From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
Bernard Lewis Revisited

What if Islam isn’t an obstacle to democracy in the Middle East but the
secret to achieving it?

By Michael Hirsh / November 2004

America’s misreading of the Arab world-and our current misadventure
in Iraq-may have really begun in 1950. That was the year a young
University of London historian named Bernard Lewis visited Turkey for
the first time. Lewis, who is today an imposing, white-haired sage
known as the “doyen of Middle Eastern studies” in America (as a New
York Times reviewer once called him), was then on a sabbatical. Granted
access to the Imperial Ottoman archives-the first Westerner allowed
in-Lewis recalled that he felt “rather like a child turned loose in
a toy shop, or like an intruder in Ali Baba’s cave.” But what Lewis
saw happening outside his study window was just as exciting, he later
wrote. There in Istanbul, in the heart of what once was a Muslim
empire, a Western-style democracy was being born.

The hero of this grand transformation was Kemal Ataturk. A generation
before Lewis’s visit to Turkey, Ataturk (the last name, which he
adopted, means “father of all Turks”), had seized control of the
dying Ottoman Sultanate. Intent on single-handedly shoving his country
into the modern West-“For the people, despite the people,” he
memorably declared-Ataturk imposed a puritanical secularism that
abolished the caliphate, shuttered religious schools, and banned fezes,
veils, and other icons of Islamic culture, even purging Turkish of its
Arabic vocabulary. His People’s Party had ruled autocratically since
1923. But in May 1950, after the passage of a new electoral law, it
resoundingly lost the national elections to the nascent Democrat Party.
The constitutional handover was an event “without precedent in the
history of the country and the region,” as Lewis wrote in The
Emergence of Modern Turkey, published in 1961, a year after the Turkish
army first seized power. And it was Kemal Ataturk, Lewis noted at
another point, who had “taken the first decisive steps in the
acceptance of Western civilization.”

Today, that epiphany-Lewis’s Kemalist vision of a secularized,
Westernized Arab democracy that casts off the medieval shackles of
Islam and enters modernity at last-remains the core of George W.
Bush’s faltering vision in Iraq. As his other rationales for war fall
away, Bush has only democratic transformation to point to as a casus
belli in order to justify one of the costliest foreign adventures in
American history. And even now Bush, having handed over faux
sovereignty to the Iraqis and while beating a pell-mell retreat under
fire, does not want to settle for some watered-down or Islamicized
version of democracy. His administration’s official goal is still
dictated by the “Lewis Doctrine,” as The Wall Street Journal called
it: a Westernized polity, reconstituted and imposed from above like
Kemal’s Turkey, that is to become a bulwark of security for America and
a model for the region.

Iraq, of course, does not seem to be heading in that direction. Quite
the contrary: Iraq is passing from a secular to an increasingly
radicalized and Islamicized society, and should it actually turn into a
functioning polity, it is one for the present defined more by bullets
than by ballots. All of which raises some important questions. What if
the mistakes made in Iraq were not merely tactical missteps but stem
from a fundamental misreading of the Arab mindset? What if, in other
words, the doyen of Middle Eastern studies got it all wrong?

A growing number of Middle Eastern scholars who in the past have
quietly stewed over Lewis’s outsized influence say this is exactly what
happened. To them, it is no surprise that Lewis and his acolytes in
Washington botched the war on terror. In a new book, provocatively
titled The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, one of those
critics, Columbia scholar Richard Bulliet, argues that Lewis has been
getting his “master narrative” about the Islamic world wrong since
his early epiphanic days in Turkey-and he’s still getting it wrong

In Cheney’s bunker

Lewis’s basic premise, put forward in a series of articles, talks, and
bestselling books, is that the West-what used to be known as
Christendom-is now in the last stages of a centuries-old struggle for
dominance and prestige with Islamic civilization. (Lewis coined the
term “clash of civilizations,” using it in a 1990 essay titled
“The Roots of Muslim Rage,” and Samuel Huntington admits he picked
it up from him.) Osama bin Laden, Lewis thought, must be viewed in this
millennial construct as the last gasp of a losing cause, brazenly
mocking the cowardice of the “Crusaders.” Bin Laden’s view of
America as a “paper tiger” reflects a lack of respect for American
power throughout the Arab world. And if we Americans, who trace our
civilizational lineage back to the Crusaders, flagged now, we would
only invite future attacks. Bin Laden was, in this view, less an
aberrant extremist than a mainstream expression of Muslim frustration,
welling up from the anti-Western nature of Islam. “I have no doubt
that September 11 was the opening salvo of the final battle,” Lewis
told me in an interview last spring. Hence the only real answer to 9/11
was a decisive show of American strength in the Arab world; the only
way forward, a Kemalist conquest of hearts and minds. And the most
obvious place to seize the offensive and end the age-old struggle was
in the heart of the Arab world, in Iraq.

