Middle East References
June 10, 2004
Bio of Bernard Lewis in The New Yorker by IAN BURUMA
The New Yorker: The Critics: Books

The two minds of Bernard Lewis.
Issue of 2004-06-14 and 21
Posted 2004-06-07
In the course of a distinguished academic career at the University of London and at Princeton, Bernard Lewis has never been afraid to dip his scholarly hands in the muck of current affairs. A mentor to Henry (Scoop) Jackson in the early nineteen-seventies, and a friend to several Israeli Prime Ministers, Lewis has been especially sought after in Washington since September 11th. Karl Rove invited him to speak at the White House. Richard Perle and Dick Cheney are among his admirers. Lewis has championed his friend Ahmad Chalabi for a leading role in Iraq. And his best-selling book “What Went Wrong?,” about the decline of Muslim civilization, is regarded in some circles as a kind of handbook in the war against Islamist terrorism. Lewis, in short, is a thoroughly political don, and if anyone can be said to have provided the intellectual muscle for recent United States policy toward the Middle East it would have to be him.

Lewis’s latest book, “From Babel to Dragomans” (Oxford; $28), collects essays written over the past half century, on topics ranging from medieval interpreters (dragomans) and Jews in ancient Persia to what to do with Saddam Hussein. Yet, for a man who inspired the neoconservative firebrands, some of Lewis’s ideas are surprisingly cautious. In 1957, he argued that the West should take as little action as possible in the Middle East, since “we of the West . . . should beware of proposing solutions that, however good, are discredited by the very fact of our having suggested them.” In 1991, he wrote about the “age-old autocratic traditions” in the Arab world, and warned that there is “no guarantee” that efforts to democratize “will succeed, and even if they do, after how long and at what price.” As late as 2002, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, he struck yet another note of prudence. “Democracy is dangerous anywhere,” he said. “We talk sometimes as if democracy were the natural human condition, as if any deviation from it is a crime to be punished or a disease to be cured. That is not true. Democracy, or what we call democracy nowadays, is the parochial custom of the English-speaking peoples for the conduct of their public affairs, which may or may not be suitable for others.”

This is not exactly the stuff that excites readers of the Weekly Standard, or the hotter heads in the Pentagon. There is, however, another Bernard Lewis to be found in this book, a more strident figure who believes not only that the United States was too soft during the Vietnam War but that Middle Eastern dictatorships must be overthrown with force. Negotiating with the ayatollahs of Iran, and with other anti-American autocrats, is useless: “As with the Axis and the Soviet Union, real peace will come only with their defeat or, preferably, collapse, and their replacement by governments that have been chosen and can be dismissed by their people.” As for the immediate consequences of turning such ideals into policies, Lewis, particularly in his more recent writings, is oddly insouciant. He said in 2001 that public opinion in Iraq and Iran was so pro-American that both peoples would rejoice if the United States Army liberated them. A year later, he repeated the message that “if we succeed in overthrowing the regimes of what President Bush has rightly called the ‘Axis of Evil,’ the scenes of rejoicing in their cities would even exceed those that followed the liberation of Kabul.” Most Iraqis did cheer the demise of their tyrant, but Lewis could have offered some words of warning about what might follow the celebrations.

Nor was the fastidious scholar of Middle Eastern subtleties much in evidence when Lewis glibly used the attack on the World Trade Center to advocate a war on Saddam Hussein. In an article written days after the attack, he suggested that seeing the United States go to war with Saddam would be “the dearest wish” of other Arab regimes. Of course, the feelings of most Arab leaders were a little more complicated than that; and the chaos created by the American intervention is now causing almost universal alarm.

