The Last Orientalist

  • 0

It is often said that the United States isn’t easy on its scholars and public intellectuals–that they are not accorded the prestige and respect that they are given in the Old World… [But] since arriving in the United States in 1974, the British historian of the Middle East Bernard Lewis has become one of America’s–and thus the world’s–most famous academics.

For those of us seriously interested in the Middle East–and since 9/11 that has become a rather large crowd–Lewis, who will celebrate his 90th birthday on May 31, has attained a stature in the field and with the general reading public unrivaled by any historian, living or dead, of the Middle East and Islam. His range of writings–from the pre-Islamic period, through Islam’s classical and medieval ages and its premodern “gunpowder” empires, to today’s Muslim nation-states–is simply unparalleled by any other scholar… Lewis is the last and greatest of the orientalists–an awkward, geographically imprecise name for those who gave birth to the disciplined study of Islamic civilization. To borrow from Shiite Muslim legal scholarship, Bernard Lewis is the marja-e taqlid, “the source of emulation,” the scholar to whom on the great questions one must make reference…

His place in America would not have been predicted 35 years ago, when Lewis was already one of the great dons of Islamic studies, precisely because he is (in all the best senses) so very English–which doesn’t always play well in the United States. He is unrelentingly ironic and nuanced, preferring to come at the most consequential of matters obliquely. He is conservative, with a quiet, deep curiosity about small details and the traditions that have evolved and endured over centuries. He is urbane and witty, punctuating the most serious of discussions with subtle, usually mischievous, often mordant humor, gathered and delivered in many languages (translations are provided, though not without occasional frowning). He can be shy and, despite his vast learning, at times arrestingly modest…

Lewis has gained the broadest fame and notoriety for being the intellectual godfather behind the Bush administration’s critique of the Muslim Middle East. To quote Ian Buruma in the New Yorker, “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.” Pedagogically, this, too, would not have been expected. Lewis’s complicated ideas are not easily compacted and translated into policy prescriptions, by him or others. He has, nevertheless, been for years a man of public affairs. In 1970, Richard Perle, as a young staffer for Washington senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, observed Lewis giving a speech, and was astonished by his eloquence (“most people speak in sentences; he spoke in paragraphs”) and historical reach. Perle later introduced the Englishman to Washington. However, Lewis’s comings and goings in Washington and the media have been relatively quiet for a celebrity scholar…

And it must be said that the professor’s influence has, in all probability, been overstated–both by his friends and most loudly by those who have emotionally and intellectually been unhinged by the Iraq war. Until President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his former deputy Paul Wolfowitz, and White House speech writer Michael Gerson write their memoirs, we really won’t know to what extent Lewis, directly or indirectly, shaped their views of the Middle East, radical Islam, al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, and the possibilities for a post-Saddam Iraq…

I strongly doubt that Wolfowitz, long an advocate of toppling Saddam Hussein and an admirer and serious student of Lewis, pushed war primarily because of what the professor had written or said about the Middle East. When Wolfowitz remarked that a post-Saddam Iraq would be inclined toward being a more liberal state because over 50 percent of the population was female, that opinion surely didn’t derive from Lewis, who has keenly understood the magnetic power of traditional Islamic teachings for both men and women, even as he has underscored the extraordinarily debilitating effect that Muslim patriarchy, with its multiple wives and concubines, has had on Islamic civilization’s competitiveness…

Thoughtful observers could easily have favored a policy that aimed to replace the Baathist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and to rethink America’s reflexive support of the autocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where bin Ladenism was born, and been ignorant of the writings of Princeton University’s most famous professor emeritus. This certainly would not have been the ideal intellectual preparation for conflict in the Middle East, but it is a situation that I suspect occurred quite often inside the administration and out…

Although Lewis was certainly in favor of the war (still is), and certainly backed the idea of U.S. support for the establishment of an Iraqi democracy (still does), his views on Muslim history, which are usually expressed in broad brushstrokes that capture several centuries, always have underscored the unrequited expectations of those who would liberalize the modern Middle East. An appreciation of this point was behind the critique done by Buruma, an intellectually serious effort that avoids the anti-Zionist animadversions that have defined most left-of-center critiques of the Princeton professor since 9/11.

Buruma suggests that Lewis’s affection for the Muslim Middle East got the better of him, causing him to rashly throw his hitherto conservative intellectual force behind the democracy-through-war project of the Jacobin neocons in the Bush administration…

Buruma’s assessment is the polar opposite of those in the academy who despise Lewis for being insufficiently sensitive to Arabs and Muslims and supportive of Israel. Nonetheless Buruma’s reading is a variation of Edward Said’s charge against the Princeton scholar–that Lewis advances the “white man’s burden”–though out of love, not imperialist motives, as Said claimed. Buruma is undeniably correct in discerning an evolution in Lewis’s views since the University of London graduate in 1939 published his dissertation on the Assassins, a medieval heretical Shiite sect that once scared Sunni Muslim potentates from its strongholds in Iran and Syria.

Given the ugly history of the Muslim Middle East since 1945, it would be shocking if the professor’s views had not evolved. In 1945, for example, Lewis was not in favor of a Jewish state in Palestine; today, he is, seeing Israel as one of the things that has gone more right than wrong in the region. What Buruma does not appreciate–and he is far from alone in this–is that Lewis does see the rise of bin Ladenism, and 9/1l in particular, as an epochal event for both Islam and the West.

