The 94-year-old Princeton professor is arguably the West's pre-eminent scholar on Arab culture and politics.
His book, "What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East," became an instant bestseller after the attacks of 9/11.
Lewis sat down with The Wall Street Journal recently and offered his take on the rapidly unfolding events in the Middle East.
His views are surprising positive, but he does offer an alarm about the growing Islamization of Turkey and a nuclear-armed Iran.
Here are some of Lewis' nuggets from this past weekend's Journal:
- Authoritarian regimes throughout the region will be swept away, but what will come after? "I think that the tyrannies are doomed," Lewis argues. He is apparently "delighted" by the developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Now the real issue for him is "what will come instead."
- Western-style democracy may not be the answer. "We have a much better chance of establishing—I hesitate to use the word democracy—but some sort of open, tolerant society, if it's done within their systems, according to their traditions. Why should we expect them to adopt a Western system? And why should we expect it to work?" Lewis says that Islam has a long tradition of diffuse and limited government, the basis for a modern pluralistic society. "The whole Islamic tradition is very clearly against autocratic and irresponsible rule. There is a very strong tradition—both historical and legal, both practical and theoretical—of limited, controlled government."
- Islam's mistreatment of women has put them behind the West. "My own feeling is that the greatest defect of Islam and the main reason they fell behind the West is the treatment of women," he posits. "Think of a child that grows up in a Muslim household where the mother has no rights, where she is downtrodden and subservient. That's preparation for a life of despotism and subservience. It prepares the way for an authoritarian society."
- Mutually Assured Destruction won't work with nuclear-armed mullahs. If Iran did get nuclear warheads, don't count on them never using such weapons for fear of an American or Israeli counter-strike. "During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States had nuclear weapons but both knew that the other was very unlikely to use them. Because of what was known at the time as MAD —mutually assured destruction. MAD meant that each side knew that if it used a nuclear weapon the other would retaliate and both sides would be devastated. And that's why the whole time during the Cold War, even at the worst times, there was not much danger of anyone using a nuclear weapon." Lewis thinks the imams in Iran "are religious fanatics with an apocalyptic mindset. In Islam, as in Christianity and Judaism, there is an end-of-times scenario—and they think it's beginning or has already begun. . . . mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent—it's an inducement."
- Turkey could be the next Iran. Turkey, once a bulwark against Islamic radicalism with its secular, pro-Western orientation, is changing. The Journal says that Lewis is alarmed by developments there. "In Turkey, the movement is getting more and more toward re-Islamization. The government has that as its intention—and it has been taking over, very skillfully, one part after another of Turkish society. The economy, the business community, the academic community, the media. And now they're taking over the judiciary, which in the past has been the stronghold of the republican regime."
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