Hay-Adams Hotel Washington, D.C.
The relationship between Islam and the West will be a defining feature of the
21st century, particularly in the Middle East. How should U.S. policymakers
engage with the Muslim world? Will the spread of democracy throughout the Muslim
world blunt the militant forces generating terrorism? How will European
governments and populations deal with their burgeoning Muslim populations, and
how will this affect U.S. foreign policy priorities and alliances?
The Pew Forum hosted a discussion of these and other issues with Professor
Bernard Lewis, who for 60 years has helped interpret the world of Islam to the
West. In addition to authoring more than two dozen books, including What
Went Wrong and The Crisis of Islam, Professor Lewis has advised
government officials and policymakers in the United States, the United Kingdom
and the Middle East on the intricacies of the relationships between Islam and
Professor Bernard Lewis, Cleveland E.
Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University
Luis Lugo, Director, Pew Forum on
Religion & Public Life
LUIS LUGO: Good afternoon to all of you and thank you for
joining us today. I'm Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion &
Public Life, which is a project of the Pew
Research Center. The Center is a research organization and does not take
positions on policy debates.
This luncheon is part of an ongoing Pew Forum series that brings together
journalists and policy leaders to discuss timely topics at the intersection of
religion and public affairs.
We are delighted to have Professor Bernard Lewis with us today. Professor
Lewis is one of the most influential scholars of Islam of our time. For more
than 60 years, he has specialized in the history of Islam, particularly in the
Middle East, and the relationship between Islam and the West, a relationship
that has become arguably the single-most important U.S. foreign policy concern
of the 21st century. It was Professor Lewis who coined the term "clash of
civilizations," three years before Samuel Huntington used that phrase in his
famous article in Foreign Affairs, setting the stage for a vigorous
debate about the relationship between Islam and the West.
As everyone acknowledges, more than four-and-a-half years after 9/11, the
United States continues to face serious challenges in its relations with the
Muslim world. A survey done last year by our sister project, the Pew Global Attitudes Project, captured this
rift in numbers. The survey of countries around the globe found that the U.S.
draws its most negative assessment from Muslim nations. In fact, solid
majorities in five of the six Muslim countries surveyed view the U.S.
unfavorably. In Jordan, for instance, just 21 percent of the population held
favorable views of the U.S., while in Turkey and Pakistan it was 23 percent.
Morocco, by the way, was the lone exception. There, our unfavorable rating stood
at "only" 42 percent versus 49 percent favorable.
And the feeling seems to be mutual. Surveys we have done with the Pew
Research Center find that only 4 out of ten Americans have a favorable view of
Islam, and unfavorable views in this country are driven by what many perceive to
be a close association between Islam and violence. It is a sobering fact, as our
survey from last summer revealed, that more than half of the American public now
believes the terrorist attacks over the last few years are, or soon will be,
part of a major civilizational conflict between Islam and the West.
Are we witnessing a deep-seated and long-term clash of civilizations, or is
this a serious but perhaps more manageable and short-term clash of policies? And
what does this all mean for U.S. foreign policy interests and priorities? I
submit that if one is going to have a serious conversation on the topic of Islam
and the West, any short list of invitees would surely include the name of
Bernard Lewis. We are delighted to have him with us here today. I should mention
that Professor Lewis will be celebrating his 90th birthday next month.
BERNARD LEWIS: Celebrating isn't the right word.
MR. LUGO: A major conference marking that occasion is being
held next Monday in Philadelphia under the auspices of the World Affairs Council
of Philadelphia. Professor Lewis, thank you for being with us today. It is a
pleasure and honor to have you, sir.
LEWIS: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. It is certainly a privilege
and, I hope to discover, also a pleasure to be with you today. As time is short,
I shall waste no further time on ceremonial formalities and get straight to the
one or two points that I shall have time to make, and leave the rest for you to
develop in the course of our subsequent discussion.
Let me begin with the name, which has been given - not by me - to our
discussion today: the West and Islam, sometimes also Islam and the West,
depending on your perspective. You will surely be struck by a certain asymmetry
in this formulation. On the one side, a compass point; on the other, a religion.
Now, of course, we use "the West" in a number of different senses, but
primarily, they are political, strategic, cultural, even civilizational, but not
normally religious. The one religious term I have heard used for the West is the
post-Christian world. I needn't develop the implications of that term. Islam, on
the other hand, is the name of a religion. And it is a part of human society
identified by itself, and therefore also by others; not the other way around, in
terms of religion.
But having said that, I think one needs to be more specific. In talking of
the Christian world, in English - and, I suppose, in all the other languages of
the Christian world - we use two terms: Christianity and Christendom.
Christianity means a religion, in the strict sense of that word, a system of
belief and worship and some clerical or ecclesiastical organization to go with
it. If we say Christendom, we mean the entire civilization that grew up under
the aegis of that religion, but also contains many elements that are not part of
that religion, many elements that are even hostile to that religion. Let me give
one simple example. No one could seriously assert that Hitler and the Nazis came
out of Christianity. No one could seriously dispute that they came out of
Christendom. In talking of Islam, we use the same word in both senses, and this
gives rise to considerable confusion and misunderstanding. There are many things
that are described as part of Islam, which are indeed part of Islam, if we take
the word as the equivalent of Christendom, but are very much not part of Islam -
are even alien or hostile to Islam - if we take the word Islam as the equivalent
of Christianity. I think this is a very important point, which one should bear
The late Marshall Hodgson, of the University of Chicago, in discussing this
issue, suggested that we use the word Islamdom to describe the civilization. A
good idea, but it didn't catch on, probably because it's so difficult to
In that world, religion embraces far more than it does in the Christian or
post-Christian world. We are accustomed to talking of church and state, and a
whole series of pairs of words that go with them - lay and ecclesiastical,
secular and religious, spiritual and temporal, and so on. These pairs of words
simply do not exist in classical Islamic terminology, because the dichotomy that
these words express is unknown. They are used in the modern languages. In
Arabic, they borrow the terminology used by Christian Arabs. They are fortunate
in having a substantial Christian population using Arabic, and they therefore
have a good part of the modern terminology at their disposal, in their own
language. In Turkish, Persian, Urdu and other languages of Islam, they had to
invent new words. The word in Turkish and in Persian is laik [from the French
word laïque, which describes the prevailing concept of separation of church and
In the Islamic world, from the beginning, Islam was the primary basis of both
identity and loyalty. We think of a nation subdivided into religions. They
think, rather, of a religion subdivided into nations. It is the ultimate
definition, the prime definition and the one that determines, as I said, not
only identity, but also basic loyalty. And this is quite independent of
religious belief. In Islam, there isn't - or rather, there wasn't until recently
- any such thing as the church, in the Christian sense of that word. The mosque
is a place of worship. It's a building, a place of worship and study. And in
that sense, it is the equivalent of the church. But in the sense of an
institution with a hierarchy and its own laws and usages, there was no such
thing in Islam until very recently. And one of the achievements of the Islamic
Revolution in Iran has been to endow an Islamic country for the first time with
the equivalents of a pope, a college of cardinals, a bench of bishops and, above
all, an inquisition. All these were previously unknown and nonexistent in the
On the question of loyalty, let me give you an example. We all know from the
history books of the exchange of Turks and Greeks, which took place after World
War I when, after the war ended, there was a further war between Greece and
Turkey, at the end of which, the Greek and Turkish governments agreed on an
exchange of populations. And as it appears in the history books, the Greek
minority in Turkey was sent to Greece; the Turkish minority in Greece was sent
to Turkey. That's what it says in the history books. But if you look at the
treaty in which this agreement was incorporated, it says something different.
