Bernard Lewis’ Stubborn Hope
In Notes on a Century, the historian is still optimistic about a ‘great civilization’ in the Muslim world
“They have gone through some bad times,” Lewis writes in the present volume, “but there are elements in their society which will help, which can be nurtured to develop into some limited consensual government in their own cultural tradition.” This guardedly optimistic view Lewis opposes to the uncharitable claim “that these people are not like us; they have different ways, different traditions. We should admit that they are incapable of setting up anything like the kind of democracy we have. Whatever we do, they will be governed by tyrants.”
Lewis parses the world of policy into two camps: those who believe in the promise of modernity in the Muslim world, even if it is achieved by a cautious and circuitous path; and the self-styled realists who consign a fifth of the world’s people to perpetual tyranny. Surely these two possibilities do not exhaust the list of possible outcomes; it is conceivable, for example, that both putative democrats and tottering autocrats will go together to their mutual ruin, and Muslim society will deteriorate into chaos and depopulation. It is sad that this elegant and affecting memoir should appear at a moment when the path of least resistance in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Yemen leads neither to dictatorship nor to “consensual government” but to chaos.
During the George W. Bush Administration, senior officials frequently sought Lewis’ advice, although they did not always follow it. “The second invasion of Iraq in 2003,” he observes, “is sometimes ascribed to my influence with Vice President Cheney. But the reverse is true. I did not recommend it. On the contrary, I opposed it. It is, to say the least, annoying to be blamed for something I did not do.” There is a broader sense, though, in which Lewis does bear some responsibility for America’s abortive campaign to institute democracy in the Middle East: His eloquence and unfeigned affection for the Muslim world helped persuade Americans that their blood and treasure were well spent on the ultimate goal of Islamic democracy. That was not a casual conclusion, but the distillation of long reflection on the character of Muslim as well as Western societies.
His greatest worry today is about the Muslim Brotherhood. As he writes, “The Muslim Brotherhood is a very dangerous, radical Islamic movement. If it obtains power, the consequences could be disastrous for Egypt. I can imagine a situation in which the Muslim Brotherhood and other organizations of the same kind obtain control of much of the Arab world. I would not say it’s likely, but it is not unlikely. If that happens, they would gradually sink back into medieval squalor.” Considering that the Brotherhood and its allies won 77 percent of the vote in Egypt’s parliamentary elections earlier this year, Lewis’ dictum already seems overtaken by events.
Medieval squalor really is not an option for Egypt, which had fewer than 8 million people in late antiquity and exported food. With 10 times that number, Egypt imports half its caloric consumption. The country is a modern construct, with a population that is more than two-fifths illiterate and dependent on a military autocracy for subsidies. Were Egypt to revert to medieval conditions, the result would not be squalor but starvation on a horrifyingly large scale.
Academic criticism of Lewis’ work came overwhelmingly from the left, starting with Edward Said’s 1978 polemic Orientalism, “in which,” Lewis writes, “Said imputed to Orientalists a sinister role as part of the imperialist domination and exploitation of the Islamic world by the West. In particular, he imputed to me an especially sinister role as what he called the leader of the Orientalists.” With a few strokes in this present book, Lewis severs Said’s head and holds it up to show that it is empty. For those who care about defending the saving myths that all groups concoct for themselves, Said’s work will stand as a cri de coeur on behalf of Muslim dignity. Those who are interested in facts will agree with the assessment of Robert Irwin, the Middle East editor of the Times Literary Supplement, who called Said’s book “a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is difficult to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misinterpretation.”
Said’s attacks on Lewis seem especially churlish given that the British scholar did more than give Muslim society the benefit of the doubt; he sees a moral equivalence in a way that some Americans may find surprising. “Corruption and oppression are corruption and oppression by whichever system you define them,” he writes. “There’s not much difference between [the Muslim] definition of corruption and our definition of corruption. In the Western world one makes money in the marketplace and then uses it to acquire political influence or access. In the Middle East the traditional practice is to seize power and use that power to get money. Morally I see no difference between them; economically, the Middle Eastern method does greater damage.” That seems an odd parallel; Mitt Romney did not stage a military coup and kill his opponents to get rich with Staples. Is he really morally equivalent to Bashar al-Assad or Saddam Hussein?
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