Participants at the 2009 Jerusalem Conference, held late last month, were fortunate to have the opportunity to share a candid conversation with Professor Bernard Lewis, world-renowned expert on Islam, on the prospects for peace in the Middle East. The historian, a nonagenarian, was questioned by Dan Diker of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Below is a transcript of the talk, in which the professor explains that the Arab world must be seen in context of its religious heritage, rather than its ethnicity.
Dan Diker, Introduction: The region’s so crazy there are really more questions than answers. There are some that say there are no conflicts that can’t be solved, and there are others that don’t have answers. The first question that I have is, or that we have, as I am speaking on behalf of everyone here, is, what is going on in this recent conflict? You had three major Arab powers publicly condemning the Hamas. And in a way, silently expressing support for Israel. What’s going on with that, Bernard?
Bernard Lewis: I think what we are seeing is a recurrence of what one would call the Sadat bit. Let me remind you of what happened with Sadat. Sadat didn’t make peace with Israel because he was suddenly persuaded of the merits of the Zionist case. It for was a quite different reason. What drove Sadat towards peace was the growing awareness on his part and on the part of the Egyptians that Egypt was becoming a Soviet colony.
I was in Egypt during the late 60s and early 70s, and I saw for myself that the Soviet presence had become more obvious and to Egyptians more offensive than the British presence had been in the last phase of the British occupation of Egypt.
He tried to deal with it in other ways, through Washington but Washington responded with [an] agreement, which was in effect handing Egypt back to the Russians. They decided that Israel was less dangerous than the Soviets, which was true.
That is what led him to make peace and it has endured since--a peace that is at best cool and at times frosty, but it has held. What I think we are seeing now is a similar phenomenon.
The danger that they see this time is not the Soviet Union, which has disappeared, but the multiple dangers presented by Iran. This comes in many forms, one which you might call the Iranian Danger.
Iran, unlike most of the countries of this region, is a real nation with a history and a self-awareness going back not just centuries, but millennia, and it is quite prominent in Jewish history if you recall.
We have two images of Iran in the Jewish memory, one typified by Haman and the other by Cyrus. Both are visible at the present time, though Haman seems to be dominant.
Let me come back to my point. Iran is once again stretching out westward and eastward. Eastward to Pakistan, and across the Middle East towards the Mediterranean. This comes in several forms, one of them I just mentioned, it’s what you might call the Iranian imperial.
The second is the Shi’ite threat. Islam almost since its beginning has been divided into two major sectarian groups, the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. The Sunnis are the overwhelming majority and in countries where there are only Sunnis and no Shi’ites the differences are unimportant and they are hardly aware of it.
Where it is important is where Sunni and Shi’ite meet, particularly in countries where you have Sunni dominance over Shi’ite population, a situation for which I would borrow a word from Irish history and call it a Sunni ascendancy. The most notable is Iraq.
Iraq has had a Shi’ite majority as far back as we can trace the history. And it has remained under the rule of the Sunni minority through ancient times, medieval times, Ottoman times, under the British, under the various rules. Only now for the first time is there a Shi’ite majority government in Iraq. And the links with Iran are obviously a matter of concern.
Going beyond Iraq, there are significant Shi’ite populations in Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in that region.
Now for the first time in many centuries, they see Shi’itism as a serious threat, a mortal threat to the Sunni ascendancy which has prevailed since time immemorial. What makes this threat even worse is that it is linked with what one might call the Iranian Revolutionary Regime.
The word revolution is much used in the Middle East but most regimes that call themselves revolutionary could be better described by the French term ‘coup d’etat’ or the German ‘putsch’, English history happily provides no equivalent.
The Iranian revolution is a genuine revolution resembling in some ways the French and the Russian revolution -- the struggle between modernists and extremists, the terror, the vast impact on the world which they share, common universal discourse. And now, I think, they are following the French model, the Russian model. You might say that the Iranian revolution is entering the “Napoleonic” or the “Stalinist” phase.
Dan Diker: So that means -- oh wait, would you like to finish that point?