This way of thinking had the remarkable virtue of appealing powerfully
to both the hard-power enthusiasts in the administration, principally
Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, who came into office thinking that the soft
Clinton years had made America an easy target and who yearned to send a
post-9/11 message of strength; and to neoconservatives from the first
Bush administration such as Paul Wolfowitz, who were looking for
excuses to complete their unfinished business with Saddam from 1991 and
saw 9/11 as the ultimate refutation of the “realist” response to
the first Gulf War. Leaving Saddam in power in ’91, betraying the
Shiites, and handing Kuwait back to its corrupt rulers had been classic
realism: Stability was all. But it turned out that the Arab world
wasn’t stable, it was seething. No longer could the Arabs be an
exception to the rule of post-Cold War democratic transformation,
merely a global gas station. The Arabs had to change too,
fundamentally, just as Lewis (and Ataturk) had said. But change had to
be shoved down their throats-Arab tribal culture understood only
force and was too resistant to change, Lewis thought-and it had to
happen quickly. This, in turn, required leaving behind Islam’s
anti-modern obsessions.

Iraq and its poster villain, Saddam Hussein, offered a unique
opportunity for achieving this transformation in one bold stroke
(remember “shock and awe”?) while regaining the offensive against
the terrorists. So, it was no surprise that in the critical months of
2002 and 2003, while the Bush administration shunned deep thinking and
banned State Department Arabists from its councils of power, Bernard
Lewis was persona grata, delivering spine-stiffening lectures to Cheney
over dinner in undisclosed locations. Abandoning his former scholarly
caution, Lewis was among the earliest prominent voices after September
11 to press for a confrontation with Saddam, doing so in a series of
op-ed pieces in The Wall Street Journal with titles like “A War of
Resolve” and “Time for Toppling.” An official who sat in on some
of the Lewis-Cheney discussions recalled, “His view was: ‘Get on with
it. Don’t dither.'” Animated by such grandiose concepts, and like
Lewis quite certain they were right, the strategists of the Bush
administration in the end thought it unnecessary to prove there were
operational links between Saddam and al Qaeda. These were good
“bureaucratic” reasons for selling the war to the public, to use
Wolfowitz’s words, but the real links were deeper: America was taking
on a sick civilization, one that it had to beat into submission. Bin
Laden’s supposedly broad Muslim base, and Saddam’s recalcitrance to the
West, were part of the same pathology.

The administration’s vision of postwar Iraq was also fundamentally
Lewisian, which is to say Kemalist. Paul Wolfowitz repeatedly invoked
secular, democratic Turkey as a “useful model for others in the
Muslim world,” as the deputy secretary of defense termed it in
December 2002 on the eve of a trip to lay the groundwork for what he
thought would be a friendly Turkey’s role as a staging ground for the
Iraq war. Another key Pentagon neocon and old friend of Lewis’s, Harold
Rhode, told associates a year ago that “we need an accelerated
Turkish model” for Iraq, according to a source who talked with him.
(Lewis dedicated a 2003 book, The Crisis of Islam, to Rhode whom “I
got to know when he was studying Ottoman registers,” Lewis told me.)
And such men thought that Ahmad Chalabi-also a protégé of
Lewis’s-might make a fine latter-day Ataturk-strong, secular,
pro-Western, and friendly towards Israel. L. Paul Bremer III, the
former U.S. civil administrator in Iraq, was not himself a Chalabite,
but he too embraced a top-down Kemalist approach to Iraq’s
resurrection. The role of the Islamic community, meanwhile, was
consistently marginalized in the administration’s planning. U.S.
officials saw Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most prestigious
figure in the country, as a clueless medieval relic. Even though
military intelligence officers were acutely aware of Sistani’s
importance-having gathered information on him for more than a year
before the invasion-Bremer and his Pentagon overseers initially
sidelined the cleric, defying his calls for early elections.