Critics of the war in Iraq, such as Rashid Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said Chair in Arab Studies at Columbia, attribute American failures in the Middle East to ignorance, or worse. Khalidi’s latest book, “Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East” (Beacon; $23), is a polemic against European and American interventions in Middle Eastern politics. He is lucid, though somewhat conventional, in his denunciation of European colonialism and American “imperialism.” On current affairs, he is the exact opposite of Bernard Lewis. He states that “virtually all of the thinking that underlay the planning for the Iraq war,” such as the idea “that all Iraqis would welcome their liberators with open arms,” was afflicted by “enthusiastic ignorance and ideological blindness.” The charge of ignorance may be true of Richard Perle or the President himself; it cannot be levelled at Bernard Lewis. Few people in the United States know more about the Ottoman Empire than he does, and few are as steeped in the history of the Middle East. In arguments with ideological opponents—not least a famous 1982 exchange with the late Edward Said, in The New York Review of Books—Lewis has regularly displayed his superior mastery of Islamic history.

There is often a chasm, of course, between scholarly and political acumen. Misguided imperial aggression has regularly been advocated by experts of formidable erudition. Warren Hastings, who was impeached for his misconduct as governor-general of India in the late eighteenth century, had a formidable understanding of the subcontinent’s cultures. Some of the most ferocious proponents of Japanese imperialism in China during the nineteen-thirties were keen scholars of Chinese civilization. Expertise is often beside the point in political arguments. Said’s criticism of “Orientalist” scholars, among whom he counted Lewis, was not that they were ignorant but that they were arrogant and contemptuous of Muslims, and disguised political agendas with scholarship.

It is hard to deny that Lewis has a political agenda. But contemptuous? There is no reason to doubt his sincerity when he wrote, in a widely read essay, “Islam is one of the world’s great religions. Let me be explicit about what I, as a historian of Islam who is not a Muslim, mean by that. 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.” These are hardly the words of a blinkered hater of “the Other.” (Oddly, when he reprinted the essay in “From Babel to Dragomans,” he omitted this passage.)

Lewis is at his best when he identifies Western double standards in dealing with the non-Western world. The bien-pensants, he says, are obsessed with Israeli violence against Arabs, while ignoring far worse brutality among the Arabs. Similarly, they denounced General Franco for his authoritarian rule in Spain but were relatively unmoved by Idi Amin’s massacres in Uganda. There are, in Lewis’s view, “two possible explanations of this silence. One is that white victims are so much more important than black victims that five Spaniards count for more than thousands of Ugandans. The other is that higher standards of behavior are expected from a European, even a Spanish fascist government, than from an African ruler. Either of these explanations would indicate a profoundly racist attitude.”

And yet, when it comes to politics, a great scholarly mind, surveying the grand sweep of history from Olympian heights, can sometimes overlook matters closer to earth. Arbitrary colonial borders, coups engineered by British and American secret services, and Western manipulation of local despots, including Saddam Hussein, played some role in creating failed states and tyrannies. Lewis is no less horrified than his critics by the dictatorships that have destroyed civilized life in much of the Middle East. But his writings give the impression that British and French imperialism, United States interventions, and Israeli oppression of Palestinians are simply alibis for the region’s political failings. The real reasons for the Middle Eastern mess, he suggests, are deeper, older, grander.

In a famous Atlantic Monthly article from 1990, reprinted in the current collection, Lewis speaks of “Muslim rage.” The argument encapsulated by the term goes roughly as follows. The clash between Christendom and Islam has been going on since the Muslims conquered Syria, North Africa, and Spain. Muslims, at the height of their glory, in tenth-century Cairo, thirteenth-century Tehran, or sixteenth-century Istanbul, thought of themselves as far superior to the Christians and Jews among them, who were tolerated as second-class citizens. Since then, however, as Lewis puts it, “the Muslim has suffered successive stages of defeat.” Turks reached Vienna in 1683 but got no farther. When the rampant West expanded its empires, European ideas penetrated, dominated, and dislocated the Muslim world. It was deeply humiliating for Muslims to be humbled by inferior Christians and Jews (“Crusaders” and “Zionists,” in modern parlance). Traditional ways, which had produced so much glory in the past, were eroded and often destroyed by ill-considered experiments with Marxism, fascism, and national socialism. Out of political and cultural failure came this Muslim rage, directed against the West, the historical source of humiliation, and out of this rage came the violent attempts to establish a new caliphate through religious revolution. (It was Lewis, not Samuel Huntington, who introduced the phrase “clash of civilizations.”) “In a sense,” Lewis said on C-span after the September 11th attacks, “they’ve been hating us for centuries, and it’s very natural that they should. You have this millennial rivalry between two world religions, and now, from their point of view, the wrong one seems to be winning.”

