Bernard Lewis versus Fouad Ajami, Or, is the Arab World Becoming More Dangerous or Less?


The interview has yet to air, but on the National Review cruise last week I sat down with Bernard Lewis, the great scholar of Islam.  I read the following quotation, from an interview that Lewis gave last year to the Jerusalem Post:

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

Even now, after the Arab Spring, I asked, did Lewis still believe the Muslim Brotherhood wished to restore some kind of unity to the Arab world, establishing, perhaps, a new caliphate?  Lewis doubted that the Brotherhood would prove in any hurry to set up a caliph, but he retained no doubt whatever that the Muslim Brotherhood does indeed intend to establish some sort of radical, pan-Arab entity, uniting the Arab world in hostility to the West, especially Israel and the United States.

Fouad Ajami, by contrast, presents an entirely different, and–I may as well admit my sense of relief to be able to say so–a much more reassuring analysis.  Fouad, too, represents a major scholar of Islam.  From his column today in the Wall Street Journal:

On Sunday in Egypt’s leading official daily, Al-Ahram, I came upon a daring column by one of that paper’s writers, Hazem Abdul Rahman. The solution lies in the development of Egypt, not in Gaza, he observed. He minced no words: President Morsi wasn’t elected to serve the cause of Palestine—his mandate was the “pursuit of bread, freedom, and social justice.” The popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood has eroded, but it cannot find salvation in foreign policy….

Unknown.jpgThe Palestinians ignore a fundamental truth about the Arab Awakenings at their peril. These rebellions were distinctly national affairs, emphasizing the primacy of home and its needs. Indeed, the Palestinians themselves have bristled in indignation that the pan-Arab media have zealously covered Syria while all but ignoring Palestine, which was the obsession of the 1960s and 1970s.

History has moved on, and Arab populations have gone their separate ways.

Do I have any idea which scholar is correct?  No I have not–for that matter, the contrast between the two almost induces me to feel something like sympathy for Sec. of State Hilary Clinton.  As far as I can tell, she has no more way of adjudicating this dispute than have I.  Yet there she is, forced to formulate policy as best she can.

Were I in her position, though, I would err on the side of prudence.  Hope that Fouad is right–but formulate policy as if Lewis, alas, were right instead.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive

    In the short term, Ajami is probably correct. But, long term Lewis will be proven right. Once the Brotherhood institutes sharia with the approval of a majority of Egyptians, a pan Islamic movement will gradually grow into a caliphate like unity or perhaps an islamic United Arab Republic. The nationalists in the Islamic world are losing to the Imams. 

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    Peter, I think the US should try to encourage the Fouad Ajami view but plan for the Bernard Lewis view.  I put the odds at 65% that Lewis is correct, and 35% that Ajami is correct.

    I spent over a decade growing up in the Middle East, and was constantly amazed at the virulent anti-Semitism I saw everywhere in the Arab culture.  This is deep seated, and won’t change quickly.  That and their hatred of Western culture seem to be the only glue that holds them together.  Their culture is more tribal than nationalistic.

    I often wondered why so many Arab countries distain Mathematics and the Sciences, and was strongly influenced by Robert Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind.  Until they embrace that aspect of modern civilization, they will continue to be mired in a medieval mindset.

    Individual countries ability to create market economies will be strongly determined in inverse proportion to their embrace of Sharia law which inhibits individual initiative, risk taking, and limits the ability of women to contribute to society.

    I am not optimistic that Arab countries can successfully compete in the world as it exists today or that they want to.

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    I tend to agree, Cat–although it’ll be interesting to see how regional power brokers respond to the siren call of pan-Islamism. (It hasn’t been terribly successful in the past.) Elected Brotherhood leaders, Erdogan over in Turkey, the Iranian ayatollahs, even the Saudi royals all embrace and proselytize their Islamism. But make no mistake: It is deep in the nature of the man on top to remain on top regardless of his religious proclivities. Can you really picture the House of Saud ceding its primacy to…*anyone* else?

