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Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton
University, is considered by most of his colleagues as the greatest
historian of the Muslim world in our generation. He is Jewish, a native of
London, in his 80s. Among his many students are teachers and analysts who
work in universities in Israel and the Arab countries. His age hardly
shows: he moves easily, exhibits an ironic sense of humor, clearly
conscious of his importance. He travels a great deal. He frequently visits
Israel as a guest of Tel Aviv University, and he sometimes visits the
neighboring countries too, but he understandably refuses to talk about
that. Government leaders frequently consult with him and he has been in
great demand during the past year. The breadth of his knowledge and his
decisive views are aimed to assist the ones in power in the West to shape
their policy towards the Muslim world.
"The Patriarch of the Islamicists", as he is called
in the American press, stands out as a partisan of classic liberal values.
He is often attacked because he refuses to comply with the spirit of the
times, in which the voice of relativism is strong, which is cautious about
judging cultures from the point of view of western culture. In his
best-known debate, he faced Edward Said, the well-known Palestinian
professor of literature, in whose book "Orientalism" he condemns Lewis and
scholars like him. He charges that their studies are another means which
the West uses to strengthen its imperialistic rule.
One may assume that the following interview will
harden his opponents and hearten perplexed Israelis. Ariel Sharon can find
in his words encouragement for his position on the need for complete
victory before any gesture.
YOU PEGGED YOUR HOPE ON THE OSLO PROCESS.
That would be correct.
WERE YOU PROVED WRONG?
To my great regret, I must confess I made a
WHAT DID THE ERROR IN YOUR ASSESSMENT STEM
Historically, the Palestinian leaders have
consistently made the wrong choice. It started with their refusing the
terms of the Peel Commission and their rejection of the UN Partition Plan.
They made mistakes in their choice of friends: during the Second World War
they chose the Nazis, during the Cold War they chose the Soviet Bloc and
in the Gulf War they joined with Saddam Hussein. Do they have an
astonishing instinct that pushes them to the verge of destruction? Indeed
not. They turned to the enemies of their enemies and this is natural.
After the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, they once again had no super power
patron, and after the Gulf War, even most of the Arab governments were
disgusted with them, particularly those that could offer them financial
aid. Under these circumstances, I thought the Rabin government was correct
in moving as it did, but it erred in its choice of its partner for the
Yes, the idea of bringing Arafat from Tunis was a
ISRAEL TRIED TO TALK WITH THE PALESTINIAN LEADERS
IN THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES, BUT AT THE MADRID CONFERENCE IT WAS PROVEN
THAT THEY HAVE NO LEADER BESIDES HIM.
It's true that according to the resolution of the
Arab League, the PLO is the Palestinians' only representative
organization. From this distance in time it is hard for me to judge if it
would have been better to insist on finding an alternative to it, or
perhaps there was no other choice.
IN AN INTERVIEW YOU SAID THAT THE ONES WHO
CONDUCTED THE NEGOTIATIONS ON BOTH SIDES WERE COMPLETE AMATEURS. WHAT DID
It's clear they were not professional diplomats and
they did not have much experience in conducting negotiations.
WHAT WAS THE BIG MISTAKE OF THE NEGOTIATORS AT
They forgot that is not just a matter of negotiations
between leaders, but between two differing civilizations. It is easy to
slip and interpret your adversary according to your worldview. I will give
you an example. I think that Israel was right to enter Lebanon, and I well
remember how its army was received as an army of liberation, with flowers
and music, but from the moment the job was completed, it was necessary to
withdraw from there. The late withdrawal, as it was undertaken without
agreement, with abandonment of friends and weaponry, was interpreted by
the Palestinians and the other Arabs as a sign of weakness. From the
experience of Hizbullah they derived that the Israelis are soft, pampered,
and if they are hit -- they will surrender. These things have been said
explicitly by the Palestinians.
DO THE TWO CULTURES INTERPRET DIFFERENTLY THE
CONCEPTS OF "FAIR COMPROMISE" AND "VIEWING REALITY OUT OF A CONSIDERATION
FOR THE ENEMY'S POINT OF VIEW?
