Israel and the Middle East Unrest/Bernard Lewis
Mar 3, 2011
Update from AIJAC
March 3, 2011
Number 03/11 #01
This Update features an interpretation of the Middle East unrest by probably the world’s greatest scholar of Middle East history – 94-year-old Prof. Bernard Lewis. But first it also features some important new commentary on the ways in which an excessive focus on Israel has distorted both understanding of the Mideast region, and more importantly, policy toward the Arab dictators.
The first comment comes from British columnist Nick Cohen, who castigates his fellow members of the left for the way their obsession with Israel has blinded them to the oppression that afflicts most Arab societies. He particularly stresses that antisemitism (often expressed as demonisation of Israel) was a tool of the dictators, “a conspiracy theory about power”, just as it was in Europe. He then recalls the numerous ways both European governments and European intellectuals were willing to make common cause with Gaddafi and other dictators because they believed that dictatorship is normal in the region and the only issue worth taking a stand on was the Palestinians. For this important analysis of the roots of appeasement of the Arab dictators, CLICK HERE. Also commenting on the pervasiveness and significance of regional antisemitism is Richard Cohen of the Washington Post (No relation to Nick Cohen). Offering more information on points raised by Nick Cohen is NGO Monitor on efforts by Human Rights Watch to whitewash the Libyan regime, and Alex Joffe on universities happy to take money from Gaddafi and other despots.
Next up, Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who ties the excessive focus on Israel to the policy concept of “linkage” – the idea that all Middle East problems can be solved, or at least be brought much closer to resolution, if Israeli-Palestinian peace is finally achieved. Like Cohen, he notes that this belief “allowed a dereliction of responsibility for anything that happens outside of Israel’s few square kilometers.” He argues that Israel, now more than ever, has to take account of events beyond its borders before a peace can be signed and the focus on Israel-Palestine first has meant that such a peace is made even more distant and difficult. For the rest of his argument, CLICK HERE. Another excellent comment on how what is happening in the Middle East defies conventional wisdom about the region comes from scholar and recent visitor to Australia Emanuele Ottolenghi. Also commenting on the absurdity of the demand for “Israel first”, before any other regional problems are tackled, is Robert Taranto of the Wall Street Journal.
Finally, in an interview, Prof. Bernard Lewis, doyen of Middle East academic historians, weighs in on what is happening across the Middle, what is likely to happen, and what is to be done. Lewis is sceptical that any move toward Western-style liberal democracy, which he sees as pretty alien to local political traditions, can occur quickly, and instead urges an effort to exploit local traditions of “consultation” as a bridge toward a democratic future in the longer term. He is also scathing of those who discount the radicalism and potential for destructiveness of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. He has a very great more to say, with both erudition and insight, and to read it all, CLICK HERE. Another noted Middle East scholar, Efraim Karsh, takes issue with one aspect of Lewis’ comments – his relatively positive assessment of pre-20th century Middle Eastern regimes.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Prof. Barry Rubin gives a long interview on the Muslim Brotherhood in which he is scathing of the “conventional wisdom” being allowed to flourish about the movement.
- More details on the corruption of the London School of Economics by Gaddafi’s money. Plus, noted Middle East scholar Martin Kramer points to the three dumbest things written about Libya by Western intellectuals.
- What is known about the fate of Iran’s missing, apparently jailed, opposition leaders. Meanwhile, Michael Ledeen says his sources are telling him of large-scale unrest in Iran which is not being reported.
- Michael Rubin suggests that if the Libyan regime falls, this will make a successful revolution in Iran more likely.
- An Iranian media service blames Israel for Gaddafi’s murderous actions against the Libyan people.
- Yemen’s dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh says the protests against him are being orchestrated out of an “operations room in Tel Aviv” on behalf of the White House. Meanwhile, an al-Qaeda linked cleric, Abdul Majid al-Zindani, is reportedly playing an increasingly important role in the protests in Yemen.
- Wikileaks founder Julian Assange alleges a “conspiracy” of “Jewish journalists” is out to get him.
- A report that Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu may be preparing to announce a major peace initiative. Efforts to remove illegally built “outposts” are also reportedly being stepped up.
- Israel makes a major breakthrough in technology to protect tanks from anti-tank missiles.
- Both Hamas and Fatah vow to stop the UN agency UNRWA from teaching Palestinian children about the Holocaust.
- AIJAC’s Dr. Colin Rubenstein discusses the UN’s failures in Libya in the wider context of endemic shortcomings and corruption of the international body.