Looking for love in all the wrong places

Lewis has long had detractors in the scholarly world, although his most
ardent enemies have tended to be literary mavericks like the late
Edward Said, the author of Orientalism, a long screed against the
cavalier treatment of Islam in Western literature. And especially after
9/11, Bulliet and other mainstream Arabists who had urged a softer,
more nuanced view of Islam found themselves harassed into silence.
Lewisites such as Martin Kramer, author of Ivory Towers on Sand: The
Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America–a fierce post-9/11 attack
on Bulliet and other prominent scholars such as John Woods of the
University of Chicago–suggested that most academic Arabists were
apologists for Islamic radicalism. But now, emboldened by the Bush
administration’s self-made quagmire in Iraq, the Arabists are launching
a counterattack. They charge that Lewis’s whole analysis missed the
mark, beginning with his overarching construct, the great struggle
between Islam and Christendom. These scholars argue that Lewis has
slept through most of modern Arab history. Entangled in medieval texts,
Lewis’s view ignores too much and confusingly conflates old Ottoman
with modern Arab history. “He projects from the Ottoman experience
onto the Middle East. But after the Ottoman Empire was disbanded, a
link was severed with the rest of Arab world,” says Nader Hashemi, a
University of Toronto scholar who is working on another anti-Lewis
book. In other words, Istanbul and the caliphate were no longer the
center of things. Turkey under Ataturk went in one direction, the
Arabs, who were colonized, in another. Lewis, says Hashemi, “tries to
interpret the problem of political development by trying to project a
line back to medieval and early Islamic history. In the process, he
totally ignores the impact of the British and French colonialists, and
the repressive rule of many post-colonial leaders. He misses the
break” with the past.

At least until the Iraq war, most present-day Arabs didn’t think in the
stark clash-of-civilization terms Lewis prefers. Bin Laden likes to
vilify Western Crusaders, but until relatively recently, he was still
seen by much of the Arab establishment as a marginal figure. To most
Arabs before 9/11, the Crusades were history as ancient as they are to
us in the West. Modern Arab anger and frustration is, in fact, less
than a hundred years old. As bin Laden knows very well, this anger is a
function not of Islam’s humiliation at the Treaty of Carlowitz of
1699-the sort of long-ago defeat that Lewis highlights in his
bestselling What Went Wrong-but of much more recent developments.
These include the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement by which the British and
French agreed to divvy up the Arabic-speaking countries after World War
I; the subsequent creation, by the Europeans, of corrupt, kleptocratic
tyrannies in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan; the endemic
poverty and underdevelopment that resulted for most of the 20th
century; the U.N.-imposed creation of Israel in 1948; and finally, in
recent decades, American support for the bleak status quo.

Yet as Bulliet writes, over the longer reach of history, Islam and the
West have been far more culturally integrated than most people
realized; there is a far better case for “Islamo-Christian
civilization” than there is for the clash of civilizations. “There
are two narratives here,” says Fawaz Gerges, an intellectual ally of
Bulliet’s at Sarah Lawrence University. “One is Bernard Lewis. But
the other narrative is that in historical terms, there have been so
many inter-alliances between world of Islam and the West. There has
never been a Muslim umma, or community, except for 23 years during the
time of Mohammed. Except in the theoretical minds of the jihadists, the
Muslim world was always split. Many Muslim leaders even allied
themselves with the Crusaders.”

