Saying Arabs ‘are simply not ready’ for democracy, Bernard Lewis simply gets a historical fact wrong

Israel/Palestine
on 30 Comments

This is good. Thirty years after Edward Said nailed him as an orientalist, Bernard Lewis shows how right Said was by saying in an interview with David Horovitz of the JPost that Arabs aren’t ready for democracy:


We, in the Western world particularly, tend to think of democracy in our own terms – that’s natural and normal – to mean periodic elections in our style. But I think it’s a great mistake to try and think of the Middle East in those terms and that can only lead to disastrous results, as you’ve already seen in various places. They are simply not ready for free and fair elections…

If there’s a genuinely free election – assuming that such a thing could happen – the religious parties have an immediate advantage. First, they have a network of communication through the preacher and the mosque which no other political tendency can hope to equal. Second, they use familiar language. The language of Western democracy is for the most part newly translated and not intelligible to the great masses.

In genuinely fair and free elections, [the Muslim parties] are very likely to win and I think that would be a disaster. A much better course would be a gradual development of democracy, not through general elections, but rather through local self-governing institutions. For that, there is a real tradition in the region.

Wow. Dumb, huh! And Daniel Luban has picked up on a key error in Lewis’s argument: 

Lewis repeats what is supposed to be the argument-clincher against elections — the fact that “Hitler came to power in a free and fair election.”

The only problem is that this frequently-repeated “fact” is simply not true. In the final two free elections before Hitler’s rise to power, in July and November 1932, the Nazis received 38% and 33% of the vote, respectively — a plurality but not enough to bring them into government. In the 1932 presidential election, Hitler lost to Hindenburg by a wide margin.

Hitler came to power not through elections, but because Hindenburg and the circle around Hindenburg ultimately decided to appoint him chancellor in January 1933. This was the result of backroom dealing and power politics, not any kind of popular vote.

30 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    February 26, 2011, 11:13 am

    Did I miss something? The election of Hitler is a “clencher” that Arabs are not ready for democracy? And Germany one of the most cultured and educated countries in the world at the time? Maybe it is a “clencher” that the West is not ready for democracy.

    Though, 1930s Germany as essentially culturally similar to, say, Egypt today, is an intriguing notion.

  2. Kathleen
    February 26, 2011, 12:10 pm

    Heard this right winger Iranian basher, Israeli apologist say that the U.S. has been preparing this part of the world for democracy for decades. He was on Washington Journal this morning. The screener kept letting folks go on and on in support of what this man was saying but when criticism of Israel came up the screener would cut them off pronto
    8:30am – Jim Glassman, George W. Bush Institute, Executive Director
    link to c-span.org

  3. Miura
    February 26, 2011, 12:27 pm

    Lewis’ stellar record as a scare-monger and hate-monger (he coined the phrase ‘Clash of Civilizations’, later picked up by Huntington) is only enhanced. Any idea what became of his predicted “Fall of Europe to Islam”?

  4. Leigh
    February 26, 2011, 12:47 pm

    Lewis is a racist idiot. The Brits voted for religious maniac Blair, and noone says that they aren’t ready for democracy because of that. The Americans tend to elect the Republican religious nuts (to the horror of the rest of the world, I might add), but they’re allowed to keep their democracy even if it means wars that kill hundreds of thousands elsewhere in the world. All Americans and Europeans vote for parties that implement policies that bring down the world economy and accordingly starve millions in Africa and Asia, but their bad choices do not count against Westerners having democracy.

    The lesson we can learn is that voting is a side-show; the real contribution that the people can and should make to their countries is to steer their governments’ behaviour through labour strikes and street protests. And frankly, it seems to me that the “Arab savages” are a tad ahead of us on that one at this stage.

  5. iamuglow
    February 26, 2011, 1:14 pm

    I’m still bitter over a Lewis book being the main txt for a ME History course I took at Bklyn College many years ago. Little did I know at the time how careful that text had been choosen. You’ll recall that was the school that had fired and re-hired a professor for being too “Pro-Palestenian” a few weeks back.

    • pabelmont
      February 27, 2011, 12:01 pm

      Surely, tho, it is axiomatic that no USA university errs — from its own viewpoint — which chooses a pro-Zionist textbook as required reading, even as the sole textbook in a course. This, for several reasons. First, they get big money from Zionist donors. Second, there is not much organized anti-Zionism that they “hear”, that would interfere with such a choice of textbook. Third, they are part of the same echo-chamber for reinforcing group-think as is the rest of the USA’s “establishment” — they simply don’t know any better. (Sad to be persuaded that this is true of an educational institution, but this is the know-nothing USA after all).

      What would be really remarkable would be for a course to choose a pro-Palestine book as the sole textbook in any course whatever.

  6. lysias
    February 26, 2011, 2:41 pm

    In the two German elections in 1933, while the Nazis did not win an absolute majority of the votes, neither did any other party. By that point, the Nazis were the party with the most votes.

    Democratic principles may not have compelled giving power to the Nazis, but their coming to power was consistent with those principles.