Our absurd obsession with Israel is laid bare
The Middle East meant only Israel to many. Now the lives of millions of Arabs have been brought to Europe’s attention
The Observer, Sunday 27 February 2011
The Arab revolution is consigning skip-loads of articles, books and speeches about the Middle East to the dustbin of history. In a few months, readers will go through libraries or newspaper archives and wonder how so many who claimed expert knowledge could have turned their eyes from tyranny and its consequences.
To a generation of politically active if not morally consistent campaigners, the Middle East has meant Israel and only Israel. In theory, they should have been able to stick by universal principles and support a just settlement for the Palestinians while opposing the dictators who kept Arabs subjugated. Few, however, have been able to oppose oppression in all its forms consistently. The right has been no better than the liberal-left in its Jew obsessions. The briefest reading of Conservative newspapers shows that at all times their first concern about political changes in the Middle East is how they affect Israel. For both sides, the lives of hundreds of millions of Arabs, Berbers and Kurds who were not involved in the conflict could be forgotten.
If you doubt me, consider the stories that the Middle Eastern bureau chiefs missed until revolutions that had nothing to do with Palestine forced them to take notice.
• Gaddafi was so frightened of a coup that he kept the Libyan army small and ill-equipped and hired mercenaries and paramilitary “special forces” he could count on to slaughter the civilian population when required.
• Leila Ben Ali, the wife of the Tunisian president, was a preposterously extravagant figure, who all but begged foreign correspondents to write about her rapacious pursuit of wealth. Only when Tunisians rose up did journalists stir themselves to tell their readers how she had pushed the populace to revolt by combining the least appealing traits of Imelda Marcos and Marie-Antoinette.
• Hearteningly, for those of us who retain a nostalgia for the best traditions of the old left, Tunisia and Egypt had independent trade unionists, who could play “a leading role”, as we used to say, in organising and executing uprisings.
Far from being a cause of the revolution, antagonism to Israel everywhere served the interests of oppressors. Europeans have no right to be surprised. Of all people, we ought to know from our experience of Nazism that antisemitism is a conspiracy theory about power, rather than a standard racist hatred of poor immigrants. Fascistic regimes reached for it when they sought to deny their own people liberty. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the forgery the far-right wing of the decaying tsarist regime issued in 1903 to convince Russians they should continue to obey the tsar’s every command, denounces human rights and democracy as facades behind which the secret Jewish rulers of the world manipulated gullible gentiles.
Syrian Ba’athists, Hamas, the Saudi monarchy and Gaddafi eagerly promoted the Protocols, for why wouldn’t vicious elites welcome a fantasy that dismissed democracy as a fraud and justified their domination? Just before the Libyan revolt, Gaddafi tried a desperate move his European predecessors would have understood. He tried to deflect Libyan anger by calling for a popular Palestinian revolution against Israel. That may or may not have been justified, but it assuredly would have done nothing to help the wretched Libyans.
In his Epitaph on a Tyrant, Auden wrote:
“When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter
And when he cried, the little children died in the streets.”
Europe’s amnesia about how tyranny operated in our continent explains why the Libyan revolution is embarrassing a rich collection of dupes and scoundrels who were willing to laugh along with Gaddafi. His contacts in Britain were once confined to the truly lunatic fringe. He supplied arms to the IRA, funded the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, Vanessa Redgrave’s nasty Trotskyist sect, and entertained Nick Griffin and other neo-Nazis. We should not forget them when the time comes to settle accounts. But when Tony Blair, who was so eloquent in denouncing the genocides of Saddam, staged a reconciliation with Gaddafi after 9/11, his friendship opened the way for the British establishment to embrace the dictatorship.
It was not only BP and other oil companies, but British academics who were happy to accept his largesse. The London School of Economics took £1.5m from Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, money which by definition had to have been stolen from the Libyan people, despite being warned to back away by Professor Fred Halliday, the LSE’s late and much-missed authority on the Middle East, who never flinched from looking dictators in the eye.
“I’ve come to know Saif as someone who looks to democracy, civil society and deep liberal values for the core of his inspiration,” purred the LSE’s David Held as he accepted the cheque. Human Rights Watch, once a reliable opponent of tyranny, went further and described a foundation Saif ran in Libya as a force for freedom, willing to take on the interior ministry in the fight for civil liberties. Meanwhile, and to the surprise of no one, Peter Mandelson, New Labour’s butterfly, fluttered round Saif at the country house parties of the plutocracy.