Bernard Lewis: Yes, this obviously represents a mortal threat to the established regimes in the region. A threat far more deadly, far more dangerous, far more profound than anything Israel could ever offer even on the worst estimate of Israel’s intentions. That is why, like Sadat in his day, before even more compelling reasons this time, they are looking to Israel for help in what they see is a major threat.
Dan Diker: Professor Lewis, if Iran, as you say, is racing for regional supremacy and upending the stabilizing Arab regimes with the same energy that it intends to destroy Israel, what does that mean for places like Gaza and the West Bank? To what extent are they a part of that Iranian plan? And how should we think about the closer battlefields to home?
I think one might divide them into two groups. On the one hand you have the group that are themselves Shi’ites. Shi’ites are an important part of the population of Lebanon and Hizbullah is a Shi’ite organization. So their link with Iran and the Iranian revolution is clear and obvious. There are no Shi’ite Palestinians. But again, in places where there is no Sunni-Sh’iite conflict it is easier for them to take up the Iranian cause because for them, in the historical, religious awareness the Sunni/Shi’ite difference is not that important.
Dan Diker: So therefore, on balance, there is a major debate that has been going on about this conflict, meaning in a narrow sense the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as a subset of the Arab-Israeli conflict. That we’re really in an ethno-national conflict some say, we’re in a political conflict some say, but from what you’re saying, to what extent are we in a religious conflict?
Bernard Lewis: I think from the Muslim perspective it’s particularly a religious conflict to decide who will dominate Islam, whose version of Islam will prevail in the Islamic world.
There is no doubt that the Iranians have plans that go far beyond the Middle East. They extend eastward into south and Southeast Asia and westward into Muslim Africa and there are signs of that in various places. The impact has been enormous as I said; it has the same pattern as the French and Russian revolution in their days.
There is one other point, and that is what I would call the apocalyptic aspect.
In Islam, as in Judaism and Christianity, there is a scenario for the end of times, where the final battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil will occur. For Christians and Muslims alike, this means between “us” and “them.” The “us” being differently defined, the “them” being more or less the same.
From the view of a certain section within the Iranian leadership, it’s not by any means unanimous, that time is now.
For a group... whose main leader is [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, the apocalyptic time has come. “Ma’adi,” the Muslim messiah is already here. The final battle has already begun.
That is important for another reason, and that is concerning Iran’s nuclear weapon. The Soviet Union had weapons right through the cold war, but neither side used them because they were aware the other side would use them as well. It was called mutual assured destruction (MAD) which was the main deterrent of using the weapons.
For most of the Iranian leadership, MAD would work as a deterrent. But for Ahmadinejad and his group, with their apocalyptic mindset, MAD is not a deterrent, but an inducement. They believe that the end of time has come and the sooner the better. So the good can go enjoy the delights of paradise and the wicked, meaning all of us here, can go to eternal damnation.
Dan Diker: Many in the West, your colleagues, have not seen it the way you’ve seen it. You’ve expressed concern in your writings from the return of Islam to the roots of Muslim rage to even more recent articles. That the West is not getting something about Islam, what are they missing?
Bernard Lewis: It’s normal for human beings to judge others by ourselves. We are now in the 21st century of the Christian era; they are in the early 15th century of the Muslim era. It’s a different religion, based on entirely different historical experience, different messages, different teachings, and therefore it is a grave error to do what people normally do, which is judging others by ourselves. It doesn’t work and it is dangerously misleading.
If one looks at Islam from within -- and for that it’s necessary to learn at least one Muslim language, which something most Middle East experts are reluctant to do -- if one learns the language and understand what they say amongst themselves and understand it in the context of their own history and background, then it is not too difficult to understand what is happening.
Dan Diker: Then why is it that if Egypt, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf States and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank are publicly condemning Iran and their servants, why is the Arab establishment unwilling to fight when they are so frightened of what they perceive as an existential threat to them?
Bernard Lewis: Because the Arab establishment is a rather unpopular autocracy. Looking at it from a Western point of view, if you look around the Middle East you can divide the countries into two groups, countries with pro-American governments and therefore anti-American population and countries with anti-American governments and therefore pro-American populations. The second consisting mostly of Iran. We in the West are seen as the sponsors of the tyrannies that rule over them.
