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.