The other day I was asked about Bernard Lewis, the noted historian of the Middle East. Lewis is a meticulous scholar, insightful essayist and consummate stylist. Nevertheless he is often berated, perhaps because the late Edward Said was critical of him—essentially for not being an Arab.
The specific question I was asked concerned a purported prediction Lewis is said to have made about a possible Iranian attack. Lewis supposedly suggested in the Wall Street Journal that the Iranians might choose August 22, 2006, for a major attack. Actually this date was suggested by Iranian President Ahmadinejad for his response to US demands for a halt in nuclear activities. Lewis suggested that a possible response was an attack on Israel. I do not think Lewis actually predicted that Iran would necessarily chose that day for an attack on Israel, which in any case never materialized.
Here is what he said, according to Internet sources (e.g., in the Wikipedia article on Bernard Lewis):
What is the significance of Aug. 22? This year, Aug. 22 corresponds, in the Islamic calendar, to the 27th day of the month of Rajab of the year 1427. This, by tradition, is the night when many Muslims commemorate the night flight of the prophet Muhammad on the winged horse Buraq, first to “the farthest mosque,” usually identified with Jerusalem, and then to heaven and back[Quran 17:1]. This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world. It is far from certain that Mr. Ahmadinejad plans any such cataclysmic events precisely for Aug. 22. But it would be wise to bear the possibility in mind.
The main point of Lewis’ discussion was not predicting that the Iranian response to the US would be an attack on Israel, but to remind readers that the Iranian leadership is highly ideological, and therefore cannot be assumed to use the same kind of rationale we in the West might–for example, they might not be deterred by mutual assured destruction (as presumably the Soviets were; there are reports that during the Cuban missile crisis both Kruschev and Kennedy were worried that Castro also was too ideological, and thus not deterred by rational considerations).
Lewis also was convinced that Iran had been developing a nuclear bomb at least since the time of the first Iraq campaign.
Whether or not Iranians are susceptible at all to considerations of mutual destruction or economic devastation from sanctions, or other economic, military or political calculations, there should be no doubt that the supreme leadership is highly ideological. In other words, Lewis may or may not be right when he suggests the leadership is completely impervious to such considerations, but he is absolutely correct that their ideology is highly resistant to them. They frequently remind us, for example, that the West values life while they value death and martyrdom, and have the depth of commitment to their values that the West is perceived to lack. They may or may not attack, but we ignore their ideology at our own peril.
As for August 22, Lewis was off the mark on specifics. It is the final day of the Persian month Mordad (which is Solar, not based on the Islamic calendar), and may just have represented the last day of the month. Most calculated Islamic calendars show that this day was the 28th day of Rajab, not the 27th day. 27 Rajab is indeed the day of Isra and Mi’raj throughout the Islamic world. celebrated in Iran, although as far as I can tell it is more frequently considered to be Laylat al-Mab’ath “ the day of mission” i.e., the day Muhammad was called to divine service. (Most Sunnis would probably suggest the Prophet Muhammad’s mission began with the Night of Power, when the revelation of the Qur’an began when the angel Gabriel met him at the cave of Hira, usually associated with the 27th of Ramadan). This is an interesting case in which both Sunnis and Shias mark the same date but give it different names and connotations.
Finally, while I also think that Ahmadinejad and the religious leadership might well consider timing a nuclear attack to a religious holiday, and that Lewis was right to remind readers that that might be their response to international pressure, I also do not think that the historical record suggests they are overly committed to choosing dates with religious significance for military actions.
Bernard Lewis is one of the most influential writers about the Middle East and a careful scholar. He is also outspoken and has a political position. I do not think even he himself considered August 22 2006 as particularly likely for attack. What he was talking about is that we take a big risk if we assume that the rationale of the Iranian leadership is similar to that of the leadership of most Western democracies. This remains a big risk to the United States, to Israel, to Arab states, and for that matter to the entire world.