Today, progress in the Arab world will not come by secularizing it from
above (Bulliet’s chapter dealing with Chalabi is called “Looking for
Love in All the Wrong Places”) but by rediscovering this more
tolerant Islam, which actually predates radicalism and, contra Ataturk,
is an ineluctable part of Arab self-identity that must be accommodated.
For centuries, Bulliet argues, comparative stability prevailed in the
Islamic world not (as Lewis maintains) because of the Ottomans’
success, but because Islam was playing its traditional role of
constraining tyranny. “The collectivity of religious scholars acted
at least theoretically as a countervailing force against tyranny. You
had the implicit notion that if Islam is pushed out of the public
sphere, tyranny will increase, and if that happens, people will look to
Islam to redress the tyranny.” This began to play out during the
period that Lewis hails as the modernization era of the 19th century,
when Western legal structures and armies were created. “What Lewis
never talks about is the concomitant removal of Islam from the center
of public life, the devalidation of Islamic education and Islamic law,
the marginalization of Islamic scholars,” Bulliet told me. Instead of
modernization, what ensued was what Muslim clerics had long feared,
tyranny that conforms precisely with some theories of Islamic political
development, notes Bulliet. What the Arab world should have seen was
“not an increase in modernization so much as an increase in tyranny.
By the 1960s, that prophecy was fulfilled. You had dictatorships in
most of the Islamic world.” Egypt’s Gamel Nasser, Syria’s Hafez
Assad, and others came in the guise of Arab nationalists, but they were
nothing more than tyrants.

Yet there was no longer a legitimate force to oppose this trend. In the
place of traditional Islamic learning-which had once allowed, even
encouraged, science and advancement-there was nothing. The old
religious authorities had been hounded out of public life, back into
the mosque. The Caliphate was dead; when Ataturk destroyed it in
Turkey, he also removed it from the rest of the Islamic world. Into
that vacuum roared a fundamentalist reaction led by brilliant but
aberrant amateurs like Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb, the founding philosopher of
Ayman Zawahiri’s brand of Islamic radicalism who was hanged by
al-Nasser, and later, Osama bin Laden, who grew up infected by the
Saudis’ extreme version of Wahhabism. Even the creator of Wahhabism,
the 18th-century thinker Mohammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, was outside the
mainstream, notorious for vandalizing shrines and “denounced” by
theologians across the Islamic world in his time for his “doctrinal
mediocrity and illegitimacy,” as the scholar Abdelwahab Meddeb writes
in another new book that rebuts Lewis, Islam and its Discontents.

Wahhabism’s fast growth in the late 20th century was also a purely
modern phenomenon, a function of Saudi petrodollars underwriting
Wahhabist mosques and clerics throughout the Arab world (and elsewhere,
including America). Indeed, the elites in Egypt and other Arab
countries still tend to mock the Saudis as déclassés Bedouins who
would have stayed that way if it were not for oil. “It’s as if Jimmy
Swaggert had come into hundreds of billions of dollars and taken over
the church,” one Arab official told me. The hellish culmination of
this modern trend occurred in the mountains of Afghanistan in the 1980s
and ’90s, when extremist Wahhabism, in the person of bin Laden, was
married to Qutb’s Egyptian Islamism, in the person of Zawahiri, who
became bin Laden’s deputy.

Critics were right to see the bin Laden phenomenon as a reaction
against corrupt tyrannies like Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s, and
ultimately against American support for those regimes. They were wrong
to conclude that it was a mainstream phenomenon welling up from the
anti-modern character of Islam, or that the only immediate solution lay
in Western-style democracy. It was, instead, a reaction that came out
of an Islam misshapen by modern political developments, many of them
emanating from Western influences, outright invasion by British,
French, and Italian colonialists, and finally the U.S.-Soviet clash
that helped create the mujahadeen jihad in Afghanistan.

Academic probation

Today, even as the administration’s case for invading Iraq has all but
collapsed, Bernard Lewis’s public image has remained largely intact.
While his neocon protégés fight for their reputations and their jobs,
Lewis’s latest book, a collection of essays called From Babel to
Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, received mostly respectful
reviews last spring and summer. Yet events on the ground seem to be
bearing out some of the academic criticisms of Lewis made by Bulliet
and others. Indeed, they suggest that what is happening is the opposite
of what Lewis predicted.

The administration’s invasion of Iraq seems to have given bin Laden a
historic gift. It has vindicated his rhetoric describing the Americans
as latter-day Crusaders and Mongols, thus luring more adherents and
inviting more rage and terror acts. (The administration admitted as
much last summer, when it acknowledged that its “Patterns of Global
Terrorism” report had been 180 degrees wrong. The report, which came
out last June, at first said terrorist attacks around the world were
down in 2003, indicating the war on terror was being won. Following
complaints from experts, the State Department later revised the report
to show that attacks were at their highest level since 1982.)

