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Culture & Ideas 12/3/01

A Sage for the Age



It's been a busy autumn for Bernard Lewis, the scholar whose work ranges from Persian poetry and the medieval assassin cult to Muslim perceptions of Europe to modern Turkey. Since September 11, "the patriarch of all Islamicists," as one historian has called him, has been the specialist of the season–and very much in demand. "I've been to Washington six times since the twin towers," Lewis said during a recent interview at his home in Princeton, N.J. And though a discretion born of wartime service in British intelligence prevents him from naming names, sources indicate that officials in the White House and the Pentagon were among the beneficiaries of his counsel.

Lewis's sharp-edged commentaries on what history means to Muslims–how it has shaped them, how they have used it and misused it–are what make him so much the scholar of the hour. (In fact, U.S. officials have been calling on Lewis ever since he came to Princeton from the University of London in 1974; before that he was just as much in demand by the British government.)

But those same strong readings of Middle Eastern culture, politics, and history, which some critics charge are loaded with ideological agendas ranging from Eurocentrism to Zionism, have made him the subject of considerable academic controversy during the past 30 years. As historian Stephen Humphreys of the University of California-Santa Barbara explains, Lewis has always insisted upon classical liberal values as a standard by which to measure the progress of Islamic nations, a notion that is anathema to campus champions of cultural relativism. "He's quite clear on the way a society must evolve if it wants to become modern," Humphreys says.

That clarity is one reason Lewis's views have often been valued more outside the academy than in it. Yet you will rarely see Lewis on the talk-show circuit. At 85, Princeton's Cleveland E. Dodge professor of Near Eastern studies emeritus pleads old age and fatigue. Besides, says the London-born scholar, "They talk to you for hours and then use four minutes of fragments." Clearly, fragments ill suit a man who speaks in fully formed paragraphs (he has composed many of his lectures, articles, and close to 30 books on a tape recorder).

Nevertheless, the professor's views are getting wider exposure than usual these days; he recently appeared on both Meet the Press and The Charlie Rose Show. Recent events have also brought greater numbers of general readers to his books. They are snapping up his new Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish, & Hebrew Poems and have put the 1995 Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years on the New York Times paperback bestseller list. Coming soon is the timely What Went Wrong? though readers eager to see how Lewis relates his wide learning to current events can turn to his article "The Revolt of Islam," in the November 19 issue of the New Yorker.

Still, in the academy, Lewis's hard-nosed but sympathetic approach was making a comeback even before radical Islam became a clear and present danger, says André Wink, author of Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. "I think that views on the Muslim world will change even more," says Wink, "and that might be good for scholarship." Lewis believes that it would be good for the Islamic world as well. Indeed, he argues that one of the big causes of the current mess in the Middle East is America's cultural condescension. He says there is more than a little truth to the charge leveled by many Middle Easterners "that the United States judges them by different and lower standards than it does Europeans and Americans, both in what is expected of them and in what they may expect–in terms of their financial well-being and their political freedom." This is most obvious, Lewis holds, in Washington's tolerance of repressive regimes, to whom it implicitly says, "We don't care what you do to your people at home, so long as you are cooperative in meeting our needs and protecting our interests."

Lewis concedes that this approach is partly the result of Washington's foreign-policy realism and America's thirst for Middle Eastern oil. But beyond that, he adds, "I think there is an underlying assumption that these people are different and are incapable of running a democratic society." It is an assumption that he strongly opposes. As proof, he points to Turkey, whose emergence as a democracy, however flawed, is the subject of some of his most important work.

Predictions. In a prophetic essay more than 10 years ago, "The Roots of Muslim Rage," Lewis cautioned that there was little the United States, or the West in general, could do to affect the outcome of a struggle that has been going on since the failure of the second Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683. Combined with the subsequent spread of European colonies in Asia and Africa, that setback for the Ottoman Empire marked a sharp reversal in fortunes for the larger Muslim world, Lewis explained. Once members of the more prosperous and culturally advanced civilization, Muslim peoples saw their standing fall drastically in relation to that of the peoples and nations of Europe. Now on the defensive, Lewis says, Muslims commenced a 300-year debate over what had gone wrong and how best to fix it.

