Bernard Lewis summarizes how, in his view, the Islamic world has degenerated first by importing European totalitarian models and now as it returns to Islam. It’s an article worth reading even if it is flawed. Or perhaps because it is flawed! Lewis, we should remember, is esteemed by today’s conservative establishment.
Lewis repeats themes typical of European conservatives going back to the French Revolution. American conservatives, influenced by Edmund Burke among others, echoed these notions and sentiments during the Cold War. Traditionalist conservatives tend to romanticize feudalism, monarchy, and what they see as a delicate balance of institutions maintained by tradition. There is a fondness for so-called middle institutions – those between the individual and the nation-state – such as church, guild, fraternal orders, etc. Lewis sounds a similar note in his analysis of Islam’s history.
Prior to the influence of the West, the Ottoman Empire had a balance of power, weighed down by a paralyzing Byzantine bureaucratic gridlock. Writing in 1786, “…the French ambassador in Istanbul, [i.e. Constantinople] ... explain[s] why he is making rather slow progress with the tasks entrusted to him by his government in dealing with the Ottoman government. ‘Here,’ he says, ‘things are not as in France where the king is sole master and does as he pleases.’ ‘Here,’ he says, ‘the sultan has to consult.’ He has to consult with the former holders of high offices, with the leaders of various groups and so on.”
According to Lewis' way of thinking, this idyllic stasis was corrupted by eating the fruit of knowledge – a knowledge that empowered its leaders with the technology to withstand the social forces limiting their power. Lewis explains:
“The first of these changes is what one might call modernization. This was undertaken not by imperialists, for the most part, but by Middle Eastern rulers who had become painfully aware that their societies were undeveloped compared with the advanced Western world. These rulers decided that what they had to do was to modernize or Westernize. … What they did was to increase the power of the state and the ruler enormously by placing at his disposal the whole modern apparatus of control, repression and indoctrination. At the same time, which was even worse, they limited or destroyed those forces in the traditional society that had previously limited the autocracy of the ruler. In the traditional society there were established orders-the bazaar merchants, the scribes, the guilds, the country gentry, the military establishment, the religious establishment, and so on. These were powerful groups in society, whose heads were not appointed by the ruler but arose from within the groups. And no sultan, however powerful, could do much without maintaining some relationship with these different orders in society.”
It’s obvious that the Islamic world failed to deal with the challenges of change. But we’d do better to consider the inherent flaws that make it susceptible to disintegration in the face of the winds of modernity. It is inherently autocratic, illiberal, dogmatic, ritualistic, and hostile to reason – limiting its ability to absorb the classical liberal ideals while leaving it susceptible to the socialist totalitarian mode of thought. Lewis notes that while Arabs understood the concept of equality they have a very limited notion of liberty.
“As used in Arabic at that time, liberty was not a political but a legal term: You were free if you were not a slave. The word liberty was not used as we use it in the Western world, as a metaphor for good government. So the idea of a republic founded on principles of freedom caused some puzzlement.”
Lewis fails to explain that the British concept of liberty, expressed best by John Locke, is based on individual self-ownership – not this vague notion of good government that merely begs the question. Self-ownership wasn’t merely de jure, it was freedom from the state with full rights to the fruits of one’s labor, the right of acquisition and disposal of property, and the complete freedom to associate with other sovereign individuals. Good government was virtually no government except that which insured that liberty was universal by prohibiting the initiation of force.
This isn’t an accidental omission on Lewis’ part. Consider how he illustrates the Islamic mindset by describing the philosophy of an influential Egyptian sheikh returning from Paris: “… when the French talk about freedom they mean what Muslims mean when they talk about justice. By equating freedom with justice, he [the sheikh] opened a whole new phase in the political and public discourse of the Arab world, and then, more broadly, the Islamic world.” Once again, this is a left-liberal definition that has its origin in Plato’s Republic. Justice, for Plato, is everything in its proper place guided by a guardian class. It was Plato’s Republic and The Laws which had a major effect on Islam during its formative years in the Abbasid dynasty. The socialist notion of justice popular in France is equal access, not liberty, determined by an entitlements-theory of who gets what from whom.
