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Book Review 214: The Middle East

September 19, 2011 - Harry Eagar
THE MIDDLE EAST: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, by Bernard Lewis. 433 pages, illustrated. Scribner paperback, $16

The crazy thing about the demonization of Bernard Lewis by the apologists for Islam is that Lewis is himself an apologist for a failed system.

His style is different, his knowledge broader and deeper, his approach rational, but his results are nearly as wrongheaded.

“The Middle East” was written in 1994 and has had a wide readership. My copy is the 16th paperback printing. That suggests that as many as one westerner in 400 or 500 has been exposed to his ideas. If we include his many less popular volumes, perhaps the number comes up to 1 in 200 or 300. Include the journalism and it might be a little more.

So that when people speak of Lewis as the most influential scholar of Islam in the west, we are talking about a small group, indeed, many of whom despise him.

He was the bete noir of Edward Said's incoherent and poorly sourced “Orientalism.” Given what's in “The Middle East,” it seems that if “orientalism” really exists, even a dnuce like Said could have found a more cogent example.

Although Lewis writes that he wants to avoid a sultans and kings approach, the chapters devoted to culture, common society and business are skimpy.

He attempts to set the stage by beginning, not at the beginning, but a little earlier, at the birth of Jesus. This makes some sense, but he gets off on the wrong foot, writing as if the Middle East was a mostly Christian area for six centuries before Islam.

It wasn't. R.L. Fox, in “Pagans and Christians,” estimates that at most 4 percent of the population of the Roman east was Christian before the forced conversion. The church had less than three centuries to instill its religion on the masses, and because it preferred to co-opt rather than exterminate local cults, it never really replaced the chthonic religions.

Islam did, a most important point, but one that Lewis, since he does not realize it, does not address. It has turned out to be exceedingly difficult – short of simply exterminating Muslim populations, as was done, for example, in Italy – to oust Islam once established.

The reasons for this are not simple, but one obvious reason is the continuing use of force.

Lewis entirely misunderstands force. First, he describes the suppression of the “people of the book” religions (Christians, Jews, maybe Zoroastrians) as a contract entered into with the conquerors. Since there was no choice, it cannot be called a contract.

This is hardly a surprise. Lewis correctly identifies Muhammad as a political-military leader with a religious doctrine, but fails to note that he was mainly a gangster. The much praised Islamic toleration – to the extent it existed at all – was nothing but a gigantic protection racket.

Lewis' most egregious misunderstanding is closely associated. He approvingly cites the sura saying “there is no compulsion in Islam.” He is not alone, but it beggars belief that anybody could have such a skewed understanding.

Islam is a missionary religion, and wherever it holds civil power (virtually all of the Middle East for the past 1,400 years) it disallows other missionaies. This one-way gate will, eventually, result in a completely Muslim community.

What there really isn't in Islam is freedom of conscience.

Without freedom of conscience, there can never be democracy, which means that a good part of the later chapters of “The Middle East” is beside the point. In 1994, Lewis believed that democracy, even liberal democracy, was making headway in the Koran Belt.

In fact, it was already obvious by then that the forces of reaction had gained control. There were, are still are not, any Muslim democracies, or even any effective modern states even of undemocratic character.

About one in 10 of the world's 50 or so Islamic societies is a failed state, and a number of others are heading that way.

Oddly enough, when giving himself just a little bit of historical perspective, Lewis is able to write a brilliant paragraph explaining why liberalism's baby steps faltered. It is worth quoting in full:

“In the course of the 1930s, liberal and constitutional institutions began to lose the attraction which they had once held in the region. “

It was a very slight attraction. Turkey is always cited as a Muslim but secular democracy. It was never anything of the sort. The travel writer Paul Theroux outfoxed the scholars by noting, two decades ago, that secularization stopped the day Ataturk died in 1937, a point that goes back to the success of Islam in exterminating the chthonic beliefs of the oldest civilizations of humankind. Islam creates the hungriest, sickest, poorest, least educated people in the world, but it has unparalelled staying power. Lewis continues:

“Not surprisingly, they were not working very well.”

That would be because no considerable part of the society wanted them to work. As the Syrian political scientist Bassam Tibi puts it,. Arabs are not interested in democracy. Lewis again:

“Limited to a small, Westernized elite, they had no real basis of support in the society as a whole. Alien in both conception and appearance, they were in every way inefffective – unable alike to evoke people's memories of the past, to respond to their needs of the present, or to illuminate their hopes for the future. Worst of all, they were associated in the minds of most Arabs with the most hated imperial powers of Western Europe.”

Nothing has changed since. The fact that the “most hated imperial powers” were of Western Europe is key. The Arabs had been colonized by the Turks for 500 years and by Europe for 20 to, at most, 130 years. Few Arabs will even agree that the Ottomans did colonized them, and the reason is obvious: In this part of the world, religion trumps politics.


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