Last week, Saif, the “liberal” promoter of human rights and dining companion of Mandelson, appeared on Libyan television to say that his father’s gunmen would fight to the last bullet to keep the Gaddafi crime family in business, a promise he is keeping. The thinking behind so many who flattered him was that the only issue in the Middle East worth taking a stand on was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the oppression of Arabs by Arabs was a minor concern.
The longevity of the regimes presided over by the Gaddafi, Assad and Mubarak families and the House of Saud ought to be a reason for denouncing them more vigorously, but their apparent permanence added to the feeling that somehow Libyans, Syrians, Egyptians and Saudis want to live under dictatorships.
The European Union, which did so much to export democracy and the rule of law to former communist dictatorships of eastern Europe, has played a miserable role in the Middle East. It pours in aid but never demands democratisation or restrictions on police powers in return. That will have to change if the promise of the past month is to be realised. If it is to help with democracy-building, Europe will need to remind itself as much as the recipients of its money that you can never build free societies on the racist conspiracy theories of the Nazis and the tsars. They are and always have been the tunes that tyrants sing.
Back to Top
The death of ‘linkage’
Palestinian issue was never the key to stability
The last few weeks and months have finally proven the fallacy of one of the most mistaken theories about development and peace in the Middle East. For a number of years, foreign officials, experts and commentators have claimed that if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was solved, then there would be peace in the Middle East. This was coined “linkage.”
Former President Jimmy Carter was once asked, “Is the linkage policy right?” He replied, “I don’t think it’s about a linkage policy, but a linkage fact. … Without doubt, the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem.” Another enthusiast of linkage is former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who said, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most combustible and galvanizing issue in the Arab world.”
The WikiLeaks revelations proved that among Arab decision makers and policy-shapers, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was fairly low on the list of urgent priorities in the region. These private conversations reveal that Arab leaders are preoccupied with the looming threat of Iran and only make perfunctory statements on the “Palestinian question,” as one senior American diplomat who has spent his career in the Middle East told the New York Times recently.
These revelations shook the linkage argument to its very foundations, but recent events in our region have dealt it the mortal blow.
Last year, the United Nations Development Program released its Human Development Report for Arab states with the assistance of Arab scholars and researchers. This report stated that the Arab world is lacking in all areas of human development, such as freedom, empowerment of women and education. In addition, nearly 50 percent of the Arab world lives below the international poverty line. For the Arab world to merely maintain its current position, which is at the lowest rung on the development ladder, it will need to create 51 million jobs in the next 10 years.
Food insecurity, rising desertification and vanishing water resources have all contributed to placing parts of the Arab world on a precipice. The recent chaos on the streets of capitals in the Arab world demonstrates this volatility.
Furthermore, the linkage argument has allowed a dereliction of responsibility for anything that happens outside of Israel’s few square kilometers, which is equivalent to less than one seven-hundredth of the Arab world. Even the term “Middle East conflict” is negligent in that it stresses the singularity and uniqueness of our conflict, perhaps even one of the least bloody and destructive, in a region that has seen dozens of recent and ongoing conflicts.
In fact, of the 11 million Muslims that have been killed in violent conflicts since the middle of the last century when the state of Israel was created, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of Muslims were killed in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Arab conflict. However, more than 90 percent of all Muslims killed during the same time period were killed by fellow Muslims.
While I am sure that the majority of the residents of the Middle East, including Israelis, would desperately like to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians, unfairly overloading the pressure to sign a peace agreement makes it that much harder.
Precisely those who feel that a utopian Middle East will exist after Israeli and Palestinian leader sign their name on a piece of paper demonstrate a lack of understanding of the issues at stake and make it harder for the conflict to be resolved.
Unfortunately, radical elements in our region will remain long after the ink on any agreement has dried. To fully grasp this, we just need to listen to the radical elements themselves. In 1996, al Qaeda rose to prominence with Osama bin Laden’s fatwa or “declaration of war.” The long, rambling fatwa stood at more than 11,000 words, railing against everything deemed unacceptable to his brand of militant Islam. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict barely appeared and was nothing more than a footnote to all the general grievances laid out by bin Laden.
While Israelis, including this Israeli government, desire a peace agreement with all of our neighbors, it cannot come at the cost of our existence. Recent events have only confirmed to Israel that we live in a tough neighborhood with constantly shifting sands. If Israel signs a peace agreement, it needs to know that it is permanent, stable and secure, and not subject to changing circumstances.
