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Articles by Bernard Lewis from the archives of The Atlantic:

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What Went Wrong? (January 2002)
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Islam and Liberal Democracy (February 1993)
Is Islam by its very nature antithetical to the development of democratic institutions? A distinguished historian contemplates this difficult question, one whose answer is fraught with consequence for several troubled regions of the world.

The Roots of Muslim Rage (September 1990)
Why so many Muslims deeply resent the West, and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified.

Atlantic Unbound | April 29, 2004
Islam's Interpreter

Bernard Lewis talks about his seventy years spent studying the Middle East—and his thoughts on the region's future


book cover

From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press
352 pages, $28.

n the foreword to an Arabic edition of one of Bernard Lewis's recent books, published by the Muslim Brotherhood, the translator included a few words of ambiguous praise for the author. Lewis was, he wrote, "one of two things: a candid friend or an honorable enemy," but certainly not one to dodge the truth.

In the West, critics' views on the eighty-seven-year-old known as "the dean of Middle Eastern scholars" are more clear-cut. Conservatives tend to hail him as a priceless gem—the only scholar both erudite and honest enough to tell us the inflammatory truth about the condition of modern Islam. Leftists, particularly among his peers in academe, tend to regard him as a servant of imperial power, prone to making demeaning generalizations about Middle Eastern society, and arrogant enough to consider himself an objective scholar. The rift has deepened as Lewis's influence on Paul Wolfowitz, the chief architect of current White House policy in the Middle East, has become public knowledge.

For those who only know Lewis from his post-9-11 celebrity, From Babel to Dragomans, a newly published collection of Lewis' essays from the 1950s to the present, is a handy guide to his intellectual roots. Lewis's academic career spans seven decades—he enrolled in the University of London's School of Oriental Studies in 1933. A genuine scholar of Orientalism, unabashed by the recent denigration of the field by post-modernists, he believes in rigorous linguistic training, prodigious reading of primary sources, and a no-stone-unturned approach to scholarship. Before he became a national celebrity for telling us "What Went Wrong," Lewis delved as enthusiastically into such topics as the relative merits of donkeys and camels for medieval pilgrims, derivations of the Persian word for eggplant, and property law in the tenth-century Muslim provinces.

There is no doubt that Lewis's harsh critique of modern Islam stems from a deep affection for the civilization that it once was. As a student visiting Turkey in 1938, by a stroke of luck he became the first Westerner permitted to enter the Imperial Ottoman Archives. His recollection of the experience says much about his sentiments toward his field: "Feeling like a child turned loose in a toy shop, or like an intruder in Ali Baba's cave, I hardly knew where to turn first."

Lewis's two trademark preoccupations, historiography and the nuances of language, permeate his writings. The book includes a detailed essay on the evolution of propaganda in Islam, and several discussions of the meaning and uses of "history" in Muslim tradition. In an essay on Islamic revolution, he points out the absurdity of referring to Islamists as "fundamentalists." "Fundamentalist" is an American expression denoting belief in the literal divine origin of scripture–something that all Muslims, militant or otherwise, believe about the Koran. Lewis is not just being picky; language is a crucial issue in Islam. Analyzing Osama bin Laden's appeal, Lewis explains: "The first and most obvious reason for his popularity is his eloquence, a skill much admired and appreciated in the Arab world since ancient times."

Representatives of the West, Lewis says, need to pay more attention to the way they communicate with the Middle East, where their every word and signal are scrutinized for signs of weakness or uncertainty. If one had to sum up in one phrase his message to U.S. policymakers, it would be the title of his September 16, 2001, op-ed in The Washington Post: "We Must Be Clear." In trying to understand the intentions and capacities of the United States, Lewis writes, Middle Easterners have two guides: "The first is history... In this the record is not encouraging. The second is their current dealings with U.S. statesmen, soldiers, and diplomats, and the interpretations they put on what is said to them and what is asked of them." With clarity, firmness, and a show of resolve, there is "only a possibility" that the U.S. will win local support, Lewis concludes. "Without them there is a certainty of failure."

Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and the author of more than two dozen books, which have been translated into more than twenty languages. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

We spoke by telephone on April 15.