The parties to be exchanged are defined as Turkish subjects of the Greek
Orthodox faith and Greek subjects of the Muslim faith. And if you look more
closely at who the people actually were, they were, to a very large extent,
Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians from Turkey and Greek-speaking Muslims from
Greece. This was not an exchange of two ethnic minorities. It was a deportation
of two religious minorities.
And this remains very much the perception to the present day. Religion is the
primary identity, and that is quite unrelated to belief and worship. An Egyptian
scholar even wrote a book with the odd title - odd, that is, to the Western
reader - the odd title of Atheism in Islam. It seems a rather absurd title on
the face of it. But it isn't at all. He was talking about Islam as a culture, as
a civilization, and there, as elsewhere, there were atheists and atheist
movements, a perfectly legitimate title of a perfectly valid study. It is very
difficult for us in the West to understand and appreciate this and all its
implications. Separation of church and state was derided in the past by Muslims
when they said this is a Christian remedy for a Christian disease. It doesn't
apply to us or to our world. Lately, I think some of them are beginning to
reconsider that, and to concede that perhaps they may have caught a Christian
disease and would therefore be well advised to try a Christian remedy.
That's all by way of introduction; I can elaborate on these points if you
wish later. I want to tackle one specific question that has been very much in
the news of late and will appeal to you professionally, I hope. That is the
question of the Danish cartoons. Now, this is a very curious story. The news
story, as it broke, was that a Danish newspaper had published a series of
cartoons offensive to the Prophet, and that this had led to spontaneous
outbursts of indignation all over the Muslim world. Now, there are several
problems in this. One of them was that the spontaneous outbursts of indignation
didn't occur until slightly more than four months after the publication of the
cartoons. It's a little difficult to follow, I think you'll agree. The second
problem was that when the spontaneous outbreaks of indignation did occur all
over the Muslim world, in the remotest parts of northern Nigeria, Central Asia,
Southeast Asia and elsewhere they had an ample supply of Danish flags of
suitable size and texture for trampling or burning, as required. Obviously, this
was something carefully prepared over a period of time.
What exactly was it about? Well, fortunately we have a little background on
this, which makes it easier to understand. About 18 years ago, you may recall,
the Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a sentence of death against the novelist
Salman Rushdie, who was living in London at that time. The crime for which he
sentenced him to death was insulting the Prophet. For a Muslim to insult the
Prophet is tantamount to apostasy, and that, as we were recently reminded in
Afghanistan, is widely seen as a capital offense.
But this is a different matter. And after a time, I got interested in what
was happening, and therefore made a study of the literature relating to this
offense, which probably I would not otherwise have bothered with. A number of
interesting things emerged. By the way, when we talk of Muslim law, I would
remind you that we are talking about law. Sharia is a system of law and
adjudication, not of lynching and terror. It is a law that lays down rules,
rules for evidence, for indictment, for defense and the rest of it, quite a
different matter from what has been happening recently.
The first point made was that it is forbidden to portray the Prophet, that
making images of the Prophet of any kind is against the Muslim religion. That is
true, though not always strictly observed by Muslims. But the point is that they
want to avoid any kind of deification of the Prophet. Muslims are shocked when
they go into churches and they see pictures and statues being worshipped. This
they see as idolatrous. And if you go into the interior of a mosque, it is very
austere: no pictures, no statues, only inscriptions. The ban on the portrayal of
a prophet is intended to prevent the development of idolatrous worship of the
Prophet. I don't think there was any danger of that from the Danish
What was much more at issue was another ban, and that is on insulting the
Prophet, which is, of course, an offense. This raises a number of interesting
questions that I think are of direct relevance to the whole issue at the present
time. Insulting the Prophet is an offense in Muslim law. This raises two issues:
one of substantive law, the other of jurisdiction. Muslim jurists discuss this
at some length, and there is a considerable body of case law concerning it in
The first point of disagreement: What is the range of jurisdiction of Muslim
law? And here you have two opinions. According to the Shi'a and a minority among
the Sunnis, Muslim law applies to Muslims wherever they may be in the world. A
Muslim who commits an offense against Muslim law, wherever he may be in the
world, is subject to Muslim law and must therefore be punished in accordance
with Muslim law.
The majority Sunni view is that Muslim law only applies in countries under
Muslim government. What happens outside is no concern of the Muslim authorities.
One distinguished jurist makes his point with an extreme example: A Muslim
traveling in the lands of the unbelievers commits robbery and murder. He returns
to the lands of Islam with his loot. No action can be taken against him or
against his loot because the offense was committed outside the jurisdiction of
Islam, and it is therefore up to the juridical and legal authorities of the
infidels to take action, if they can and will.
Here you have two different opinions relating to an offense committed by a
Muslim. That is not the case for the Danish cartoons. This is an offense
committed by a non-Muslim. And here the plot thickens. This is discussed by all
of the juridical authorities only in the case of a non-Muslim subject of a
Muslim state. If a non-Muslim subject of a Muslim state says or does something
offensive to the Prophet, he is to be tried - accused, tried, and if necessary,
punished. The jurists on the whole tend to take a rather mild view of this
offense. They say, well, he is not a Muslim; he doesn't accept Mohammed as the
Prophet; we know that. So saying that Mohammed is no prophet does not constitute
this offense. It has to be more specifically insulting than that. And, as I say,
there is an elaborate juridical literature and case law on this subject.
What is never discussed at all - it is never considered - is an offense
committed by a non-Muslim in a non-Muslim country. That, according to the
unanimous opinion of all of the doctors of the holy law is no concern of Islamic
law, which brings us back to the case of Denmark. Does this mean that Denmark,
along with the rest of Europe is now considered part of the Islamic lands, and
that the Danes, like the rest, are therefore dhimmis, non-Muslim subjects of the
Muslim state? I think this is an interesting question, which can lead to several
possible lines of inquiry.
MR. LUGO: Excellent. Thank you so much.
Before taking your questions, I did want to introduce to all of you my two
partners in crime in this Pew Forum luncheon series, E.J. Dionne of the
Brookings Institution and The Washington Post, and Michael Cromartie of the
Ethics and Public Policy Center. We take turns moderating these events.
