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From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East
by Bernard Lewis
[from the September 13, 2004 issue]

I have witnessed what Bernard Lewis, and later Samuel Huntington, designated the "clash of civilizations" between Christendom and Islam up close in at least two wars. One was the Lebanese civil war that erupted in the spring of 1975, pitting universal values and tolerance against sectarianism and fanaticism.

The other took place in Bosnia, where the adherents of pluralism and equality battled racists and ethnic cleansers. Both wars fit the clash paradigm, but not as Lewis and Huntington fashioned it. In Lebanon and Bosnia, the partisans of equality and democracy were nominally Muslim--their opponents defiantly Christian.

The schema of civilizational collision that Professor Lewis posited in his landmark September 1990 Atlantic Monthly contribution, "The Roots of Muslim Rage," omits both Lebanon and Bosnia. Republished here alongside fifty other essays on Islam, history and politics, Lewis's best-known polemic cites conflicts that undermine his contention that enlightened Christendom is locked in a near-eternal battle with the dark forces of Islam. The reason, he writes, for the global Christian-Muslim tension is that "for [non-Muslim] misbelievers to rule over true believers is blasphemous and unnatural, since it leads to the corruption of religion and morality in society.... This may help us to understand the current troubles in such diverse places as Ethiopian Eritrea, Indian Kashmir, Chinese Sinkiang, and Yugoslav Kosovo, in all of which Muslim populations are ruled by non-Muslim governments." Alas, his conceptual framework prevents any understanding of the lands he mentions. In "Ethiopian" Eritrea, a secular liberation front headed by a Christian named Isaias Afewerki achieved independence from then-Marxist Ethiopia after thirty years of struggle. When I covered that war, the guerrillas never mentioned religion as relevant to their demand for independence. The operative fact was that Eritrea had been an Italian colony from 1889. At the end of the Second World War, the Allies awarded Italy's former colony to the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, without consulting its inhabitants. Most Eritreans--Muslim, Christian and animist--rejected absorption into Haile Selassie's Amharic empire and, later, the Marxist terror state of the Dergue, which overthrew him. By the end, Eritrean Marxists were battling fellow Marxists from Addis Ababa. As for Yugoslav Kosovo, Muslims sought independence from Belgrade not as adherents of Islam but as Albanians fearful of annihilation. Kosovo's Serb minority had--and justifiably still has--the same fear. The Albanians who persecute them today are Muslim and Christian, believer and atheist. Sinkiang's struggle for freedom bears a greater resemblance to Buddhist Tibet's than to Kashmir's. And the Kashmiris have suffered almost as much from the depredations of their Muslim neighbors in Pakistan as from their Hindu overlords in New Delhi.

Lewis's insistence that "for misbelievers to rule over true believers is blasphemous" does not explain why millions of Muslims--many of them devout--have chosen to live under nonbelievers in France, Germany, Britain and the United States. Their migration stems more from poverty, insecurity and oppression in the countries they left than from any desire to expand the realm of Muslim rule. If anything, Muslim émigrés came west to avoid life under contemporary Muslim dictators. Lewis himself points out that, in centuries past, dissident Christians and Jews sought similar tolerance under the Ottoman banner, far from the religious despots of Christian Europe. They were no more taking sides in a millennial boxing match than are the majority of today's Muslim expatriates in the West. In pre-partition India, most of the Muslim ulema--the community of jurists and scholars--opposed the establishment of Muslim Pakistan, and they knew a united India would have left all the country's Muslims under Hindu rule. Crusades and jihads are less common than battles between states in alliance with monarchs of other religions. Christian Britain fought in the Crimea alongside Muslim Turkey against Christian Russia and its Muslim levies. Syria and Egypt sent troops to help the United States expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.