Now, I said a moment ago that the regimes now in these countries, the rulers of Egypt and others see the threat and are now turning to Israel. That doesn’t mean that the populations of those countries see that way.
Take the specific case of what’s been happening in Gaza. Mubarak and his government feel mortally threatened by the pro-Iranian presence in the Gaza Strip and want to see it demolished but that is not the case with many of the parts of Egypt. Most people in Gaza are part of the Muslim Brotherhood who have a very significant opposition group within Egypt and the Egyptian population. And there too, the Sunni-Shi’ite business is not important. The revolutionary appeal, even the apocalyptic appeal of Shi’itism has some impact.
Dan Diker: Professor Lewis, what we’ve seen with the emergence of the communication revolution are a lot of brave attempts, one might call them, to criticize regimes in television, in the newspaper and on the internet. Why is that happening now, and what is the prospect for them? Can we say there are democracy oppositions as well?
Bernard Lewis: The communications revolution has determined some impact. In the past, the Muslim world was better situated than the Western world when it comes to communication. Even in the pre-modern era, the pilgrimage of Muslims from all over the Muslim world make a feeling of common identity, a common awareness that has no parallel in the Western world. The mosque gave them a medium of communication free from censorship.
With the advent of modern communications, now they have even more than that on a much greater scale. Radio, television, and internet are now operating on a vast scale. There is growing evidence that a large part of the population in Iran are thoroughly fed up with the regime that rules them.
This appears in a number of ways, through websites and telephone etc. Their opinions are widely expressed through political jokes such as, “Two Iranians are talking about how dreadful the situation is in their country -- this is bad, that’s worse, this is terrible etc. Finally one says to the other, “What we need for this country is for us to bring Osama Bin Laden here”. And the other one turns to him in horror and says, “What are you crazy??” and the first one says, “No, then the Americans will come.” Now that is an authentic Iranian joke. Communicated from Iran. It tells you something. Another one; at the time when [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush launched his attack on Iraq, a lot of people telephoned from Iran to say ‘You should have tackled your problems in alphabetical order’.
Dan Diker: By the way, in the first reorganization of the Arab world, you coined a phrase about what happened in Kuwait when Iraq conquered that country. What did you call it?
Bernard Lewis: I said the operation should be renamed, instead of Desert Storm, it should be called “Kuwaitus Interuptus”
Dan Diker: Now that’s a positive note. This means something for Israel what you’ve said here. That if Israel was being sought after, in a sense, by the Arab world, what does that mean for Israel’s own perception of itself in terms of being a regional player as opposed to a bilateral player against the Palestinians, which has been the definition until today?
Bernard Lewis: I think Israel needs to redefine itself in accordance with contemporary realities.
Dan Diker: Which means…?
Bernard Lewis: That’s for Israelis to decide.
Dan Diker: How about the longer view? You’ve written some 30 books and for some reason, you’ve just written a book with a dear friend, Buncielles Churchill and this book is called Islam; the Religion and The People. Why is the focus on the religion of Islam now?
Bernard Lewis: Because religion is very much the topic of discussion now. We are dealing with this revolutionary movement in Iran which defines itself as an Islamic movement. We are in a time where Islam is challenging the Western world, which it hasn’t done since the Middle Ages.
Remember that in the perception of Muslims of today that there has been a cosmic struggle going on between the two world religions, Christianity and Islam, for centuries.
The Muslims came out of Arabia and invaded and conquered a large part of the Christian world, Europe, Spain, Italy -- but Europe reacted and drove them back. Second attempt, the Ottomans, advanced as far as Vienna and again they were driven back. Many people in the Muslim world see this as, shall we say, third time lucky. This is the third attempt of the Muslims to bring their Holy War into the land of the unbelievers.
Dan Diker: What you wrote in 1990, an article titled ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’ was just 36 months before the first World Trade Center attack, and that question of rage, how do we understand it today? Is it modernity? Is it Christendom? How should the West respond to that rage?