Israel, with a narrow waist of only a few kilometers, can afford to take few chances with the security of its population, the majority of which reside a mere RPG launcher away from the Green Line.
Those espousing linkage ignore the reality beyond Israel’s borders. Recent events have brought the true nature of challenges facing the Middle East to international attention. Let us hope that this wider view will at least prove constructive to meeting those challenges, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can return to its proper perspective to improve the possibility of its resolution.
Danny Ayalon is Israel’s deputy minister of foreign affairs.
Back to Top
A mass expression of outrage against injustice
By DAVID HOROVITZ
Jerusalem Post, 25/02/2011
Historian Bernard Lewis diagnoses the fundamental cause of the region-wide explosion of protest, and dismisses Western notions of a quick fix.
Bernard Lewis, the renowned Islamic scholar, believes that at the root of the protests sweeping across our region is the Arab peoples’ widespread sense of injustice. “The sort of authoritarian, even dictatorial regimes, that rule most of the countries in the modern Islamic Middle East, are a modern creation,” he notes. “The pre-modern regimes were much more open, much more tolerant.”
But Lewis regards a dash toward Western-style elections, far from representing a solution to the region’s difficulties, as constituting “a dangerous aggravation” of the problem, and fears that radical Islamic movements would be best placed to exploit so misguided a move. A much better course, he says, would be to encourage the gradual development of local, self-governing institutions, in accordance with the Islamic tradition of “consultation.”
Lewis also believes that it was no coincidence that the current unrest erupted first in Tunisia, the one Arab country, he notes, where women play a significant part in public life. The role of women in determining the future of the Arab world, he says, will be crucial.
Once described as the most influential post-war historian of Islam and the Middle East, Lewis, 94, set out his thinking on the current Middle East ferment in a conversation with me before an invited audience at the home of the US Ambassador to Israel, James Cunningham, a few days ago. Excerpts:
Does the current wave of protest in the region indicate that, in fact, the Arab masses do want democracy? And is that what we’re going to see unfolding now?
The Arab masses certainly want change. And they want improvement. But when you say do they want democracy, that’s a more difficult question to answer. What does “democracy” mean? It’s a word that’s used with very different meanings, even in different parts of the Western world. And it’s a political concept that has no history, no record whatever in the Arab, Islamic world.
In the West, we tend to get excessively concerned with elections, regarding the holding of elections as the purest expression of democracy, as the climax of the process of democratization. Well, the second may be true – the climax of the process. But the process can be a long and difficult one. Consider, for example, that democracy was fairly new in Germany in the inter-war period and Hitler came to power in a free and fair election.
We, in the Western world particularly, tend to think of democracy in our own terms – that’s natural and normal – to mean periodic elections in our style. But I think it’s a great mistake to try and think of the Middle East in those terms and that can only lead to disastrous results, as you’ve already seen in various places. They are simply not ready for free and fair elections.
One of the most moving experiences of my life was in the year 1950, most of which I spent in Turkey. That was the time when the Turkish government held a free and genuinely fair election – the election of 1950 – in which that government was defeated, and even more remarkably the government then quietly and decently withdrew from power and handed over power to the victorious opposition.
What followed I can only describe as catastrophic. Adnan Menderes, the leader of the party which won the election, which came to power by their success in the election, soon made it perfectly clear that he had no intention whatever of leaving by the same route by which he had come, that he regarded this as a change of regime, and that he had no respect at all for the electoral process.
And people in Turkey began to realize this. I remember vividly sitting one day in the faculty lounge at the school of political sciences in Ankara. This would have been after several years of the Menderes regime. We were sitting in the faculty lounge with some of the professors discussing the history of different political institutions and forms. And one of them suddenly said, to everyone’s astonishment, “Well, the father of democracy in Turkey is Adnan Menderes.”
The others looked around in bewilderment. They said, “Adnan Menderes, the father of Turkish democracy? What do you mean?” Well, said this professor, “he raped the mother of democracy.” It sounds much better in Turkish…
This happened again and again and again. You win an election because an election is forced on the country. But it is seen as a one-way street. Most of the countries in the region are not yet ready for elections.
Yet in Egypt now, for example, the assumption is that we’re proceeding toward elections in September and that seems to be what the West is inclined to encourage.