The new Iraq is also looking less and less Western, and certainly less
secular than it was under Saddam. In the streets of Baghdad-once one
of the most secular Arab capitals, women now go veiled and alcohol
salesmen are beaten. The nation’s most popular figures are Sistani and
his radical Shiite rival, the young firebrand Moktada al-Sadr, who was
permitted to escape besieged Najaf with his militia intact and is now
seen as a champion of the Iraqi underclass. According to a survey
commissioned by the Coalition Provisional Authority in late May, a
substantial majority of Iraqis, 59 percent, want their religious
communities to have “a great deal” of influence in selecting
members of the new election commission. That’s far more than those who
favored tribal leaders (38 percent), political figures (31 percent), or
the United Nations (36 percent). The poll also showed that Iraq’s most
popular political figures are religious party-affiliated leaders such
as Ibrahaim Jaferi and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. To a fascinating degree,
Islam now seems to be filling precisely the role Bulliet says it used
to play, as a constraint against tyranny-whether the tyrant is now
seen as the autocratic Americans or our man in Baghdad, interim Prime
Minister Iyad Allawi.

Bremer once promised to ban Islamic strictures on family law and
women’s rights, and the interim constitution that he pushed through the
Governing Council in March affirms that Islam is only one of the
foundations of the state. But Sistani has dismissed the constitution as
a transition democracy, and Iraq’s political future is now largely out
of American hands (though the U.S. military may continue to play a
stabilizing role in order to squelch any move toward civil war). “I
think the best-case scenario for Iraq is that they hold these
parliamentary elections, and you get some kind of representative
government dominated by religious parties,” says University of
Michigan scholar Juan Cole. Even Fouad Ajami, one of Lewis’s longtime
intellectual allies and like him an avowed Kemalist, concluded last
spring in a New York Times op-ed piece: “Let’s face it: Iraq is not
going to be America’s showcase in the Arab-Muslim world … We expected
a fairly secular society in Iraq (I myself wrote in that vein at the
time). Yet it turned out that the radical faith-among the Sunnis as
well as the Shiites-rose to fill the void left by the collapse of the
old despotism.”

Turkey hunt

Today, the anti-Lewisites argue, the only hope is that a better, more
benign form of Islam fights its way back in the hands of respected
clerics like Sistani, overcoming the aberrant strains of the Osama bin
Ladens and the Abu Mousab al-Zarqawis. Whatever emerges in Iraq and the
Arab world will be, for a long time to come, Islamic. And it will
remain, for a long time, anti-American, beginning with the likelihood
that any new Iraqi government is going to give the boot to U.S. troops
as soon as it possibly can. (That same CPA poll showed that 92 percent
of Iraqis see the Americans as occupiers, not liberators, and 86
percent now want U.S. soldiers out, either “immediately” or after
the 2005 election.) America may simply have to endure an unpleasant
Islamist middle stage-and Arabs may have to experience its failure,
as the Iranians have-before modernity finally overtakes Iraq and the
Arab world. “Railing against Islam as a barrier to democracy and
modern progress cannot make it go away so long as tyranny is a fact of
life for most Muslims,” Bulliet writes. “Finding ways of wedding
[Islam’s traditional] protective role with modern democratic and
economic institutions is a challenge that has not yet been met.”

No one, even Bush’s Democratic critics, seems to fully comprehend this.
Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) have
introduced legislation that would create secular alternatives to
madrassas, without realizing that this won’t fly in the Arab world: All
one can hope for are more moderate madrassas, because Islam is still
seen broadly as a legitimating force. “What happens if the road to
what could broadly be called democracy lies through Islamic
revolution?” says Woods of the University of Chicago. The best hope,
some of these scholars say, is that after a generation or so, the
“Islamic” tag in Arab religious parties becomes rather anodyne,
reminiscent of what happened to Christian democratic parties in Europe.

This may already be happening slowly in Turkey, where the parliament is
dominated by the majority Islamic Justice and Development Party. The
JDP leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan-who was once banned
from public service after reciting a poem that said “the mosques are
our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the
faithful our soldiers”-has shown an impressive degree of pragmatism
in governing. But again, Turkey is a unique case, made so by Kemal and
his secular, military-enforced coup back in the ’20s. If Erdogan still
secretly wants to re-Islamicize Turkey, he can only go so far in an
environment in which the nation’s powerful military twitches at every
sign of incipient religiosity. Erdogan is also under unique pressure to
secularize as Turkey bids to enter the European Union, which is not a
card that moderate Arab secularists can hold up to win over their own

Resolving the tension between Islam and politics will require a long,
long process of change. As Bulliet writes, Christendom struggled for
hundreds of years to come to terms with the role of religion in civil
society. Even in America, separation of church and state “was not
originally a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution,” and Americans are
still fighting among themselves over the issue today.

