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 (as a New York Times reviewer once
called him), 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 Ataturk. A generation
before Lewis’s visit to Turkey, Ataturk (the last name, which he adopted,
means “father of all Turks”), had seized control of the dying Ottoman
Sultanate. Intent on single-handedly shoving his country into the modern
West-“For the people, despite the people,” he memorably declared-Ataturk
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 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. And it was Kemal Ataturk, Lewis noted at another
point, who had “taken the first decisive steps in the acceptance of Western

Today, that epiphany-Lewis’s Kemalist vision of a secularized, Westernized
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 as a casus belli in order to justify one of the
costliest foreign adventures in American history. And even now Bush, having
handed over faux sovereignty to the Iraqis and while beating a pell-mell
retreat under fire, does not want to settle for some watered-down or
Islamicized version of democracy. His administration’s official goal is
still dictated by the “Lewis Doctrine,” as The Wall Street Journal called
it: a Westernized 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.

Iraq, of course, does not seem to be heading in that direction. Quite the
contrary: Iraq is passing from a secular to an increasingly radicalized and
Islamicized society, and should it actually turn into a functioning polity,
it is one for the present defined more by bullets than by ballots. All of
which raises some important questions. What if the mistakes made in Iraq
were not merely tactical missteps but stem from a fundamental misreading of
the Arab mindset? What if, in other words, the doyen of Middle Eastern
studies got it all wrong?…


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