinion, to read about this, get the best background on it, what's the best book to read?
Prof. LEWIS: Oh, my next one, naturally. It's always the next one.
LAMB: But I just saw one in the bookstores, "The History Of The Middle East: 2000 Years"...
Prof. LEWIS: As a--as a general survey of my own books, I would recommend that one, yes. It does try to cover the history of the region from the rise of Christianity to the present day.
LAMB: You--you say at the end of your National Review article, the last sentence is, `We're either going to have to get tough or get out.'
Prof. LEWIS: Yes.
LAMB: Explain that.
Prof. LEWIS: Well, the kind of wishy-washy policies that have been followed in the past and just won't work and the question which people have been asking all the time is I think the wrong question. The question people are asking is why do they hate us? That's the wrong question. They've been hating us for a long time. In a sense, they've been hating us for centuries, and it's very natural that they should. You have this millennial rivalry between two world religions, and now, from their point of view, the wrong one seems to be winning. And more generally, I mean, you can't be rich, strong, successful and loved, particularly by those who are not rich, not strong and not successful. So the hatred is something almost axiomatic. The question which we should be asking is why do they neither fear nor respect us? And this is what comes out very clearly in the writings of Osama bin Laden. And in the past, there were always rival powers. If they were unhappy with the Americans, they could turn to the Russians. If they were unhappy with the British, they could turn to the Germans. Can't do that anymore.
Now this has served not only to concentrate their minds wonderfully in one direction, but also to encourage them. Because as they see it, they destroyed the Soviet Union through the long struggle in Afghanistan, and finally the Russians were driven out of Afghanistan by people like Osama bin Laden; as they see it, to such devastating effect, al--that the Soviet Union itself collapsed. They saw this as stage one of the major victory. They regarded the Soviet Union as by far the most--the more dangerous of the two superpowers. They were really scared of them. They were always much more careful in doing anything which might offend them or even saying anything which might offend them.
Having, as they see it, destroyed the Soviet Union, they reckoned that dealing with the United States would be comparatively easy. And this comes again and again in Osama bin Laden's writings and statements. He says, for example, `The Americans are paper tigers. They've grown soft. Hit them and they'll run.' And then the same litany's always repeated--Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia. There is a belief which, to any American, would appear absolutely preposterous. What happened in Somalia was an attempt to establish an imperial American domination over that country and this was foiled by the brave Somali people who stood up to defend their independence. I mean, there's obviously a gross travesty on both sides of what happened. But that is how Osama bin Laden sees it. And he saw this as evidence of weakness and softness and was encouraged to go on with that. I think that during the last couple of weeks, they may be changing their minds on that point.
LAMB: Throughout all this, the George Bush name has been--in the last 10 to 12 years has been important. We have Geo--former president who got us involved in--in Somalia in the first place. The same president was involved with the Carlyle Group that was doing business with the bin Laden family over there. Dick Cheney, the Secretary of Defense, was involved with Halliburton who did--had a lot of contracts in that part of the world. How does somebody over there, when they look back at this government, do they see this? And does it matter in the whole thing?
Prof. LEWIS: I don't think it matters. I mean, these things do not accept major changes. I don't think so, anyway. But then I must point out my specialization is the Middle East, not the Middle West, so these are matters on which I wouldn't claim any competence.
LAMB: Well, the reason that I ask whether or not if they're mad, are they mad about the American people in--been in government making money off of this whole situation?
Prof. LEWIS: I don't think so. This doesn't come up very often in the--in the literature.
LAMB: Go back then to what you said, `Get tough or get out.' How do we get tough? And if we get out, what happens? What do you mean by get out?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, by get tough, I mean continue the good work that was started in Afghanistan and deal with some of the other countries or groups, terrorists--terrorist groups and countries that help them. The alternative, get out, is find a substitute for oil so that the Middle East no longer matters. Leave them to their own devices. It seem...
LAMB: How long is that going to take?
Prof. LEWIS: That, I have no idea. These, it seems to me, are the two alternatives.
LAMB: Do you get any sense of where this current town wants to go? Get tough or get out?
Prof. LEWIS: I think it's get tough rather than get out.
LAMB: Do you like that?
Prof. LEWIS: I prefer it to getting out without good reason, yes. I mean, to stay around and be bullied and insulted is not a good idea.
LAMB: You--you also say that people's goodwill toward us is inverse to who the government supports.
Prof. LEWIS: Yes.
LAMB: Explain that.
Prof. LEWIS: Well, you can divide the whole Middle East basically into three regions. You have those countries which are ruled by governments, that we regard as friends and allies. In those countries, the populations for the most part are bitterly anti-American, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia. And as they used to say in Moscow, `It's no acci--no accident that the great majority of the hijackers come from those countries.'
Prof. LEWIS: Because those populations are anti-American, and they are anti-American because they regard their governments as American puppets carrying out American purposes. Second group are the countries where the government's are anti-American, such as Iran and Iraq and Syria. In those countries, as far as we know, the people are very pro-American. There were remarkable demonstrations in Iran, for example, after September the 11th, when thousands of people went out into the streets to express in a kind of vigil, to express their sympathy and their horror at what happened. This was nothing sponsored by the government. On the contrary, they tried to prevent it.
