The Legacy of Bernard Lewis

Bernard Lewis’ new book, Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian, written at the age of 95, is essentially his autobiography.  Since he is, above all, a scholar, much of his life has been thinking and writing.  Not surprisingly, the book recounts the gestational process of a number of his major works.  Lewis is the author of more than 30 books.  This leads him to wonder, in 100 years, which of his works will be remembered?

I venture to say that it will not be this one, nor does he mean it to be.  This is a breezy, episodic, conversational book of reflections, aperçus, anecdotes, and some very sharp observations.  It is what is called a “good read.”  It is not particularly profound or deep.  It only glancingly refers to ideas that Lewis has developed at greater length in his earlier works. He refers to them rather than repeating them, and places their development in the context of his long life.

Therefore, this is not the Lewis book with which you should begin.  First, become conversant with his deep scholarship in the history of the Middle East.  Then, you will no doubt be driven to know more about the man himself, and that you can find entertainingly set forth in Notes on a Century.

For instance, I have read a good number of Lewis’ books, but none of them prepared me for the humor in this one. After all, how amusing could What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East or The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror be?  However, it turns out that Lewis is a very funny, witty man.  Here is a sample:

When a French colleague was arrested in Istanbul during the war for having trespassed in a security zone, the Frenchman asked the inspector, “why since there are forbidden zones, don’t you have notices up saying forbidden zone, entry forbidden?  The inspector looked at him in astonishment and said, “if we did that we’d never catch anybody.”

A Turkish general told Lewis, “The real problem with having the Americans as your allies is you never know when they will turn around and stab themselves in the back.”

A quip at the time of the U.S. deployment to Saudi Arabia and the liberation of Kuwait was that the marching song of the Saudi Arabian armed forces was “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Because the United States did not finish the job of dethroning Saddam Hussein after its invasion of Kuwait, Lewis wryly remarks that Desert Storm should have been known as “Kuwaitus Interruptus.”

Of course, there are more serious things in this book, and a great deal of common sense.  Lewis is famous for coining the phrase “the clash of civilizations,” and he dedicates one chapter to that title. He begins it by saying some curious things about Christianity.  Concerning it and Islam, he claims that, “their message is that only their religion can save you.  If you accept it, you will be saved.”  Presumably, if you don’t, you won’t.  This, of course, is not the teaching of Christianity, which claims that salvation is only through the merits of Jesus Christ, not that non-Christians cannot be saved.

Lewis believes that the two religions are alike both in their universal claims to truth and their mandatory evangelization, which puts them on the path of an inevitable clash.  They are, he says, “almost identical in their self perceived mission.”  This is certainly a disputable assertion, as the self-understanding of a Christian and a Muslim are completely different.  Also, the West is now so solidly post-Christian that the antipathy between the two religions, which undoubtedly explains a great deal of what happened in the past 1400 years, hardly seems the same generator of conflict today.  Muslims would probably be hard put to find much real Christian faith in the West.  What they see instead is godlessness, which, of course, repels them even more.  At the same time, Lewis makes clear that there is within Islam a conflation of faith and power and an impetus for worldly dominance that has no parallel in either Christianity or Judaism.  The rhetoric of resurgent Islam is in many ways the same as it was at the advent of the struggle against non-Muslims in the seventh century.

In any case, as Lewis states, this clash is being resumed today because of a reanimated Islam.  Lewis was one of the first to point to the pronounced “surge in religious passion” back in the 1970s. “Muslim fundamentalists,” he notes, “are not worried about liberal theology, because there isn’t any, and they are not worried about criticism of the Koran, because that has not been an issue.” What they want is to restore Sharia and to expunge their lands of Western influences.  The lead organization in this resurgence is the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 in reaction to the abolition of the caliphate by Atatürk in 1924.  Lewis has been one of the strongest voices warning about the consequences of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascendancy in the current struggles in the Middle East.  Unfortunately, since this book’s publication, they have come even closer to success, a prospect that leaves the current U.S. State Department apparently unconcerned.  (Incidentally, President Barack Obama goes unmentioned in this book, which is perhaps another reason to read it.)

The book delves into several of the controversies in which Lewis has been involved.  He goes over Edward Said’s profoundly misguided attacks against him; he recounts the brouhaha, legal and otherwise, over his refusal to label the Turkish slaughter of Armenians as “genocide”; and he delves into the issue of the treatment of Jews in Islam, about which he is fairly favorable.  Lewis thinks the virulent anti-Semitism now present in Islam is an importation from the West, though this seems to stand against the substantial amount of historical evidence compiled in Andrew Bostom’s book, The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism, and in works by Bat Ye’or and others.

Lewis was also a teacher.  Some of the inside baseball concerning the academic world in this book may not be of interest to the general reader.  But it is refreshing to hear Lewis say that the struggle over the future of Middle East studies in academia is “between enforced ideology and freedom.”  In his fight for freedom and against ideology, he helped start the Middle East Studies Association in 2007.  It is also bracing to hear him dismiss Marxist influences so robustly: “if you really know anything about Middle Eastern history, Marxist analysis just doesn’t work.”