I would view that with mistrust and apprehension. If there’s a genuinely free election – assuming that such a thing could happen – the religious parties have an immediate advantage. First, they have a network of communication through the preacher and the mosque which no other political tendency can hope to equal. Second, they use familiar language. The language of Western democracy is for the most part newly translated and not intelligible to the great masses.
In genuinely fair and free elections, [the Muslim parties] are very likely to win and I think that would be a disaster. A much better course would be a gradual development of democracy, not through general elections, but rather through local self-governing institutions. For that, there is a real tradition in the region.
If you look at the history of the Middle East in the Islamic period, and if you look at their own political literature, it is totally against authoritarian or absolutist rule. The word they always insist on is consultation. This is not just a matter of theory. There’s a remarkable passage, for example, in the report of a French ambassador to the sultan of Turkey a few years before the French Revolution.
The French ambassador was instructed by his government to press the Turkish government in certain negotiations and was making very slow progress. Paris said angrily, “Why don’t you do something?”
The ambassador replied that “you must understand that here things are not as they are in France, where the king is sole master and does as he pleases. Here, the sultan has to consult with the holders of high office. He has to consult with the retired former holders of high office. He has to consult with the merchants, the craft guilds and all sorts of other groups.”
This is absolutely true. It’s an extraordinarily revealing and informative passage and the point comes up again and again through the 19th and 20th centuries.
You have this traditional system of consultation with groups which are not democratic as we use that word in the Western world, but which have a source of authority other than the state – authority which derives from within the group, whether it be the landed gentry or the civil service, or the scribes or whatever. That’s very important. And that form of consultation could be a much better basis for the development of free and civilized government.
And therefore, for an anxious West which is trying to work out what signals it should be sending and what processes it should be encouraging, what opportunity does America and the free world have to influence this process?
I’d rather take it from the other side and say what signals you should not be sending. And that is not pressing for elections. This idea that a general election, Western-style, is a solution to all these problems, seems to me a dangerous fallacy which can only lead to disaster. I think we should let them do it their way by consultative groups. There are various kinds. There are all sorts of possibilities.
It’s happening now in Iraq, for example.
Yet the sense one gets is that the people in the streets, in Egypt, for example, want to have elections quickly and have a new leadership. That is the signal that they’re sending. Won’t it be supercilious and arrogant of the West to try to talk them out of it?
They’re all agreed that they want to get rid of the present leadership, but I don’t think they’re agreed on what they want in its place. For example, we get very, very different figures as to the probable support for the Muslim Brothers.
Yes, we’ve seen 20, 30, 40 percent and we’ve seen attitudes from that Pew Poll, from a couple of months ago, that were very extreme.
This is my point. And it’s very difficult to rely on these things. People don’t tell the truth when they’re being asked questions.
Broadly speaking, the notion of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is much disputed – from being perceived as essentially benign, unthreatening, even secular, according to one remark (later corrected, by US National Intelligence Director James Clapper), to being perceived as a radical and terrible threat. How would you judge it?
To say that they’re secular would show an astonishing ignorance of the English lexicon. I don’t think [the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt] is in any sense benign. I think it is a very dangerous, radical Islamic movement. If they obtain power, the consequences would be disastrous for Egypt.
I’m an historian. My business is the past, not the future. But I can imagine a situation in which the Muslim Brotherhood and other organizations of the same kind obtain control of much of the Arab world. It’s not impossible. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but it’s not unlikely.
And if that happens, they would gradually sink back into medieval squalor.
Remember that according to their own statistics, the total exports of the entire Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, one small European country. Sooner or later the oil age will come to an end. Oil will be either exhausted or superseded as a source of energy and then they have virtually nothing. In that case it’s easy to imagine a situation in which Africa north of the Sahara becomes not unlike Africa south of the Sahara.
As we look at this region in ferment, how would you characterize what is unfolding now? Can we generalize about the uprisings that are erupting in the various countries? Is there a common theme?
There’s a common theme of anger and resentment. And the anger and resentment are universal and well-grounded. They come from a number of things. First of all, there’s the obvious one – the greater awareness that they have, thanks to modern media and modern communications, of the difference between their situation and the situation in other parts of the world. I mean, being abjectly poor is bad enough. But when everybody else around you is pretty far from abjectly poor, then it becomes pretty intolerable.
Another thing is the sexual aspect of it. One has to remember that in the Muslim world, casual sex, Western-style, doesn’t exist. If a young man wants sex, there are only two possibilities – marriage and the brothel. You have these vast numbers of young men growing up without the money, either for the brothel or the brideprice, with raging sexual desire. On the one hand, it can lead to the suicide bomber, who is attracted by the virgins of paradise – the only ones available to him. On the other hand, sheer frustration.