LAMB: Can you explain this? Why this--what is it?
Prof. LEWIS: Yes. If you have a very unpopular government and that unpopular government tells you that America is bad, you will automatically assume that America must be good. They see America as a possible hope of liberation. And I'm told that recent events in Afghanistan have caused great excitement in Iran for hope that the same thing might happen to them. I'm told that after seeing the scenes of rejoicing in Afghanistan and being liberated from the Taliban, that that would look like a funeral compared with what the Iranians and the Iraqis would do if they were liberated of their present rulers.
LAMB: You--you--you mentioned more than once that you think freedom has a lot to do with this whole thing and--and...
Prof. LEWIS: Yes.
LAMB: Explain that.
Prof. LEWIS: The desire for freedom is, I think, very natural. Now constitutional democracy is a Western idea, and freedom in that--as a political metaphor is a Western idea. But the Islamic world has its own syn--system of political ideals and ideas. And for them, what matters--the--the criterion of a good government is justice. And to a large extent by justice, they mean many of the same things that we in the West mean by freedom: government under law, government that is itself limited and responsible. And that is conspicuously lacking. And people talk of the Middle East as a region of age-old autocracy, in a sense, true. But the autocracies of the past were much more limited than those of the present day.
And may I just finish what I was saying before, the--the--the--the three regions--pro-American regimes, anti-American populations, anti-American regimes, pro-American populations, Iraq, Iran. The third group where go--both the government and the people are friendly to the United States and that's just two countries--the two which are democracies where the governments are elected by the people and can be thrown out by the people--Turkey and Israel.
LAMB: Is there any other country over there that you see moving in that direction?
Prof. LEWIS: Moving in the direction of democracy? Well, in a paradoxical way, I would say Iran is moving in that direction. They do have elections of a sort, it's true, under a whole series of constraints. Nevertheless, it has been possible in Iran for the electorate, the people in general, to express an opinion. It's indirect, it's ineffectual, but it's not unimportant because of that. And what you have, in effect, now in Iran is two governments: an elected government, which has no power, and a rule government which was never elected and is not answerable. And that sets up tensions, which may well lead to the development of more democratic institutions. Among other countries, no. I don't see the movement as being rather in the opposite direction.
LAMB: A--as you've watched since September 11th the whole discussion in this country, what grade would you give as--I'm sure that--well, let me ask you--answer any way you want. What grade would you give the media?
Prof. LEWIS: When you say the media, you're talking about an enormous number...
LAMB: That's why I didn't want to ask you that one.
Prof. LEWIS: ...of great varie--a great variety of newspapers and radio and television services. Very, very mixed I would say, very mixed; on the whole, not very good.
LAMB: Where would you go or where do you go on a regular daily basis to get your information?
Prof. LEWIS: Shortwave radio.
LAMB: What do you listen to?
Prof. LEWIS: Whatever I can get.
Prof. LEWIS: Because then I can get, first of all, direct news straight from the source and hear the different points of view and the different versions of things. What bothers me about much that we get here is its triviality.
LAMB: Like, can you give us an example of something that's trivial?
Prof. LEWIS: No, I'd rather not.
LAMB: But when you listen to shortwave radio, can you understand the Arabic?
Prof. LEWIS: Yes.
LAMB: When the bin Laden tape came out, could you?
Prof. LEWIS: No, that was a ver--very poor text. And I--I don't think I would have been able to understand that, except odd bits here and there...
LAMB: Wh--what is...
Prof. LEWIS: ...not--not enough to follow the argument.
LAMB: What i--what do you hear, both in Arabic and Hebrew and the languages that you can speak and understand, that we can't if you don't speak those languages?
Prof. LEWIS: Day-to-day detail and a lot of small things, which are not even mentioned in--in the media. And--and...
LAMB: Can you give an example of--of wh--what you can pick up on a shortwave radio? I mean, can you listen to an Arabic station?
Prof. LEWIS: Oh, yes. There are a number of them. And also the European stations which broadcast to the Middle East, and they're often quite interesting, too. I find NPR pretty useful, I must say.
LAMB: In your--the book, one of the many we're talking about, but the most recent one, "What Went Wrong?", as we get near the end of this, what in your opinion did go wrong? What's the core thing that went wrong for the Islamic people?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, I can't pick out just one thing and say that was the cause of it because it's not only a question of what went wrong with them, it's a question of what went wrong with us. I mean, why did the West manage to advance while they fell back? So these are two questions, not one. And I think that there are many different causes. And one of them, for example, is Atlantic shipping. Countries bordering the Atlantic Ocean, like England and Holland and France and Portugal, had to build bigger, stronger ships, ships that could face the Atlantic. These could carry more guns and were, therefore, more effective in war. And they could carry cargoes greater distances, more cheaply, more safely and, therefore, more effective in peace.