    • Koshiro
      February 27, 2011, 5:48 am

      Not really. The proper procedure would have been to form a parliamentary coalition and elect a chancellor. Since this proper procedure had at this time already been suspended by a cabal of reactionary right-wingers using constitutional trickery, this didn’t play a role, but under normal circumstances the Nazis would have found it very hard to form a coalition. They would certainly not have been able to get the two-thirds majority they needed to semi-legally suspend the constitution as they did with the Ermaechtigungsgesetz – in fact this was only possible because they had removed opposing MPs by violence.

      P.S.: The two elections you mean were in 1932. In 1933 there was only one election – after the Nazis already were in power.

      • lysias
        February 28, 2011, 11:04 am

        After both elections in 1932 (thank you for correcting my typo), a majority of the seats in the Reichstag was held by Communists and Nazis combined. The Communists were unwilling to join with any of the other parties in a coalition, period. The Nazis were unwilling to join a coalition in which Hitler was not the chancellor. The last chancellor before Hitler, Schleicher, tried to split the Nazis, but he failed.

        So what you call the “proper procedure”, to form a parliamentary coalition and elect a chancellor, was not possible.

        The only realistic alternative to naming Hitler chancellor would have been a military dictatorship. Perhaps we can now say, with hindsight, that that would have been better, but it wasn’t a real option either, given the attitudes of the German officer corps.

        I agree that the ramming through the Reichstag of the Enabling Act in March 1933 was of very dubious legality. But my point was that naming Hitler, the head of the largest party, chancellor in the Nazi-nationalist coalition formed on Jan. 30, 1933 was consistent with democratic principles.

    • Karin
      February 27, 2011, 10:15 am

      Without going into details, because that is not the topic of this post or website, the German elections of 1932 were held under very violent circumstances, and to say their coming to power was in anyway consistent with democratic principles is ludicrous. Someone should make a law against invoking facile comparisons to Nazi Germany in political discussions. Oh wait, they did.

      • MHughes976
        February 27, 2011, 11:28 am

        There’s nothing infallible about democracy – no human institution achieves that – and Hitler did have considerable support before and after coming to power. Why that justifies or begins to justify a polity based on disfranchisement and racial supremacy, which are inherently unjust, I don’t know.

  7. fuster
    February 26, 2011, 2:55 pm

    more government money for universal education, higher literacy rates (Total adult literacy rate, 2005-2008* —66% in Egypt), a free press and free and fair elections and more government money spent on improving the economy and the lives of the population, things’ll be fine.

  8. fuster
    February 26, 2011, 3:09 pm

    the stat is from UNICEF
    link to unicef.org

  9. seafoid
    February 26, 2011, 3:30 pm

    Arabs aren’t ready yada yada. It is what Israel and Zionism are based on.
    Well guess what? they want the same rights as Israeli Jews. Very dangerous. for Israel.

  10. mllanders
    February 26, 2011, 3:53 pm

    Well, also, Reichstag, Communist scapegoating … little things like that which are apparently now irrelevant since they interfere with the ability to cite Hitler as the universal Antielector.

  11. annie
    February 26, 2011, 4:47 pm

    oh, it’s probably just a coincidence livni was just advocating some people just are not ready for elections in wapo the other day. not. coordinate a little why don’t they.

    If there’s a genuinely free election – assuming that such a thing could happen – the religious parties have an immediate advantage. First, they have a network of communication through the preacher and the mosque which no other political tendency can hope to equal.

    and remind me how the gop is empowered thru the christian right and the organization of the evangelicals? ditto the empowerment and support of israel thru the synagogues? organizational coordination is not limited to islam, it permeates all religions. they just like arabs to be disorganized and splintered. makes for good talking pts too.

    Second, they use familiar language. The language of Western democracy is for the most part newly translated and not intelligible to the great masses.

    lololol would that be the vast deep dark sea of unintelligible arab masses? bloviate just a tad mr lewis.

  12. traintosiberia
    February 26, 2011, 5:19 pm

    This was the reason he( Lewis) travelled with Pearle and few other neoocns to Libya to discuss democracy in 2006 after Libya had become ready for business.

  13. traintosiberia
    February 26, 2011, 5:24 pm

    Lewis should ask his parents whther they were ready to parent him in an adequat fashion at a time when celibacy and abstinence should have been selctively enforced. What a wonder product we are saddled with!

    • fuster
      February 26, 2011, 11:16 pm

      train, old sport, I sincerely doubt that Lewis can ask anything of his parents at present.
      Lewis is, if I’m not mistaken, about as old as humans get to be ( born May 31, 1916) and his parents must be long, long gone.

      I tend to figure that his opinions of present conditions are not worth getting too worked up over.

  14. andrew r
    February 26, 2011, 5:31 pm

    “They are simply not ready for free and fair elections…”

    Yay, racist retort in the clothing of social science. This paragraph from Lenin’s Tomb lays out the grace notes Lewis omitted, though the song remains the same.

