Americans Understanding Islamic World Better Than George W. Bush
Tuesday, former President George W. Bush delivered a speech in Washington, D.C. at an event entitled "Celebration of Human Freedom," sponsored by his presidential foundation, the George W. Bush Institute. The former president observed astutely that "freedom is a powerful force but it does not advance on wheels of historical inevitability."
Some look at the risks inherent in democratic change, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and find the dangers too great. America, they argue, should be content with supporting the flawed leaders they know, in the name of stability.
Mr. Bush also made the egregious claim that the ongoing, de facto Springtime for sharia in Araby is tantamount to "the broadest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet Communism."
Fortunately, polling data just released by Rasmussen Reports indicate that most Americans do not share Mr. Bush's dangerous delusions.
A mere 27% of likely U.S. voters believe that even "somewhat likely" countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia will become free, democratic, and peaceful over the next several years. Only 3% conclude that this outcome is very likely, while 62% believe that such a transformation is unlikely, and 16% maintain that it is not at all likely to occur (i.e., pooled "Unlikely"= 78%). George W. Bush's Weltanschauung diverges most dramatically from his own fellow Republicans and from independent voters: 73% of Republicans and 68% of voters unaffiliated with either major political party think it remains unlikely that the Arab Spring nations will become free, democratic, and peaceful over the next few years. Democrats are more likely to share Mr. Bush's outlook, with 40% believing that democratization will likely be successful in advancing freedom versus 48% who think it unlikely. Moreover, a majority of Democrats (58%) think these nations will soon become allies of the United States, a view held by just 28% of Republican voters and 35% of independents. Finally, Mr. Bush's excessive optimism is shared, not unexpectedly, by a majority of those in the Political Class.
In fairness to Mr. Bush, the public, mercifully, was spared the aggressive, "authoritative" indoctrination he received, so their perceptions, unlike his, have not been warped beyond reason.
Journalist David Warren, writing in March 2006, questioned the advice given President Bush "on the nature of Islam" at that crucial time by not only "the paid operatives of Washington's Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the happyface pseudo-scholar Karen Armstrong," but most significantly, one éminence grise in particular, "the profoundly learned" Bernard Lewis. All these advisers, despite their otherwise divergent viewpoints, as Warren noted, "assured him [President Bush] that Islam and modernity were potentially compatible." None did so more vehemently -- or with such authority -- than the so-called "Last Orientalist," nonagenarian Professor Bernard Lewis. Arguably the most striking example of Lewis' fervor was a lecture he delivered on July 16, 2006 (on board the ship Crystal Serenity during a Hillsdale College cruise in the British Isles) about the transferability of Western democracy to despotic Muslim societies such as Iraq. He concluded with this statement: "Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us." This stunning claim was published with that concluding remark as the title -- "Bring Them Freedom Or They Destroy Us" -- and disseminated widely.
While Lewis put forth rather non-sequitur, apologetic examples in support of his concluding formulation, he never elucidated the yawning gap between Western and Islamic conceptions of freedom -- "hurriyya" in Arabic. This latter omission was particularly striking, given Professor Lewis' contribution to the official (Brill) Encyclopedia of Islam entry on hurriyya.
Hurriyya is -- as Ibn Arabi (d. 1240), the lionized "Greatest Sufi Master," expressed it -- "perfect slavery." And this conception is not merely confined to the Sufis' perhaps metaphorical understanding of the relationship between Allah the "master" and his human "slaves." Following Islamic law slavishly throughout one's life was paramount to hurriyya "freedom." This earlier more concrete characterization of hurriyya's metaphysical meaning, whose essence Ibn Arabi reiterated, was pronounced by the Sufi scholar al-Qushayri (d. 1072/74).
Let it be known to you that the real meaning of freedom lies in the perfection of slavery. If the slavery of a human being in relation to God is a true one, his freedom is relieved from the yoke of changes. Anyone who imagines that it may be granted to a human being to give up his slavery for a moment and disregard the commands and prohibitions of the religious law while possessing discretion and responsibility, has divested himself of Islam. God said to his Prophet: "Worship until certainty comes to you." (Koran 15:99). As agreed upon by the [Koranic] commentators, "certainty" here means the end (of life).
Bernard Lewis, in his Encyclopedia of Islam analysis of hurriyya, discusses this concept in the latter phases of the Ottoman Empire through the contemporary era. After highlighting a few "cautious" or "conservative" (Lewis' characterization) reformers and their writings, Lewis maintains:
[T]here is still no idea that the subjects have any right to share in the formation or conduct of government -- to political freedom, or citizenship, in the sense which underlies the development of political thought in the West. While conservative reformers talked of freedom under law, and some Muslim rulers even experimented with councils and assemblies government was in fact becoming more and not less arbitrary[.]
Lewis also makes the important point that Western colonialism ameliorated this chronic situation:
During the period of British and French domination, individual freedom was never much of an issue. Though often limited and sometimes suspended, it was on the whole more extensive and better protected than either before or after.
And Lewis concludes his entry by observing that Islamic societies forsook even their inchoate democratic experiments:
In the final revulsion against the West, Western democracy too was rejected as a fraud and a delusion, of no value to Muslims.
Elsewhere, writing contemporaneously on democratic institutions in the Islamic Middle East, Lewis conceded that at least "equality and fraternity" between Muslims were accepted. But even here Lewis included a major caveat with regard to "liberty," whose Islamic formulation might never resemble John Stuart Mill's conception in "Liberty." Lewis featured a reference to "Alice in Wonderland," making plain his assessment of the likely superficial (at best) outcome of Muslim democratization efforts:
...perhaps it may be possible to extend them beyond it [the Muslim community] adding a redefined liberty [emphasis added], to make a new kind of democracy. Only "the question is" as Alice remarked, "whether you can [emphasis in original] make words mean so many different things."
Bernard Lewis's contemporary volte-face on the merits of experiments in "Islamic democracy" ignored these obvious setbacks -- and any self-critical re-appraisal of his earlier guarded optimism. Remarkably, Lewis became a far more dogmatic evangelist for so-called "Islamic democratization," despite such failures!
Consistent with Bernard Lewis's admonition -- "[e]ither we bring them freedom, or they destroy us" -- the U.S. military, at an enormous cost of blood and treasure, liberated Afghanistan and Iraq from despotic regimes. However, as facilitated by the sharia-based Afghan and Iraqi constitutions the U.S. military occupation helped midwife -- which have negated freedom of conscience and promoted the persecution of non-Muslim religious minorities -- "they" (i.e., the Muslim denizens of Afghanistan and Iraq) have chosen to reject the opportunity for Western freedom "we" provided them and transmogrify it into "hurriyya." Far more important than mere hypocrisy -- a ubiquitous human trait -- is the deleterious legacy of the Islamic confusion Bernard Lewis has bequeathed to Western policymaking elites, both academic and non-academic. Former President Bush -- epitomized by his absurd burblings on the worsening tragedy of the "Arab Spring" sharia/"hurriyya" ascendancy in the Muslim Middle East -- is a pathognomonic example of the dangerously confused outlook Lewis has sewn.