MR. LEWIS: There is one thing I wanted to add.
MR. LUGO: Please do.
MR. LEWIS: Insulting the Prophet is something that has been
going on in Europe for a very long time. In Dante's Inferno, if you're
interested in the 28th Canto, where Dante is being taken on his conducted tour
of hell and guided by Virgil, he comes across the Prophet Mohammed in the course
of his eternal damnation. He is punished - I quote Dante's words, as a
"seminator di scandalo e di scisma," a sower of scandal and of schism. Now, this
is very insulting. In the great Cathedral of Bologna there is a wonderful set of
pictures painted, if I remember rightly, in the 15th century depicting scenes
from Dante's Inferno, including some very graphic pictures of Mohammed being
tortured in hell by the devil - very graphic.
Nobody did anything about this. A couple of years ago, the leaders of the
Italian-Muslim community sent a polite request to the cathedral saying these are
insulting to Muslims; would they mind covering those pictures. The cathedral
administration said they would consider it. Nothing happened. The pictures are
still in view.
MR. LUGO: Thank you.
BARBARA SLAVIN, USA TODAY: Professor Lewis, it is a
pleasure to see you again. I want to drag you into the present, but not about
the controversy over the cartoons. We have witnessed the most extraordinary
conflicts now between the West, in the personage of the United States, and the
Muslim world, with the attack on Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. I wanted
to get your views on how this has affected the mentality of people in that part
of the world, and specifically on Iraq. The last time I talked to you, you were
very supportive of this. I wonder if you still are, whether it has turned out
the way you have anticipated. Thank you very much.
LEWIS: May I take the latter part of your question first? No, it has
not turned out the way I had anticipated. I had underestimated our capacity to
snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Well, let's not go into that.
How do they perceive it? I think this is the important thing. And on this,
fortunately, we are very well documented. Thanks to modern media and modern
methods of communication, we are able to follow their thinking, their debate
among themselves fairly closely. And I think one can get a fairly good
understanding of how this conflict is seen by Osama bin Laden, by al Qaeda
generally, and by many other parallel movements including the Iranian leadership
personified by [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.
It goes something like this: You spoke before of the conflict of
civilizations, a term that has been much used and even more misused. When I
first used it, I was using it in one strictly limited sense, not as a general
principle. Some have even written as though civilizations had foreign policies
and could form alliances, and so on. I would never go that far. I was referring
to one specific conflict between two specific civilizations. Christendom - I'll
call it that for the present purpose - and Islam. And it is a conflict that
arises not from their differences but from their resemblances.
These two religions, and as far as I am aware, no others in the world,
believe that their truths are not only universal but also exclusive. They
believe that they are the fortunate recipients of God's final message to
humanity, which it is their duty not to keep selfishly to themselves like the
Jews or the Hindus, but to bring to the rest of mankind, removing whatever
barriers there may be in the way. This, between two religiously defined
civilians, which Christendom was at that time, with the same heritage, the same
self-perception, the same aspiration, and living in the same neighborhood
inevitably led to conflict, to the real clash of rival civilizations aspiring to
the same role, leading to the same hegemony, each seeing it as a divinely
We can date it precisely with the advent of Islam, which spread very rapidly
by conquest. If you have ever been to Jerusalem, you must have been to the Dome
of the Rock. That in itself is a mark of the conflict. It is built on a place
sacred to both Jews and Christians. It is built in the style of the early
Christian churches, the Church of the Nativity, the Holy Sepulchre and others.
And the inscriptions on the wall are very explicit: He is God. He has no
companion. He does not beget. He is not begotten - in other words, a clear
challenge to Christianity. (Laughter.) The caliph who built that place in the
late seventh century was sending a message. He put the same message on the gold
currency. In other words, he is saying to the Christian emperor, your religion
is superseded; your time has past; move over; we are taking over the world.
That was the beginning of a conflict that has been going on ever since. Now,
we in the Western world, and particularly in the United States, don't seem to
attach much importance to history. And even what happened three years ago has
become ancient history. I find, for example, people seriously arguing that 9/11
was the result of our invasion of Iraq. This kind of reversal cause and effect
is quite common.
In the Muslim world, on the contrary, they have a very lively sense of
history, a very keen awareness of history and a surprisingly detailed knowledge
of history. If you look at, for example, the war propaganda of Iran and Iraq
during the eight-year war between those two countries, '80 to '88 - this is
propaganda addressed to the general public, the largely illiterate general
public - it is full of historical allusions, and I mean allusions; not telling
them historical anecdotes, but a rapid, passing allusion to a name or an event
in the sure knowledge that it would be picked up and understood.
Osama bin Laden, in one of his pronouncements, said, "For more than 80 years
we have been suffering humiliation" (we meaning the Muslim world). That sent all
of the experts scurrying to find out what on earth he was talking about, the old
ones to reference libraries; the young ones to their computers. (Laughter.) And
they came up with a wide variety of different answers.
To anyone who studies Islam or what goes on in the Islamic world, the meaning
was perfectly clear. He was referring the suppression of the caliphate by the
Turkish Republic in 1924. The caliphate was established on the death of the
Prophet as the headship of the Muslim world. And as Muslims see it, the world of
Islam was headed by a succession of caliphs of different dynasties, ruling in
different places, Medina, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo. The last one was in
Istanbul, and it ended catastrophically after World War I, when the last of the
caliphs was deposed, and the last of the great Muslim empires was partitioned,
its territories divided between the victorious Western allies. That is what he
meant by humiliation, and essentially there could be no doubt about that.
And just as the Muslim world was ruled by a succession of caliphs, so the
world of the infidels and more particularly the Christian world, which was the
main rival, was ruled by a succession of powers, first the Byzantine emperors,
then the Holy Roman emperors, then the Western European empires, and - I'm
quoting Osama bin Laden: "In this final phase, the world of the infidels was
divided between two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United Sates."
We think of the defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union as a Western victory
in the Cold War, and some of us credit President Reagan more particularly with
that victory. For Osama bin Laden and his followers, this was a Muslim victory
in the jihad. And if one looks at what actually happened, this is not an
implausible interpretation. It was, after all, the Taliban in Afghanistan that
drove the Red Army to defeat and collapse. And, as he put it, "We have now dealt
successfully with the more deadly, the more dangerous of the two infidel powers.
Dealing with the soft, pampered, and degenerate Americans will be easy."
This impression was confirmed through the '90s when they launched one attack
after another and evoked only angry words and misdirected missiles to remote and
In order to understand what is going on, one has to see the ongoing struggle
within this larger perspective of the millennial struggle between the rival
religions now, according to this view, in its final phase.
