When Middle East Meets West, Says An Expert on Islam, Conflict Often Just Comes Naturally

updated 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

With the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait last August, the Middle East was revealed once again to be the world's most unpredictable region—at least to Western eyes. Even the willingness of America and its allies to fight for Kuwait has not been universally welcomed in the Arab world. Some Arab moderates have denounced the West and voiced support for Saddam Hussein, raising troubling questions about the potential consequences of the U.S. presence. To put matters in perspective, senior writer Bill Hewitt spoke with Prof. Bernard Lewis, a leading expert on the Islamic world. A British-born scholar, Lewis, 74, retired as the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University in 1986. Since then, he has continued to lecture and write, and earlier this year he published his 27th book, Race and Slavery in the Middle East. The professor stresses that much of the tension between the West and the Arab world stems from deep historical and cultural roots, and not simply from more obvious geopolitical pressures.

What could have been done to avert the dangerous standoff we now face in the Middle East?

If Saddam Hussein had known that his seizure of Kuwait would unite virtually the whole world against him. I doubt that he would have acted in the way that he did. So why didn't he know? Was it a failure of communication on the part of the rest of the world? Or was it a failure of understanding on Saddam's part?

Saddam is a man who has very little knowledge of any place outside Iraq. His political horizons are very different from those in other parts of the world. So it's very natural that he should misinterpret our language and signals. But we in the West also bear some of the blame. We weakened our position by showing that there are a great many abuses that we were prepared to accept. The human rights record of the Iraqi regime, for example, is quite appalling. This is not new. Yet we did nothing to protest.

How did this confusion come about?

Shortly before the invasion of Kuwait, Congress was already considering possible penalties against Saddam because of his open threats against Kuwait. Yet members of Congress from wheat-and rice-growing areas proposed a resolution that U.S. agricultural export subsidies to Iraq should be continued. These legislators were simply representing the interests of their constituents. But what does a man like Saddam understand about constituents? In his political culture, if you don't get on with your constituents, you shoot them and get a fresh lot. So it was easy for him to see what Congress was doing and think. "Fine, they're with me. Or at least an important body of them arc with me and will help me if we get into a crisis." Also, various soothing statements from the Administration led Saddam to believe that it was favorable or indifferent to him, or frightened of him.

Some Middle East experts theorize that an invasion led by the U.S. would inflame Islamic militants around the region, posing internal threats to countries that side with us. Will that be the case?

That depends on how soon the war comes and how it goes. The longer the wait, the longer the war, the greater the damage to U.S. relations in the region. If things go quickly, the reverberations might be modest. But it is essential that the Western forces withdraw after a victory. People in the Middle East have long memories. They know that the British occupied Egypt in 1882, saying that they were just there for a short time, and then stayed 70 years. They've seen too much of that sort of thing. That's why the idea of a continuing military presence in the region strikes me as very dangerous.

How will the Israelis and Palestinians emerge from the crisis?

I think they will be the big losers. If Saddam wins, Israel will be facing a really powerful and dangerous enemy, and the Palestinians, who have supported him, will become puppets on his string. If the U.S.-led alliance wins, then the Israelis will face much stronger competition from Arab voices in Washington, while the Palestinians will find that the Saudis and Kuwaitis are much less generous in their funding than they had been in the past.

Americans sense a great deal of hostility from the Arab world. Is that because of the U.S. support for Israel?

For Palestinians, Israel is the main issue, if not the only issue. But for the Muslim world in general, the reasons they have turned against the United States are not that simple. There is a brand of Islamic fundamentalism that is strong in North Africa, Egypt and elsewhere that is hostile to Western civilization. All the things in modern life that the fundamentalists most object to—secularism, the emancipation of women and so on—they trace to the United States.

So the antagonism is part of a larger religious and historical pattern?

It goes back a long way. I think the clashes between Islam and Christendom spring more from their resemblances than from their differences. They are basically the only two religions in the world which claim to have a single universal truth and to be the custodians of God's final word to mankind. Well, you can't have two, which is why from the advent of Islam in the 7th century there has been continuous competition and sometimes conflict between them.

Why do these religious differences turn into political conflict?

For traditional Muslims, religion and politics are one and the same. The Ayatollah Khomeini once said, "Islam is politics or it is nothing." I don't know that I'd go that far, but I would say that Islam is essentially political. In the Koran, not once, but in several places, the duty of the Muslim is stated as to command good and forbid evil. The choice of words is interesting. It is not to "do" good and "avoid" evil, which is a personal choice, but to "command" and "forbid," which is an exercise of power.

What are the prospects for a negotiated settlement to the current crisis?

Not terribly good. In this kind of situation there's always a point of no return, when neither side can back down and both continue to the inevitable military clash. I don't know whether we've reached that point, but I suspect we have.

What might be some of the long-range implications of the Gulf crisis?

If Saddam wins—and all he has to do is survive with his military more or less intact in order to win—then those Arab regimes that opposed him will be open to overthrow or intimidation. Some of them, like the smaller sheikhdoms of the Gulf, would either have to obey him or be doomed. Saudi Arabia would be seriously endangered. That is one reason why some of our Arab allies are more insistent on action than anyone here. For them, it may well be a question of survival.

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