Tuesday, November 30, 2004

American conservatives like to grouse about the pernicious effects of liberal academe, and its lack of support for Dubya's war in particular. For all that, one of the few academics with real influence on the shape of our government's Iraq policy is Bernard Lewis, an unabashed supporter. As Michael Hirsh notes here, Lewis's picture of Islam was formed in his youth, when he visited Turkey, and decided that he really liked the policies of Kemal Ataturk and his successors, which transformed Turkey from an explicitly Muslim state to a militantly secular one -- not just nonreligious, but overtly anti-religious, in ways (like outright bans of religious clothing and iconography) that would be difficult to imagine here in the States. In part that's because he visited Turkey just when it was having its first real elections -- it looked like secular democracy had triumphed. And the subsequent litany of military coups by the Kemalist military, which refused for decades to acknowledge the supremacy of any civilian government, failed to take the bloom off Lewis's rose.

Lewis sees the current situation in the Arab world as being rather similar to Turkey in the early 20th century -- needing a secularizing kick to get it out of what he sees as a failed and decadent Muslim culture. In a sense, he thinks we're still fighting the Crusades:

Lewis's basic premise, put forward in a series of articles, talks, and bestselling books, is that the West --- what used to be known as Christendom -- is now in the last stages of a centuries-old struggle for dominance and prestige with Islamic civilization. ... Osama bin Laden, Lewis thought, must be viewed in this millennial construct as the last gasp of a losing cause.... And if we Americans, who trace our civilizational lineage back to the Crusaders, flagged now, we would only invite future attacks. Bin Laden was, in this view, less an aberrant extremist than a mainstream expression of Muslim frustration, welling up from the anti-Western nature of Islam. "I have no doubt that September 11 was the opening salvo of the final battle," Lewis told me in an interview last spring. Hence the only real answer to 9/11 was a decisive show of American strength in the Arab world; the only way forward, a Kemalist conquest of hearts and minds. And the most obvious place to seize the offensive and end the age-old struggle was in the heart of the Arab world, in Iraq.

Hirsh mentions a lot of problems with this thesis. For one thing, Arabs are reacting less to battles of the past than to 20th-century European colonialism on their soil. They've already been conquered by Western arms. If conquest were the cure, we'd no longer have a problem. Also, in painting Islam itself as "the problem", Lewis simply ignores the still-living more moderate Muslim traditions of scholarship and science which were crucial to Europe's own rennaissance centuries ago, and which the radicals we're fighting are themselves trying to suppress. And on top of that, Kemal was a Turk, who was clearly following his own agenda -- not an agent of a foreign power, seeking to impose an externally conceived vision on the country. That kind of thing matters.

But there's another irony that Hirsh doesn't discuss. Let's think for a minute about what Ataturk, and the Young Turk movement in which he got his start, were really like. They weren't democrats -- their governments were highly autocratic, and the tradition they and Ataturk spawned was one of frequent military coups whenever a democratically elected government was stepping out of their line. They were rabidly nationalist, and bloody-minded about it. The young Turks were responsible for the Armenian genocide, and the current problems with the Kurds in Turkey (are they allowed to speak their own language yet?) are a continuation of Ataturk's policies. And they were, of course, explicitly, rabidly secular, even anti-religious.

Now, if an indigenous movement like that started within the Arab world, what ever would it look like? It would look quite a bit like -- it would have to look quite a bit like -- the Baath party, a movement which is secular (though not quite as militant about it as the Kemalists), nationalistic, and thoroughly autocratic. And one of the most prominent Baath leaders? The guy we just deposed, Saddam Hussein -- bloody-minded nationalism, oppression of minority ethnic groups, and all.

Now, I happen to think our project of deposing Saddam was ill-conceived. But he was still a bad guy, and it's a different thing entirely to say that the Middle East, or anyone else, needs more of him. If guys like this are our solution to the problem, maybe it's time to go back to the drawing board.


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