Despite his misbegotten forays into contemporary political discussion--the latest being his passionate advocacy of the American invasion of Iraq--Bernard Lewis remains the Grand Old Man of Oriental Letters. Emily Yoffe, writing in Slate three years ago, spoke for her fellow mesmerized Lewisites, "When he is gone, there will be no one with his depth and breadth to pick up his mantle." Lewis, she claimed, was "one-stop shopping for baffled Westerners needing a coherent worldview to explain our current situation." Coherent or not, he was required reading for those of us taking courses in Middle East studies at American universities in the 1960s and '70s. (He moved from London's School of Oriental and African Studies to Princeton in 1974. Some teachers may still require his works, although I hope they include correctives like Edward Said, Albert Hourani, David Hirst and Tom Segev.) Another assigned writer from the old Orientalist school was Sir Hamilton (H.A.R.) Gibb, Lewis's mentor during his undergraduate years at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Lewis recalls in the introduction to From Babel to Dragomans that Gibb asked him in 1937, four years after he began to study the Middle East, "Don't you think it's time you saw the place?" On the evidence of these essays, originally published between the 1950s and last year, he should visit the place again. He might also read some of its writers, like Naguib Mahfouz or Adonis or David Grossman, who have not been dead for several centuries.

In "On Occidentalism and Orientalism" (one of two previously unpublished pieces in this jumbled collection), Lewis defends his craft as Orientalist, a term of academic opprobrium since Edward Said published Orientalism in 1978. Answering Said's charges, he writes, "We may first look at this curious word, 'orientalist.' The word was created, as are so many, by analogy, after the model of such earlier terms as Latinist, Hellenist or Hebraist. A Latinist was one who studied Latin texts, a Hellenist one who studied Greek texts and so on. I am not aware that there has been any objection on the part of the Latins or the Hellenes to being studied in this way nor to having the studies so designated." Lewis came to history as a linguist, having learned ancient Hebrew in England in preparation for his bar mitzvah before graduating to the modern Hebrew then taking root in Palestine's Zionist colonies. Next came Aramaic, Arabic, Turkish, Greek and Latin. As philologist, he does not distinguish between dead and living languages--between biblical and contemporary Hebrew, or between Homeric Greek and modern Greek. If the Latins and Hellenes do not object to his investigations, and to the generalizations he bases on them, the reason is that they no longer exist. Arabs, Turks and Israelis do. Using the pathologist's scalpel to diagnose the living, he is surprised when the patient screams.

Lewis's contribution to general knowledge comes from his pointillist and endearing discoveries in the study of Islamic and Ottoman history--like the relative unimportance Muslim chroniclers attached to their defeat by the French at Tours in AD 732, called by Christians a "turning point in the struggle between Christendom and Islam," and the reminiscences of an Iraqi priest on a tour of Spanish America in the seventeenth century. A scholar has to dig to find these gems, and Lewis is fortunate to read them in the languages of their authors. The civilian ideologues in the Pentagon who sit at his feet, however, are less interested in his thoughts on Fatimids and Safavids than in the name he gave to their view of the world. For the new guardians of Manifest Destiny, his "clash of civilizations" has a twofold appeal. First, it is simple, like Fukuyama's "end of history," an advertising slogan that obscures the product it's selling. Second, it provides the powerful with academic legitimacy for wars they would pursue anyway. By setting contemporary conflicts, like those between the United States and Middle Eastern actors, within an age-old contest rooted in primordial hatred, it prescribes as much as it describes. The public is encouraged to view war as inevitable, if not desirable. If Lewis had challenged the assumptions on which Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz waged war, they would have invited some other court academic to articulate their prejudices. There are countless takers in academe willing to assume that role. When Ahmad Chalabi passed on to the Washington junta Iraqi defectors with Arabian Nights tales of Saddam Hussein's illegal weapons, their ears were open. When Chalabi later accused Washington's hawks of misgoverning Iraq, they raided his house and threatened him with arrest. It is a fair bet that Lewis would be dropped from the White House guest list if he counseled nonintervention in Middle East affairs, although that is exactly what he was recommending in 1957, when he stumbled across the clash-of-civilizations talisman.