So you have this explosion, which different regimes are handling in very different ways. Were you surprised with the ease with which, in Tunisia and Egypt, autocratic leaders were ousted? Do you see other countries where a similar process is likely to unfold?
I was expecting a wave of such movements. I didn’t think it would be as quick and easy as it was in Egypt. But I expect that there will be more. We can see in so many countries, the regimes are already gravely in danger.
In Syria we don’t see, so far, any major expression of an effort at people power. It’s a more ruthless regime. In Iran, the stakes are much higher. It requires much more courage to go out on the street when the regime is presumably prepared to go to greater lengths to hold onto power. Do you see these kinds of processes taking hold in the more repressive and ruthless regimes?
As far as one can judge, these movements of opposition are very strong, even in Iran for example. Now, as you say, the Iranian regime is very repressive. Nevertheless, there are ways in which people can communicate, notably by telephone, e-mail and the rest, and the messages coming out of Iran are unequivocal. It makes it clear that the regime is extremely unpopular. There are two oppositions, opposition to the regime, and opposition within the regime. I think that with even a little help from outside it would be possible to do something. As the saying goes, “You can’t beat something with nothing.”
A little help from outside? It’s a subtle process. If the help is overt, it can be used by the regime in Iran, for example, to suggest unwarranted and untenable Western influence. How do you give help to people seeking the overthrow of these regimes?
One method is by political warfare, by having some sort of propaganda campaign against the regime. This would not be difficult. There’s a vast Iranian population now in the Western world, particularly in the United States, who I’m sure would be willing to help in this, and thanks to modern communications, it would not be too difficult to get the message across. The messages coming out of Iran make this very clear. You must have heard when the American forces went into Iraq, lots of Iranians wrote e-mails or telephoned, saying, “You should have tackled your problems in alphabetical order.”
Tell us more about the nature of the Arab masses, their sense of their own religion, their sense of the agenda that Islam sets out for them.
Well, you see, two things have happened. One is that their position on the whole has been getting worse. The second, which is much more important, is that their awareness of that is getting much greater. As I said before, thanks to modern communications, they can now compare their own position with that in other countries. And they don’t have to look very far to do that. I have sat with friends in Arab countries, watching Israeli television, and their responses to that are mindboggling.
What is so striking to them?
One particular instance that I remember: There was a little Arab boy whose arm was broken by an Israeli policeman during a demonstration and he appeared the next day on Israeli television with a bandage on his arm, denouncing Israeli brutality. I was in Amman at the time, watching this. And sitting next to me was an Iraqi, who had fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and he looked at this with his jaw dropping and he said, “I would gladly let Saddam Hussein break both my arms and both my legs if he would let me talk like that on Iraqi television.”
Take us a little deeper into the mindset. Help us reconcile the discord in Egypt, for example, between hundreds and thousands of people coming out onto the streets and demanding to be rid of a dictatorial leadership, which most people in the West have interpreted as a push for freedoms and Westernstyle democracy, at the same time as we read opinion surveys which show overwhelming proportions of Egyptians taking very bleak views on some aspects of human rights, supporting terrible punishments for adultery, benighted attitudes to homosexuality and so on.
It’s not easy to define what they are for. It’s much easier to define what they are against. They are against the present tyrannies, which as they see it, not only oppress them, but dishonor their name, their religion, their nationality. They want to see something better in its place. Now what that something better would be is differently defined. They are not usually talking in terms of parliamentary democracy and free elections and so on. That’s not part of the common discourse. For different groups it means different things. But usually, it’s religiously defined. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Muslim Brothers’ type of religion. There is also an Islamic tradition which is not like that – as I referred to earlier, the tradition of consultation. It is a form of government.
If we have different potential Islamic paths that these peoples could now go down, how strong is a more moderate Muslim tradition? How likely is it that that would prevail? I ask you that because of your bleak characterization of the Muslim Brotherhood which, again, some experts claim is relatively benign.
I don’t know how one could get the impression that the Muslim Brotherhood is relatively benign unless you mean relatively as compared with the Nazi party.
There are other trends within the Islamic world which look back to their own glorious paths and think in other terms. There is a great deal of talk nowadays about consultation. That is very much part of the tradition.