    When Socal and Texaco initially combined in 1936 to form Aramco, the subsidiary was intended to run the oil concessions in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Aramco, we know from Robert Vitalis, simultaneously created a public identity for itself as a partner in development and modernization, and reproduced the Jim Crow labour market structures then prevalent in the United States. The racial hierarchies maintained in the labour force, with white American workers at the apex and migrant workers from southern Asia at the bottom, still have operative effects in Bahrain’s political system today. But the PR efforts, which involved paying a platoon of journalists, writers and scholars, building up research centres. Writers like Wallace Stegner took the ‘myth of the frontier’ elaborated by Frederick Jackson Turner, in which America’s rugged democratic experiment was held to depend on the restless advance westward as hardy American citizens settled and improved otherwise empty land (oh yeah), and applied it to the oil frontiers. There, the oil companies were the pioneering heroes of civilization, the natives barely registering except as grateful recipients of racial uplift. At the same time, the British established more bases on the islands to entrench its control.

    link to leninology.blogspot.com

  15. Shingo
    February 26, 2011, 6:53 pm

    The right can’t seem to get their story straight. The necons and Charles Keauthammer were attacking the left a few weeks ago for allegedly  making the argument that Lewis is making.

  16. piotr
    February 26, 2011, 7:26 pm

    In Poland, the former ruling party is rabidly Catholic, and the current one, moderately. Abortion is outlawed, religious education is semi-compulsory in public schools. And that is OK, as long as the elections are free (and the media freedom exists, which largely does).

    Basically, due to religious attitudes of Poles, religious parties have an advantage. So, should we send the Marines and introduce a “gradual transition”. (Strangely enough, it is easier in Poland to be an atheist having an elective office than in USA. I think to be President you have to be at least vague about religion.)

    I actually like the idea of the gradual transition, with local self-rule and national something else. This way Islamic rules can be enforced locally (as religious parties would have an advantage) and somewhat different on the national level. As a result, social backwardness will be assured locally, and economic and political — nationally. The only question is: that would be a transition to what?

    In practice, the question that should be ask is: how much slaughter, torture and theft is still acceptable in the name of “gradual transition”? Because partial democracy tends to be like a partial pregnancy.

  17. Sisaket
    February 26, 2011, 10:36 pm

    Let’s. not get all bent out of shape when democracy as it often the case is born out of a cauldron of violence and mayhem; particularly as it bursts forth from years of crony autocratic rule. Historically, lasting democracies are never gradual: they tend to imperfectly burst forth are refined over time. Lewis discredited himself on the subject of modern Arab culture and polity when he once opined on CSPAN that the road to peace in the ME goes through Baghdad.

  18. VR
    February 26, 2011, 11:15 pm

    Is Mr. Lewis still alive? I thought he had passed already with his repugnant prejudicial ideas…

  19. weaver
    February 26, 2011, 11:19 pm

    ‘sfunny how Bernard’s now down on the religious parties. Back in the Cold War, Bernard was a big fan of the policy of using what they now call the Islamists as a proxy against the Commies, even going so far as to endorse autocratic Muslim regimes as a preferable alternative to Communist dictatorship (coz, y’know, the locals weren’t capable of democracy). As recounted by Robert Dreyfuss in his book and elsewhere – speaking of which…

  20. stevelaudig
    February 27, 2011, 1:46 am

    Might I recommend Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York City, New York: Vintage Books, 2005) which contains an accurate [unlike Lewis] description of fascist ascent to power. In reading Lewisʻs stuff there is always an odor of racism, classism, “white-ism” if you like. I am surprised anyone reads his polemical works anymore.

  21. pabelmont
    February 27, 2011, 12:20 pm

    Lewis: “If there’s a genuinely free election – assuming that such a thing could happen – the religious parties have an immediate advantage. ”

    In the USA, the establishment, sensing the imperfections — from their own viewpoints — of democracy, wisely — again, from their own viewpoints — subverted it. Money subverts democracy in the USA. The Supreme Court believes that that is what the framers of the constitution wanted. (Or what they inadvertently made law.)

    We now see few candidates in primary elections who have not had to “prove” (sell) themselves to the establishment in order to raise electioneering money, and even fewer who have not (ditto) in order to afford to run in the national elections. Thus, as paymasters, the establishment has made the USA “safe” for themselves rather than “safe for democracy”.

    Establishment critics of democracy here and there in the world, who criticize democracy somewhere “because” it is under religious influence or control, or “ideological” influence or control, or most other reasons, really mean, “we do not like the folks who control things there” or “we do not like what the folks who control things there do or seem likely to do”. It is never process-oriented criticism, but result-oriented criticism, like the USA “shooting down” the PA’s elections when Hamas won. The election itself was widely called “free and fair” and was probably better — procedurally — than many elections here in the USA.

  22. Karin
    March 1, 2011, 11:09 am

    Did anyone note this article by Niall Ferguson in Newsweek-which is just as offensive as Bernard Lewis?
    link to newsweek.com
    Quote:”The people who made the American Revolution were, by 18th-century standards, exceptionally well off and well educated. People in Libya today are closer to the sans-culottes of the Paris back streets, the lumpenproletariat of the Petrograd slums, or the illiterate peasants who flocked to Mao’s standard. And that is why the likelihood of large-scale and protracted violence is so much greater in the Arab world today than it ever was in North America in the 1770s.”

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