Bernard Lewis: Interviewed by Bruce Cole

Historians in the News

National Endowment Chairman Bruce Cole talked recently with Bernard Lewis, the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University.

A scholar on the history of Islam, Lewis has written more than twenty books, among them What Went Wrong: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East and The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror.

Bruce Cole: Members of one culture are sometimes reluctant to understand enough about another culture, or even learn the other's language. What causes this?

Bernard Lewis: There have been many civilizations in the world, and the normal practice of civilizations has been to dismiss with contempt those outside. The world is divided into civilized people--that means us--and barbarians.

Cole: Us and them.

Lewis: Them. "Them" usually are regarded as barbarians. The Greeks and the Romans ruled the Middle East but did not bother to learn any of the languages.

Cole: I understood that the word "citizen" doesn't exist in Arabic. Is that correct?

Lewis: Yes, I'm afraid it is. The word which we use in English, "citizen," which has its equivalence in the other languages of Christendom, citoyen and so forth, has a connotation going back to the ancient Greeks. A citizen is a member of the city-state. He takes part in the governance of the city. This is a notion which is absent from most other civilizations.

The word that is used in modern Arabic for citizen is the word muwatin. But muwatin has the literal meaning of compatriot. The very notion of the city is not there.

Cole: The fact that there isn't a word for citizenship and presumably not a concept for it, does that pose obstacles to the kind of changes that we are hoping for in that part of the world?

Lewis: We talk about democracy. It's a word which is used in many different senses. Remember that when Germany was divided, it was the Communist dictatorship that was called "The People's Democracy." The term democracy was used by General Franco in Spain to describe his regime. It was used by the Greek colonels and all sorts of other people. So let's be careful when we talk about democracy. We should avoid going to the opposite extreme and assuming that democracy means our type of government; that anything that differs from our type of government is not democracy and that all things that are not democracy are equally bad and evil. These are self-flattering delusions.

Democracy comes in many different forms. I think we should also shed the illusion that democracy is the natural, normal human condition and that any deviation from it is either a disease to be cured or a crime to be punished. It isn't. For most of human history, most of the world could get along without democracy. Even where democracy does come, it doesn't have to be our kind.

Cole: In writing about the present-day Arab world, you characterize Turkey as a successful democracy. What's the makeup of a successful democracy as you see it? How do you define it?

Lewis: Well, I like Sam Huntington's definition of that. He said, "You can call a country a democracy where it has changed its government twice by elections." Once isn't enough. There are a number of cases where a government, either on principle or through inadvertence, has allowed itself to be voted out of power, and where then the new lot that came in made damn sure they would not leave by the same route they came.

Cole: So you've got to have it two times?

Lewis: Yes. When you have a country where the government has been changed twice--well, in Turkey the government has been changed many times by elections, three times also by other methods. But Turkey is the only Muslim country which has really developed a functioning democracy, and that democracy is now in danger from the present government of Turkey....

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