—Elizabeth Wasserman

Author photo
Photo credit

Bernard Lewis

Your title chapter, "From Babel to Dragomans," examines the history of dragomans—or translators—who mediated between the rulers of Islam and the West, and the near impossibility of achieving anything resembling direct, honest communication between the two civilizations. It's almost comical to read about some of the mishaps that took place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but I wonder, how much clearer is the dialogue between the West and the Middle East today?

In the late sixteenth century, not a single person in England knew any Turkish, and certainly not a single person in Turkey knew any English. They had to proceed by two-stage translation. The intermediate language was Italian, which was then the most important European language for international communication. So texts were prepared in Turkish, translated into Italian by an interpreter employed by the Turkish government, translated into English by a translator employed by the English government, and then the reply would go back by the same route. Seeing the three sets of documents side by side is quite a fascinating experience. It alerted me to some of the problems of diplomacy by translation and interpretation. What was quite clear is that there was a pattern of systematic and deliberate mistranslation. I looked into this problem in later periods and right into modern times, and it's still there.

There's been a lot of discussion lately about using "soft power," as we did in the Cold War, particularly through the mass media—channels like Radio Sawa and the Middle-Eastern Television Network. Are we getting closer to winning the propaganda battle?

We have a better opportunity of doing that now than ever before, thanks to the miracles of modern communication. But I don't think we're using that opportunity. There is some improvement, but generally speaking, I see a failure of communication. Simple translation isn't good enough. Even accurate translation may be misleading, because in different cultures we use the same word with different meanings. There is a great danger of misunderstanding. This became clear during World War II, when there was massive propaganda directed towards the Middle East—propaganda from the Axis, from the Americans and the British, and from the Soviets. All of them had their Arabic broadcast programs, and even at the time, it was obvious that there were serious discrepancies between what was said and what was heard and understood. I don't think the problem has improved—if anything it's gotten worse.

Do you have a prescription?

I think the first thing is better linguistic training. For example, when I listen to the broadcasts from the media people who are in Iraq at the present time, they almost always mispronounce the names of Iraqi towns. One town which has been very much in the news is spelled in Latin letters N-a-j-a-f, and I hear one announcer or newsreader after another, even those who are calling from over there, say Na-jaf' (emphasis on the second syllable). Well it isn't Na-jaf', it's Na'jaf (emphasis on the first syllable). Anyone who's ever heard an Iraqi pronounce the name will know that. The fact that this sort of name is systematically mispronounced is really alarming. One wonders who they've been talking to.

Do subtle errors like this shame us in the eyes of people there?

I would say so. It also makes people like me wonder how much we can rely on what we are being told when they don't even know how to pronounce the name of the place.

In a 1957 lecture about tensions in the Middle East you said that Westernization, in spite of its benefits, was the chief cause "of the political and social formlessness, instability and irresponsibility that bedevils public life of the Middle East." I wonder, as you were writing nearly a half century ago, which particular aspects of Westernization you were referring to?

First of all, let me say what I mean by Westernization. This process was not mainly imposed by Western imperial rulers, who tend to be very cautious and conservative, tampering as little as possible with the existing institutions. It was done by reformers in the independent Middle Eastern countries. Enthusiastic reformers who recognized the success and power of the Western world and wanted to get the same for their own people—a very natural and very laudable ambition. But often with the very best of intentions, they achieved appalling results.

What I had in mind in particular was two things, both tending in the same direction. In the old order, the traditional Islamic Middle Eastern society was certainly authoritarian, but it was not despotic or dictatorial. It was a limited autocracy in which the power of the ruler, the Sultan or the Shah or the Pasha, whoever he might be, was limited both in theory and in practice. It was limited in theory by the Holy Law—the Divine Law to which the ruler was subject no less than the meanest of his slaves. It was also limited in practice by the existence of strong entrenched interests in society. You had the merchants of the bazaar, powerful guilds. You had the country gentry. You have the bureaucratic establishment, the military establishment, and the religious establishment. Each of these groups produced their own leaders—leaders who were not appointed by the State, who were not paid by the State, and who were not answerable to the State. These, therefore, formed a very important constraint on the autocracy of government.

