Sunday, February 27, 2011

From Israel: Insights

Arlene Kushner
Arlene from Israel
27 February '11

Bernard Lewis, dean of Islamic scholars, is something of a favorite of mine. At 94 he's still offering sharp analyses from an historical perspective -- with a tad of humor thrown in from time to time.

On Friday, JPost editor David Horovitz ran an interview with Lewis, and I would like to share some of what he said:

"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. (Emphasis added)

"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 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.


"...I would view that [elections in September] 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. (Emphasis added)

"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.


"...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.

"...[The West] should not be pressing for elections...I think we should let them do it their way by consultative groups. There are various kinds. There are all sorts of possibilities.

"...To say that [the Muslim Brotherhood is] 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...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...I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but it’s not unlikely.

"And if that happens, they would gradually sink back into medieval squalor...


"...There’s a common theme [in the region] 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.


"...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.


"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.


"One has to understand...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.


"...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.

"...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.


"...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? (Emphasis added)

"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.


"[Israel should] 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...

" 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."


This is a longer citation than I usually provide in a posting. But there is so much wearisome gibberish out there with regard to the turmoil in our region, produced by people who understand little about Islamic culture and rejoice that democracy is breaking out all over.

I could not resist a sharing in some depth with my readers of a genuinely insightful and thoughtful perspective. I hope you have benefited from it.

The one observation I'll make here is with regard to Lewis' point that Arabs and Muslims reach beyond their own culture -- to the West -- when they see a greater risk elsewhere: Had Obama been tough with Iran, which terrifies the Arab nations, he might have forged a solid relationship with them.


Meanwhile, it made news late last week that the Quartet -- the US, the EU, the UN, and Russia -- is planning a new concerted push to get peace negotiations going.

In fact, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has expressed hopes that a deal can be reached by September. It will be "challenging" to achieve this, she admits, but, “It's a time frame that everybody has signed up to.” (Precisely who "everybody" is, I'm not sure.)

After I read this, I was searching for a word to describe this position: daft? imbecilic? witless? obtuse?

The world here is on fire and they don't let go.


Their intention to forge ahead is not deterred by the fact that the leaders of the PA have made it very clear that they're not interested.

Friday was supposed to be a "Day of Rage" against the US because of the Security Council veto. Didn't pick up on much "rage," in terms of action in the street. But there are calls for boycotts of the US, which would include such things as cutting ties with the US Consulate in Jerusalem (which serves as an embassy to the PA) and barring US journalists from PA areas.

They also talking about refusing American aid, if it comes with political strings attached. (As Caroline Glick has pointed out, they say this because they know America will keep giving no matter what -- I'll come back to this soon.)


Today's post began with a discussion of what's happening in the Arab nations. Let's end with Caroline Glick's latest satirical Latma, which includes a very funny interview with Arab leaders and the Arab Democracy Anthem. Glick and her team get it.

(For those in the dark about all of the Gabi Ashkenazi comments: he's just stepped down from the position of IDF Chief of Staff and is being vigorously groomed for a political career, to begin after a cooling off period.)


© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by Arlene Kushner, functioning as an independent journalist. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.

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