Although Lewis has never advocated the export of democracy by force, he became increasingly focused after 9/11 on the perverse nexus in the Muslim Middle East between tyranny and the growth of Islamic extremism. He understood–because he’d actually been reading the primary material produced by Sunni Wahhabi and Shiite extremists and by Arab dictatorships–that the United States in the 1990s was increasingly seen as weak in the Middle East, and that such perceptions could be lethal. He underscored the extraordinary dangers posed by Saddam’s aggressive totalitarian regime, with a proven hunger for weapons of mass destruction, which, lest we forget, was on the verge of escaping, thanks to French and Russian efforts, from its sanctions and isolation. Lewis, a child of 1930s Europe and a profound admirer of Winston Churchill, did not think the United States should make the mistake again that it made in 1991, in failing to finish off the Butcher of Baghdad.

But Lewis’s conservatism remains: He is still a qualified advocate of democratic change in the Middle East. Here is the qualification: He understands the centrality of the Koran and the Holy Law to the Islamic identity and Muslim emotions, and he understands that neither–even in the hands of the most brilliant Muslim modernists–is a vehicle for empowering democratic ideals. He does not trust Islamists. It is for this reason, among others, that Lewis has long admired the achievement of Kemal Atatürk, the dictatorial father of the secular (and semidemocratic) Turkish Republic.

Yet Lewis is also aware of the burgeoning democratic discussion in the Muslim Middle East. And he assesses this positively–democracy has become for him an essential part of solving the region’s many problems…

This is a bit much for Lewis. Nevertheless, it is probably correct to say that his conception of who will drive democracy in the Arab world no longer fits–if it ever did–the Turkish model, which the professor admires and so many in academe dislike, if not loathe. (Though they need not be mutually exclusive, liking Turkey and liking the Arab world are usually fire and water among scholars and among the experts of the State Department and CIA.)

So what is Bernard Lewis’s place in history, especially along the Potomac? Undoubtedly, his two short but compendious, bestselling books that appeared after 9/11–What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam–played a part in helping senior administration officials better understand the historical context of radical Muslims who had embraced terrorism as a means of expressing their faith…

His bestselling books and post-9/11 articles all hark back to Lewis’s greatest work, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, published in 1982. Perhaps the most illuminating book ever written on the Islamic world–a history book that has the chance of being read 50 years from now as closely and as profitably as when it was written–The Muslim Discovery of Europe allows the reader to see how Muslims saw the West, from Islam’s earliest days to modern times. (The Muslim Discovery of Europe‘s only real competitor would be The Venture of Islam, the three-volume masterpiece by the University of Chicago’s late, great Marshall Hodgson.) Lewis’s book could have been subtitled The Origins of Curiosity About Infidels, for it is a 1,400-year trek through the development of Muslims’ encounters with unbelievers…

As Lewis regularly points out, the word curiosity doesn’t really have good equivalents in Islamic languages. The Columbia University literary critic Edward Said, who loathed Lewis and the “orientalist” tradition behind him, never really understood to what degree curiosity (and sympathy)–not dark, imperialist, exploitative motives–drove Western scholarship about the Islamic world, especially during the formative “orientalist” age. A Palestinian Christian Arab by birth, whom Lewis famously debated on stage and dueled in the pages of the New York Review of Books in 1982, Said never really understood, either, how Western scholars could be proud, not particularly apologetic patriots and also profoundly respect foreign faiths, cultures, and lands. (Said never understood, as far as that goes, how men of differing views could remain civil. Under Lewis and his close friend Charles Issawi, a phenomenally accomplished scholar of both modern and medieval Islamic history who had fairly sharp political differences with Lewis, Princeton University was a refuge from the Third-Worldist, anti-Israeli political storms that made many Middle Eastern studies departments in America socially and intellectually unpleasant.)

It is impossible for a westerner to digest Lewis’s work without it profoundly affecting how he sees the Muslim Middle East… [His] writings on democracy in the Muslim world, and his former students and his many friends, who’ve all absorbed over the years perspectives of the British émigré-turned-American citizen, have probably helped to flesh out the administration’s rapidly evolving understanding of Middle Eastern politics and faith after 9/11. (An understanding that may now be vanishing as the Near East Bureau at the State Department regains control of American policy in the Middle East.) Published at the time of the invasion of Iraq, before President Bush’s most important speech in November 2003 about the need for representative government in the Middle East, Lewis’s commentary on democracy in The Crisis of Islam anticipates and amplifies the president’s themes:

The creation of a free society, as the history of existing democracies in the world makes clear, is no easy matter. The experience of the Turkish republic over the last half century and of some other Muslim countries more recently has demonstrated two things: first, that it is indeed very difficult to create a democracy in such a society, and second, that although difficult, it is not impossible… [1]t may well be possible to develop democratic institutions–not necessarily in our Western definition of that much misused term, but in one deriving from their own history and culture and ensuring, in their way, limited government under law, consultation and openness, in a civilized and humane society.

The forces of tyranny and terror are still very strong and the outcome is far from certain… If freedom fails and terror triumphs, the peoples of Islam will be the first and greatest victims. They will not be alone, and many others will suffer with them.

Many years ago, when I was still an Iran-watcher in the CIA’s clandestine service, I thanked Lewis, who had been my teacher at Princeton, for his writings and the long conversations that he’d so generously had with me… He’d taught me how to time travel–to reach back and touch the events, people, and literature that still define so much of the Muslim soul… We are all in his debt, and in his shadow. Kheli tashakkor mikonam, professor. Happy birthday, Bernard.

(Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.)

The Last Orientalist

  • 0
Skip to toolbar