Then came the process of modernization or Westernization, which for practical purposes are the same thing. It enormously increased the power of the central government by placing at its disposal the whole modern apparatus of surveillance and control: first the telegraph, later the telephone; the possibility of moving troops quickly, first by train then by truck or by plane. So the central government was able to assert itself and enforce its will even in remote provinces in a way that was inconceivable in earlier times. The effect of this was to weaken or even eliminate those intermediate powers that limited the autocracy of government.

When people look at the kind of regime that was operated by Saddam Hussein and say, "Well, that's how they are, that's their way of doing things," it is simply not true. I mean, that kind of dictatorship has no roots in either the Arab or the Islamic past. It, unfortunately, is the consequence of Westernization or modernization in the Middle East.

What about the ideological aspect of Westernization? Why is it that well-to-do Middle Easterners who have studied or traveled extensively in the West in the past century seem by and large to return with extremist political ideas rather than constructive ones?

I wouldn't say rather than, I would say as well as. As you know, they started coming at the beginning of the nineteenth century, to study at Western universities and other educational establishments. Naturally, as students do, they learned more from their fellow students than from their professors, and they picked up the ideas that were current at the time—liberalism, nationalism, and the like. These had a very mixed impact. Some of them were very beneficial. But some of them turned out to be harmful.

Some Western observers look at the Islamic governments and organizations of today and conclude that humanism, modernization, tolerance, reform—the things that made up our Enlightenment—are anathema to Islam. Are these observers right?

They are not anathema to Islam—on the contrary, Islam has its own humanistic traditions— but they are certainly anathema to those whom we have gotten into the habit of calling the Islamists. I don't like the term; I think it's misleading. I prefer to use "Islamic fundamentalists," though that's also a loose analogy.

What about democracy? How compatible is it with Islamic law and custom?

Well, there are certain elements in Islamic law and tradition which I think are conducive to democracy. The idea that government is contractual and consensual, for one thing. According to the Islamic Treatise on Holy Law, the ruler comes to power by an agreement between the ruler and his subjects. This is bilateral. Both sides have obligations. It is also limited. The ruler rules under the Holy Law, which he cannot change and which he must obey. So these two elements, I think, of consent and contract, also have the element of limitation, and can be very conducive to the development of democratic institutions. There is also a deeply rooted rejection in traditional Islamic writing of despotism or dictatorship, of the capricious rule of the ruler without due regard to the law and to the opinion of the various groups in society.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Islam" (December 12, 2001)
Is democracy compatible with Islam? Atlantic contributors from the early to the late twentieth century take up the question.

What do you make of the thesis that Islam is another version of the anti-liberal, anti-modern dogmas of the twentieth century? Some pundits have been using the term "Islamo-fascism" to describe the ideology of bin Laden and his ilk. Do you think that the militant form of Islam stems more from recent utopian movements than from Islamic tradition?

No, I don't. There is an Islamic saying, "The first to reason by analogy was the devil." Certainly there is a Fascist element in the Islamic world, but it's not in the religious fundamentalists. It's rather in people like Saddam Hussein and his regime and the Syrian regime. These were directly based on the Fascist regimes. We can date it with precision: in 1940, the French government capitulated and a collaborationist regime was established in Vichy. The rulers of the French colonial empire had to decide whether they would stay with Vichy, or rally to De Gaulle. And they made various decisions. Syria and Lebanon were at that time under French mandate, and these French officials stayed with Vichy, so Syria and Lebanon became a center of Axis propaganda in the Middle East. That was when real Fascist ideas began to penetrate. There were many translations and adaptations of Nazi material into Arabic. The Ba'ath party, which dates from a little after that period, came in as a sort of Middle Eastern clone of the Nazi party and, a little later, the Communist party.

But that has nothing to do with Islam. The Islamists' approach is quite different from that and has its roots in the history of Islam. Though, of course, it is also influenced by outside ideas. I would not call it Fascist. I would say it is certainly authoritarian and shares the hostilities of the Fascists rather than their doctrines.

You make the point in your book that outsiders attempting to study the Middle East, or any foreign culture for that matter, are handicapped by a tendency to think in terms of the intellectual, social, and political categories of our own society. Can you give some examples of how this has led us astray?

In a number of different ways, but particularly in the way we evaluate their actions and determine responses to them. This problem is not peculiar to the West. We see it happening in the Islamic world, too. For example, they see free debate and open criticism in America today, and since no such thing is possible in their society, they see this as weakness and disunity.

