Not ready for democracy 32

As might be expected, the best informed and therefore the most valuable opinion on the present upheaval in the Arab states comes from Professor Bernard Lewis, the famous and deservedly much honored historian of Islam and the Middle East.

His view is so different from the common opinion and received wisdom recited by media pundits as to be – at least in some instances – surprising.

We’ve chosen these extracts from his recent interview with David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post.

The Arab masses certainly want change. And they want improvement. But when you say do they want democracy, that’s a more difficult question to answer. What does “democracy” mean? It’s a word that’s used with very different meanings, even in different parts of the Western world. And it’s a political concept that has no history, no record whatever in the Arab, Islamic world.

I think it’s a great mistake to try and think of the Middle East in [Western] terms and that can only lead to disastrous results, as you’ve already seen in various places. They are simply not ready for free and fair elections.

In Egypt now, for example, the assumption is that we’re proceeding toward elections in September and that seems to be what the West is inclined to encourage. I would view that with mistrust and apprehension. If there’s a genuinely free election – assuming that such a thing could happen – the religious parties have an immediate advantage. First, they have a network of communication through the preacher and the mosque which no other political tendency can hope to equal. Second, they use familiar language. The language of Western democracy is for the most part newly translated and not intelligible to the great masses. In genuinely fair and free elections, [the Muslim parties] are very likely to win and I think that would be a disaster. A much better course would be a gradual development of democracy, not through general elections, but rather through local self-governing institutions. For that, there is a real tradition in the region.

If you look at the history of the Middle East in the Islamic period, and if you look at their own political literature, it is totally against authoritarian or absolutist rule. The word they always insist on is consultation.

You have this traditional system of consultation with groups which are not democratic as we use that word in the Western world, but which have a source of authority other than the state – authority which derives from within the group, whether it be the landed gentry or the civil service, or the scribes or whatever. That’s very important. And that form of consultation could be a much better basis for the development of free and civilized government.

They’re all agreed that they want to get rid of the present leadership, but I don’t think they’re agreed on what they want in its place. For example, we get very, very different figures as to the probable support for the Muslim Brothers. And it’s very difficult to rely on these things. People don’t tell the truth when they’re being asked questions.

One has to understand … the differences in the political discourse. In the Western world, we talk all the time about freedom. In the Islamic world, freedom is not a political term. It’s a legal term: Freedom as opposed to slavery. This was a society in which slavery was an accepted institution existing all over the Muslim world. You were free if you were not a slave. It was entirely a legal and social term, with no political connotation whatsoever.

The major contrast is not between freedom and tyranny, between freedom and servitude, but between justice and oppression. Or if you like, between justice and injustice.

To say that [the Muslim Brotherhood] is secular [as the US intelligence chief James Clapper did] would show an astonishing ignorance of the English lexicon. I don’t think it is in any sense benign. I think it is a very dangerous, radical Islamic movement. If they obtain power, the consequences would be disastrous for Egypt.

I don’t know how one could get the impression that the Muslim Brotherhood is relatively benign unless you mean relatively as compared with the Nazi party.

I’m an historian. My business is the past, not the future. But 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. It’s not impossible. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but it’s not unlikely. And if that happens, they would gradually sink back into medieval squalor.

Remember that according to their own statistics, the total exports of the entire Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, one small European country. Sooner or later the oil age will come to an end. Oil will be either exhausted or superseded as a source of energy and then they have virtually nothing. In that case it’s easy to imagine a situation in which Africa north of the Sahara becomes not unlike Africa south of the Sahara.

There’s a common theme [in the Arab states] of anger and resentment. And the anger and resentment are universal and well-grounded. They come from a number of things. First of all, there’s the obvious one – the greater awareness that they have, thanks to modern media and modern communications, of the difference between their situation and the situation in other parts of the world. I mean, being abjectly poor is bad enough. But when everybody else around you is pretty far from abjectly poor, then it becomes pretty intolerable.

I was expecting a wave of such movements. I didn’t think it would be as quick and easy as it was in Egypt. But I expect that there will be more. We can see in so many countries, the regimes are already gravely in danger.

One method [of supporting the rebels – in Iran, for instance] is by political warfare, by having some sort of propaganda campaign against the regime. This would not be difficult. There’s a vast Iranian population now in the Western world, particularly in the United States, who I’m sure would be willing to help in this, and thanks to modern communications, it would not be too difficult to get the message across.

People talk about American imperialism as a danger. That is absolute nonsense. People who talk about American imperialism in the Middle East either know nothing about America or know nothing about imperialism. … As applied to American policy in the Middle East at the present time, it is wrong to the point of absurdity.

[Among the Arabs] two things have happened. One is that their position on the whole has been getting worse. The second, which is much more important, is that their awareness of that is getting much greater. As I said before, thanks to modern communications, they can now compare their own position with that in other countries. And they don’t have to look very far to do that. I have sat with friends in Arab countries, watching Israeli television, and their responses to that are mindboggling. [That is to say – the context indicates -they found freedom of speech “mindboggling” – JB.]

There are increasing numbers of people in the Arab world who look with wonderment at what they see in Israel, at the functioning of a free and open society. I read an article quite recently by a Palestinian Arab whom I will not endanger by naming, in which he said that “as things stand in the world at the present time, the best hope that an Arab has for his future is as a second class citizen of a Jewish state.” A rather extraordinary statement coming from an Arab spokesman. But if you think about it, he’s not far wrong. The alternative, being in an Arab state, is very much worse. They certainly do better as second class citizens of the Jewish state. There’s a growing realization of that. People would speak much more openly about that if it were safe to do so, which it obviously isn’t.

There are two things which I think are helpful towards a better understanding between the Arabs and Israel. One of them is .. the perception of a greater danger. … Sadat turned to Israel because he saw that Egypt was becoming a Russian colony. The same thing has happened again on a number of occasions. Now they see Israel as a barrier against the Iranian threat.

One sees similar calculations later than that. Consider for example, the battle between the Israeli forces and Hezbollah in 2006. It was quite clear that the Arab governments were quietly cheering the Israelis and hoping that they would finish the job and were very disappointed when they failed to finish the job. The best way of attaining friendship is by confronting a yet more dangerous enemy. There have been several such [enemies] in the Middle East and there are several at the present time. That seems to me the best hope of understanding between the Arabs on the one hand and either the West or the Israelis on the other hand.

The other one, which is less easy to define but in the long run is probably more important, is [regarding Israel] as a model of democratic government. A model of a free and open society with rights for women – an increasingly important point, especially in the perception of women.

The case has been made, and I think there is some force in it, that the main reason for the relative backwardness of the Islamic world compared to the West is the treatment of women. As far as I know, it was first made by a Turkish writer called Namik Kemal in about 1880. At that time an agonizing debate had been going on for more than a century: What went wrong? Why did we fall behind the West? He said, “The answer is very clear. We fell behind the West because of the way we treat our women. By the way we treat our women we deprive ourselves of the talents and services of half the population. And we submit the early education of the other half to ignorant and downtrodden mothers.”

It goes further than that. A child who grows up in a traditional Muslim household is accustomed to authoritarian, autocratic rule from the start. I think the position of women is of crucial importance. That is why I am looking with great interest at Tunisia. Tunisia is the one Arab country that has really done something about women. In Tunisia there is compulsory education for girls, from primary school, right through. In Tunisia, women are to be found in the professions. There are doctors, lawyers, journalists, politicians and so on. Women play a significant part in public life in Tunisia. I think that is going to have an enormous impact. It’s already having this in Tunisia and you can see that in various ways. But this will certainly spread to other parts of the [Islamic] world.

A fuller record of the interview may be found here.