Bernard Lewis and the clash of perspectives
Bernard Lewis, arguably the pre-eminent Western historian of the Middle East and the Islamic world, passed away on Saturday at the age of 101. Lewis taught at some of the West’s most prestigious colleges and universities, including Princeton, where he was a professor almost until the end of his life. His students and admirers have long lavished him with praise, both for his breadth and depth of knowledge of the history of the region and for his analysis of the modern challenges confronting it — especially militant, religious organizations and terrorist groups. Over his life, Lewis wrote more than 30 books, numerous articles and essays and coined the controversial phrase “clash of civilizations,” which was popularized by another noted scholar, Samuel Huntington.
His long life and career and the fact he was a prolific writer have also meant that his writing and speaking engagements addressed a wide range of difficult subjects. The titles of some of his best-known works are instructive. They include “The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror,” “What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East,” and a lengthy essay for The Atlantic magazine titled, “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” It is this theme of an inevitable clash between the Islamic world and the West, due to the global “domination” of the latter and “decline” of the former, that made him both influential and controversial.
Unlike many of his scholarly peers, Lewis successfully crossed over into the realm of being a public intellectual. His work and writing became more accessible and arguably more influential after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US. Lewis welcomed and perhaps relished the opportunity to speak to political leaders both in the US and elsewhere. He rose to prominence during the presidency of George W. Bush and his critics would eventually maintain that he provided the intellectual underpinning for the controversial invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Although he would dispute the magnitude of his influence, he publicly supported the invasion as a means of addressing some of the “root” causes of the problems of the Middle East, especially what he saw as problems related to governance and the rise of extremist and militant religious groups. The solution, he maintained, was to bring democratic institutions and principles to the heart of the Arab and Muslim worlds by force. Just as importantly, Lewis was a strong supporter of Israel and became close to a number of Israeli leaders over the years. It is this combination — broad scholarly writing on issues of politics, religion and culture, and engagement with policymakers — that would bring him both praise and criticism.
Bernard Lewis, like any human being, misread some developments and made mistakes, and admitted doing so.
Having studied political science in college and graduate school — coming close to attaining a Ph.D. in the field — I have read a fair number of Professor Lewis’ works over the years. One would be hard pressed to find an academic department of Middle Eastern or Islamic studies anywhere in the US that does not assign a heavy dose of his writing. Lewis was fluent in the languages of the region, including Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish and Farsi, and he also visited and lived in many Middle Eastern countries.
As the above titles suggest he, like other scholars, would focus much of his scholarship on the political, social and economic challenges — others have called them “deficits” and “defects” — that have confronted the region. Although widely praised for his readily accessible prose, Lewis also had a tendency to be blunt and dismissive of his critics, especially those who viewed with suspicion the “true intentions” of some Western scholars like himself, who they pejoratively labeled “Orientalists.”
The most well-known of these critics was Edward Said, a respected scholar in his own right and author of the highly critical book, “Orientalism.” Said accused Lewis and others of writing about the Islamic and Arab worlds in bad faith. He maintained that, far from being objective scholars who periodically prescribed policy recommendations out of concern for the wellbeing of the peoples of these regions, Orientalists were condescending and showed little appreciation for the contributions of such peoples. Needless to say, Said’s writing was controversial as well.
Ultimately, the public spat between Lewis and Said, which some have argued detracted from both of their statures, centered on an important question: Who is best qualified to write and speak authoritatively and objectively about the Islamic world and the Middle East? Lewis, and others, strongly objected to the notion that only people from these “worlds” — Muslims, Arabs, Turks, Iranians, etc. — truly understood them and wrote about their challenges for the benefit of the people. “If Westerners cannot legitimately study the history of Africa or the Middle East, then only fish can study marine biology,” Lewis once said.
Those who took issue with the notion that Lewis was inherently biased against Arabs and Muslims often referenced this quote from the aforementioned article in the Atlantic: “Islam has brought comfort and peace of mind to countless millions of men and women. It has given dignity and meaning to drab and impoverished lives. It has taught people of different races to live in brotherhood and people of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable tolerance. It inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievement, enriched the whole world.”
As someone who hails from both the Arab and Muslim worlds but who received his higher education in the West, I have greatly benefited from reading the different perspectives of scholars who are from these regions and those who are not. Both offer unique insights. That is indeed the approach adopted by most, if not all, serious academic institutions in the US. After all, “Democracy in America,” written by Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, is still considered a classic by American political scientists and is assigned by virtually all university programs teaching US politics.
Lewis’ contributions and writings cannot be dismissed and have much to offer. However, Lewis, like any human being, misread some developments and made mistakes, and admitted doing so. He himself realized that he was a polarizing figure. “For some, I’m the towering genius. For others, I’m the devil incarnate,” he once said in an interview. One should not have difficulty avoiding those two extremes.
• Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization.