Bernard Lewis’s new collection of essays, “The End of Modern History in the Middle East”, is an often fascinating, sometimes dull and endlessly frustrating continuation of the author’s 50-plus years of scholarly musing on the region. For those unfamiliar with Lewis, he is best known for coining the phrase “clash of civilizations”, which he introduced in a 1990 article in The Atlantic entitled “The Roots of Muslim Rage”. In that piece, Lewis presented his hypothesis that there was a deepening schism between Islam and the West — one founded in an inherent hostility toward Western values on the part of the Muslim world.
The events of 9/11 emboldened such thinking and Lewis’s ideology was espoused by the Bush administration in its hammerhead approach to creating ‘democracy’ in the Middle East (Lewis has criticized the implementation of the invasion of Iraq but has stood by its goals). This approach was largely discredited in the years following the Iraq invasion but it seems that Lewis continues to see the Middle East through the same lens, which pits democracy against fundamentalism in an epic struggle of progress versus regression.
The principal essay, which gives the book its title, is centered around the notion that the Middle East has reached a moment in history when it is free to charter its own course. Rid of the meddling superpowers (an arguable assertion in itself), the time is now to either move into the light —toward democracy, development and peace — or to revert further into the darkness of fundamentalism, autocracy and instability. If it is to move in the direction of the former, three catalysts would lead the way: Turkey, Israel and, most important of all, women.
Lewis asserts that, as the largest economy in the region and the first Muslim country to establish a democracy, Turkey could be the bellwether for development in the Middle East, depending on whether its own parliamentary system can withstand the Islamic leanings of the ruling party.
“It may choose… to turn its back on the West and return to the Middle East,” Lewis writes. “[Or] it may choose… to tighten its ties with the West and turn its back on the Middle East.”
In fact, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done well in choosing both, maintaining strong economic and diplomatic ties with its eastern neighbors as well as with Europe, thus rebuking Lewis’s finite divisions between East and West.
Rightly, Lewis sees the Arab-Israeli conflict as the greatest impediment to development in the Middle East, “diverting energies and resources from creative to destructive purposes and preventing the progress of the region toward a new age of advanced technology and political freedom.”
But Lewis’s attitude toward the peace process, and his refusal to lay any blame on Israel, undermines the foundation of his argument. For him, the intransigence of Arab regimes that manipulate the Palestinian cause is the greatest impediment to peace; there is no mention of any stubbornness on the part of the Israelis.
“Dictatorships that rule much of the Middle East today will not…make peace because they need conflict to justify their tyrannical oppression,” he writes. “Real peace will come only with their defeat…and replacement by governments that have been chosen…by their people and that will seek to resolve, not provoke, conflicts.”
Omissions of Israeli accountability stand in stark contrast to Lewis’s strengths; his in-depth and lucid analysis of the linguistic and ethnic make-up of the Middle East’s states and the internal challenges facing each. It is when he shifts to his trademark epic ideas of good versus evil that his credibility wanes. Take for example this passage from the title essay: “The war against terror and the quest for freedom are inextricably linked, and neither can succeed without the other.”
As any “Bush Doctrine” survivor knows, seductive as it maybe, such language should be met with trepidation.