This broad analysis raises certain questions. First, who exactly is “the Muslim”? The last Islamist revolution was in Iran, but the rage Lewis describes seems to be confined mainly to Arabs. Turkey and Iran can’t really be described as failed states, and the rule of Iran’s mullocracy, now much loathed by most Iranians, arose not from some deep religious rage but, as Lewis acknowledges, from a modern revolutionary movement, supported initially by many Iranians who were not especially religious. There’s something about Lewis’s analysis of Islamic radicalism that reminds one of theories about the Third Reich that draw a straight line from Luther to Hitler.

Lewis claims that the lack of separation between church and state is the basis for Islamist revolutions. But in the non-Arab Muslim world, in places like Indonesia and Malaysia, religious ideologues have so far failed to make much headway. Indeed, more pragmatic Muslims in Indonesia are keen to separate politics from religion. Islamist radicalism is a threat in Pakistan, but this has more to do with a history of authoritarian rule by a small landowning class and military juntas than with any “millennial rivalry between two world religions.” Pakistani political history, in some ways, bears more resemblance to that of Argentina and other parts of Latin America than to that of the Middle East.

Lewis’s fixation on the millennial clash causes him to stretch his points beyond plausibility. He fastens on Yugoslav newspaper reports about young Muslims in Sarajevo plotting to establish an Islamic republic in Bosnia, apparently inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini. Whatever the Belgrade press might have said, however, most Bosnian Muslims were fired up by nationalism; they did not wish to be crushed by the Serbs. To characterize this as Muslim rage is as strange as describing Serb nationalism as Orthodox rage.

Even applied to Arabs, the notion of Muslim rage goes only so far; many political rebellions against Western domination have been secular, and Arab nationalism, or Arabism, though often associated with Islam, is sometimes at odds with it. National consciousness in the Arab world has been slow to grow, because nation-states barely existed in the past, and modern borders were mostly drawn by British and French colonial officers. Islam was one thing that most Arabs, from Syria to the Sudan, had in common, and religion could have been a source of political identification. What Pan-Arabism, some of whose founders were Christians, offered was an alternative, more secular, though not necessarily more democratic form of cohesion. Its failure led to a revival of Islamist dreams. And though Lewis may be right that Western interventions, of a covertly or overtly imperial nature, cannot adequately explain the nature of Muslim rebellions, the toppling by Western agencies of freely elected governments, and the support of dictators, cannot have helped the cause of democratic change.

Lewis identifies two mainstays of Muslim rage. One is the spectacle of infidels ruling over true believers. This, in the eyes of the believers, “is blasphemous and unnatural, since it leads to the corruption of religion and morality in society, and to the flouting or even the abrogation of God’s law.” This account may help explain the revolutionary aspirations of Al Qaeda, but it is not persuasive when Lewis applies it to Uighurs in China or to Kosovars. They rebel in response to social and political oppression, not to blasphemy.

The second mainstay identified by Lewis is a more general one: secular modernity. The war on modernity “is directed against the whole process of change that has taken place in the Islamic world in the past century or more and has transformed the political, economic, social, and even cultural structures of Muslim countries. Islamic fundamentalism has given an aim and a form to the otherwise aimless and formless resentment and anger of the Muslim masses at the forces that have devalued their traditional values and loyalties and, in the final analysis, robbed them of their beliefs, their aspirations, their dignity, and to an increasing extent even their livelihood.”