So that in both respects, they outdid the shipping of the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, which simply didn't need to be as big and as strong and as maneuverable. I think that's a very important element in the change which took place when Atlantic fleets come into Eastern waters. Even a small country like Portugal or Holland can build a great empire in the East, defying all the mighty Eastern empires. And I think obviously there are many elements in that, but Atlantic vessels is part of it.
Another is the development of science. Now that is really a restatement of the question rather than an answer to the question because in the Middle Ages, they were in the forefront of science, and they continued to be for a little while after, but gradually they fell behind while the West advanced. Some people would say that the difference is the Reformation. Christendom went through a reformation and a Counter-Reformation. Islam has not done that yet, and some would argue that that is a factor.
Personally, I think that one of the major factors is the difference in the treatment of women. And this was off--difference--the treatment of women was often commented on by travelers both ways. Middle Eastern travelers to Europe talking with horror and disgust of the absurd freedom and deference accorded to women in this society. Visitors from the West to the Middle East talk with ill concealed envy of the privileges of the Muslim male dealing with his womenfolk. But it isn't until a comparatively late stage that people suggest that this might have something to do with the civilizational difference. And for me, the first and strongest case is that put by a Turkish writer called Nama Kamal in an article published in 1868. I quote it in there, in which he says that the main reason he says for our backwardness in 1868--the word backwardness was still permitted. He said, `The main reason for our backwardness as compared with the West is the way we treat our women; thereby depriving ourselves of the energies and talents of half the population.'
He uses a couple of striking metaphors. He says, `We treat women, at best, like jewels or musical instruments.' And then he goes on to talk about the damage that this does to the society. And he ends by saying how society, compared to the West, is like a human body that is paralyzed on one side. And Ataturk took up the same point in the early '20s when he founded and became first president of the Turkish Republic. We began with a campaign for women's rights, an unlikely advocate, an Ottoman ...(unintelligible) general campaigning for women's rights. But he put his case very clearly and simply. He said, `Our task now is to catch up with the modern world. We will not catch up with the modern world if we only modernize half the population.' I think he had a point. The Taliban might take note of that.
LAMB: We've been talking about several things with Professor Bernard Lewis. One is The New Yorker from November 19th, 2001; another article from National Review, December 17th, 2001; and this book--January book in your stores, "What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response." Professor Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton, thank you for joining us.
Prof. LEWIS: Thank you.
I highly recommend several of his books, “What Went Wrong” and “Crisis in Islam”. HIGHLY educational, and written in a very readable way for such a distinguished scholar.
‘The second article was one which appeared in Foreign Affairs in ‘98.
I read an article in an Arabic newspaper, published in London, giving
the text of a proclamation by a man I had not previously heard of,
called Osama bin Laden,’
Prof. Lewis had not heard of OBL until 98? Wow.
.....This is a major difference between the United States and these various cultures of the Middle East, where they have a very acute sense of history, a very keen awareness of the past. .....
There is one. He takes a long view, longer than the election cycle, longer than the news cycle,longer than most can comprehend. Because most can’t comprehend his long view and are too lazy to do the study required to form such a view, he is vilified.
He is America’s best thinker. His name is Newt
ping (long though)
This is a great condensation...
Really, nobody had heard of him except some inside intelligence agencies...
I didn’t see this interview. Thanks for posting the transcript. I thought it was fascinating.
An interesting and insightful article.......thanks!
Very interesting. I need to read it again to really understand, but he certainly seems like he knows what he is talking about.
Islam is worthless. I just don’t see the attraction.
Thanks for posting.
Great stuff. I read it all. Thanks for posting
Bump for later read.
I read What Went Wrong? shortly after 9/11. Recommended.
From an ex patriot to a patriot of the heart, thank you.
I highly recommend several of his books, What Went Wrong and Crisis in Islam. HIGHLY educational, and written in a very readable way for such a distinguished scholar.
Islam: The Religion and the People
Bernard Lewis, Buntzie Ellis Churchill
Lewis (Near Eastern studies, emeritus, Princeton Univ.; The Crisis of Islam) and Churchill (former president, World Affairs Council of Philadelphia) offer an accessible introduction to Muslims and their faith. In clear language, the authors cover the faith’s development, its five pillars, Scripture and tradition, law, the mosque, diversity, sectarian divisions, government, economics, women, dress, language, war and peace, and radicalism. There are three particular strengths. First, Lewis and Churchill insist that Islam cannot be reduced to extremes as either a bloodthirsty creed or solely a message of peace. The Qur’an advocates a range of responses according to specific circumstances. Second, the authors humanize Islam by including insets on “Islamic humor” in every chapter. Third, the book replaces dangerous characterizations of Islam as an enemy with an understanding of Islam as a faith intimately connected to Christianity and Judaism. Through understanding Islam, readers may see that the minority who espouse a radicalized totalitarian version of Islam represent neither the faith nor most of its followers. Highly recommended for all libraries.
Great read, thanks for posting it.
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