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    I think Prof Lewis is more right. We are witnessing on a grand scale something similar to 1979 – an incompetent US President handing power over from unpleasant dictators to the Islamists. The only difference is that this time they are Sunnis.

    What could possibly go wrong?

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    One of the most encouraging  things I heard on the NR cruise were the several experts who seemed to be in agreement that if we can get the megalomaniacal EPA under control (granted, a big “if”) our natural gas troves as well as all the other energy sources can unshackle us, finally and thankfully, from dependence on that utterly intractable part of the world.  At that point, these issues become a matter of interest, rather than as they are now, grave concern…

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  6. Profile Photo Inactive

    I can’t, at the moment, think of a nation in that part of the world that I would consider nationalistic, (except for the obvious exception).  All Iraq has as a cohesive element is nationalism and the factions blow each other up with regularity.  Jordan is a time bomb.  Syria is hardly nationalist.  Lebanon is a factional mess.  Turkey is hardly united, under Erdogan.  As for the Gulf states, even the House of Saud sits upon a tinder box that it barely quenches with petrodollars and oppresion.

    “..bread, freedom, and social justice…”?  That is not a realistic assessment of the future in Egypt, or the rest.  Israel is nationalistic, but Rahman wasn’t writing about Israel.  Morsi has a mess on his hands and it is unlikely that he will address it with bread, freedom, and social justice.  Tha’s just naive.

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  7. Profile Photo Inactive

    If the drug cartels started lobbing missiles on San Diego would this also qualify as a dispute?  I hope she is seeking an end to the terrorism that has plague the region for many years.  

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  8. Profile Photo Member

    Can’t wait for these interviews! Professor Lewis came to mind when I recently saw that my teenage daughter had put a “tolerance” bumper sticker on the back of her Prius. She said she liked it better than the related “coexist” sticker (I forget why). I didn’t have the heart to tell her that tolerance, as Professor Lewis points out, means that one view is more acceptable than others and that other forms are by no means thought of as equal but are merely tolerated in a form of enlightenment that is far removed from the hopeful mesh of wishful thinking displayed on her bumper. Some other time, I thought. Some other time. Tolerance.jpg

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  9. Profile Photo Contributor

    They are both right.   The issues will be local while folks are hungry.  They will look outside after the belly is full.

    Note:  Lewis would be a better teacher if he could control himself from teaching so much.  The endless detail…zzzzz.zzzz..zzzz

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  10. Profile Photo Inactive

    I side with Lewis on this matter, primarily because of one the most important books I read this year, David P. Goldman’s “How Civilizations Die.”  According to Goldman, much of the pathology of Islamic behavior is due to their being moribund societies.  They produce little to nothing, increasingly not even children. Turkey, Egypt, and especially Iran are in the same sort of death spiral as most of Europe and Japan.  Their economies are doomed to collapse.  They are committing suicide by attrition.  This is a pattern repeated over and over in history in which a civilization will respond in one of 3 ways: hedonism (happening in Europe), suicide (happening in primitive cultures such as New Guinea among their young as they taste modern oppulence and realize they will never attain it), or a fight to the death to take as many with them to grave as possible.  This latter is what we see happening in the Islamic world. Egypt cannot even feed itself.  They spend the majority of the 3 billion a year given them by the US on food.  And yet they seem to be trying as hard as they might to destroy that income.

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    Henry is correct in his pragmatic desire to shut down the EPA and return to a world,  like 1930 or so where the gasoline came from odd places like California, Texas, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania . If you could jump back to those days, you would also find an utter lack of interest or knowledge of the Muslim world , which is something that Lewis predicts as it could slide back to its glory days, 800 AD or so. Nary a consumer or sovereign fund in sight. Araby was a song and Valentino was a sheik.