Let us turn to the Shi'a equivalent of this through the Iranian revolution -
the word revolution is much used and much misused in the Middle East for
virtually every change of power. In fact, it is the only generally accepted
title of legitimacy. The Iranian revolution was a real revolution, not just a
coup d'etat or a putsch or whatever. It was a genuine revolution in the sense
that the French and the Russian revolutions were revolutions. It brought a
massive change, social, economic, ideological - not just a change of regime.
Like for the French and Russian revolutions in their day, Khomeini had had a
tremendous impact everywhere they had a shared universe of discourse, that is to
say, the Muslim world. Just as the French and Russian revolutions in their day,
and for some time after, had such and impact, so did the Iranian revolution, and
it was not limited to the Shi'a world.
I remember being on a tour of Islamic religious universities in Indonesia,
which is a solidly Sunni country, and in the student dorms they had pictures of
Khomeini hanging on the walls. The Iranian revolution has gone through many
phases. It has had its Jacobins and its Gizondins, its Bolsheviks and
Mensheviks, its terror. And I would say it's now in the Stalinist phase, and
that also has a global impact.
JAY TOLSON, U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT: Professor
Lewis, you mention a fascinating fact, which is how effective Osama bin Laden's
talk was, arguably, in drawing the U.S. into a response that, in some ways, as
you say, has worked out as an unhappy case of snatching defeat from the jaws of
victory. I wonder what the parallels might be with Ahmadinejad's current posture
toward the West, and particularly that very similar style of taunting. I would
like to get into a lot of other things with you about Ahmadinejad as well, but I
will just limit myself to that.
Do you think that that represents something new, particularly within the
Iranian context, a Persian context, of, in a way, speaking for the larger
Islamic world, or do you think Ahmadinejad is simply a cunning opportunist using
religion to solidify his Iranian political base? Or, is he actually trying to
compete on the pan-Islamic level with Osama bin Laden, and in fact using the
very successful tactic, I would say, or strategy, of Osama bin Laden, of
taunting the great Satan who, so far, has proved very ineffective in
MR. LEWIS: I am inclined to believe in the sincerity of
Ahmadinejad. I think that he really believes the apocalyptic language that he is
using. Remember that Muslims, like Christians and Jews, have a sort of
end-of-time scenario in which a Messianic figure will appear. In their case, in
the case of the Shiites, the hidden imam who will emerge from hiding, who will
fight against the powers of evil, the anti-Christ in Christianity, Gog and Magog
in Judaism, and the Dajjal in Islam, a role in which we are being cast now. And
he really seems to believe that the apocalyptic age has come, that this is the
final struggle that will lead to the final victory and the establishment of the
kingdom of heaven on earth.
Others in the ruling establishment in Iran may share this belief. I am
inclined to think that most of them are probably more cynical and regard it as a
useful distraction from their domestic problems and also a useful weapon in
their external relations, because he has been doing very well and he seems to be
succeeding, for example, on the question of nuclear weapons. And every time they
make an advance, we move the point at which we won't tolerate it anymore, and
this has happened again and again. Each time, we say, the next step we will not
allow. We have shown ourselves to be, shall we say, remarkably adaptable in this
respect, and this is no way to win friends and influence people.
I think that the way that Ahmadinejad is talking now shows quite clearly his
contempt for the Western world in general and the United States in particular.
They feel they are dealing with, as Osama bin Laden put it, an effete,
degenerate, pampered enemy incapable of real resistance. And they are proceeding
on that assumption. Remember that they have no understanding or experience of
the free debate of an open society. Where we see free debate and criticism, they
see fear, weakness and division; they proceed accordingly, and every day brings
new evidence of that from Iran.
I think it is a dangerous situation. And my only hope is that they are not
right in their interpretation of the Western world. I have often thought in
recently years of World War II - you were told earlier that I'm ancient myself.
The most vividly remembered year of my life was the year 1940. And more recently
I have been thinking of 1938 rather than of 1940. We seem to be in the mode of
Chamberlain and Munich rather than of Churchill.
MASSIMO CALABRESI, TIME: Sir, you have presented
Islamdom, as you called it, as rather inhospitable to democracy. You just
described them as part of - the populations have no understanding of free debate
MR. LEWIS: I said the present rulers of Iran.
MR. CALABRESI: In your description of Sharia law, you also
indicated it had some transnational primacy. You described the contrast of a
nation divided into religions with a religion divided into nations. Religion is
the primary identity, you said, for followers of Islam around the world. The
question is simply, how realistic a policy of spreading democracy in the Islamic
world is it at this point?
LEWIS: Thank you. I was hoping someone would ask me that question. I am
very grateful to you.
A lot of things are being said about Islam now. There is a view, for example,
that could be summed up this way: These people are incapable of decent,
civilized, open government. Whatever we do, they will be ruled by corrupt
tyrants, therefore, the only aim of foreign policy should be to ensure that they
are friendly tyrants rather than hostile tyrants. We know versions of this
approach produced well known results in Central America, in Southeast Asia and
I would say that this is a totally false approach because to say that they
are incapable of anything else is simply a falsification of history. What we
have now come to regard as typical of Middle Eastern regimes is not typical of
the past. The regime of Saddam Hussein, the regime of Hafiz al Assad, this kind
of government, this kind of society, has no roots either in the Arab or in the
Islamic past. It is due - and let me be quite specific and explicit - it is due
to an importation from Europe, which comes in two phases.
Phase one, the 19th century, when they are becoming aware of their falling
behind the modern world and need desperately to catch up, so they adopt all
kinds of European devices with the best of intentions, which nevertheless have
two harmful effects. One, they enormously strengthen the power of the state by
placing in the hands of the ruler, weaponry and communication undreamt of in
earlier times, so that even the smallest petty tyrant has greater powers over
his people than Harun al-Rashid or Suleyman the Magnificent, or any of the
legendary rulers of the past.
Second, even more deadly, in the traditional society there were many, many
limits on the autocracy, the ruler. The whole Islamic political tradition is
strongly against despotism. Traditional Islamic government is authoritarian,
yes, but it is not despotic. On the contrary, there is a quite explicit
rejection of despotism. And this wasn't just in theory; it was in practice too
because in Islamic society, there were all sorts of established orders in
society that acted as a restraining factor. The bazaar merchants, the craft
guilds, the country gentry and the scribes, all of these were well organized
groups who produced their own leaders from within the group. They were not
appointed or dismissed by the governments. And they did operate effectively as a
There is a wonderful quote I like to use; it is the letter written in 1786 by
the French ambassador in Istanbul - three years before the French revolution -
He is trying to explain why he is not making good progress with his assignment.
And he says, here things are not as in France where the king is sole master and
does as he pleases; here the sultan has to consult with all kinds of people,
with all kinds of holders of office, and even with retired, former holders of
office. And it's true; that is how it was. All of that disappeared with the
process of modernization, which, as I say, strengthened the government and
weakened or eliminated the previous limiting factors.