Bernard Lewis: I think it’s important to point out that the Arabs have a very strong sense of history, without parallel in the West. In America, the ignorance of history is appalling even in universities.
The Muslims are very aware of their history -- which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s very accurate. They talk of the first attempt, where they made progress and were driven back. The second attempt, where they made progress and where driven back and now the third. What’s the difference now? Each time they were driven back by a new European force, the Byzantines, the European Empires.
Osama Bin Laden puts it very clearly that this struggle has been going on for 13 centuries; the Islamic rule was led by successive dynasties from successive capitals, Medina, Damascus, Bagdad, Cairo, Istanbul. In the final phase, he says the world of the unbelievers will be divided between two rival superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. In Afghanistan he says, ‘we defeated the deadlier of the two,’ meaning the Soviet Union; dealing with America will be comparatively simpler.
This is the motivation of the Jihad at the present time, the feeling that this is the final phase. They’ve taken over parts of Europe and the next phase is to take over the rest of the world.
Dan Diker: Let’s look at the symmetrical case in the West. The West’s experience in the Middle East has not been a positive one. Attempts to confront or approach radical Islam have not succeeded. Why is that? What’s missing in the analysis of the West?
Bernard Lewis: I think the first thing missing in the analysis is the awareness of what we confront. A more accurate perception of what is happening and what the different forces are in the Islamic world, I think, would be a more helpful beginning. The second thing is recognition of the magnitude of the threat we are facing. It is not some sort of colonial war.
Dan Diker: Professor, let me go back to Iran for moment. I want to talk about Iranian Imperialism and use of genocidal talk and incitement against Israel in its attempt to gain regional supremacy. What is the role of genocide within Iran’s imperial design? Can it be compared to some sort of Nazi behavior in the past?
Bernard Lewis: Genocide is not part of the Muslim scenario for the end of times. Yes, there will struggles between Jews and Christians. But genocide does not have precedence. What we do find is that there is no lack of anti-Jewish feelings that are also found in Koran and can be cited to that effect. But this is a new one that can obviously be connected with the formation of the State of Israel.
Dan Diker: You have given us some reason for worry. Having said that, you have been a proponent for some optimistic assessments with some historical precedents of democracy and freedom in the modern world. Where are we today in terms of the mix of optimism and pessimism when it comes to the possibility of democracy and freedom in the Arab world?
Bernard Lewis: Well I mentioned before what I call the Sadat gambit, that there are some rulers in the Middle East looking to make peace with Israel because they feel a greater danger which led to the peace treaties between Egypt and Jordan with Israel. That is what is happening now.
The other thing I see that is more hopeful is what I am tempted to call the Sharansky effect -- the spread of the idea of democracy, our form of it, to places that otherwise would have thought it to be inconceivable. It is still small scale, it is limited. And for various reasons it is dangerous to express. But there are signs. That is the best hope for the future.
I’ve sat with some people who want democracy and have watched Israeli television with them. They’ve seen Arab leaders denounce their actions on television and go home safely and it’s something they cannot comprehend.
I remember once an Arab boy, around 12 or 13 years old, had his wrist broken by an Israeli soldier or policeman. He was interviewed the next day by Israeli television and denounced Israeli brutality. I was watching this in Jordan and with me was an Iraqi, who looked at this in bewilderment, and said, “I would happily let Saddam Hussein break both my arms and legs if he would let me speak on television like that.”
Another example, when Sadat came to Jerusalem and gave his famous speech to the Knesset, he was accompanied by two Egyptian guards. When Sadat spoke it was totally quiet. You could here a pin drop. When he finished, and Begin spoke, the Knesset reverted into its normal behavior, telephone calls, catcalls, conversations. A friend of mine was sitting next to the two Egyptian guards, who looked at this in utter bewilderment. One said to the other “What is this?” and the other responded “This is democracy.” And the first one said, “what a sweet thing.”
Dan Diker: There’s nothing left to say after that. Ladies and Gentlemen, please join me in thanking Professor Bernard Lewis.
Transcribed by Aviva Woolf.