• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Birth of Islam: A Different View

Lewis’s disdain for the social sciences, and his reliance on textual knowledge derived from classical texts as well as newspapers or government propaganda, can mislead. Thus in stating baldly that two Middle East countries, Iraq and Syria, “went all the way in adopting and applying the continental European model of the totalitarian dictatorship,” he takes their own propaganda at face value, seeming to take no account of studies—such as that of the distinguished Dutch scholar and diplomat Nikolaos van Dam—that demonstrate how an East European–style party organization can be infiltrated and taken over by a sectarian kinship group (in the case of Syria by the Alawite minority).

In some cases, however, even Lewis’s textual knowledge may be flawed by his failure, or perhaps his refusal, to take account of written materials that do not fit his preconceptions or his firm pro-Israeli commitment. Thus in stating that Baathism involved the “adaptation of Nazi ideas and methods to the Middle Eastern situation” (a favorite neoconservative theme), he ignores crucial texts by Michel Aflaq, cofounder of the Baath party, expressing admiration for the “solid conviction that informs…the Jewish people with courage and a spirit of sacrifice,”7 as well as Aflaq’s efforts to eliminate from the party’s constitution the “stupid ideas” he associated with Nazism.

Lewis’s insights are sometimes penetrating, but frustratingly, he often displays his penchant for the telling anecdote and aphoristic generalization at the expense of analytical coherence. Thus in a powerful passage on democracy in the Middle East, he makes a telling point (rarely noted by other commentators) about its distinctive political culture:

What is entirely lacking in the Middle Eastern political tradition is representation and what goes with it—the idea that people elect others to represent them, that these others meet in some sort of corporate body, and that that corporate body deliberates, conducts discussions, and, most important of all, reaches decisions that have binding force…. In Roman law and in most of the European systems derived from it or influenced by it, there is such a thing as a legal person, a corporation, an abstraction that nevertheless functions as a legal person.

I have suggested in my Islam in the World (2006) that this absence, derived from a feature of the Islamic Sharia law, which has no concept of legal personality, goes to the heart of the “democratic deficit” of many Middle East polities, where family, tribe, coterie, or sect tends to subvert the authority of public institutions at the expense of civil society. Under these conditions real power almost invariably accrues to the armed forces whose command and control systems and institutional boundaries are determined by the exigencies of military logic rather than by structures responsive to the ebb and flow of political ideas and social needs. In the long term the participants in mass demonstrations that brought down the Mubarak regime, although responsible for a hugely impressive expression of public feeling, will need to overcome the inertia of military governance—with its networks of properties and other vested interests—in a country where the institutions of civil society have been weakened by decades of top-down, kleptocratic rule by the mukhabarat (“intelligence”) state.

If, as Lewis rightly argues, democratic representation is rooted in institutional structures and forms of accountability that are absent from many Muslim and Middle Eastern societies, how can he have blandly endorsed a policy driven by the belief that successful, functioning democracies could be imposed using outside force? Tunisia and Egypt and, likely, other countries in the region are demonstrating that it is internal forces facilitated by information technologies outside the control of the mukhabarat state that are setting the democratic agenda. The Islamist threat—which the regimes used to blackmail Western governments into supporting them—has so far been conspicuously absent. The battle cry “Islam is the Solution” was not to be heard in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

At its heart the “clash of civilizations” thesis originally promulgated by Lewis, and popularized by Samuel Huntington, rests on shaky intellectual foundations. Would the more modest scholars who wrestle critically with the obscure and controversial origins of one of the world’s great religions have dared to produce such a facile generalization? Is there perhaps a connection between the serene dogmatism of Lewis’s approach, with its tendency to accept the “traditional” view of Islamic origins, and his failure to scrutinize the propositions put forward by the advocates of intervention, whether these be other hawkish scholars, administration officials, or prominent exiles? Lewis is an always entertaining and highly readable commentator on the Muslim world. But for all his brilliance, his judgments are sometimes flawed, and dangerously so in the case of America’s adventure in Iraq.

  1. 7

    Cited by Gilbert Achcar in The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, translated by G.M. Goshgarian (Metropolitan, 2010), p. 74. 

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print