Historian Bernard Lewis in a WSJ interview on April 2, 2011, says things might go right after all in the Mideast:
I think that the tyrannies are doomed. The real question is what will come instead.
Professor Lewis believes the U.S. and the West should to everything to bolster the popular movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Bahrain and Syria. Western-style elections will, however, have to wait:
We have a much better chance of establishing—I hesitate to use the word democracy—but some sort of open, tolerant society, if it’s done within their systems, according to their traditions. Why should we expect them to adopt a Western system? And why should we expect it to work?
Elections, Professor Lewis argues, should be the culmination—not the beginning—of a gradual political process:
to lay the stress all the time on elections, parliamentary Western-style elections, is a dangerous delusion.
It is important to stress, says Lewis, that:
the whole Islamic tradition is very clearly against autocratic and irresponsible rule. There is a very strong tradition—both historical and legal, both practical and theoretical—of limited, controlled government.
To figure out how to build freer, better societies, Muslims need not look across the ocean. They need only look back into their own history.
In Middle Eastern history:
consultation is the magic word. It occurs again and again in classical Islamic texts. It goes back to the time of the Prophet himself.
It’s not that Ottoman-era societies were models of democratic wisdom. But power was shared such that rulers at the top were checked, so the Arab and Muslim communities of the vast Ottoman Empire came to include certain practices and expectations of limited government.
Professor Lewis warns that there is no precise equivalent in Arabic to Western freedom:
Liberty, freedom, it means not being a slave. . . . Freedom was a legal term and a social term—it was not a political term. And it was not used as a metaphor for political status. The closest Arabic word to our concept of liberty is “justice,” or ‘adl. In the Muslim tradition, justice is the standard of good government.
A problem in the Arab and Muslim world has been modernization:
It . . . enormously increased the power of the state. And it tended to undermine, or even destroy, those various intermediate powers which had previously limited the power of the state.
Thus the modern tyrants like Mubarak and Assad amassed greater power than even the mightiest of the sultans ever had.
In the view of Professor Lewis Tunisia has real potential for democracy, largely because of the role of women there:
Tunisia, as far as I know, is the only Muslim country that has compulsory education for girls from the beginning right through. And in which women are to be found in all the professions.
My own feeling is that the greatest defect of Islam and the main reason they fell behind the West is the treatment of women.
Egypt is a more complicated case, Mr. Lewis says in the interview. Already the young, liberal protesters who led the revolution in Tahrir Square are being pushed aside by the military-Muslim Brotherhood complex. Hasty elections, which could come as soon as September, might sweep the Muslim Brotherhood into power. We should have no illusions about the Muslim Brotherhood, who they are and what they want.
Professor Lewis in the WSJ interview brings up the Iranian revolution was beginning in the late 1970s and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini:
I was at Princeton and I must confess I never heard of Khomeini. Who had? So I did what one normally does in this world of mine: I went to the university library and looked up Khomeini and, sure enough, it was there.
Lewis found a short book called Islamic Government—now known as Khomeini’s Mein Kampf—available in Persian and Arabic:
It became perfectly clear who he was and what his aims were. And that all of this talk at the time about [him] being a step forward and a move toward greater freedom was absolute nonsense.
I tried to bring this to the attention of people here. The New York Times wouldn’t touch it. They said ‘We don’t think this would interest our readers.’ But we got the Washington Post to publish an article quoting this. Eventually the message got through—thanks to Khomeini.
I think that sooner or later the regime in Iran will be overthrown and something more open, more democratic, will emerge. Most Iranian patriots are against the regime. They feel it is defaming and dishonoring their country. And they’re right of course.
Let’s hope the Green movement is effective. Because Mr. Lewis doesn’t think that Iran can be contained if it does go nuclear:
This is not the Cold War. The mullahs “are religious fanatics with an apocalyptic mindset. In Islam, as in Christianity and Judaism, there is an end-of-times scenario—and they think it’s beginning or has already begun.”
“In Turkey”, Professor Lewis remarks, “the movement is getting more and more toward re-Islamization. The government has that as its intention—and it has been taking over, very skillfully, one part after another of Turkish society. The economy, the business community, the academic community, the media. And now they’re taking over the judiciary, which in the past has been the stronghold of the republican regime.” Ten years from now, Mr. Lewis thinks, Turkey and Iran could switch places.