Let me be precise: Muslim culture stands out in the
generosity of its victors. The victor does not push the face of the
vanquished in the dust, but the result of the struggle has to be clear to
both sides. A struggle that ends indecisively is an invitation for
trouble. The Ottomans provided us with many examples of this conduct: they
crushed rebels with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, but did not
humiliate the defeated, they showed generosity toward them and even helped
them rehabilitate themselves. If the one with the power does not exhaust
his ability to bring about such a victory, his conduct is interpreted as
Another example of differing interpretations of
conduct is the is significance of manners and customs: I visited Jordan
some time after the signing of the peace agreement on which the Jordanians
bed much hope, and I found the Jordanians agitated over the conduct of the
Israeli tourists which they saw as provocative and humiliating. It was
difficult for me to explain to them that Israelis behave that way even to
each other. The Israelis, who seem to be the least polite people in the
world, are not understood by the Arabs, who have the most well-mannered
culture in the world. It is not a matter of insignificant etiquette, but
of conduct that has a bearing on relations between the peoples. The lack
of courtesy of the Israeli solders at the checkpoints has terrible
repercussions and something needs to be done about this matter.
DON'T YOU HAVE A TENDENCY TO OVERSTATE THE CLASH
OF DIFFERENCES BETWEEN CULTURES?
There is tremendous importance in these differences.
Look, the Christian world and the Muslim world had friction with each
other and fought against each other on many fronts during the course of a
millennium. At the end of the 18th century the universities in the west
had dozens of departments for eastern studies and hundreds of translations
of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish works were printed. The western world
longed to know its historic adversary, but a share in this curiosity was
not given to the Muslim world. There they did not learn the languages of
the West, didn't take an interest in western history and thought and did
not translate much literature into Arabic. Things changed somewhat when
the power of the threat of the west became clear to them, but even now, if
you go into a book store in Israel, you will easily find translations from
Arabic literature and books about Arab and Muslim history. In contrast, if
you go into a bookstore in an Arab capital and look for books on Israel,
on Judaism and even on Christianity, practically all you will find is
propaganda. Curiosity about one's fellow is a striking western phenomenon.
In all the great cultures, except western culture, the matter of one's
fellow arises only in the presence of a threat."
IS THIS SITUATION REGARDING CULTURES PERMANENT, OR
A RESULT OF CIRCUMSTANCES THAT ARE LIKELY TO CHANGE?
It is definitely not permanent, but it is deeply
rooted, more than many people like to think. For example, many point to
the fact that only 2 of the 57 Muslim countries have semi democratic
governments, but this does not say that Muslims lack the ability to
develop their own version of democracy, that will not resemble any western
WHICH TWO COUNTRIES DO YOU MEAN?
Turkey and Bangladesh. Turkey is a wonderful example,
which proves that it is very difficult to establish a liberal democracy in
a culture with an ancient autocratic tradition, but it also proves that it
is not impossible.
THE OUTBREAK OF THE SECOND INTIFADA HAS BEEN
INTERPRETED BY MANY ISRAELIS, PERHAPS A MAJORITY, AS DECISIVE EVIDENCE
THAT THE PALESTINIANS ARE NOT INTERESTED IN A COMPROMISE, BUT ARE DRIVING
TOWARDS A COMPLETE VICTORY. HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THE INTIFADA?
I already told you that the withdrawal from Lebanon
had a great influence on the decision of the Palestinians to renew the
armed struggle. Israel is depicted as a country that resembles America and
the Americans, who fled from Vietnam and extracted themselves suddenly
from Lebanon and Somalia, proved by this conduct that they are pampered
and not adapted to absorb losses. Likewise the Israelis, who became rich
and got soft and pampered themselves. America and Israel are close friends
and the Palestinians took a page from the conduct of America in analyzing
the expected conduct of Israel.
A FEW YEARS AGO YOU PUBLISHED AN ARTICLE WHICH HAD
GREAT RESONANCE: "THE ROOTS OF MUSLIM RAGE". WOULD YOU AGREE TO
ENCAPSULATE THE BASIC IDEAS IN THE ARTICLE AND UPDATE THEM IN LIGHT OF
WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE IT WAS PUBLISHED.
In the whole Muslim world in our day a feeling of
frustration and crisis prevails. Everything is mixed up. For more than a
thousand years the Muslims became accustomed to the belief, justified in
its time, that they represented the most advanced part of the world, and
that they are the ones who set the standards in politics, economics and
science. In the new age the Muslims came to realize that their power had
weakened and that even adopting western technology wasn't any help. The
western ideas of socialism and capitalism did not halt the economic
deterioration, and then the belief arose that redemption was to be found
in adopting the western democratic brand of government. Most unfortunately
it was proven that the only western brand that succeeded in taking root in
the Muslim world was dictatorship, based on a single party. Political
independence did not give rise to freedom. The reaction to these
disappointments is resistance to any ideas imported from the west and
blaming the west for all the unhealthy evils that stemmed from the failed
attempt to imitate its culture.