It was in 1957 that Lewis first declared, to a Middle East conference at Johns Hopkins University, "We shall be better able to understand this situation if we view the present discontents of the Middle East not as a conflict between states or nations, but as a clash between civilizations." Then, his view did not imply open warfare. "What action should the Western states take in the present Middle East situation?" he asked. "My own answer would be: as little as possible." Even then, there were more obvious clashes in the Middle East, as elsewhere, than any between civilizations. The world from which imperial Europe was gradually and reluctantly withdrawing pitted rich against poor, modernizers against traditionalists, socialists against royalists, imperialists against anticolonialists, and Western oil companies against hungry indigènes. In 1957 the United States, in particular, was more popular in the Arab world than it is today. It had just forced the British, French and Israelis to withdraw from Egypt. It had yet to invade any Arab state. Although it had overthrown a popular Iranian prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, for the crime of nationalizing his country's oil resources, it had yet to arouse the hostility of Muslim zealots. In fact, the United States was fundamentalist Islam's greatest benefactor. It used the mosque to offset the secularizing appeal of the "godless" Soviet Union and local socialists. Lewis's clash was undetectable to Washington's foreign policy elite in 1957, except as it applied to monolithic Communism. The Christendom-Islam split found an audience among American cold warriors only when they lost their Soviet nemesis and Lewis resuscitated the notion in The Atlantic Monthly in 1990. What better opiate than an enemy in the form of another civilization that had always resisted the West? Lewis wrote, repeating his theme of thirty-three years before, "This is no less than a clash of civilizations--the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both." This was no new enemy, it was an adversary culled from antiquity.

Still, Lewis remained cautious about launching a violent crusade: "It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival." By December 2001, in the aftermath of the apocalyptic September 11 atrocities, he was urging war: "A military action carefully designed so as neither to suffer casualties nor to inflict them on the enemy may be seen as a noble example of civilized compassion. It does not, however, carry much conviction among regimes where such qualms are not shared or even understood. They would attribute such restraint to reasons other than compassion, and draw the appropriate inference...of fear and irresolution." Within a year, in the Wall Street Journal, Lewis was calling for an invasion to depose Saddam Hussein: "The crucial question here is not how or by whom Saddam is removed, but what comes in his place." What came in his place were chaos, a costly American occupation and insecurity on a scale the Iraqis had never before experienced. Plus more than 10,000 dead and counting.

Muslim anger with the West is, on Lewis's reading, somehow unique in the modern world. "Globalization," he wrote in a November 2001 New Yorker piece that is not included here, "has become a major theme in the Arab media, and it is almost always raised in connection with American economic penetration." In fact, globalization is a "major theme" everywhere, "raised in connection with American economic penetration" in Paris as often as in Cairo, in Caracas as much as in Kuala Lumpur. There is nothing uniquely Muslim about it. The same New Yorker essay accuses Muslims of selective opposition to "imperialist aggression" and of a "muted response" to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Yet tens of thousands of Muslims joined the jihad against Soviet occupation, compared with the small number of foreign Muslims who fought against, say, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. "Ironically," Lewis continues, "it was the United States, in the end, that was left to orchestrate an Islamic response to Soviet imperialism in Afghanistan." What is ironic about the capitalist superpower organizing a response to an invasion by its Communist rival? After all, America had the experience of using the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood against the secular Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, and backing the extreme Wahhabi Saudi royal family against democratic reformers in the oil kingdom.

Lewis's evident sympathy for Israel renders him impervious to any Arab interpretation of events. He condemns those in the West who occasionally fall for Arab propaganda and complains of double standards. His prime example of both is the comparative reaction, as he sees it, to two massacres in 1982--the Syrian Army's assault on the city of Hama and the killings in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila by Israeli-backed Christian Phalangists. He writes:

The troubles in Hama began with an uprising headed by the radical group the Muslim Brothers in 1982. The government responded swiftly. Troops were sent, supported by armor, artillery, and aircraft, and within a very short time they had reduced a large part of the city to rubble. The number killed was estimated, by Amnesty International, at somewhere between ten thousand and twenty-five thousand. The action...did not prevent the United States from subsequently courting [Syrian President Hafez al-] Assad.