In our talk last spring, Lewis was still arguing that Iraq would follow
the secular path he had laid out for it. He voiced the line that has
become a favorite of Wolfowitz’s, that the neocons are the most
forthright champions of Arab progress, and that the Arabists of the
State Department who identified with the idea of “Arab
exceptionalism” are merely exhibitng veiled racism. This is the
straight neocon party line, of course: If you deny that secular
democracy is the destiny of every people, you are guilty of cultural
snobbery. But somehow Lewis’s disdain for Islam, with its hagiographic
invocation of Ataturk, managed to creep into our conversation. Threaded
throughout Lewis’s thinking, despite his protests to the contrary, is a
Kemalist conviction that Islam is fundamentally anti-modern. In his
1996 book The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, for
example, Lewis stresses the Koran’s profession of the “finality and
perfection of the Muslim revelation.” Even though Islamic authorities
have created laws and regulations beyond the strict word of the Koran
in order to deal with the needs of the moment, “the making of new
law, though common and widespread, was always disguised, almost
furtive, and there was therefore no room for legislative councils or
assemblies such as formed the starting-point of European democracy,”
he writes. In other words, Islam is an obstacle. “The Islamic world
is now at beginning of 15th century,” Lewis told me. “The Western
world is at the beginning of the 21st century.” He quickly added:
“That doesn’t mean [the West] is more advanced, it means it’s gone
through more.” Following that timeline, Lewis suggested that the
Islamic world is today “on the verge of its Reformation”-a
necessary divorce between religion and politics that Lewis believes has
been too long in coming. This view has become conventional wisdom in
Washington, resonating not only with the neocons but also with the
modernization theorists who have long dominated American campuses. Yet
behind this view, say scholars like Bulliet, lies a fundamental
rejection of Arabs’ historical identity. The reason for that, Bulliet
believes, resides in the inordinate influence that Lewis’s historical
studies of the Ottomans retain over his thinking-and by his 1950
visit to Turkey. Bulliet notes that as late as 2002, in the preface to
the third edition of The Emergence of Modern Turkey, Lewis “talked
about the incredible sense of exhilaration it felt for someone of his
generation, shaped by the great war against fascism and the emerging
Cold War, to see the face of the modern Middle East emerge in
Turkey.” As a model, Bulliet argues, Turkey “was as vivid a vision
for him 50 years later as it was at the time.”

But again, Turkey’s experience after the Ottoman empire’s dissolution
was no longer especially relevant to what was happening in the Arab
world. Ataturk, in fact, was not only not an Arab, but his approach to
modernity was also most deeply influenced by the fascism of the period
(Mussolini was still a much-admired model in the 1920s). And Lewis
never developed a feel for what modern Arabs were thinking, especially
after he began to adopt strong pro-Israel views in the 1970s. “This
is a person who does not like the people he is purporting to have
expertise about,” says Bulliet. “He doesn’t respect them, he
considers them to be good and worthy only to the degree they follow a
Western path.”

The neoconservative transformationalists of the Bush administration,
though informed by far less scholarship than Lewis, seemed to adopt his
dismissive attitude toward the peculiar demands of Arab and Islamic
culture. And now they are paying for it. The downward spiral of the
U.S. occupation into bloodshed and incompetence wasn’t just a matter of
too few troops or other breakdowns in planning, though those were
clearly part of it. In fact, the great American transformation machine
never really understood much about Arab culture, and it didn’t bother
to try. The occupation authorities, taking a paternalistic top-down
approach, certainly did not comprehend the role of Islam, which is one
reason why Bremer and Co. were so late in recognizing the power of the
Sistani phenomenon. The occupation also failed because of its inability
to comprehend and make use of tribal complexities, to understand “how
to get the garbage collected, and know who’s married to who,” as
Woods says. Before the war, Pentagon officials, seeking to justify
their low-cost approach to nation-building, liked to talk about how
much more sophisticated and educated the Iraqis were than Afghans, how
they would quickly resurrect their country. Those officials obviously
didn’t mean what they said or act on it. In the end, they couldn’t
bring themselves to trust the Iraqis, and the soldiers at their command
rounded up thousands of “hajis” indiscriminately, treating one and
all as potential Saddam henchmen or terrorists (as I witnessed myself
when, on assignment for Newsweek, I joined U.S. troops on raids in the
Sunni Triangle last January).

