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Bernard Lewis: The Iranian Revolution Has Entered Its “Stalinist Phase”

Tuesday, June 6, 2006  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt
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Now that’s a post, and Chris at Home must be bookmarked. (HT: CounterterrorismBlog.)

All of Chris’ links are worth following, but especially this one to a Pew Forum Q&A with Princeton’s Bernard Lewis, which includes this exchange:

BARBARA SLAVIN, USA TODAY: Professor Lewis, it is a pleasure to see you again. I want to drag you into the present, but not about the controversy over the cartoons. We have witnessed the most extraordinary conflicts now between the West, in the personage of the United States, and the Muslim world, with the attack on Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. I wanted to get your views on how this has affected the mentality of people in that part of the world, and specifically on Iraq. The last time I talked to you, you were very supportive of this. I wonder if you still are, whether it has turned out the way you have anticipated. Thank you very much.

MR. LEWIS: May I take the latter part of your question first? No, it has not turned out the way I had anticipated. I had underestimated our capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Well, let’s not go into that.

How do they perceive it? I think this is the important thing. And on this, fortunately, we are very well documented. Thanks to modern media and modern methods of communication, we are able to follow their thinking, their debate among themselves fairly closely. And I think one can get a fairly good understanding of how this conflict is seen by Osama bin Laden, by al Qaeda generally, and by many other parallel movements including the Iranian leadership personified by [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.

It goes something like this: You spoke before of the conflict of civilizations, a term that has been much used and even more misused. When I first used it, I was using it in one strictly limited sense, not as a general principle. Some have even written as though civilizations had foreign policies and could form alliances, and so on. I would never go that far. I was referring to one specific conflict between two specific civilizations. Christendom ‘” I’ll call it that for the present purpose ‘” and Islam. And it is a conflict that arises not from their differences but from their resemblances.

These two religions, and as far as I am aware, no others in the world, believe that their truths are not only universal but also exclusive. They believe that they are the fortunate recipients of God’s final message to humanity, which it is their duty not to keep selfishly to themselves like the Jews or the Hindus, but to bring to the rest of mankind, removing whatever barriers there may be in the way. This, between two religiously defined civilians, which Christendom was at that time, with the same heritage, the same self-perception, the same aspiration, and living in the same neighborhood inevitably led to conflict, to the real clash of rival civilizations aspiring to the same role, leading to the same hegemony, each seeing it as a divinely ordained mission.

We can date it precisely with the advent of Islam, which spread very rapidly by conquest. If you have ever been to Jerusalem, you must have been to the Dome of the Rock. That in itself is a mark of the conflict. It is built on a place sacred to both Jews and Christians. It is built in the style of the early Christian churches, the Church of the Nativity, the Holy Sepulchre and others. And the inscriptions on the wall are very explicit: He is God. He has no companion. He does not beget. He is not begotten ‘” in other words, a clear challenge to Christianity. (Laughter.) The caliph who built that place in the late seventh century was sending a message. He put the same message on the gold currency. In other words, he is saying to the Christian emperor, your religion is superseded; your time has past; move over; we are taking over the world.

That was the beginning of a conflict that has been going on ever since. Now, we in the Western world, and particularly in the United States, don’t seem to attach much importance to history. And even what happened three years ago has become ancient history. I find, for example, people seriously arguing that 9/11 was the result of our invasion of Iraq. This kind of reversal cause and effect is quite common.

In the Muslim world, on the contrary, they have a very lively sense of history, a very keen awareness of history and a surprisingly detailed knowledge of history. If you look at, for example, the war propaganda of Iran and Iraq during the eight-year war between those two countries, ’80 to ’88 ‘” this is propaganda addressed to the general public, the largely illiterate general public ‘” it is full of historical allusions, and I mean allusions; not telling them historical anecdotes, but a rapid, passing allusion to a name or an event in the sure knowledge that it would be picked up and understood.

Osama bin Laden, in one of his pronouncements, said, “For more than 80 years we have been suffering humiliation” (we meaning the Muslim world). That sent all of the experts scurrying to find out what on earth he was talking about, the old ones to reference libraries; the young ones to their computers. (Laughter.) And they came up with a wide variety of different answers.

