The Iraq war was fought on a false premise about the roots of backwardness in the Arab world, provided by the influential American-based scholar Bernard Lewis. The alternative view—that Islam can be a help rather than a hindrance to the development of Arab democracy—will now be tested in Iraqby Michael Hirsh / February 20, 2005 / Leave a comment
America’s misreading of the Arab world—and our current misadventure in Iraq—may have really begun in 1950. That was the year a young University of London historian named Bernard Lewis visited Turkey for the first time. Lewis, who is today an imposing, white-haired sage known as the “doyen of middle eastern studies” in America, was then on a sabbatical. Granted access to the imperial Ottoman archives—the first westerner allowed in – Lewis recalled that he felt “rather like a child turned loose in a toy shop, or like an intruder in Ali Baba’s cave.” But what Lewis saw happening outside his study window was just as exciting, he later wrote. There in Istanbul, in the heart of what once was a Muslim empire, a western-style democracy was being born.
The hero of this grand transformation was Kemal Atatürk (see Jonny Dymond, Prospect December 2004). A generation before Lewis’s visit to Turkey, Atatürk had seized control of the dying Ottoman sultanate. Intent on dragging his country into the modern west—”For the people, despite the people,” he once memorably declared—Atatürk imposed a puritanical secularism that abolished the caliphate, shuttered religious schools and banned fezes, veils and other icons of Islamic culture, even purging Turkish of its Arabic vocabulary. His Republican People’s party had ruled autocratically since 1923. But in May 1950, after the passage of a new electoral law, it resoundingly lost the national elections to the nascent Democrat party. The constitutional handover was an event “without precedent in the history of the country and the region,” as Lewis wrote in The Emergence of Modern Turkey, published in 1961, a year after the Turkish army first seized power.
Today, that epiphany—Lewis’s Kemalist vision of a secularised, westernised Arab democracy that casts off the medieval shackles of Islam and enters modernity at last—remains the core of George W Bush’s faltering vision in Iraq. As his other rationales for war fall away, Bush has only democratic transformation to point to in order to justify one of the costliest foreign adventures in US history. And even now he is not happy to settle for some watered-down or Islamicised version of democracy. His administration’s official goal is still dictated by the “Lewis doctrine,” as the Wall Street Journal called it: a westernised polity, reconstituted and imposed from above like Kemal’s Turkey, that is to become a bulwark of security for America and a model for the region.