Professor Bernard Lewis is one of the greatest historians of the Middle East and Islam in our times. His acclaimed books shed new light on the socio-political situation of the Arabs in post-Cold War era. Bernard Lewis, who is Professor emeritus at Princeton University, wrote more than 20 books on history of Arabic civilisations.
New World Standard Critique collected Professor Lewis’ statements, in which he addressed the most important questions regarding the moral and political situation of the Middle East in relation to Western world.
Renowned expert on Middle East is discussing what is ‘the Arab mind’ in the present moment, what is the Arabic public discourse, what are Muslims intentions and expectations from the West and how do they think about the current situation in a religious and philosophical terms.
New situation of the Arabs since 1000 years
A really major change has taken place in the last few years, a change with no parallel in the last 1000 years. What I mean is that for the first time in a thousand years the Arabs are in control their affairs. In the seventh century the Common Era the Arabs came out of Arabia bringing a new religion. By a rapid conquest they created a new empire. Within a remarkably short time they lost control over civilization, which they themselves created. They also lost control of the Islamic world and even the Arab Middle East that has been passed into the hands of Persians and Mongols.
After the Middle Ages it was contested between two surviving independent Muslim states: Turkey and Iran. Then between the various rival European powers in the final stage it was disputed between the two superpowers: Soviet Union and the United States. That era, that millennium, has come to an end because the Russians cannot play the role and Americans don’t want to play it. For the first time in a millennium, as I said, the Arabs are in charge for their own affairs. They are responsible for their own affairs.
The Arabs’ painful reflection on their past
This is creating a painful new awareness of difficult new situation and willingness of Arab countries to look at questions they had not encountered before.
We have seen for example publication of the series of the United Nations reports prepared by committees of Arab intellectuals at the UN. The reports about dealing with cultural and social problems in the Arab world or more particularly about lack of it.
These are remarkably interesting documents. I can only assume that they were published by the United Nations through some sort of signed permission. These documents raised important questions
One is awareness of failed changes, failure, which can no longer be attributed to Imperialists. However plausible that might have been in the earlier stages. The second issue – willingness to look frankly and honestly at its flaws and defects. They are giving rise to a passionate debate that is going on now in all Arab world.
Imperialism is not an explanation of civilisational backwardness
The difficulty is that in the most of Arab world the genuinely free debate on sensitive issues is not possible. So the debate is, shall we say, partially external thinking outside the Arab world and partially concealed. But nevertheless it is taking place, and there are interesting signs of these discussions.
Broadly speaking there are two solutions, which are proposed, based on two different assumptions.
One of them recognizes the fact that the Arab world, more generally the Islamic world, has fallen behind the West and not only the West but now increasingly the further East. And this solution tries to find the causes of this crisis and discover the remedy. It is very easy of course to blame the outsiders and the Imperialists.
Imperialism went into a number of different places. For example, Aden was British crown colony, so was Singapore. The same imperialism, the same imperial system administration but look at the difference between Aden and Singapore.
The most striking example when the British Empire in India ended in 1947 the country was split into two India and Pakistan. The one was secular, the other a Muslim state. The same background-position: imperial history – the same experience. But look again at the subsequent differences between evolutions of India and Pakistan.
These are examples, which can no longer be simply disregarded and the classical method of blaming Imperialists no longer applies as imperialists. They are all gone. The Americans in particular has shown a mark in inclination to return.
The Arab’s search for solutions
What are the answers? Basically they fall into two categories, which one might call modernist and the Islamist. One group says we have fallen behind the West, and even now a new rising East, because of our own ambitions and failures. We must understand these causes, we must strive to remedy them. That commands a significant body of support in the Arab world and elsewhere in the Islamic world.
The other psychologically much more satisfactory method is to place the blame elsewhere. For a long time this could be the imperialists. The Imperialists are no longer there. And Israel provides a useful role.
Sources of anti-Americanism in the Arab world
Khomeini in one of his writings discusses the need to drive out the Americans and that little protégé, the illegitimate offspring, he calls it, in the region. We hear a great deal about anti-American feeling being due to the American support for Israel. That is certainly true but there is also a significant extent to which anti-Israeli feeling is due to American support for Israel. In other words, they are against America because America supports Israel. They are against Israel because Israel is a protégé of America. One sees it in different contexts in different situations.
What is the remedy? There are different lines of argument in the Islamic world. One is westernized and modernised: try and catch up for the modern world. The other is modernization: it was a betrayal of our heritage and abandonment of the true religion, which god gave us. So the remedy is a return to authentic Islamic.
That is the underlying assumption of those series of Islamic radical movements, which we have seen in recent years and the current time.