Despite the imperfect understanding of the West, the Arab world absorbed some of the customs of civilization, from the French and more importantly the British. Unfortunately, the Continental influence came to dominate. As Europe went down the “Road to Serfdom,” Arabs followed by embracing the Nazi ideal before turning to the Soviet model. Lewis exaggerates by saying “the Soviets moved in, established an immensely powerful presence in Egypt, Syria, Iraq …” – Soviet tanks never rolled into these nations – Soviet ideas and aid were welcomed with open arms. They simply fit the Arab/Islamic mindset like an old worn garment slightly refurbished with new trimming.
The exception, ironically, was Saudi Arabia. It was seen as an anti-communist ally during the Cold War because it shared a strong opposition to that atheistic creed. Saudi Arabia maintained Islamic traditions. Yet, Lewis dismisses them as a lunatic fringe. Indeed, in the "colonial-influenced" West-looking Arab world of the 19th and early 20th century, it was indeed just that. But by religious standards can we say the same? He points out the wide acceptance of the Wahabbi establishment (which he blames on oil wealth) but again, he fails to explain the susceptibility of the vast Islamic world from Mecca to Los Angeles (his example) to what he calls the lunatic fringe. Why is the Saudi version so readily accepted rather than shunned as the bizarre variant Lewis wants us to believe? Could Catholicism sweep Alabama if the Pope had the wealth to build churches everywhere? Or the Anglican faith sweep Ireland if the 19th century British, with their vast wealth, tried to fund such an expansion? The money doesn't explain the return to a vigorous practice of original Islam, i.e. Salafi theology.
There is a return to Islam and Lewis realizes it: “That there has been a break with the past is a fact of which Arabs and Muslims themselves are keenly and painfully aware, and they have tried to do something about it. It is in this context that we observe a series of movements that could be described as an Islamic revival or reawakening.” This, of course, should be the main theme and focus.
One hundred years ago, the waning influence of French and British "colonial" rule left the Arab world with several cosmopolitan centers, where intellectuals looked to Europe for a vision of the future. Ataturk was soon to rid Islam of its influence in Turkey and the Arab world would be on its own with the demise of the Ottoman Empire. The specter of totalitarianism was to sweep the Arab world away from the liberal 19th century French and British colonial models, to usher in illiberal regimes that were more in tune to the Islamic mindset. The loss of the "colonial" influence and failure of indigenous totalitarian regimes encouraged a return to the original practice of Islam. It is an Islamic revival, and it has to do with internal dynamics of Arab and Islamic cultures.
Contrary to the vast majority of Western writers, Lewis realizes that Islamic nations have their own culture that generates the dynamics and direction of their societies. The typical Western writer sees the Muslim as a passive responder to Western culture and American foreign policy. This dismisses their ideas, religion, and cultural traditions as mere props unrelated to the real dynamics emanating from the sources of power in the West.
Any detailed investigation, even a flawed one, shows the key to Islamic dynamics is Islamic thought and its interplay with regional cultural peculiarities. Algeria, for example, got its independence 40 years ago but it wasn’t until the 1990s that religious strife lead to the slaughter of over 100,000. In an effort to purge itself of colonial influence it sought to re-establish an indigenous authentic culture by reviving the original practice of Islam. It is on the verge of a fundamentalist breakdown held at bay by a military regime. Lewis realizes that it isn’t an imposed backwardness but an internal failure that brings the Arab and Islamic world to its current state. He is one of the better academics as is his student Martin Kramer (see my link on the right.)
Unfortunately, Lewis goes astray in his romantic sentiments; he has fallen in love with his subject and its mythical past. Entering the stage during the last act of the colonial performance, he has mistaken the cosmopolitan ethos which Islam marginalized or reduced it to mere perfunctory trimmings as the norm and as evidence of the continuation of its mythical past. But the rejection of Western influences, both liberal and totalitarian, has exposed the unvarnished core reality underlying the patina of centuries of decay. And it is ugly, brutal, and fierce; its objective is the establishing and extending the rule of Islamic oppression.
While jettisoning the post-colonial propaganda of today’s Middle East Studies departments we should beware that returning to romantic Orientalists, such as Mr. Lewis, is an understandable temptation; but it still doesn’t deal to the core of the problem. The world Mr. Lewis knew doesn’t exist anymore. One now wonders if it ever did beyond a surface appearance.