Islamicist Lewis gives final series lecture

Six months after Yale began the Democracy, Security and Justice lecture series to address international issues in the post-Sept. 11 world, Middle East historian Bernard Lewis addressed a topic pressing to that world — methods of government in Muslim countries.

Lewis gave the 18th and final lecture of the series last night in the Law School. Speaking on “Democracy, Legitimacy and Succession in the Middle East,” Lewis detailed the differences in the history of the religion-state relationship in the Christian and Muslim worlds, and argued that some Muslim governments have departed from the principles of Islamic law.

Lewis began by saying he does not agree with the notion that democracy is good while all other governments are bad, calling democracy “a system that we in the English world have worked out.”

He said that before making any judgements, it is important to understand the basic principles of classical government in Islam. He detailed three principles — the “elective,” the “contractual element of sovereignty,” and “accountability” — which require rulers to be chosen, limit their powers and provide for responsible government.

“One cannot describe traditional Islamic government as despotic,” Lewis said. “[Rulers are] bound by strict limits.”

He said that in theory, these principles would create “limited, responsible, contractual government,” but that “in practice there was authoritarian government.”

Lewis spoke of how succession is determined in Islamic law. While there were monarchical practices, he said, Muslim governments “never created a rule of succession” as many Western countries did, in which the law of primogeniture reigned.

In Islamic governments, Lewis said, the ruler nominates a successor, who is usually a member of the family and many times a brother. The heir was usually a “grown-up, experienced” person, not usually a juvenile. He said that this system has worked fairly well and survived into modern times.

Lewis also explained Islamic political thought and the relation between “church and state.”

“There is no equivalent in Islam of ‘The Church,'” he said.

He said that while in Christianity, the church is an institution with archbishops and priests, the Muslim mosque is a building where people congregate to pray.

Islam has had a longer history of interaction between government and religion, Lewis said, beginning with Mohammed’s establishment of a state in Medina, where he ruled.

Lewis went on to argue that some Muslim countries’ attempts at modernization may have led to some of their problems.

“Modernization has greatly reinforced the power of the sovereign,” he said, adding that religious authorities have lost all power and become “salary servants of the state.”

He ended by saying that while modernization for many means the separation of religion from state, this separation was “a Christian remedy for a Christian disease.” He said that some think that since the Muslim countries have tried to model Western nations in their methods of modernization, they should also try separation of religion and state. Others, he said, think that the modernization was excessive rather than inefficient, and that this separation is not the solution.

Nilofar Gardezi ’03 said the lecture was on an important topic.

“The comprehension of the whole polarization between tyranny and freedom in the Western context versus tyranny and justice in the Islamic context is really critical to understanding the situation of Muslims in Islam today,” she said.

But Charles Billington ’04 gave Lewis a mixed review.

“Lewis’s talk was useful to varying degrees,” he said. “He gave a good analysis of what has happened but not what can be done.”

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