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Bernard Lewis: a critical review

Jul 26,2018 - Last updated at Jul 26,2018

Bernard Lewis (1916-2018), who wrote and edited more than two dozen books and hundreds of articles, was regarded as a leading expert on interactions between Christendom and Islam, recently died aged 101. He was, for a certainty, the foremost orientalist of Islam.

As a scholar, he made his name through research in the Ottoman archives and through developing academic expertise in Turkish, Persian and Arabic affairs. And his linguistic training included Latin, Greek and Aramaic.

Among his important books: What Went Wrong? New York: Oxford University Press (2002), From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press (2004) and Islam: The Religion and the People. Indianapolis: Wharton Press (2008).

As a historian, Lewis described the Muslim World as a “declining civilisation”, a very negative and controversial view that influenced international opinion, and it also unconstructively shaped a major part of American foreign policy thereafter.

Few academics had more adverse influence on the Middle East than Lewis did. President George W. Bush, for instance, carried one of his articles and met with him before and after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and Lewis gave supporting media briefings about the issue at the White House at that time.

Lewis’s pejorative view of Muslim civilisation was remarkably degrading, suggesting that it had been decaying for centuries, leaving extremists in a position to exploit Muslims’ long-embittering exasperation by supporting “terrorism” on an international scale. For that opinion, Lewis was always sought out by front-line American policymakers.

His book, which was at the printing house when the 9/11 attacks occurred, What Went Wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East became a scholarly handbook for “understanding” what had happened at that time. 

In an article in The Atlantic in 1990, “The Roots of Muslim Rage”, he made his first use of the phrase “clash of civilisations” to explain what he believed to be unescapable hostility between the Muslim World and the West, a phrase which the political scientist, Samuel Huntington, later borrowed and used in the title of a very renowned article of his own in 1993.

In the article referred to above, Lewis asserts: “Islam… has also known periods when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence. It is our misfortune that part, though by no means all or even most, of the Muslim world is now going through such a period, and that much, though again not all, of that hatred is directed against us [the West].” He has also defended Western religious medieval wars (the Crusades) as necessary to kerb the power of the Islamic civilisation, calling Arab nations “a string of shabby tyrannies”.

It is the sad reality that Lewis looked down on Islam as a developed religion and on the Muslims as its followers. He, on the other hand, looks at Western imperialism, American interventions and Israeli displacement of Palestinians out of their homeland as consequences of the region’s political failures and “mental backwardness!” Muslim people, to him, are worthy human beings only if they follow Western civilisation.

Lewis’s academic adversary, the Palestinian Arab-American scholar, Edward Said, on the other hand, describes Lewis as a propagandist for Western prejudiced views that distorted the historical truth and hid politics under the layer of academic research. Writing in The Nation, Said argues that Lewis, along with Huntington, reasoned “as if hugely complicated matters like identity and culture existed in a cartoonlike world!”

As a specialist on American Orientalism, I find myself perplexed by the views being expressed by a distinguished scholar like Lewis, working at leading academic schools such as the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and Princeton University, trying to make the world believe, without factual textual evidence from the holy scripts, that Islam is a horrible religion bent on world devastation, rather than a monotheistic Abrahamic heavenly religion of peace and justice, to build intellectual and cultural bridges instead of walls!

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