The sort of authoritarian, even dictatorial regimes, that rule most of the countries in the modern Islamic Middle East, are a modern creation. They are a result of modernization. The pre-modern regimes were much more open, much more tolerant. You can see this from a number of contemporary descriptions. And the memory of that is still living.
It was a British naval officer called Slade who put it very well. He was comparing the old order with the new order, created by modernization. He said that “in the old order, the nobility lived on their estates. In the new order, the state is the estate of the new nobility.” I think that puts it admirably.
Are you leading toward the possibility that the unraveling of these modern, non-consultative regimes could return us to a genuine, potential, wider peopleto- people partnership between the Muslim world and the West? And if so, how do we go about achieving that?
The only time when they began to look favorably on outside alliances is when they see themselves as confronting a still greater danger. Sadat didn’t make peace because he was suddenly convinced of the merits of the Zionist case. Sadat made peace because Egypt was becoming a Soviet colony. He realized that on the best estimate of Israel’s power and on the worst estimate of Israel’s intentions, Israel was much less of a danger to Egypt than the Soviet Union at that time. That is why he set to work to make peace, and he was of course, right.
One sees similar calculations later than that. Consider for example, the battle between the Israeli forces and Hezbollah in 2006. It was quite clear that the Arab governments were quietly cheering the Israelis and hoping that they would finish the job and were very disappointed when they failed to finish the job. The best way of attaining friendship is by confronting a yet more dangerous enemy. There have been several such [enemies] in the Middle East and there are several at the present time. That seems to me the best hope of understanding between the Arabs on the one hand and either the West or the Israelis on the other hand.
People talk about American imperialism as a danger. That is absolute nonsense.
People who talk about American imperialism in the Middle East either know nothing about America or know nothing about imperialism. American imperialism is a term which might justly be used to describe some of the processes by which the original 13 states increased to the present 50. But as applied to American policy in the Middle East at the present time, it is wrong to the point of absurdity. Take the classical examples of imperialism: When the Romans went to Britain 2,000 years ago, or when the British went to India 300 years ago, an exit strategy was not uppermost in their minds.
When you look around the region, which are the potential enemies which may be regarded as the greater threat?
At the moment, principally the Iranian revolution. On the one hand they’re afraid of what you might call Iranian imperialism, and on the other hand of the Iranian Shi’ite revolution.
The Sunni-Shi’ite question is obviously different according to which country you’re in. In a country like Iraq or Syria, where you have both Sunnis and Shia, the distinction between Sunni and Shia, the clashes between them, are very important. In a country like Egypt where there are no Shia, which is 100% Sunni, it’s not an important issue. They don’t see the Shia threat as an issue.
There’s one other group of people that I think one should bear in mind when considering the future of the Middle East, and that is women. The case has been made, and I think there is some force in it, that the main reason for the relative backwardness of the Islamic world compared to the West is the treatment of women. As far as I know, it was first made by a Turkish writer called Namik Kemal in about 1880. At that time an agonizing debate had been going on for more than a century: What went wrong? Why did we fall behind the West?
He said, “The answer is very clear. We fell behind the West because of the way we treat our women. By the way we treat our women we deprive ourselves of the talents and services of half the population. And we submit the early education of the other half to ignorant and downtrodden mothers.”
It goes further than that. A child who grows up in a traditional Muslim household is accustomed to authoritarian, autocratic rule from the start. I think the position of women is of crucial importance.
That is why I am looking with great interest at Tunisia. Tunisia is the one Arab country that has really done something about women. In Tunisia there is compulsory education for girls, from primary school, right through. In Tunisia, women are to be found in the professions. There are doctors, lawyers, journalists, politicians and so on. Women play a significant part in public life in Tunisia. I think that is going to have an enormous impact. It’s already having this in Tunisia and you can see that in various ways. But this will certainly spread to other parts of the world.
Elsewhere, the question of women and the role of the women is of crucial importance for the future of the Muslim world in general.
A key country which has not been enveloped in these uprisings yet is Saudi Arabia. Why do you think that is? Is that going to change?
There’s not much prospect of its changing for the time being. But sooner or later oil will be either exhausted or superseded, and then of course the change will be dramatic.
And what of our other immediate neighbors in Jordan and among the Palestinians. From a security point of view, Israel is worried about what might unfold…
With good reason… Until recently I would have said that the Hashemite kingdom is fairly safe. I used to go to Jordan every year for many years and there was no doubting the popularity of the regime. Members of the royal family would travel alone, driving their own open two-seater cars across the city, without feeling in the slightest degree endangered, and even be greeted with cheers and kisses whenever they passed. That again could change.
