Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Alternative Is Unthinkable

During our reading this weekend, Joshua came across the text of a speech given on July 16, 2006, by Bernard Lewis, and he showed it to me. Josh knows that I have met Bernard Lewis, and Josh thought that the published text of the speech had several penetrating points, and he knew that I would enjoy reading it. Both of us read the text of the speech several times.

Professor Lewis soon will be 91 years old. He is Professor Emeritus Of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, where he taught for many years. He is a Londoner who received his Ph.D. in the History Of Islam from the University Of London's School Of Oriental And African Studies. He is fluent in Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Hebrew, and he is one of the few great contemporary scholars on the subject of the Middle East. His celebrated 1990 essay, "The Roots Of Muslim Rage", foretold the likely course of events over the ensuing decade, and the accuracy of its prophecies is chilling.

The primary points of his speech were:

1. The modern history of the Middle East began in 1798, with Napoleon's conquest of Egypt and his introduction of the principles of "liberty" and "equality".

2. The Middle East always instinctly endorsed Napoleon's principle of "equality" (except that slaves, unbelievers and women were excluded), but the Middle East only understood Napoleon's concept of "liberty" in the sense that it stood for "justice".

3. During the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century, as the Middle East "modernized", traditional centers of authority and influence--merchants, scribes, guilds, the landed gentry, the religious establishment--were supplanted by a centralized state. This course of "modernization" had disastrous consequences--it destroyed all forms of local leadership, and it lead to a corrupt autocracy.

4. During and after World War II, the corrupt autocracies became unassailable. The Germans installed pro-Nazi, Fascist states in the region during the war, with their own Fascist political parties. A few years after World War II, the Soviets established a powerful presence in the region, and the Fascist political parties, with minor modifications, became Soviet-style Communist parties. The origins of the current Baath Party and the current governments in the Middle East are direct successors of their Fascist/Communist predecessors from the 1940's onward.

5. The Islamic revival, or reawakening, is a revolt against the status quo, with its corrupt autocracies, a status quo that has existed since the 1940's. However, the Islamic revival is in the throes of Wahhabism, which believes that the root cause of Arab-Islamic troubles lies with infidels. Wahhabism is the prevalent version of Islam among young people in the Middle East and Europe, and has failed to find an hospitable home only in Turkey.

6. The Iranian Revolution Of 1979 is an event of profound historical and political significance, on a par with The French Revolution Of 1789 and The Russian Revolution Of 1917. The French Revolution resulted in two monarchies, two empires, two dictatorships and five republics. The Russian Revolution resulted in 75 years of tyranny over two continents, and its effects linger on. The Iranian Revolution must be expected to cause similar turmoils long-term, and it is now entering its deadly "Stalinist" phase.

7. The foreign policies of the West with regard to the Middle East have long vacillated between two inconsistent views: (A) The Middle East is destined to be governed by tyrants, and steps must be taken to assure that the governing tyrants are friendly to the West; and (B) The Middle East must be encouraged to develop democratic institutions consistent with its own cultural principles. The first view is the prevailing European view and is, amazingly, known as the "Pro-Arab" view; the second view is the prevailing American view and is, equally amazingly, known as the "Imperialist" view.

8. The likelihood of the Middle East developing free institutions is possible, but not necessarily probable. However, the effort must be made, resolutely, even if the outcome is uncertain, because the alternative is unthinkable.

Pretty sobering stuff.

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