This certainly makes Muslim rage seem understandable, even justified. But Lewis’s analysis is marred by an odd paradox. For those same angry and humiliated masses are, in Lewis’s view, also deeply attracted to the temptations of the modern world: they all want sex, Nikes, and rock and roll. “Fundamentalist leaders are not mistaken in seeing in Western civilization the greatest challenge to the way of life that they wish to retain or restore for their people,” Lewis writes.

Thus it is not really the masses—who would presumably love to be liberated by the United States—but the fundamentalist leaders who are enraged. So, of course, are some of the Christian fundamentalists waiting for Armageddon on our own television screens. In fact, the war on modernity, often associated with the Jews, or the West, or the United States, goes back centuries. German Romanticism, which later curdled into a murderous ideology, began as a reaction to the French Enlightenment, whose ideals were promoted with armed force by Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Nineteenth-century Slavophiles in Russia resisted the modern ideas of the Westernizers and extolled the Russian soul. German Fascists in the nineteen-thirties denounced “Americanism.” Japanese chauvinists in the forties embraced the idea that Japan was fighting a holy war against the wicked West.

Islamic extremists, it is plausible to conclude, have been drinking from that same poisoned well. Lewis rightly points out that their targets are the secular, corrupt, and oppressive governments in the Arab world, as well as the more enticing symbols of the West. So the question arises of why Lewis promoted a war against an Iraqi regime that was hated by religious extremists. Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party certainly owed much to such old enemies of the liberal West as Stalinism and Nazism. He was also a brute. But he was a basically secular brute, whose will to power was hardly inspired by Muslim rage. In earlier days, he could have been excused for considering himself a friend of the West. Around the time of the Iran-Iraq War, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld certainly gave him that impression.

Why did Bernard Lewis ignore his own counsel that the West should proceed with caution in the Middle East, that democracy cannot be a quick fix, and that our proposed solutions, however good, are “discredited by the very fact of our having suggested them”? Some put it down to Zionism: he is said to be part of the Israeli lobby, and his aim is to make Israel safe. Lewis does not hide that he is sympathetic to Israel, not only because he happens to be Jewish but because he thinks Israel is a relatively civilized, democratic country in a very rough neighborhood. Rather touchingly, Lewis, who has always admired the Ottoman Empire at its best, writes that “the Ottoman heritage is more perfectly preserved in Israel . . . than in any of the other countries of the region.” But then, judging from Lewis’s own writings, I would rather have been a Jewish subject of the Ottoman Empire than an Arab in territories occupied by Israel.

I doubt, in any case, that Zionism quite explains Lewis’s role as a cheerleader for the war in Iraq. Nor does his supposed contempt for the Arab world do so. On the contrary, perhaps he loves it too much. It is a common phenomenon among Western students of the Orient to fall in love with a civilization. Such love often ends in bitter impatience when reality fails to conform to the ideal. The rage, in this instance, is that of the Western scholar. His beloved civilization is sick. And what would be more heartwarming to an old Orientalist than to see the greatest Western democracy cure the benighted Muslim? It is either that or something less charitable: if a final showdown between the great religions is indeed the inevitable result of a millennial clash, then we had better make sure that we win.

Lewis did say, in his Jerusalem Post interview, that he saw “the possibility of a genuinely enlightened and progressive and—yes, I will say the word—democratic regime arising in a post-Saddam Iraq.” But, as has become increasingly obvious, an invasion by foreign armies is not the ideal way to bring this about. Here, Rashid Khalidi appears to be more clearheaded when he says that “unwanted foreign military occupation, or even the threat of it, is incompatible with democratization.” Let us hope that he is wrong and Lewis is right. But it looks as though Arabs are crawling through yet another ring of Hell, prompted in part by the zeal of a man who claimed to wish them well.

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