What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response

Bernard Lewis was interviewed in July 2002 by Princeton Alumni Weekly: “Bernard Lewis discusses the past, present, and future of the Middle East“:

Considered by many the world’s foremost living historian of the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus, has studied the Muslim world for more than half a century. His work spans the medieval to the modern periods and encompasses multiple aspects of Islamic lands, from the Ottoman Empire to Islam’s relationship with the West. Cultured and refined, he has written with great respect about the Muslim world, which for centuries was the center of civilization. For years and in several books, he has examined Islam’s troubled attempts to encompass modernity. His latest book, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, looks at that region’s “downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression.”

He wrote the book before September 11, 2001.

The rage that fueled the attacks has been building for 300 years, says Lewis, a British-born, naturalized U.S. citizen who turned 86 last May. His phone was ringing off the hook last fall with requests for interviews, lectures, and private sessions with U.S. officials in the Pentagon and the White House.

Attached to British Intelligence during World War II, Lewis has informally advised Washington’s higher-ups for years. At the same time, he’s got his academic rivals, led by Edward Said ’57, a professor of literature at Columbia, who has called him an apologist for imperialism and Zionism.

Lewis, who often composes his written work by speaking into a tape recorder, spoke to PAW’s associate editor Kathryn Federici Greenwood about the Middle East in July at his Princeton home.

Here’s Lewis on democracy prospects in the Middle East [the “document that just appeared” is the Arab Human Development Report 2002, essential reading for students of Islam and the Middle East]:

I sense a sadness in your book about the situation today in the Middle East.

Well, it’s a sad situation. But I must say I feel rather encouraged during the last few days. There are signs the people are willing to talk about freedom in the real sense. I’m thinking, for example, about this document that just appeared under the auspices of the UN, and of the recent demonstrations in Gaza. For the first time Palestinians were demonstrating against the misrule of their own rulers and not against an external enemy.

I don’t see any hope for these regions until they develop some kind of democratic society. It doesn’t have to be our kind of democracy; there are many kinds of democracy. Once they do that, I think there will be a dramatic change in this area.

It’s often been said that democracies don’t start wars but they do end them. It’s true. Democracies don’t start wars because democratic governments are answerable to their electors. If they do something the electors don’t like, the electors throw them out. And dictators don’t make peace because they need wars to provide a scapegoat in order to divert their people’s attention from their own failures at home. So you can’t get peace between a dictatorship and a democracy except after a clear defeat. You’re very unlikely to get war between two democracies. Therefore the only real hope of peace in the Middle East, or for that matter anywhere else in the world, is democratic government in the sense that they are governments answerable to their people. People anywhere in the world don’t want war, they just want to live peacefully.

You’ve said that President Bush’s various speeches regarding Arafat, the Axis of Evil, and so on have helped the cause of democracy. How is that?

The reformers will know now that if they do try to experiment with freedom and democracy, they will have some support.

How have the U.S. and Europe contributed to the power of tyrannical governments in the Muslim world?

All too often European and American policies toward the Arab world have been predicated on an unspoken assumption: that these people are incapable of democracy, that it’s inevitable that they will be ruled by tyrants, and that they are on a lower level of civilization. We hold them to a lower level both in what we expect from them and what they may expect from us. We don’t expect these people to live by civilized rules. In this perception, the aim of policy is to ensure that they will be ruled by friendly, not hostile, tyrants. I find this approach deeply insulting, morally reprehensible, and, in the world of today, politically unworkable.

What should the U.S. government and the West be doing to nurture democratic movements?



I think what we’re doing now is exactly right — encouraging genuine democratic movements and refusing to have dealings with these brutal and corrupt tyrants, starting with Arafat. I think the most immediate thing we should concentrate on is Iraq and Iran — helping the vigorous democratic movements in those countries, one way or another.

As for places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, I think we should refrain from reinforcing and encouraging their autocracy. If you have regime changes in Iraq and Iran you’ll no longer need their help.