You mention that the reason that the Arab-Israeli conflict appears to be the central preoccupation in the Arab world is that it's the only local political grievance that people can discuss freely in the open forum.

It is the licensed grievance. In countries where people are becoming increasingly angry and frustrated at all the difficulties under which they live—the poverty, unemployment, oppression—having a grievance which they can express freely is an enormous psychological advantage.

Do you think that if freedom of speech were introduced in the region the popular preoccupation with Israel would fade?

It would become less exclusive and less important. Obviously, like everyone else in the world, these people are most concerned with their own immediate problems. For the Palestinians, of course, the main problem is the Arab-Israel thing, but people in other countries would, I think, be more concerned with their problems at home if they were allowed to discuss them, which they are not.

You attribute some real importance to the Israeli problem in your article on the Pan-Arab movement. You write that popular support for a unified Arabia was weakened considerably by the conflict with Israel. Can you explain how?

The conflict with Israel produced a great sense of failure in the Arab world. Remember that in 1948 there was no Israel, and the Jewish population of Palestine was a little more than half a million. The United Nations in '47 adopted a resolution for the partition of the former British mandate in Palestine into three: A Jewish state, an Arab state, and an international zone in Jerusalem. A couple of weeks later the Arab League met, formally denounced this resolution, and resolved to prevent it by any means including force of arms. The Arabs were confident it would be a simple matter; we know that from the literature of the time. After all, five Arab states with armies were attacking a community of just over half a million establishing a new state in the debris of the British mandate.They thought it would be a walkover. It turned out that it was quite the reverse. And that was a cause of terrible humiliation. They were only half successful. They prevented the establishment of the Arab state but not the establishment of the Jewish state, and this, of course, rankled terribly and continues to do so.

And this discredited the idea of a unified Arab state?

No, it didn't discredit the idea, but it did show that on this one occasion, when the Arab league reached a decision and a number of Arab states tried to enforce it, the result was a total failure.

Do you think that there is any prospect for unification in the future?

I think it grows less and less likely, because many of these states were quite artificial when they were created. But they are now quite old, relatively speaking, and each of them has developed a strong group of interests, a sort of intersecting network of careers and interests. I mean, if you have twenty Arab states, you will have twenty embassies in Washington. If you have only one state, you will have only one embassy. Think of all those diplomats out of a job.

The bureaucratic imperative.

Yes, the bureaucratic and all the other interests. The result is that although many efforts have been made to bring Arab states together, they've all failed. There was the union between Egypt and Syria, which was proclaimed amid rejoicing as the first step toward Pan-Arabism. It fell apart. There was the union between Egypt and the Sudan; it fell apart. There was the attempt to create a united Maghreb: Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. All three of these states had even written in their constitutions that they were part of the greater Arab Maghreb. They all fell apart. Each time two or more Arab states tried to unify, they fell apart. So it seems to me that the prospects for a united Arab state are about as good as the prospect for a united Latin America.

What about the opposite—further partition into ethnic or religious subdivisions? What about, for example, the talk of dividing Iraq in three?

No, I don't think that would be a good idea. I don't think one should go in the opposite direction. Iraq is now more than half a century old, and I think there is a sufficient sense of common identity and interest. I don't think fragmentation is a good idea.

In general?

In general. We saw the dangers of that in Lebanon.

You've offered your own unorthodox prescription for Iraq. In an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal in October of last year, you suggested that Iraq implement a monarchy—a Hashemite monarchy based on the constitution of 1925—as a transitional government. How did you come up with that idea?

It seemed to me that one of the key problems in creating a new Iraq is how to have a regime that would be recognized as legitimate by the people and that would provide a valid system of succession in the supreme office. The monarchy in Iraq worked better than in most other places. Many Iraqis look back to it now as sort of a golden age. And I thought that a possibility would be to restore the Hashemite monarchy—that is, the old dynasty with its constitution, which was fairly liberal and which provided procedures for amendment. It seemed to me that that would be a way of getting some kind of legitimacy and some procedure for succession other than the normal ones—assassination, coup d'état, insurrection, civil war, murder, or the ruler nominates his son to succeed him. This last is what happened in Syria and this is what Saddam was obviously planning to do in Iraq. It seemed to me that the old monarchy was a better arrangement than that, given that it would be a monarchy in the British or Scandinavian style: a very limited, more or less figurehead monarchy, allowing the development of genuinely democratic institutions. But obviously they didn't want to go that way.