He goes on:

The massacre of seven hundred to eight hundred Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila that same year was carried out by Lebanese militiamen, led by a Lebanese commander who subsequently became a minister in the Syrian-sponsored Lebanese government, and it was seen as a reprisal for the assassination of the Lebanese President[-elect] Bashir Gemayel. Ariel Sharon, who at the time commanded the Israeli forces in Lebanon, was reprimanded by an Israeli commission of inquiry for not having foreseen and prevented the massacre, and was forced to resign from his position as Minister of Defense.

Lewis proceeds to decry the West for condemning Sharon. "It is understandable," he writes, "that the Palestinians and other Arabs should lay sole blame for the massacre on Sharon. What is puzzling is that Europeans and Americans should do the same. Some even wanted to try Sharon for crimes against humanity." What are the real differences between the two massacres? In Hama, the Muslim Brothers launched a revolt that, had it succeeded, would have led to the overthrow of the regime and the establishment of a Sunni Muslim fundamentalist republic in Damascus. The Brothers murdered Baath Party and municipal officials, and they called for pogroms against the Alawite minority, whose military elite governs the country. The army responded to the Islamic resistance much as the American armed forces did in Falluja, albeit with greater ferocity. The Hama assault produced thousands of civilian casualties, many of which could have been avoided.

Fewer people died in Sabra and Shatila, as Lewis observes, but the entire population was unarmed and undefended following the evacuation of PLO forces from Lebanon. Sharon had given his word to Philip Habib, President Reagan's envoy, that he would not invade West Beirut or attack the refugee camps. He did both. His forces delivered the Christian militias, who had a history of massacring unarmed Palestinians, to the gates of the camps and protected them while they butchered men, women and children. If the United States expressed anger at Sharon, it was because he destroyed American credibility in the Middle East. His invasion of West Beirut and the massacres he oversaw forced the United States to return the Marines, who had supervised the departure of the PLO's fighters, to Beirut to protect the camps. There, they succumbed to the biggest suicide bombing of the time. Some Americans may have courted Assad after Hama, but the US Treasury subsidized Israel's occupation of Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights despite Sabra and Shatila. Americans had reason to demand legal behavior from a state on their payroll. Moreover, Israel's Kahan Commission did not reprimand Sharon "for not having foreseen and prevented the massacre." It held him "indirectly responsible" for everything that happened. He may have resigned as defense minister, but he remained in the Cabinet. He is now prime minister, and George Bush refers to him as "a man of peace." There are double standards, but not those Lewis claims to detect.

While neglecting to explain in his introduction why the order of essays jumps from 2003 to 1978 to 1972 and back to 1993, Lewis litters this book with errors and contradictions. The contradictions are perhaps inevitable in diverse works spanning fifty years, but they make for difficult reading. Take a few examples. In a 1972 essay, "An Interpretation of Fatimid History," Lewis writes that the Fatimid caliphate in Cairo sent missionaries to the eastern Islamic world to win converts to Shiite Islam. He counts the creation of the office of the "Chief Missionary" in Cairo as a breakthrough, establishing "something previously unknown to Islam--an institutional church." This interesting insight is then contradicted elsewhere in the volume in an undated and "previously unpublished paper" titled "From Pilgrims to Tourists": "Muslims did not engage in organized missionary activity." Were there missionaries or not? There certainly are now, making Islam the fastest-expanding religion in the world.