The second, really deadly phase came - and here I can date it precisely in
the year 1940. In 1940, the government of France decided to surrender and, in
effect, changed sides in the war. The greater part of the colonial empire was
beyond the reach of the Axis, and the governors therefore had a free choice:
Vichy or de Gaulle. The overwhelming majority chose Vichy, including - and this
is what concerns us specifically - the governor, high commissioner, he was
called, of the French-mandated territory of Syria-Lebanon. So, Syria-Lebanon was
wide open to the Nazis, and they moved in on a large scale, not with troops,
because that would have been too noticeable, but with propaganda of every kind.
It was then the roots of Ba'athism were laid and the first organizations were
formed, which ultimately developed into the Ba'ath Party.
It was then that the Nazi style of ideology and government became known,
eagerly embraced simply because it was anti-Western rather than because of
inherent attraction. From Syria, they succeeded in spreading it to Iraq, where
they even set up a Nazi-style government for a while, headed by Rashid Ali. It
was possible to deal with that, and they were driven out of the Middle East. But
after the war, the Western allies also left and the Soviets moved in, taking the
place of the Nazis as a champion against the West. To switch from the Nazi to
the communist model required only minor adjustments.
This is not the part of the historic Arab or Islamic tradition and, for that
reason, I think that the prospect, not of our creating democratic institutions,
but allowing them to develop their own democratic institutions is definitely a
possibility. I would go a step further. I think we could have done much more
than we have done, and I think that it's still not a lost cause, but it is now
becoming very much endangered. And if they go on, if we help them, there have
been many signs of a developing democratic movement not only in Iraq, where the
news is much better than you would think, but also in Iran, in Syria and in
other places - stirrings of popular democratic movements - Egypt, for example,
and North Africa and elsewhere.
The movement is there. It is dangerous to say or do such things, so they have
to be very careful, but it's there, it's growing, and there is a lot we could do
that we are not doing to help them. And what are the alternatives? As far as I
can see, there are many possibilities; let me give you the worst-case and
best-case scenarios and you can work out the intermediate possibilities. My
worst-case scenario is that Europe, and possibly also the rest of the West, and
the Islamic world destroy each other, and the future belongs, or is contested
between, India and China as the superpowers of the second half of the 21st
century - my best case scenario is that, somehow, with our help, or at least
without our hindrance, the peoples of the Middle East succeed in developing
open, democratic societies, in which case the Middle East would be able to
resume its rightful place, which it has had twice before, in world
ADAM GARFINKLE, AMERICAN INTEREST: When you
answered Barbara's question before, you stood back and gave a very magisterial,
historical view of perceptions in the Muslim world about the character of world
The follow-up question is, you're obviously describing the views of Osama bin
Laden and Musab al-Zaqawi and so forth, but if one were going to do a kind of a
thumbnail stratification of attitudes in the Muslim world, and especially in the
Arab world, there are some who say that a majority of Muslims, whatever their
place in life, essentially agree with Osama bin Laden's analysis, which is why
he's so popular in many, many places. There are others who say, no, this is
still a very small percentage - other people just want to be left alone, or,
they're stratified somewhere in between traditional piety and this new
interpretation of Islamic thinking. Where do you think that balance lies, for
the most part, and how has it changed, if it's changed at all, in the past five
MR. LEWIS: We have no way of measuring opinion in these
countries. These are countries under more or less ruthless dictatorships, and
people are afraid to express their opinions, particularly to impudent strangers
who come and ask them all sorts of personal questions. I don't place much
reliance on polls and other ways of measuring public opinion. The only way we
have is by talking to people we know and talking to other people who talk to
people they know, and so on and so on, and also by looking at the occasional
public expression of something. I think here we can get a fairly clear
impression of the growth of the democratic idea in these countries. I have been
following the Middle East now for more than half a century and traveling
practically every year to one or another Middle East country; and I have noticed
a quite dramatic change in the things that people are prepared to say in private
conversation, the kind of attitudes that people express. This is something new,
and I think very heartening, and I hope that it will continue and that we won't
JOHN BARRY, NEWSWEEK: Anyone who works in
Washington knows that this is a town where there are more people with opinions
than knowledge, but this seems particularly true of the Arab world. There are
self-proclaimed experts of the Arab world here who don't speak a word of Arabic
- I don't mean around this table, but in this town. The same is true across both
the United States and across much of Western Europe. There is a paucity of
knowledge. If you were advising a young person where they should go to study,
which colleges they should attend to study the modern Arab world so that they
could understand both its modern nature and its roots, where would you advise
them to go to study?
MR. LEWIS: Well, Princeton, obviously. (Laughter.) It's more
difficult. During the Cold War there was a time when departments of Far Eastern
studies at American universities were almost entirely controlled by Maoists.
We're approaching a similar situation in Middle Eastern studies today, so I
would hesitate. Princeton is still holding out. How much longer it will be able
to do so, I don't know.
JANE LITTLE, BBC: Professor Lewis, you mentioned there's a
debate happening now about the need for a separation of church and state in
Islam. I'm wondering where you see that debate being the most vibrant and
whether Islamic thinkers, largely living in the West, really can influence the
emergence of some form of Islamic secular democracy, and how far you really
believe that the discussions about the compatibility of Islam and democracy
drawing on Islamic concepts of shura consultation. How realistic do you believe
that is, whether we're thinking of democracy in our own image here?
MR. LEWIS: It doesn't have to be in our own image. I don't
see why we should assume that what is variously known as the Westminster model
or the Jeffersonian model should apply here universally. I think that trying to
impose our kind of democracy is foredoomed to failure. What I think one may
reasonably hope for is that they will be able to develop some form of democratic
government of their own. There are certain principles that are enshrined in the
holy law of Islam - for example, the principle of limited and responsible
government. That is part of the holy law. The government is limited and the law
says obey; the Quran says obey those who hold authority over you, but the law
also says - and this is a tradition ascribed to the Prophet - there is no
obedience in sin. That means, if the ruler commands something that is sinful,
not only is there no duty of obedience, there is a duty of disobedience, which
is more than the right of disobedience we have in Western thought.
There are many other examples of that. There is the contractual element.
According to traditional Muslim law, the head of the state is the caliph, and
the caliph are being chosen and appointed - it goes through a procedure that is
called, in Arabic, the bay'a. This is usually translated to "homage," but it is
a mistranslation. The word bay'a in Arabic does not mean homage. It comes from a
root meaning to buy and sell. In other words, it's a deal, a contract. The bay'a
is a contract agreed between the ruler and those who appointed him ruler, which
imposes duties on both.
So, limited, contractual, consensual government is part of the Islamic
tradition, and was a living part of it until the process of modernization came
and destroyed everything. Therefore, I think we have a good chance of getting
back to that. But we must be realistic. As I say, they must develop their own
form of limited, moderate, contractual, consensual government. What they don't
have, which is an essential part of ours, is the idea of elected representation.
