Understanding Islamic resurgence and the Lewis doctrine

MANY of us who opposed the American-led war on Iraq had attributed a number of motives to Bush for his actions. The non-existent weapons of mass destruction were very low on this list. But perhaps even lower was Washington’s claim of wanting to introduce democracy in Iraq as well as the rest of the Arab world.

By Irfan Husain

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Published: Sat 26 Feb 2005, 9:42 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:12 PM

Many saw this as a smokescreen for a blatant oil grab. And the presence of pro-Zionist neocons in the inner circle of the Bush team convinced many others that the war was intended to strengthen Israel, while neutralising one of its staunchest foes.

However, Michael Hirsh, in an article published in the February issue of the London-based Prospect monthly, sees the conflict very differently. Hirsh is a senior editor of Newsweek, and originally wrote this article for the Washington Monthly.

According to him, the ideological and intellectual basis for the war was provided by Bernard Lewis, the influential British-born Islamic scholar who has made American academia his home for the last half-century. x Lewis has written a large number of books and articles, including two titled A War of Resolve and Time for Toppling for the Wall Street Journal in the run-up to the second Gulf War, on Islam during a long and productive career.

But it was not until 9/11 that he was seen as an expert, whose views were relevant to the new threat the West perceived from religious fundamentalists led by Osama bin Laden. But behind the scenes, Lewis had exercised a major influence on the thinking of key players in the Bush administration, like Paul Wolfowitz long before 9/11.

In the conclusion of his best-selling book What Went Wrong?, Lewis talks about the on-going search in much of the Muslim world for an explanation for why Muslims have fallen so far behind the West when they were so far ahead not that long ago. He writes:

"At the present day two answers to this question command widespread support in the region, each with its own diagnosis of what is wrong, and the corresponding prescription for its cure.

The one, attributing all evil to the abandonment of the divine heritage of Islam, advocates a return to a real or imagined past. That is the way of the Iranian Revolution and the so-called fundamentalist movements in other Muslim countries. The other way is that of secular democracy, best embodied in the Turkish Republic founded by Kemal Ataturk.

"Meanwhile the blame game — the Turks, the Mongols, the imperialists, the Jews, the Americans — continues, and shows little sign of abating."

Lewis’s early views about Islam and democracy were formed in Turkey in 1950 when he was on a sabbatical in Istanbul, and witnessed the electoral defeat of Kemal Ataturk’s Republican Party. This party had ruled without being challenged since 1923, but in an unprecedented event for the region, a ruling party handed over power peacefully. This was a turning-point in Lewis’s view of Islam and the Muslim world. To him, Turkey’s Western outlook imposed by Kemal Ataturk was a key element in its successful experiment with democracy.

From that point on, he has remained convinced that, according to Hirsh (quoting the Wall Street Journal), the way forward for Arab states is to get a "Westernised 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."

Given Lewis’s standing in the mainstream American media, as well as in policy-making circles, his views have dominated the debate on Islam and the West until recently. However, with the setbacks the Americans have suffered in Iraq, dissident voices from academia are now being heard.

Critics of Lewis like Richard Bulliet, author of "The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization", argue that Lewis has got it all wrong right from the beginning.

According to him, the crusades are as irrelevant for Muslims today as they are for Christians, and not, as Lewis claims, the wellsprings of Muslim anger against the West. The real anger is more recent, and is directed at the despots who rule them and the Western powers that imposed them and continue to support them.

Lewis has argued that until Islam is pushed into the background of public life, democracy cannot flourish. Bulliet and others maintain that historically, Islam has played a key role in limiting tyranny and until despotism is removed, it will continue having a legitimising role.

It is a fact that secularism does not lead automatically to democracy. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was probably the most secular country in the Middle East. It was also the most tyrannical dictatorship in the region. Egypt and Syria are both secular, but are hardly democratic.

And as a democratic Iraq emerges, the chances are that it will become more Islamic than the Americans could have dreamed of. In fact, the reality of the results and their political implications have completely demolished the Lewis doctrine.

The Shia-dominated government that is emerging will be neither pro-Western nor secular. While Grand Ayatollah Sistani will probably not opt for an Iran-style Islamic model, powerful voices are calling for the imposition of Sharia law.

Although the Kurds have been insisting on a more secular state, it is probable that a compromise will be reached during constitution-making that will certainly have strongly religious elements.

The Lewis and anti-Lewis narratives are not entirely mutually exclusive. It is a fact that many of the Middle East is ruled by despots, who have beggared their nations by their whimsical and corrupt rule. Literally hundreds of billions of dollars in oil wealth have been squandered while their subjects live in relative ignorance and poverty.

On the other hand, is democracy the only answer to the many problems the Arabs face? And is this democracy to be imposed through war and invasion? Clearly, left to themselves, many of the present set of rulers have no interest in giving their people the vote. So how are they to be freed? And how important a factor is religion in these complex questions?

These are difficult questions to answer, but perhaps as the situation in Iraq becomes clearer, we will have some idea about how the region will shape up politically. But one thing is certain: the Americans will have a marginal role in developments in Iraq from this point on. That is the power of democracy.

Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani commentator

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