To anyone who studies Islam or what goes on in the Islamic world, the meaning was perfectly clear. He was referring the suppression of the caliphate by the Turkish Republic in 1924. The caliphate was established on the death of the Prophet as the headship of the Muslim world. And as Muslims see it, the world of Islam was headed by a succession of caliphs of different dynasties, ruling in different places, Medina, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo. The last one was in Istanbul, and it ended catastrophically after World War I, when the last of the caliphs was deposed, and the last of the great Muslim empires was partitioned, its territories divided between the victorious Western allies. That is what he meant by humiliation, and essentially there could be no doubt about that.

And just as the Muslim world was ruled by a succession of caliphs, so the world of the infidels and more particularly the Christian world, which was the main rival, was ruled by a succession of powers, first the Byzantine emperors, then the Holy Roman emperors, then the Western European empires, and ‘” I’m quoting Osama bin Laden: “In this final phase, the world of the infidels was divided between two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United Sates.”

We think of the defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union as a Western victory in the Cold War, and some of us credit President Reagan more particularly with that victory. For Osama bin Laden and his followers, this was a Muslim victory in the jihad. And if one looks at what actually happened, this is not an implausible interpretation. It was, after all, the Taliban in Afghanistan that drove the Red Army to defeat and collapse. And, as he put it, “We have now dealt successfully with the more deadly, the more dangerous of the two infidel powers. Dealing with the soft, pampered, and degenerate Americans will be easy.”

This impression was confirmed through the ’90s when they launched one attack after another and evoked only angry words and misdirected missiles to remote and uninhabited places.

In order to understand what is going on, one has to see the ongoing struggle within this larger perspective of the millennial struggle between the rival religions now, according to this view, in its final phase.

Let us turn to the Shi’a equivalent of this through the Iranian revolution ‘” the word revolution is much used and much misused in the Middle East for virtually every change of power. In fact, it is the only generally accepted title of legitimacy. The Iranian revolution was a real revolution, not just a coup d’etat or a putsch or whatever. It was a genuine revolution in the sense that the French and the Russian revolutions were revolutions. It brought a massive change, social, economic, ideological ‘” not just a change of regime. Like for the French and Russian revolutions in their day, Khomeini had had a tremendous impact everywhere they had a shared universe of discourse, that is to say, the Muslim world. Just as the French and Russian revolutions in their day, and for some time after, had such and impact, so did the Iranian revolution, and it was not limited to the Shi’a world.

I remember being on a tour of Islamic religious universities in Indonesia, which is a solidly Sunni country, and in the student dorms they had pictures of Khomeini hanging on the walls. The Iranian revolution has gone through many phases. It has had its Jacobins and its Gizondins, its Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, its terror. And I would say it’s now in the Stalinist phase, and that also has a global impact.

Professor Lewis also had this to say about President Ahmadinejad:

MR. LEWIS: I am inclined to believe in the sincerity of Ahmadinejad. I think that he really believes the apocalyptic language that he is using. Remember that Muslims, like Christians and Jews, have a sort of end-of-time scenario in which a Messianic figure will appear. In their case, in the case of the Shiites, the hidden imam who will emerge from hiding, who will fight against the powers of evil, the anti-Christ in Christianity, Gog and Magog in Judaism, and the Dajjal in Islam, a role in which we are being cast now. And he really seems to believe that the apocalyptic age has come, that this is the final struggle that will lead to the final victory and the establishment of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Others in the ruling establishment in Iran may share this belief. I am inclined to think that most of them are probably more cynical and regard it as a useful distraction from their domestic problems and also a useful weapon in their external relations, because he has been doing very well and he seems to be succeeding, for example, on the question of nuclear weapons. And every time they make an advance, we move the point at which we won’t tolerate it anymore, and this has happened again and again. Each time, we say, the next step we will not allow. We have shown ourselves to be, shall we say, remarkably adaptable in this respect, and this is no way to win friends and influence people.

I think that the way that Ahmadinejad is talking now shows quite clearly his contempt for the Western world in general and the United States in particular. They feel they are dealing with, as Osama bin Laden put it, an effete, degenerate, pampered enemy incapable of real resistance. And they are proceeding on that assumption. Remember that they have no understanding or experience of the free debate of an open society. Where we see free debate and criticism, they see fear, weakness and division; they proceed accordingly, and every day brings new evidence of that from Iran.

I think it is a dangerous situation. And my only hope is that they are not right in their interpretation of the Western world. I have often thought in recently years of World War II ‘” you were told earlier that I’m ancient myself. The most vividly remembered year of my life was the year 1940. And more recently I have been thinking of 1938 rather than of 1940. We seem to be in the mode of Chamberlain and Munich rather than of Churchill.

Read the whole thing. Please.

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