The 7th Herzliya Conference > Lecture Summaries - Prof. Bernard Lewis, Princeton University
I will use this platform as an opportunity to situate the events of this region in a wider picture.
The collapse of the USSR meant more than the end of the Cold War, but the end of an era in the Middle East. This is the end of the 200 years era which began when Napoleon came to Egypt. The only opportunities to the Middle East rulers were to play one power against the other. We saw it in World War II and during the Cold War.
The end of the Cold War was a change of cosmic dimension in the region. It took some years for the leaders of the region to adjust. Some still continued to play for a few years the same game of the Cold War.
Now the outside powers are not as interested in the Middle East as they were before. This means going back to older patterns. The primary identity of the Middle East countries is religious, not national or ethnic. It is always the Muslims against the rest. The task is to bring Islam to all the rest of mankind. This is the Muslims duty. Christianity “plays” the same competitive game.
There is an ongoing battle between the two religions. In the seventh century the Muslims did well and conquered part of France and Spain. The second successful attempt was made by the Ottoman empire. What we see today is the third attempt, with aspirations that this is the “third lucky” time. We see in Muslim writings that the struggle has already begun.
There are competing leaders to take this fight ahead. The Sunni Wahabbi cause represented by bin-Laden. Another is the Shiite version which began with the first Iranian revolution, and the second Iranian revolution occurring now.
The second major change of the end of the Bonaparte phase – is increased internal conflict in the area. This has sometimes appeared as a rivalry inside the Arab world. Now it is between the Sunni and Shiite (between “Protestants” and “Catholics”). The difference between them is an important one.
The word revolution is very important in the region. The Iranian revolution was a genuine one like the French one. It resonated far outside the country – East and West, and is still resonating. This is a major threat to the Middle East Sunni countries.
Saadat made peace with Israel due to rational calculations. In the recent Lebanon war Israel was cheered by moderate Sunni states, who were disappointed that Israel could not win over the Shiite branch. There are some who are willing to put aside their conflict with Israel in order to deal with the more immediate and intimate danger.
One more aspect of the second phase of the Iranian revolution: Ahmedinejad truly believes in the apocalyptic message he is bringing. This makes him very dangerous. The “Mutual Assured Destruction” is not a deterrent, but an inducement to him.