They have representation in the sense of the leader of a group, who comes from
within the group, but the idea of elections on the corporate bodies is new; and
this is difficult, but not impossible.
MS. LITTLE: Just to go back to the first part of the
question, where do you believe the best thinkers are in Islam who can influence
this debate, and can they really influence it?
MR. LEWIS: There are thinkers in many places. In the Arab
world now, I would say, there are interesting lines of thought in Egypt, in
Iraq, in Lebanon, but they have to be very careful. Thinking is dangerous, or at
least if you talk about it, it is.
ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE, THE ECONOMIST: I wanted to ask
about the failure of assimilation of Islamic communities in Europe. You seem to
be very optimistic.
MR. LUGO: All right, a very important question. Let me put
that in line here, okay, Adrian?
MR. WOOLDRIDGE: Okay.
MR. LUGO: We'll get right back to you.
PHILIPPE GELIE, LE FIGARO: Do you see a common
trend in the series of electoral victories of Islamic parties throughout the
Middle East recently? And, more broadly, you mentioned that there are many
voices in the Islamic world. Do you think they manage to be heard and
influential on the society? Thank you.
MR. LEWIS: Obviously, they have scared Mubarak. It's
interesting that in the recent Egyptian election he allowed the Muslim Brothers
to win a certain number of seats but ruthlessly suppressed the democrats. The
purpose was clear: The democrats were a real danger; the Muslim Brothers enabled
him to turn to the West and say, you see, it's them or me. The tactic I think is
MR. GELIE: And a common trend or -
MR. LEWIS: Hmm, difficult to talk about a common trend.
Things vary from place to place. At one time, I was very hopeful about Tunisia,
which seemed to be moving very favorably, and then things went a different way.
The most interesting things that are happening are, for the most part, illicit,
underground, so it's difficult to assemble comparative data for academic
BILL GERTZ, THE WASHINGTON TIMES: I cover the
Pentagon. They like acronyms there, and they've reduced the war on terrorism to
GWOT, global war on terrorism. And if you ask some of the policymakers there,
they'll tell you that this war has three components. One is the kinetic or
bang-bang part, the other is the law enforcement and intelligence part, and the
third is what they call the war of ideas or the battle of ideas. I think you
answered some of this in referring to Islamic law, but is it possible to wage a
successful war of ideas against Islamist extremism? Would it be possible to
define Islamist extremism as un-Islamic and then develop more of an ideological
counter? It seems that the current method is to apply democracy - concepts of
democracy and freedom to something that is dominated by a religious tone.
MR. LEWIS: Regarding the war against terror, I am familiar
with this slogan. I feel that while we are indeed engaged in a war against
terror, it is inadequate and even misleading. If Churchill had informed the
country in 1940, we are engaged in a war against bomber aircraft and submarines,
that would have been an accurate statement but not a very helpful one. To say we
are engaged in a war against terror is of the same order. Terror is a tactic.
It's a method of waging war. It is not a cause, it is not an adversary, it is
not anything that one can identify as an opponent, and I think we need to be
more specific in fighting a war. It's useful to know who the enemy is. I think
you would agree.
MR. GERTZ: If I could just follow up. I didn't mention this,
but President Bush has said that the problem of Islamist extremism is that it's
a perversion of Islam. Do you agree with that or do you think that there is some
doctrinal legitimacy to this use of terrorism?
MR. LEWIS: Well, a lot of what is being done is certainly a
perversion of Islam, simply in the light of their own texts. Take, for example,
the suicide bomber. Now, the classical Islamic legal and religious texts are
quite clear on the subject of suicide. Suicide is what Christians would call a
mortal sin. Even if a man or a woman had lived a life of unremitting virtue, by
committing suicide they forfeit paradise and go straight to hell, where,
according to the sacred texts, the eternal punishment of the suicide consists of
the eternal repetition of the act of suicide. So, if you poison yourself, an
eternity of bellyache; if you strangle yourself, an eternity of strangling; and
presumably for these people, an eternity of exploding fragments.
We ask, well, why do they do it? How does it happen? This is a very recent
development. It came in stages. Stage one is a question that was asked quite a
long time ago: Is it permissible to throw oneself against a superior enemy,
knowing that this will lead to certain death? Is this permissible or does it
count as suicide, which is forbidden? And the jurists consider this permissible.
And that was where it stood for centuries and centuries. Even the famous
Assassins of the Middle Ages never died by their own hands and never killed
anyone but the marked target.
And it isn't until comparatively recently that they asked another question:
Is it permitted to kill yourself in attacking the enemy, provided you take a
sufficient number of the enemy with you? And the answer was, yes, if you take a
sufficient number of the enemy with you, it is permitted to kill yourself. Now,
this is a radical departure from more than a thousand years of Islamic theology
and law, and you ask, where does it come from? Well, like so much else of what
has gone wrong with Islam, we can trace it quite specifically to Wahhabism.
Wahhabism is about as central to Islam as, shall we say, the Ku Klux Klan to
Christianity. It originated in Najd, what is now part of Saudi Arabia, in the
18th century. It was a reaction to the general perception of that time that
things were going wrong.
There have always been two reactions in the Muslim world to an awareness of
things going wrong. One is, we are falling behind the modern world; the answer
therefore is to modernize, to catch up with the modern world. The other is, as
we see now, what has gone wrong is that we have tried to ape the modern, i.e.,
infidel world and the right answer is to return to the true and authentic
traditions of Islam. That was the Wahhabi line, and Wahhabism is a peculiarly
violent and fanatical version of this.
This would have remained an extremist fringe in a marginal country except for
the unfortunate combination of two circumstances. One was the creation of a
Saudi kingdom in the mid-'20s. The House of Saud were the local tribal sheikhs
of the area where the Wahhabis flourished and followed the Wahhabi faith. By
creating the kingdom, controlling the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and also
therefore the pilgrimage, it gave them enormous power and influence in the
Islamic world. And the other, of course, was oil and money, which gave them
resources beyond the dreams of avarice.
So what you are getting now in the Muslim world, all over the Muslim world,
and more particularly among the Muslim communities in non-Muslim countries is
the spread of the Wahhabi version of Islam, which, as I said, is about as
typical of what you might call mainstream Islam as the KKK of mainstream
Christianity. Wahhabism is the major trend of that sort. There are others, the
so-called Salafia. It's run along parallel lines to the Wahhabis, but they are
less violent and less extreme - still violent and extreme but less so than the
Wahhabis. And now, of course, also the Iranian Revolution.