Now there are two options: some feel that the failure
stems from abandonment of the earlier traditions, leaving behind the
authentic Islamic culture. The two main versions that have stemmed from
this feeling are Wahabi Fundamentalism which is disseminated by the
Saudis, and the Iranian-Shiite Fundamentalism. The other option, which
adherents to the modern hold, says that the failure stems from the Muslims
having adopted the shell of western culture and not its deep content, and
therefore it is necessary to introduce western values in their full depth.
In all of the Muslim world there are people who think that way, but the
dictatorships make it difficult for them to express their opinions
IS OSAMA BIN LADEN THE EXTREME EXPRESSION OF THE
Of course. But here one must stress the importance of
Arab oil. The tremendous profits that the Saudis accumulated have enabled
them to develop a network of schools with many branches that cultivates
Wahabi Fundamentalism. It is possible that if not for the oil, this
movement would have remained an otherworldly phenomenon in a marginal
country. In general, the oil is the Arabs' disaster, because it enabled
governments to accumulate enormous wealth which strengthens their
political and military power and destroys democracy and freedom in the
bud. It is no accident that the only countries in which the beginnings of
a civilian society are growing are Morocco and Jordan which have no
IS AMERICA HATED IN THE MUSLIM WORLD BECAUSE IT
SUPPORTS ISRAEL, OR IS ISRAEL HATED BECAUSE IT IS PERCEIVED AS A FORWARD
STRONGHOLD OF THE WEST IN THE MUSLIM WORLD?
Both. Of course, the bond with Israel does not help
America's popularity, but the Mideast is not the only place in the world
in which they loathe this large wealthy empire. It is hated because it is
so successful and local figures exploit the resentment for their special
needs. For example, for Bin Laden the main problem is his country, Saudi
Arabia, which he wants to rid of the presence of infidels. He mentions
Israel, if at all, in the third place on his list of targets. In one of
his speeches he called it "a lowly little country", in other words not
something substantial or very important and in an interview he gave some
years ago he said that if the Americans leave Saudi Arabia he would be
prepared to sign a peace agreement. Israel is an easy target for
propagandists in the Arab world because attacking it does not endanger
them, while in some Arab countries they are looking for trouble if they
disseminate attacks against America. The propagandists know that in
America and Europe there is a willing ear for anti-Israel propaganda and
the reason is that directing an assault against Israel eases the burden of
the accusations that are spread on them in the west. This is where the
aggression towards Israel in the Sabra and Shatila affair comes from, as
compared with the leniency towards the deeds of Hafez Assad in the city of
Hama, or towards the chemical weapons attack on the Kurds in Halbaja.
WHAT ARE THE LONG RANGE RESULTS OF THE WAR IN
People in the West are accustomed to ask "why don't
they like us" and the simple answer is that you can't be wealthy, strong
and successful and be liked, especially considering that for a few hundred
years you have won every battle. The correct question is: "why have they
stopped respecting you, or at least fearing you?" I mentioned earlier that
men like Bin Laden believed that the west was pampered and soft. I hope
that the war in Afghanistan changed this perception, because it proves
that the idea that America and the other western countries are soft is an
invention, and that they are afraid to fight when their civilization is
attacked. Now there are two possibilities: either the people in the Muslim
world, and particularly the Arabs, decide that in order to establish a
better society it is necessary to turn to the path of peace and
cooperation with the west, or they will believe that the defeat in
Afghanistan was a painful episode but they need to continue in the same
path. I hope that the first way will win, but I can't exclude the
possibility that the second idea will take hold.
ISRAEL SEES IRAN AS A GREAT MILITARY DANGER. ARE
CHANGES HAPPENING IN IT THAT COULD EASE OUR MINDS?
The Iranian politicians who are depicted as
moderates, are nothing but makeup whose purpose is to enable the regime to
continue acting as it wants, but many signs indicate that the regime has
become very unpopular, and will be thrown out if an opportunity presents
itself. Here I want to mention a paradox: the masses in countries that
declare their opposition to America love America, while the masses in
countries whose governments support America, exhibit resentment towards
America. It is no accident that the terrorists who attacked the twin
towers and the Pentagon indeed came from Egypt and Saudi Arabia while in
Tehran there were large spontaneous, authentic demonstrations, in which
people expressed sorrow. It is clear that the hatred for America in Egypt
and Saudi Arabia stems, first and foremost, from the hatred for the
corrupt regimes there. The demonstrations for joy in Kabul will seem like
funeral processions compared to the demonstrations for joy that will break
out in Baghdad, Tehran and perhaps even Damascus, if the west brought
about the expulsion of the despotic inefficient regimes that rule in these
This article originally appeared in Hebrew in the
Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot and was translated by Jonathan
Silverman, firstname.lastname@example.org. The
translated version originally appeared on http://www.jewsweek.com/