Lewis’ remarks on policy are brief and trenchant.  Concerning his influence in the George W. Bush administration, he explains that, “My job was not to offer policy suggestions but to provide background.” As part of that background, he writes that,   “President Jimmy Carter’s letter appealing to Khomeini as one believer to another, the American rejection of the Shah, and the unwillingness to help a former friend, all helped to convince people in Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East, that it was safer and more profitable to be an enemy rather than a friend of the United States.”  According to Lewis, Iran originally had no intention of keeping hostages after the U.S. embassy was seized, but the meek response from Washington provoked Khomeini to take maximum advantage. The rest, as they say, is history.

The failure to finish off Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War was, according to Lewis, catastrophic.  Indeed, it was, especially for the Kurds and Shi’a whom the U.S. had encouraged to rise up, and then abandoned to the slaughter of Saddam’s Republican Guards.  In fact, he makes clear that he supported the declaration of an Iraqi provisional government in the Kurdish controlled northern region of Iraq, rather than an American invasion.  In any case, he provides an interesting tidbit from the first war.  He was able to ask the Saudi ambassador to Washington at that time, Prince Bandar, if Saudi Arabia had opposed the removal of Saddam after liberation of Kuwait.  Bandar answered, “on the contrary, we urged them to go ahead and finish the job.”  President Bush Sr.’s failure to do so was one of the most serious strategic errors of the past two decades.  We are still suffering from its costly consequences.

Regarding Iran, Lewis explained in an e-mail to then-National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley the consequences of the millenarian, apocalyptic visions held by the present rulers of that country.  As Lewis so elegantly stated, “For people with this mindset, M.A.D.  (Mutual Assured Destruction) is not a constraint; it is an inducement.”

Lewis believes that it is still possible for American support to affect the outcomes of domestic political struggles in the Middle East based upon this very wise condition: “to achieve these results, it is necessary to project an image of firmness and reliability.  Experts and public relations would no doubt be able to devise many ways of doing this.  But to project an image of firmness and reliability, there is one essential prerequisite – to be firm and reliable.”  I wish this statement were emblazoned at the entrance of the State Department.  Unfortunately, through our own fault, it has become dangerous to be a friend of the U.S. and harmless – or even rewarding – to be its enemy, precisely because of our lack of firmness and reliability.

The book contains several delicious quotations from world leaders.  The early 1970s, Lewis visited with the then Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew, who spoke to Lewis about the problem of the Muslim minority population.  He said, “we do everything we can to help them.  We give them preferential treatment… now, despite everything we do to help them, they keep sinking to the bottom of the pile.  I have two questions for you, why are they like that, and what can we do about it?”  Lewis modestly claims that his answer was inadequate, though I wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall to hear it.

Lewis was a friend of Turkish President Turgut Ozal.  Before Operation Desert Storm, Lewis asked Ozal, “if it comes to war, will you be with us?”  Ozal explained that he would, “for the same reason we declared war on the Axis in February 1945.  When the fighting stops and the talking starts, you want to be at the victor’s table, and we want to be there on the guest list, not on the menu.”

While I have learned a great deal from Lewis, I have also wondered about some things that I have found missing in his work.  I hesitate to say this because he is a man of such extraordinary accomplishment but, like everyone, he has limitations.  This book reveals them.  In the introduction, Lewis says, “I am not an expert in theology or scripture.”  It also becomes clear in his autobiographical reflections that Lewis is not a particularly religious man, if indeed one at all.  I think it helps to be religious to understand religions.  The relative lack of these two things in his life, religion and theology, may help explain why Lewis, when he attempts to give an explanation as to why things went wrong in the Muslim world – after having so brilliantly explained what went wrong – he ends up simply peeling back deeper levels of symptoms, rather than diagnosing the root cause.  I think this is because the root cause is religious and theological.  It is located in a deformed idea of God (at least, in mainstream Sunni Islam), which has created a dysfunctional culture.  Lewis certainly describes Islamic theological doctrines and has often alluded to their deleterious consequences for the possibility of modern, democratic life.  But he never places Sunni Islamic theology at the center of the problem, where it belongs.  It is more likely for him to say that much of the Islamic world has become a backwater because of the neglect of, or discrimination against, 50 percent of its population, the women.  This is certainly a huge issue but, again, it is a symptom, rather than a cause.

One man cannot do everything, but Lewis has come close in his very full life.  He has enriched his field of study, as have few in history.  He is the giant on whose shoulders many now stand. You can read here how he did it.

Reader Discussion

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on June 17, 2012 at 11:06:42 am

"This, of course, is not the teaching of Christianity, which claims that salvation is only through the merits of Jesus Christ, not that non-Christians cannot be saved."

Surely, the teachings, past and present, has been that you can't be saved unless you accept Jesus Christ as your savior, which would make you a Christian.

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David Bernstein
on June 17, 2012 at 19:19:56 pm

I was going to ask David Bernstein's question, but he got there first. Robert could you please explain this? Thanks.