    The idea of watching the French , English , and Germans trying to get their petroleum from Sudan, Libya, and Nigeria could turn into a very watchable Sunday Masterpiece Theater , perhaps “Mr Balfour’s Shooting Party” or “Sykes-Picot in the Noonday Sun” .

    Ajami has the point that State will hopefully learn. They will also appreciate as all Democrats share the short game and only know how to get short term goals . Republicans talk a long game, but it rarely comes to fruition .

    Dr. Kissinger , message for you …Bernard Lewis on two.

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  12. Profile Photo Member

    Above all, the U.S. must use its muscle to guarantee that elections always happen as scheduled. Under no circumstances can we tolerate “one man, one vote, one time”, since if the Brotherhood is forever preoccupied with pleasing its citizens — re the economy and tourism in particular — they’ll be forced to behave in a semi-civilized manner.

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    Tommy De Seno: They are both right.   The issues will be local while folks are hungry.  They will look outside after the belly is full.

    Note:  Lewis would be a better teacher if he could control himself from teaching so much.  The endless detail…zzzzz.zzzz..zzzz · 3 hours ago

    Edited 3 hours ago

    Bernard Lewis is 96…and still just brilliant.  Gee, Tommy, cut the guy some slack.

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    Scott Reusser: Above all, the U.S. must use its muscle to guarantee that elections always happen as scheduled. Under no circumstances can we tolerate “one man, one vote, one time”, since if the Brotherhood is forever preoccupied with pleasing its citizens — re the economy and tourism in particular — they’ll be forced to behave in a semi-civilized manner. · 1 hour ago

    Exactly.  As  you’ll see when the interview airs, Lewis begins by describing the genuinely democratic election in Turkey in 1950.  The new party was in power for mere months before it made clear that it had no intention of holding any more elections.  Lewis views this as the outcome that must be avoided.

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  15. Profile Photo Thatcher

    I would like to  believe those who think that once we don’t need the middle east energy, they can do what they want and we can ignore them.  This WAS true in the 1930s, BUT there is a very big problem with this today.   Several nations are working hard on ICBM technology, and have missles capable of destroying Isreal, and in the last year or so, Iran has demonstrated missels capable of reaching most of Europe.   It is only a matter of scale, and does not need fundamentally different technology to build missels capable of global reach.  Maybe the final circular error of probability is too large to destroy a particular target, but when aiming at just the US East Coast between Wash DC and Boston, who cares?  The combination of nuclear weapons and ICBMs mean we can never ignore anyone any more.  We have to have a global defense posture to protect ourselves, and we cannot any more afford an isolationist bent.

    Religious zealotry is likely the reason such weapons will be used, and sanity ignored.  Gloomy view I know, but we cannot afford to have any other.

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    Whenever I read Ajami I am always reminded of Fukuyama’s “end of history” rose colored glasses after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Nine years later: 9/11. Samuel Huntington got it right, Fukuyama spectacularly wrong.  Wasn’t Ajami the one just last year telling us what a hopeful thing the so-called Arab Spring was?  I am sure our staff at Benghazi would dissent if they could.  Lewis is right.  Not 65%, he is 100% right.  We are kidding ourselves to think otherwise.  The really unsettling thing is that by the time it gets really sporty, the US will likely be a bankrupt shell leveraged entirely to a cash flush amoral communist giant.  Get ready for a wild ride. 

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  17. Profile Photo Inactive

    Dear Peter, chalk another one up for Prof. Lewis;

    Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi took extensive new powers for himself Thursday, freeing his decisions from judicial review and ordering retrials for former top officials, including ex-president Hosni Mubarak.

    The decree, issued a day after Morsi won international praise for fostering a cease-fire in Gaza, appears to leave few if any checks on his power. The president said all of the decisions he has made since he took office in June — and until a new constitution is adopted and a parliament elected — were final and not subject to appeal or review.

    What does Mr. Ajami have to say about this development?

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