JAAP VAN WESEL, THE JERUSALEM REPORT: Professor
Lewis, you mentioned the Ba'ath, which originated in Nazidom. What about
Nasserism and Arab nationalism? How would you place that? And the other question
is, you have proposed in the past that the Hashimites should be candidates for
power in Iraq. Why did you think then it was a good idea, and do you still think
MR. LEWIS: I'll take your second question first. You can't
beat somebody with nobody, and overthrowing a regime always raises the question
of what are you going to do to replace it? Now, the Hashimites have several
advantages. They have legitimacy within the Muslim context. They have historic
claims to the holy places and elsewhere. And it seemed, therefore, that they
could provide a legitimizing argument for major change in this part of the
I think that by now that opportunity has passed. The Hashimites could have
played a useful role in Iraq if we had chosen to go that way, and even in Saudi
Arabia in a somewhat different combination of circumstances. But that is
obviously not in the cards at the moment, and it is almost impossible to
persuade Americans that it's a good idea to restore a monarchy.
Sorry, the first part of your question?
MR. VAN WESEL: It was about Nasserism and Arab
MR. LEWIS: Yes, you have what you might call classical Arab
nationalism. This was, again, an imitation of Europe. In the 19th century you
had two important events in Europe: the unification of Italy and the unification
of Germany, and both of these had a tremendous impact in the Arab world. They
saw in this, a model for what they should be able to do, and they tried for a
long time to do it. Nasserism is probably the final phase of that movement and,
as you know, it failed. Now all the Arab states are independent but no union of
Arab states has ever worked. They always fall apart through internal
ELSA WALSH, THE NEW YORKER: I wondered why you said
that you thought we were more in the era of 1938, in the Chamberlain and Munich
era, rather than the 1940 era -- or you worried that we were.
MR. LEWIS: Well, you know, let's meet - let's negotiate this
in our time. If Chamberlain had taken a tougher line, the probability is that
the German military command would have removed Hitler and World War II could
have been avoided. But they didn't. We encouraged him. We gave him
Czechoslovakia and he then took Poland. And what I'm afraid of is that they seem
to be doing the same thing now, as moving from retreat to retreat on each of the
points as it arises. I hope I'm wrong.
MS. WALSH: Are you talking specifically about Iran and Iraq
MR. LEWIS: More particularly, but also in general, yes.
MR. WOOLDRIDGE: You are quite optimistic about our capacity
to spread democracy and -
MR. LEWIS: No, not our capacity, their capacity.
MR. WOOLDRIDGE: I beg your pardon. But if you look at
controlled experiments, taking let's say, 3 million Muslims and putting them in
Britain, it doesn't seem to have been an assimilation that worked very well. It
seems to be an assimilation that's actually going in reverse.
MR. LEWIS: Let me go back to the point of developing
democracy in those countries. I didn't say that we could develop it. What I said
was that we could remove obstacles and give them the opportunity to develop it.
The only way it can work is if they develop it themselves, and I see genuine
possibilities for that.
I was asked the other day at a lecture I gave what my view was on the
development of democracy in the Arab world and elsewhere in the Islamic world,
and I said I would describe my position as one of cautious optimism. My optimism
derives from there, my caution from here. (Laughter.)
Regarding the Muslim populations of the Western world, I spoke a few moments
ago about the Wahhabi menace. This is particularly strong among the Muslim
communities in Europe and America. And just think, for example, for a Muslim
living in Hamburg, Birmingham, Los Angeles, or whatever it may be, it is very
natural that he should want to give his children some sort of grounding in his
religion and culture. So he looks around for evening classes, weekend schools,
holiday camps and the like. These are now almost entirely controlled, financed,
funded by the Wahhabis, so that you get, among the Muslims in the Diaspora more
than among the Muslims in Muslim countries, an intense indoctrination from the
most radical, the most violent, the most extreme and fanatical version of
I'll give you a specific example. In the German constitution there is strict
separation of church and state, but Germany, unlike the United States, allows
time in the school curriculum for religious instruction. The way they do it is
this: Time is provided in the curriculum of the German schools for religious
instruction. Attendance at these classes is entirely optional, and the state
provides neither teachers nor textbooks. The religious communities said, if they
want this, provide the teachers and the textbooks.
The Muslim community in Germany is largely Turkish, and when they reached
sufficient numbers they went to the German authorities and asked if they could
have religious instruction in Islam in the German school curriculum. The Germans
said, yes, you're entitled to that, according to the law, but you will have to
provide the textbooks. And the Turks said, no problem, we have excellent
textbooks, which are used in Turkish schools and we can use those. And the
German authorities said, no, that you cannot do. These are government-controlled
textbooks. We cannot have government textbooks on religion. You have to produce
them from your own community, with the result that Islam, as taught in Turkish
schools, is a sort of modernized, semi-secularized version of Islam, and Islam
as taught in German schools is the full Wahhabi blast. The last time I looked,
12 Turks had been arrested as members of al Qaeda. All 12 of them were born and
educated in Germany, not in Turkey. Does that answer your question?
MR. WOOLDRIDGE: To some extent.
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Professor
Lewis, if this is 1938 - and I assume your sympathies lie with Churchill
(laughter) - what Churchillian policy would you therefore advocate - and I'll
name three crises - for the U.S. to follow: one, versus Iran, two, in relation
to Hamas and three, in relation to the insurgency in Iraq?
MR. LEWIS: Well, in two simple words: Get tough. I have not
suggested that we should launch an armed attack on Iran. I don't think that's
necessary. I don't think we should do anything that would either offend or
tickle Iranian national pride. We're doing both at the present time. We're
offending them by saying you mustn't have nuclear weapons, and we're tickling
them by allowing their leaders to present themselves as defying the mighty West,
standing alone and successfully defying the United States. I think that's the
wrong way to do it. There are other things that one can do to indicate
displeasure and to help those there who want a big change.
MR. LUGO: Hamas? He said there were three points he wanted a
Churchillian response to. The first was Iran but then Hamas - response to
MR. LEWIS: Hamas is a dangerous - Hamas and Hezbollah - I'll
throw in too - these are dangerous terrorist organizations and should be treated
MR. LUGO: And, finally, the Iraqi insurgency?
MR. LEWIS: What do you want to know about the Iraqi
MR. LUGO: Go ahead, Charles.
MR. KRAUTHAMMER: Your preferred policy - Churchill's
MR. LEWIS: The policy would be to deal with it by
suppressing it, and one can't do that half-heartedly by looking as though one is
trying to reach a compromise with the insurgents at the same time. You know, the
classical approach, what have we done to offend you; what can we do to put it
right, these are not the questions we should be asking them.
