Bernard Lewis: Islamists Were Corrupted by Fascist Western Ideas

Roundup: Historians' Take

Bernard Lewis, in the course of an interview with Elizabeth Wasserman, in the Atlantic (April 29, 2004):

... In a 1957 lecture about tensions in the Middle East you said that Westernization, in spite of its benefits, was the chief cause"of the political and social formlessness, instability and irresponsibility that bedevils public life of the Middle East." I wonder, as you were writing nearly a half century ago, which particular aspects of Westernization you were referring to?

First of all, let me say what I mean by Westernization. This process was not mainly imposed by Western imperial rulers, who tend to be very cautious and conservative, tampering as little as possible with the existing institutions. It was done by reformers in the independent Middle Eastern countries. Enthusiastic reformers who recognized the success and power of the Western world and wanted to get the same for their own people—a very natural and very laudable ambition. But often with the very best of intentions, they achieved appalling results.

What I had in mind in particular was two things, both tending in the same direction. In the old order, the traditional Islamic Middle Eastern society was certainly authoritarian, but it was not despotic or dictatorial. It was a limited autocracy in which the power of the ruler, the Sultan or the Shah or the Pasha, whoever he might be, was limited both in theory and in practice. It was limited in theory by the Holy Law—the Divine Law to which the ruler was subject no less than the meanest of his slaves. It was also limited in practice by the existence of strong entrenched interests in society. You had the merchants of the bazaar, powerful guilds. You had the country gentry. You have the bureaucratic establishment, the military establishment, and the religious establishment. Each of these groups produced their own leaders—leaders who were not appointed by the State, who were not paid by the State, and who were not answerable to the State. These, therefore, formed a very important constraint on the autocracy of government.

Then came the process of modernization or Westernization, which for practical purposes are the same thing. It enormously increased the power of the central government by placing at its disposal the whole modern apparatus of surveillance and control: first the telegraph, later the telephone; the possibility of moving troops quickly, first by train then by truck or by plane. So the central government was able to assert itself and enforce its will even in remote provinces in a way that was inconceivable in earlier times. The effect of this was to weaken or even eliminate those intermediate powers that limited the autocracy of government.

When people look at the kind of regime that was operated by Saddam Hussein and say,"Well, that's how they are, that's their way of doing things," it is simply not true. I mean, that kind of dictatorship has no roots in either the Arab or the Islamic past. It, unfortunately, is the consequence of Westernization or modernization in the Middle East.

What about the ideological aspect of Westernization? Why is it that well-to-do Middle Easterners who have studied or traveled extensively in the West in the past century seem by and large to return with extremist political ideas rather than constructive ones?

I wouldn't say rather than, I would say as well as. As you know, they started coming at the beginning of the nineteenth century, to study at Western universities and other educational establishments. Naturally, as students do, they learned more from their fellow students than from their professors, and they picked up the ideas that were current at the time—liberalism, nationalism, and the like. These had a very mixed impact. Some of them were very beneficial. But some of them turned out to be harmful.

Some Western observers look at the Islamic governments and organizations of today and conclude that humanism, modernization, tolerance, reform—the things that made up our Enlightenment—are anathema to Islam. Are these observers right?

They are not anathema to Islam—on the contrary, Islam has its own humanistic traditions— but they are certainly anathema to those whom we have gotten into the habit of calling the Islamists. I don't like the term; I think it's misleading. I prefer to use"Islamic fundamentalists," though that's also a loose analogy.

What about democracy? How compatible is it with Islamic law and custom?

Well, there are certain elements in Islamic law and tradition which I think are conducive to democracy. The idea that government is contractual and consensual, for one thing. According to the Islamic Treatise on Holy Law, the ruler comes to power by an agreement between the ruler and his subjects. This is bilateral. Both sides have obligations. It is also limited. The ruler rules under the Holy Law, which he cannot change and which he must obey. So these two elements, I think, of consent and contract, also have the element of limitation, and can be very conducive to the development of democratic institutions. There is also a deeply rooted rejection in traditional Islamic writing of despotism or dictatorship, of the capricious rule of the ruler without due regard to the law and to the opinion of the various groups in society.

What do you make of the thesis that Islam is another version of the anti-liberal, anti-modern dogmas of the twentieth century? Some pundits have been using the term"Islamo-fascism" to describe the ideology of bin Laden and his ilk. Do you think that the militant form of Islam stems more from recent utopian movements than from Islamic tradition?

No, I don't. There is an Islamic saying,"The first to reason by analogy was the devil." Certainly there is a Fascist element in the Islamic world, but it's not in the religious fundamentalists. It's rather in people like Saddam Hussein and his regime and the Syrian regime. These were directly based on the Fascist regimes. We can date it with precision: in 1940, the French government capitulated and a collaborationist regime was established in Vichy. The rulers of the French colonial empire had to decide whether they would stay with Vichy, or rally to De Gaulle. And they made various decisions. Syria and Lebanon were at that time under French mandate, and these French officials stayed with Vichy, so Syria and Lebanon became a center of Axis propaganda in the Middle East. That was when real Fascist ideas began to penetrate. There were many translations and adaptations of Nazi material into Arabic. The Ba'ath party, which dates from a little after that period, came in as a sort of Middle Eastern clone of the Nazi party and, a little later, the Communist party.

But that has nothing to do with Islam. The Islamists' approach is quite different from that and has its roots in the history of Islam. Though, of course, it is also influenced by outside ideas. I would not call it Fascist. I would say it is certainly authoritarian and shares the hostilities of the Fascists rather than their doctrines....

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