The king would appear to be above the fray…
And by changing his government, has defused at least some of the protest?
It’s too early to say.
And on the Palestinian front, what you said before about the overstated assumption that elections are the panacea, that seems to be what unfolded with the Palestinians. There was a dash for elections, when the only choices were between Fatah and Hamas. I don’t see people-protests [against the regime] in Gaza, but in the West Bank could there be some replication of what happened in Egypt, directed against Israel?
I don’t see elections, Western-style, as the answer to the problem. I see it rather as a dangerous aggravation of a problem. The Western-style election is part of a very distinctively Western political system, which has no relevance at all to the situation in most Middle Eastern countries. It can only lead to one direction, as it did in Germany, for example.
Two weeks ago, I interviewed Natan Sharansky. He gave an enthusiastic endorsement of the push for freedom. But a caveat was: Don’t have this sense that elections equals democracy. Therefore, his recipe was: Go slower. But he still seemed to be pushing in the Western, democratic direction. He was saying, you need to take time; you need to create a climate in which opposition parties can organize, other parties can organize, so you don’t only have the Muslim Brotherhood; you need to have a media environment in which their message can be fairly reported; and then people have to be confident that they can make their choices without fear of persecution. That sounds very smart to me, but it also sounds very Western. Are you suggesting that might be a path or that it fails to understand the differences between the West and the Muslim world?
One has to understand not so much the differences between the two as the differences in the political discourse. In the Western world, we talk all the time about freedom. In the Islamic world, freedom is not a political term. It’s a legal term: Freedom as opposed to slavery. This was a society in which slavery was an accepted institution existing all over the Muslim world. You were free if you were not a slave. It was entirely a legal and social term, with no political connotation whatsoever. You can see in the ongoing debate in Arabic and other languages the puzzlement with which the use of the term freedom was first perceived.
They just didn’t understand it. I mean, what does this have to do with politics or government? Eventually, they got the message. But it’s still alien to them. In Muslim terms, the aim of good government is justice.
The major contrast is not between freedom and tyranny, between freedom and servitude, but between justice and oppression. Or if you like, between justice and injustice. If one follows that particular discourse in the Arab and more generally the Muslim world, it would be more illuminating.
So while we look at these protests as a demand for a greater stake in self-government and a push for what we consider to be freedoms, what you’re diagnosing here is outrage against injustice?
And how is that demand met?
Corruption and oppression are corruption and oppression by whichever system you define them. There’s not much difference between their definition of corruption and our definition of corruption.
So, if the leaderships in these countries were not corrupt and were just, they would not have been confronted? It’s that they’ve not governed fairly?
That resonates with what happened in Iran. You had elections and the results were announced before the votes had been counted…
The people felt they were being cheated.
It’s the sense of injustice at the core?
Yes. I think one should look at it in terms of justice and injustice, rather than freedom and oppression. I think that would make it much easier to understand the mental and therefore the political processes in the Islamic world.
And so to the Israel question. Israel, like everybody else, was taken completely by surprise. How should Israel be responding to these protests?
Watch carefully, keep silent, make the necessary preparations.
And reach out. Reach out. This is a real possibility nowadays. There are increasing numbers of people in the Arab world who look with, I would even say, with wonderment at what they see in Israel, at the functioning of a free and open society. I read an article quite recently by a Palestinian Arab whom I will not endanger by naming, in which he said that “as things stand in the world at the present time, the best hope that an Arab has for his future is as a second class citizen of a Jewish state.” A rather extraordinary statement coming from an Arab spokesman. But if you think about it, he’s not far wrong. The alternative, being in an Arab state, is very much worse. They certainly do better as second class citizens of the Jewish state. There’s a growing realization of that. People would speak much more openly about that if it were safe to do so, which it obviously isn’t.
There are two things which I think are helpful towards a better understanding between the Arabs and Israel. One of them is the well-known one, of the perception of a greater danger, which I mentioned before. Sadat turned to Israel because he saw that Egypt was becoming a Russian colony. The same thing has happened again on a number of occasions. Now they see Israel as a barrier against the Iranian threat.
The other one, which is less easy to define but in the long run is probably more important, is [regarding Israel] as a model of democratic government. A model of a free and open society with rights for women – an increasingly important point, especially in the perception of women.
In both of these respects I think that there are some hopeful signs for the future.