Bernard Lewis was in Washington recently, courtesy of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He put on quite a show. Lewis, 91, spoke for nearly 40 minutes, without notes, before taking questions. Google a few TV chat-show transcripts, and you'll see that, even among people who talk for a living, it is rare to find someone who speaks in complete sentences. It has famously been observed that Lewis - did I mention he's 91? - speaks in complete paragraphs.
Lewis is the last, and perhaps greatest, of a breed of intellectual the world no longer makes. An expert on the Near East, Lewis possesses all of the requisite characteristics of a great cultural thinker: a preternatural facility with languages; an impish sense of adventure; intellectual modesty; and a love of the foreign that springs from genuine admiration, rather than repulsion.
If Islam is the most important cultural subject of our time, then Lewis may be our most important intellectual. His deep affinity for Islam is what allows him to be such a penetrating, clear-eyed, thinker on the subject. He intuits the nuances, and understands their importance. During his talk, for instance, he noted that:
"It is quite usual in writing the history or discussing the history of science, to talk about Islamic mathematics, Islamic chemistry, Islamic astronomy - meaning the research and progress that was made in these fields during the great age of Islamic civilization. We don't talk about Christian astronomy, or Christian mathematics. If we say 'Christian art,' this would be understood to refer to votive art - art in places of worship and connected with worship. If we say 'Islamic art,' it means the entire artistic production of the Islamic art, including a great deal that we would call secular, a word for which until very recently there was no equivalent in Arabic or Persian or Turkish. A word that was lacking because the notion was lacking."
An esoteric matter, on the surface, but one that speaks to the baseline differences between Islam and the West.
In the course of his talk, Lewis made two other points about how many Middle Eastern Muslims view the world, which have more obvious consequences and are worth unpacking a bit.
The first is the legacy of the Cold War in Muslim thinking. Lewis noted that, in America, we tend to view the collapse of the Soviet Union as an American, or Western, triumph. Freedom, democracy and capitalism beat repression, oligarchy and communism. The truth of this view seems self-evident. Not, however, to our current radical enemies.
"According to the point of view of Osama bin Laden and his many, many followers, it was nothing of the kind," Lewis explained. "It was not a Western victory in the Cold War; it was a Muslim victory in a holy war. It was a triumph of Islam in a jihad against the infidels."
To radical Muslims, the West and the Soviet Union were not competing powers, but simply two halves of the larger whole with which they were competing. They saw the fall of the Soviet Union as their victory (because, in large part, of Afghanistan). This myopic, parochial view puts one in mind of the old theater joke about the actor cast as the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet. He tells a friend about getting a part in a show and is asked to explain the plot. The actor replies, "You see, it's about this druggist . . . "
The immediate corollary to this insight is the understanding that our radical Muslim foes were unhappily surprised by the American reaction after 9/11. They had taken Beirut and Somalia as their models in predicting American behavior. The extremists "knew that there had been an election and that there was a new president, but, in their experience, elections do not change governments, governments change elections," Lewis explained. "And the response to 9/11 clearly came as a shock which caused some reconsideration."
Lewis' other key point applies to the proposition that democracy might be incompatible with the Arab world. "There are people to talk to, there are people we can seek the friendship of in the Islamic world," he insisted. "The dictatorial regimes that we have seen in our time in Iraq, in Syria, and in other places - these have no roots in the Arab or Islamic past. These are an importation from Europe."
First came fascism, following the capitulation of Vichy France. After World War II, Russian-style communism filled the ideological void. These two systems are "the immediate political heritage of the Middle East," Lewis says.
Which bears, obviously, on the question of Iraq. Lewis seems relatively optimistic, not to say confident, that something like democracy can survive in Iraq and may lead, eventually, to something like liberalism.
A counterargument might note, however, that the dysfunctional European systems were layered on top of a dysfunctional strain of Islam (Wahhabism), which was itself layered on top of a dysfunctional Arab tribalism. Whether or not all three problems can be untangled remains to be seen.