Bernard Lewis: Taken to task for saying Islam is not inherently authoritarian

[Andrew G. Bostom, MD, MS is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Brown University Medical School, and regular contributor to Frontpage Magazine. He is the author of "The Legacy of Jihad."]

Speaking at a December 10-11, 2007 Rome Conference entitled, “Fighting for Democracy in the Islamic World,” renowned historian Bernard Lewis intoned,

The authoritarianism present in the Middle East region is not part of the Arab and Muslim tradition, but it has been imported from Europe.

Lewis, according to the account of his lecture in Adnkronos International, then offered as putatively convincing support for his thesis the non-sequitur observation that during the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan (presumably, in the course of making decisions) consulted all the dignitaries, and when he ascended the throne he would greet the crowds, uttering “Allah is greater than you are.”

This ahistorical contention, accompanied by an equally vacuous example of Ottoman era “proof,” seems like a desynchronized “Spy Versus Spy” Mad Magazine segment with Lewis playing the role of both “Department of Joke and Dagger” agents, simultaneously, when juxtaposed to Lewis’ own entry on hurriyya—Arabic for freedom—which appears in the venerable Encyclopedia of Islam.

Hurriyya and the uniquely Western concept of freedom are completely at odds. Hurriyya “freedom” — as Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) the lionized “Greatest Sufi Master”, expressed it — “being 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.”

The late American scholar of Islam, Franz Rosenthal (d. 2003), who wrote the first part of the Encyclopedia of Islam entry on hurriyya, analyzed its larger context in Muslim society. He notes the historical absence of hurriyya as “...a fundamental political concept that could have served as a rallying cry for great causes.”

An individual Muslim, “...was expected to consider subordination of his own freedom to the beliefs, morality and customs of the group as the only proper course of behavior...”

Thus politically, Rosenthal concludes,

"...the individual was not expected to exercise any free choice as to how he wished to be governed...In general, ...governmental authority admitted of no participation of the individual as such, who therefore did not possess any real freedom vis a vis it."

Lewis (in his complementary Encyclopedia of Islam entry on hurriyya) discusses this concept during the Ottoman Empire, specifically, through the contemporary era. After highlighting a few “cautious” or “conservative” (Lewis' characterization) reformers and their writings, Lewis maintains,

"...there 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 emphasizes, in sharp contrast to his Rome statement, that Western colonialism ameliorated this chronic situation, and he concludes with a stunningly contradictory observation:

"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."

In the final revulsion against the West, Western democracy too was rejected as a fraud and a delusion, of no value to Muslims....

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