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Mike Rappaport
on June 17, 2012 at 20:45:49 pm

No, it does means that non-Christians can be saved, but it is still by the grace of Christ that they are saved, even if they are ignorant of it and Him. From the Second Vatican Council: "The non-Christian may not be blamed for his ignorance of Christ and his Church; salvation is open to him also, if he seeks God sincerely and if he follows the commands of his conscience, for through this means the Holy Ghost acts upon all men; this divine action is not confined within the limited boundaries of the visible Church." This means that a Muslim, who meets the above criteria, can, according to the Church, be saved by the merits of Christ -- as surprising as this would be to a Muslim. The general teaching is that God desires the salvation of all men, which he affects through Christ. Man sundered his relationship to God through original sin. Heaven was closed. Christ, through his sacrifice, redeems man and heaven is reopened – to all who sincerely seek God’s will and conform themselves to it. Through this teaching , the Church is not making itself irrelevant because it claims that it contains the fullness of this truth.

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Robert Reilly
on June 17, 2012 at 22:33:08 pm

Presumably, if you don’t, you won’t. This, of course, is not the teaching of Christianity, which claims that salvation is only through the merits of Jesus Christ, not that non-Christians cannot be saved"
---obviously Lewis has no understanding of either Christianity or Islam!!!!

Quran--Surah 5 verse 69
"Those who believe (in the Quran) those who follow the Jewsih (scriptures) and the Sabians and the Christians,--Any who believe in God and the last day, and work righteousness,--on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve."

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on June 18, 2012 at 20:16:48 pm

The 2nd Vatican Council reformed prior doctrine, no? And plenty of Christian denominations still adhere to the "you must be a Christian to be saved," no?

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David Bernstein
on June 18, 2012 at 23:44:16 pm

Qur'an 3:85: "If anyone desires a religion other than Islam, never will it be acceppted of him; and in the hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost."

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robert reilly
on June 19, 2012 at 00:07:27 am

There has been a definite shift in the tension between the teaching that "there is no salvation outside the church" and that God wills that all be saved. Vatican II does make clear what I have said above. See the late Cardinal Dulles's artilce on the shift in this: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/02/001-who-can-be-saved-8

You are right to say that certain Christian demoninations may still think no one other than themsleves can be saved, including other Chriatians, like Catholics.

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robert reilly
on June 24, 2012 at 02:57:26 am

I think Mr. Reilly's comment on Christian view of salvation is not the most critical part of his book review. It is clear to all that the Christian world, if there is any such world, has no aspiration to build a Christian empire. In fact no religion before Islam taught its followers to fight and kill for its world-wide supremacy and implementation. Islam was the first and continues to be the only theology that advocates conquest and war (Qitaal) for its expansion. As a Muslim and a student of my faith, I know that thinkers like Bernard Lewis and Robert Reilly have made no exaggeration about the Islamic worldview, if Reilly has reached deeper into the Islamic Mind. I don't use the apologetic term "Islamist" for plans and agendas of popular Muslim movements. They are simply Islamic. There is no ambiguity in Islam's command to its believers; Allah gave them the great gift of this life on Earth and blessed them with Islam so that they fight for the supremacy of His Doctrine and implementation of His law (Shariah). Reilly has brilliantly shown this Muslim mindset in his book and essays. One may disagree with his view of Christianity but not of Islam.

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Mobarak Haider
on July 22, 2012 at 10:09:06 am

If we accept this theory whereby "expansionist" instincts come from religion then how Christians got into this business of conquering and dominating other nations in the last several centuries. They even used their raw power to spread Christianity in entire African continent, Philippine, India and among Indians of Americas and Church sanctioned Inquisitions in Spain that forced conversion of Jews/Muslims to Christianity. Historically missionaries always followed the Christian armies to spread Christianity backed by the barrel of gun.

Once Rev. Desmond Tutu jokingly said: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

Expansionism was wide spread even before the existence of organized religions. This is an instinctive behavior that comes from greed and religion is just an excuse. Expansionism that causes mayhem is motivated by greed to gain power, dominate fellow human beings and exploit their resources.

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on February 21, 2013 at 14:17:10 pm

Thanks for an excellent review. I've read several of Lewis' great books, and am about to read his Semitism and Antisemitism, picked up recently. And I've read your very good book on the [permanent] Closing of The Muslim Mind.
I agree with you that if Lewis were more religious himself, he would have a better understanding of how much Islam itself explains the comprehensive dysfunction of the Muslim world and the danger it presents to the rest of mankind, and to its own people.
I slightly diagree with your charcterization of the "deformed view of God", since I would put the cause of this more directly in the deformed personality of Mohammed, who became ever more pathological and megalomaniacal as his power increased. It is the tragedy of Islam that, unlike Judaism and Christianity, the religion has no range of personalities and thought from which it could grow and mutate to something better, but only this one terrible figure whose hatreds, misogyny and misanthropy color every aspect of Islam's doctrines and teachings.

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Ron Thompson

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.