MICHAEL HIRSH, NEWSWEEK: Thanks. If you could just
elaborate a little more on your response to Iran - what should we be doing
specifically that's different from what the Bush administration has been doing
regarding confrontation with the regime. I also just wanted to pick up on
something you said earlier and ask you to elaborate, because you also issued a
warning earlier in your remarks about your fear that we might be betraying the
people of the Middle East, the Arab countries. In what way do you fear we might
be doing that? That too seemed to contain an implied criticism of current
MR. LEWIS: What can one do? Now, as I said before, I don't
think it's a good idea to launch an armed invasion. There is a great deal one
can do short of that to indicate displeasure, to make things difficult and to
encourage resistance among the subjects of the Iranian government. And there is
ample evidence of widespread unhappiness and discontent among the people of
Iran. I think we could do more to encourage and help them in a number of
MR. LUGO: And that may perhaps connect to your second
question, which is in what way might we be betraying the people of the Middle
MR. LEWIS: Betraying them by doing what we are often accused
of doing, and that is, making friends of tyrants and having tyrants as our
puppets and not worrying about the suppression of their people. This is an
accusation that is frequently made concerning many of the rulers of the region,
and while it is often exaggerated, it is not by any means entirely baseless.
NEIL KING, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: You had said
that our efforts to spread democracy were not a lost cause but very much
endangered, and I was just curious what your preferred methodology would be on
that front and what it is you think we're doing wrong in the region.
MR. LEWIS: I think the main thing we're doing wrong is
psychological. We're showing hesitancy and weakness and fear.
MR. LUGO: On the positive side, what should we be doing?
MR. LEWIS: We should be doing what we started out doing in
Iraq, and you saw the immediate effect of that in Syria, in Lebanon, in Egypt
and elsewhere. Things seemed to be going well. In Syria there was the moment
when the first Mehlis report was published in June last year and the regime
really seemed to be on the point of collapse. Then Ahmadinejad paid a state
visit to Syria and restored them, and now they're stronger than before and we
did nothing, nothing at all.
ALAN COOPERMAN, THE WASHINGTON POST: How central is the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the conflict between Islamdom and
MR. LEWIS: Obviously it's very important, but it's not the
only one. If you look around the bloody perimeter of the Islamic world - I'm
using the word "bloody" in the physiological sense, not the British colloquial
sense. (Laughter.) If you look around, there's one place after another where
there is conflict - Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, South Philippines, Timor
and so on - this is a pattern that goes all the way around the perimeter and
through parts of the interior. In that respect, the Palestine question is just
one of a larger series.
It is given more attention for two reasons. One of them is that Israel is an
open society, and therefore journalists can come and go and report and
mis-report freely, which is not true in the other places I mentioned, and that
makes it very much easier for them to get media attention. The other thing is
that Jews are involved. And you know the old saying, Jews are news. For much of
the Middle-Eastern Arab world, Israel is a very useful topic. It is the licensed
grievance. There is a pent-up rage in all these countries directed primarily
against their own rulers, and therefore rulers make every effort they can to
deflect it elsewhere. It surely is the "licensed" grievance and serves a very
useful purpose in that respect. If that grievance were ever resolved they would
have to find a new one, which would be a lot of trouble.
By all this I didn't mean to say that it's unimportant. It's obviously very
important, but I think it is the general conflict that is preventing us from
solving the Palestinian problem, rather than the Palestinian problem that is
preventing the solution of the general one.
PAUL STAROBIN, NATIONAL JOURNAL: Professor, what,
in your opinion, would be the impact on the mindset of the leaders of the
Islamic Republic of Iran if they actually possessed an atomic weapon?
MR. LEWIS: I think that they would become impossibly
arrogant. Remember that Ahmadinejad in particular, and his circle, as I said
before, are in an apocalyptic mood. They believe in the end of time; it's
imminent, and, therefore, the use of a nuclear weapon would not bother them in
the least. And they would not, of course, use it in an aerial bombardment. What
preserved us from nuclear warfare during the Cold War was what was known as MAD
- mutually assured destruction. If they use it, it won't come with a return
address on it; it will come from terrorist action. And that, I think, is the
most likely way that they would use a nuclear weapon if they get one - no return
MR. DIONNE: Professor Lewis, I've been thinking about that
intriguing date metaphor. I was wondering if it's 1946 and we didn't give
Eisenhower enough troops and not a good enough plan, because this goes back to
what you said at the very beginning about the problems that you see now in Iraq.
And I'd like you to elaborate on your answer to Charles' [Krauthammer] question
by asking, at this point, what is the best outcome in Iraq and how to achieve
it? Because, from what you said, it sounds like you think we actually should
send more troops and really get the job done. And what, from your point of view,
would be the minimally acceptable outcome, or the least damaging outcome, given
where we are today? I know it's unfair to ask a historian to change present
MR. LEWIS: Remember, Churchill was asked how he thought
history would treat him, and he said, "Very well; I intend to write it myself."
(Laughter.) And he did, of course.
Coming back to Iraq, obviously the situation has been getting worse over
time, but I think it is still salvageable. We now have a political process going
on, and I think if one looks at the place and what's been happening there, one
has to marvel at what has been accomplished. There is an old saying, no news is
good news, and the media obviously work on the reverse principle: Good news is
no news. Most of the good things that have happened have not been reported, but
there has been tremendous progress in many respects. Three elections were held -
three fair elections in which millions of Iraqis stood in line waiting to vote
and knowing they were risking their lives every moment that they did so. And all
this wrangling that's going on now is part of the democratic process, the fact
that they argue, that they negotiate, that they try to find a compromise. This
is part of their democratic education.
So I find all this both annoying and encouraging. I see that more and more
people are becoming involved in the political process. And there's one thing in
Iraq in particular that I think is encouraging, and that is the role of women.
Of all the Arab countries, with the possible exception of Tunisia, Iraq is the
one where women have made most progress. I'm not talking about rights, a word
that has no meaning in that context. I'm talking about opportunity, access.
Women in Iraq had access to education, to higher education, and therefore to the
professions, and therefore to the political process to a degree without parallel
elsewhere in the Arab world, as I said, with the possible exception of Tunisia.
And I think that the participation of women - the increasing participation of
women is a very encouraging sign for the development of democratic
I would quote Ataturk, who began his career as a politician in 1923 by making
a series of speeches demanding political rights for women. Now, at first blink
it would be difficult to imagine anything more improbable than an Ottoman pasha
and a general beginning his political career on a feminist program, but that's
exactly what he did, and he gave a good reason for it. He said, with his usual
terseness and clarity, "Our most urgent task today is to catch up with the
modern world." He said, "We will not catch up with the modern world if we only
modernize half the population." "We" meaning Turkey, of course. Simple, clear
and, I think, overwhelmingly true.
And I think the same is true in the Arab world today, and that's why I think
this is one of the more encouraging factors in Iraq, where women have done
better than in most other places, and I think women will play an increasingly
important role in the Iraqi political society.
MR. LUGO: Well, in all these years, I've never regretted
having done my doctoral studies at the University of Chicago. But I have to tell
you, just for today, I wish I had gone to Princeton. Thank you so much,
Professor Lewis, for being with us.
MR. LEWIS: Thank you.
MR. LUGO: Thank you all for coming.