There remains a deeper issue: Did Lewis’s misconceptions lead the Bush
administration to make a terrible strategic error? Despite the horrors
of 9/11, did they transform the bin Laden threat into something grander
than it really was? If the “show of strength” in Iraq was
wrong-headed, as the Lewis critics say, then Americans must contemplate
the terrible idea that they squandered hundreds of billions of dollars
and thousands of lives and limbs on the wrong war. If Bernard Lewis’s
view of the Arab problem was in error, then America missed a chance to
round up and destroy a threat-al Qaeda-that in reality existed only
on the sick margins of the Islamic world.

It is too soon to throw all of Lewis’s Kemalist ideas on the ash-heap
of history. Even his academic rivals concede that much of his early
scholarship is impressive; some like Michigan’s Cole suggest that Lewis
lost his way only in his later years when he got pulled into
present-day politics, especially the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and
began grafting his medieval insights onto the modern Arab mindset. And
whether the ultimate cause is modern or not, the Arab world is a
dysfunctional society, one that requires fundamental reform. “The
Arab Development Report” issued in the spring of 2002 by the U.N.
Development Programme, harshly laid out the failings of Arab societies.
Calling them “rich, but not developed,” the report detailed the
deficits of democracy and women’s rights that have been favorite
targets of the American neoconservatives. The report noted that the
Arab world suffers from a lower rate of Internet connectivity than even
sub-Saharan Africa, and that education is so backward and isolated that
the entire Arab world translates only one-fifth of the books that
Greece does. Some scholars also agree that in the longest of long runs,
the ultimate vision of Lewis-and the neocons-will prove to be
right. Perhaps in the long run, you can’t Islamicize democracy, and so
Islam is simply standing in the way.

Iran is the best real-world test of this hypothesis right now. A
quarter century after the Khomeini revolution, Iran seems to be stuck
in some indeterminate middle state. The forces of bottom-up secular
democratic reform and top-down mullah control may be stalemated simply
because there is no common ground whatsoever between their contending
visions. That’s one reason the Kemalist approach had its merits, Fouad
Ajami argued in a recent appearance at the Council on Foreign
Relations. “I think Ataturk understood that if you fall through
Islam, you fall through a trap door. And in fact, I think the journey
out of Islam that Ataturk did was brilliant. And to the extent that the
Muslim world now has forgotten this. . .they will pay dearly for it.”

But there is no Ataturk in Iraq (though of course Chalabi, and perhaps
Allawi, would still love to play that role). For now, Sistani remains
the most prestigious figure in the country, the only true kingmaker.
Suspicions remain in the Bush administration that Sistani’s long-term
goal is to get the Americans out and the Koran in-in other words, to
create another mullah state as in Iran. But those who know Sistani well
say he is much smarter than that. Born in Iran-he moved to Iraq in
the early 1950s, around the time Lewis saw the light-Sistani has
experienced up close the failures of the Shiite mullah state next door.
He and the other Shiites have also suffered the pointy end of Sunni
Arab nationalism, having been oppressed under Saddam for decades, and
they will never sanction a return to that. So Sistani knows the last,
best alternative may be some kind of hybrid, a moderately religious,
Shiite-dominated democracy, brokered and blessed by him and conceived
with a nuanced federalism that will give the Kurds, Sunnis and others
their due. But also a regime that, somewhat like the Iranian mullahs,
uses its distinctive Islamic character, and concomitant
anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism, as ideological glue. For the
Americans who went hopefully to war in Iraq, that option is pretty much
all that’s left on the table-something even Bernard Lewis may someday
have to acknowledge.

{Michael Hirsh is a senior editor at Newsweek, based in Washington, and
author of At War with Ourselves: Why America is Squandering its Chance
to Build a Better World (Oxford University Press).}

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