The Muslims’ view of history
Let me say a word or two about anti-Americanism as such, which is now a very powerful factor in the region.
There are some people, who tell us that this is because of American support for Israel. Certainly American support for Israel does not endear America to people. But I do not think this is the main factor.
The main factor in this respect is America, which is seen as the last in the long the series of the heads in the house of war.
In the traditional view the world is divided into the house in Islam where true faith prevails and the rest of the world, which is yet to be converted or conquered. The rest of the world is being known as the house of war, because there is a perpetual state of war between the true faith and the unbelievers, which may be interrupted by truces but not by any real peace until the final conquest or conversion of the rest.
America is the last in those in a long succession of various rulers. For a long time it was the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the various European powers. In the final stage before our own day the leadership of the world of the unbelievers was contested between two superpowers the Soviet Union and the United States.
In the Western world, and particularly in the United States, the defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union is seen as an American victory – more specifically as the victory for President Reagan.This is not entirely false but it does not cover the whole case.
In much of the Islamic world the defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union is seen as an Islamic victory.
It is true from their perspective if one looks at the sequence of events in Afghanistan: a withdrawal of the Russians and the following events that happened immediately after the collapse of Soviet Union.
Osama bin Laden claimed in some of his fatwas that in the last phase the house of the unbelievers was contested between two infidel superpowers. He said “we” – meaning militant Muslims – we have defeated and destroyed the deadly and dangerous. To deal with the pamper American will be easy.
It turned out not to be quite easy as he has anticipated. But that point of view still commands some support. One has to admit that it received some encouragement from some of the pronouncement emanating from the Western world.
What Muslims expect from the Western, Christian world
Let me give you full explanation of term dhimmi. Dhimmi is usually translated as a second-class citizen.
In our modern scale of values to talk about the second-class citizenship is a condemnation. But if one looks at the earlier history of much of the world one gets different picture. Second-class citizenship is much better than no citizenship at all.
In the Islamic states the Muslims were first-class citizens and non-Muslim, primarily Christians and Jews, were second-class citizens. That meant they had recognized status: they had rights, they had large measure of control of their own affairs. They controlled their own education, their own schools and colleges, administered their own laws and so on.
The status of dhimmmi was much better than what was available to non-Christians or even deviant Christians in Christian world at that time. The most obvious of evidence of that was that movement of refugees from Christendom to Islam and not the other way round.
What Muslims are saying now in Europe? They are not saying that they want to reduce Christians to dhimmis. They are saying that they want the same rights and privileges that they, as Muslims, gave to Christians and Jews in the traditional Muslim states. We let you administer your own laws and enforce them in your own courts, so you should allow us to do the same.
The Muslims’ point of view on the wave of immigration from Muslim countries
This is now the third attempt to Islamize Europe. The first two failed but the third shows the prospect of succeeding. It is a peaceful migration not a military conquest. It is happening in various ways.
We do not have statistical data but one can only estimate from births. We see the extent to which European governments are now admitting sharia demand of the Muslims, which from their point of view seems very reasonable. They want the same rights that Christians acquired in the Ottoman Empire and the other Islamic states.
The Islamisation of the Western world
Nevertheless they got quite a remarkable number of concessions. Take for example a problem of polygamy. Under sharia law a man may marry up to four wives. In all Christian countries polygamy is forbidden. It is forbidden in Europe to contract a second marriage if you have living wife in the country. But if Muslim in France goes for holiday to Morocco and comes back with second wife then marriage is contracted in Morocco that did not violate French law. The marriage is recognized. The same happens in most of the European countries. Marriage has to be done abroad and then it is recognized when one comes back in two important aspects: tax affairs and welfare benefits.
We see progressive Islamisation of a social order. We see it, for example in educational system, and in public discourse generally. Islam now enjoys immunity from criticism or even comments that Christianity has lost and Judaism never had. Certainly the future of Europe is in question.
A Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm said, there is one question that remains concerning the future of Europe: will it be an Islamized Europe or Europeanized Islam.
Some followers of Islam believe that this the final stage in their struggle with unbelievers
Islam has brought comfort and peace to countless men and women… It inspired a great civilization… But Islam has also known periods when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence.
It is our misfortune that part… of the Muslim world is now going through such a period, and that much… of that hatred is directed against us.
In the Muslim perception the endless struggle is taking place between believers and unbelievers. This struggle will continue until the final stage when true believers will triumph and unbelievers will be conquered and either subjugated or eliminated.
There is widespread conviction among many Muslims that present time is a final stage: “We live in the end times – this is the final stage when we will reach our final destination.” That means that Mutually Asured Destruction is not deterrent at all.