What basis exists in that region for a civil society organized on secular principles? What kinds of institutions exist apart from Islam?

The word secular is a Western term. It has only recently been imported into the Middle East. The idea of Church and State as two distinct institutions which can be either joined or separated is a Western and more specifically a Christian idea. In the past, if you talked to Muslims about separation of Church and State the usual answer you'd get was, "Oh, this is a Christian remedy for a Christian disease"—and therefore of no relevance to them. Now I think that they are beginning to realize that perhaps they have contracted the Christian disease and that it might be a good idea to try the Christian remedy.

What is the Christian disease?

The mixing of Church and State. That is, when the Church uses the State to enforce its doctrine, and the State interferes in the affairs of the Church. This is what brought on the great wars of religion in Europe. The idea of separation of Church and State was intended to protect both: to protect religion from State interference and to protect the State from religious interference.

So the old perception was that Islam was immune to that problem because Church and State, so to speak, are organically combined?

Exactly. That's no longer true. For example, what they have now in Iran, for the first time, is a theocracy—a country which is actually run by the professional men of religion. This is totally unknown in the Islamic past. They now have the functional equivalent of a Pope, Cardinals, and Bishops, and above all, an inquisition that punishes heretics. One hopes that they may in due course have a reformation.

You write that Islam assigns a "central religious importance" to "history and accuracy"—to a greater degree than we do in the West. What is the connection between religion and historical accuracy?

This has been a characteristic of Islamic civilization from the very beginning. For them, history has a religious importance because, according to Muslim teaching, after the revelation of the Koran, divine guidance passed to the prophet and to his successors and heirs. History is a way of knowing the working out of God's plan for humanity. Therefore, it's important to preserve the memory of the past and it's important that that memory be accurate. In the great age of Islamic civilization, in the period that in Europe we call the Middle Ages, the amount of historical literature is enormous, not in quantity alone, but also in quality and sophistication. It's vastly better than anything we find in the European world since Ancient Greece and Rome.

What has become of history and accuracy in the modern Middle East?

In more modern times, concern for accuracy has unfortunately given way to a desire to be right. There are two aspects to this. One is what you might call the psychological aspect—the difficulty of confronting and describing unpleasant facts. The other is censorship—the fact that most countries in the Muslim world, not all, but most—are under authoritarian regimes of one sort or another, where there are strict limits on what you are able to say in print.

But the concern for history is very much still there. I'll give you an example. In 1980 to 1988, a war was fought between two Middle Eastern Muslim states, Iraq and Iran. Both carried on intensive war propaganda using all the modern devices at their disposal. This propaganda made frequent allusions to history. And when I say allusions, I mean just that. I don't mean that they told stories from history; I mean a quick passing reference to a name, a date, a place, in the sure knowledge that it would be picked up and understood by the target audiences. They talked particularly of events of the seventh century, when the Arabs conquered Iran and when there was a religious struggle between Muslims and non-Muslims. This is a society where even simple, ordinary people will pick up these allusions.

In 1957, discussing what role the U.S. ought to play in Middle Eastern affairs, you recommended a policy of "masterly inactivity." You wrote: "We of the West can also do something to help on non-political levels but should beware of proposing solutions that, however good, are discredited by the very fact of our having suggested them." You seem to have changed your mind since then.

I don't think masterly inactivity is desirable at the present moment. With the way things have developed since, we cannot but involve ourselves. But I think our policy should still be, as far as possible, to let them do it their way. For example, I don't see our idea of imposing a constitution on Iraq as a good one at all. Let them work it out and let them take their time over it. Democracies cannot be created overnight.

Are you optimistic about the state of things there?

I'm cautiously optimistic about what's happening in Iraq. What bothers me is what's happening here in the United States.

Do you mean the controversy over the occupation? The pressure to pull out?

Yes, because the message that this is sending to people in that region is that the Americans are frightened, they want to get out. They'll abandon us the same as they did in '91. And you know what happened in '91.

What do you think? Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

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Elizabeth Wasserman is a writer based in Montreal.

Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.