Another 1972 essays says, "In a very real sense modern Hebrew is a reincarnation of Yiddish--the same soul in a new lexical body." This assertion, while not necessarily of political import, is at variance with the history of modern Hebrew. Those who performed the miracle of reviving a language nearly three millennia dead did so with the explicit objective of displacing Yiddish and all it represented in Jewish consciousness--the culture of exile, the authenticity of the Diaspora experience and the character of the "Yid," so detested by early Zionists like Zeev Jabotinsky. Hebrew contributed to the creation of a new man free of the ghetto in Theodor Herzl's "old-new" land. David Gruen of Plonsk was one of many who, in an act of secular baptism, abandoned his Yiddish name for the prouder Hebrew Ben-Gurion. There is no mention, let alone comparison, of the Yiddish literature of writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer with the modern Hebrew works of A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Kenan or with Arab Hebrew writers like Salman Natour, Emil Habibi and Sayed Kashua. Yet if modern Hebrew is the reincarnation of Yiddish, he must show a relationship rather than what the Hebrew pioneers claim to have achieved, a rupture. Lewis could be making an original argument, but it is no more than a statement that is at best contentious and at worst plain wrong.

Similarly, he says of music in the Middle East that only the cities of Turkey and Israel are on the "international concert circuit." He writes, "Elsewhere in the Middle East, those who compose, perform or even listen to Western music are still relatively few." Although hardly a matter of political significance, this is nonetheless false and, like his statement on modern Hebrew, asserted without evidence. My own memories of packed houses for the Cairo Opera, symphonies in Beirut and at the Baalbek Festival and auditions for the Damascus Conservatory lead me to the opposite conclusion. Classical music lovers are no fewer in the Middle East than they are in America's Midwest: a minority, but of a respectable size. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, established by Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim, includes talented young classical musicians from the Arab world and Israel. Lewis's East, even when it comes to music, is not the East as it is but as he imagines it should be--a place where terror is endemic and irrational--if it is to remain in polar, violent opposition to his West.

Writing of the Medieval Assassins in "Religion and Murder in the Middle East," Lewis quotes a thirteenth-century Persian poet's words: "By one single warrior on foot a king may be stricken with terror, though he own more than a hundred thousand horsemen." From that, he concludes, "that expresses, vividly and simply, the self-perception of the political assassin, or, as we might say nowadays, of the terrorist." He equates the Assassins with modern Islamic terrorists and locates them in the same countries, Syria and Iran. (Never mind that the Syrian and Iranian governments both detest Osama bin Laden, and that Al Qaeda has long based its operations in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other countries where the Assassins never worked.) There is a significant difference between the political assassin, who terrorizes leaders, and the terrorist, who frightens the general population. Sir Steven Runciman, in his History of the Crusades, noted that the Assassins killed far fewer people than did the Crusaders or the Muslim princes they battled. They raided no towns, sacked no villages and planted no bombs in public places. Runciman regarded them as more humane than the political leaders who murdered tens of thousands to achieve their ends. Assassination by the Ismaili brethren of Syria and Iran distinguished itself from terror in that it was focused, deliberate and harmless to innocent civilians. (Israel's "targeted assassinations," like those by the United States in Iraq, often cause more innocent deaths than those of the putative "targets.") Crusader and Muslim kings were terrified of them, but the general populations were not. Contemporary suicide bombers, in contrast, frighten everyone.

The book's title, From Babel to Dragomans, derives from one of the more interesting essays in this collection, a 1998 lecture on language, interpreters and translators in the Middle East from biblical times. Out of linguistic confusion emerged those who interpret one people, its culture and its worldview to another. The dragoman, translator, begins in Genesis as the Hebrew melitz; "more often it means something like intercessor or advocate or even ambassador." Melitz was translated into Aramaic, the lingua franca of Greater Syria by the time of Christ, as meturgeman. In Arabic, this was turjuman and the Turkish dragoman. The Ottoman dragoman became a broker and fixer for Europeans traveling or trading in the Ottoman Empire. Many grew rich. The Ottomans appointed Jews and later Christians, whose children studied abroad and learned European languages, to perform this delicate task until the Turks could do it themselves. Lewis is at his best here, making apposite observations about the development of this necessary bridge among cultures. He may see himself as a kind of dragoman--hence his choice of title. But, as nineteenth-century Western travelers like Alexander Kinglake in Eothen and Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad noted, the dragoman usually forswore an accurate translation in favor of what he believed his employers wanted to hear.

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