In short, that debate turns on two alternative visions of the future. The one advocated by modernizing reformers was to emulate the West, adopting–or at least adapting–its best ideas, practices, and institutions; the other, which found only modest support until recent decades, was to return to the sacred past of the Muslim umma (community) that rose and spread under the prophet Mohammed and his early successors. If the Turks under Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk) were most successful in taking the former path, the Arab followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92) in what later became Saudi Arabia were most determined to achieve the latter.

Lewis has repeatedly noted that the debate was greatly complicated by the fact that Islam in its classical form did not separate church and state. And though separations did emerge in Muslim regimes, there has been an abiding murkiness about the status of the political sphere–and a general cynicism among Muslims about political leaders. Western powers, through indifference, arrogance, and reckless policies, threw up further barriers to the modernizing effort throughout the Middle East. "The only Western political model that took firm root in the modern Middle East was the one-party dictatorship," Lewis observes. Little wonder, he says, that the Westernizing voices began to lose ground to Islamic fundamentalists in recent decades. And what the Islamic revolution in Iran heralded has now taken a darker turn in the movement led by Osama bin Laden.

Threats. Lewis says that the West should not underestimate the man who fashions himself as a second Saladin engaged in a struggle against a modern crusade. He credits bin Laden with a poetic command of the Arabic language and a strong (if inaccurate) sense of history that resonates with many people throughout the Islamic world. "He gives expression to their resentment and rage," Lewis says, noting also that bin Laden comes across to them as a man of integrity and honor. "You must ask yourself, too, what alternative models there are, given the choice between Osama and the sort of corrupt rulers they have who are so tyrannical to them and submissive to foreigners." But Lewis is also clear that the West must meet this threat with unflinching resolve and force. "If you concede points," Lewis says, "if you show a willingness to compromise, that shows you are weak and frightened. You hear this again and again about both the Americans and the Israelis: They have gone soft; they can't take casualties; hit them hard enough and they will run. This is Osama's line about the United States. And this is also the underlying principle of Arafat's position regarding Israel."

Such bluntness explains why government officials come to Lewis for counsel. It also suggests why academics have found his views offensive. But scholars, even admiring ones, have registered other objections. Describing his work as "absolutely major," Patricia Crone of the Institute for Advanced Study, a former student of Lewis's, nevertheless charges that it can be superficial and predictable. "It's all very text-based," she says. "His whole approach is untouched by the social sciences." Humphreys, also a fan, finds a different problem: "Lewis tends to look at Islam, to some degree, as a closed set of ideas and values that do change over time but within the box of Islamic civilization . . . while today many scholars would suggest a more fluid movement between civilizations."

But that's mild stuff compared with charges that began flying on the ideologically overheated campuses of the 1970s, accusations to which Lewis, conservative-leaning and Jewish, was doubly vulnerable. Foremost among his detractors was Edward Said, a professor of literature at Columbia University. In articles, reviews, and his highly influential book, Orientalism (1978), Said labeled Lewis as one of the last "orientalists": those European scholars whose study of Eastern civilizations served as justification for European imperialism.

Questions. Saidian notions won legions of converts among students and younger academics throughout the humanities and social sciences as well as in the specialized area of Middle Eastern studies. Though Lewis responded to some of the accusations–nowhere more deftly than in his 1982 essay, "The Question of Orientalism"–a whole industry of "postcolonial" scholarship devoted to emphasizing the West's victimization of Third World peoples threatened to marginalize the position of scholars like Lewis.

The irony of such scholarship was obvious to some even before September 11. By depicting them as victims, Crone says, "it infantilized Muslims in a different way." And Muslim intellectuals also began to recognize as much. "When I was studying in the States in the '70s," says Iranian literary scholar Azar Nafisi, author of the forthcoming Reading Lolita in Tehran, "I was very much against people like Lewis. I had far more books by people like Said. When I went back and lived and taught in Tehran in 1979, I began to discover how many of my assumptions were wrong." Reading Lewis, she discovered, among other things, that Muslims until the mid-19th century had been far more critical of their own culture than any orientalist ever was–a self-critical spirit that she had been ignorant of until Lewis, and other "orientalists," led her to it.

Lewis himself takes great pleasure in the fact that so many of his works are translated and read in Islamic countries. To him, it might even be the strongest rebuttal to those who say that he writes to satisfy Western or Israeli preconceptions, prejudices, and agendas. He quotes a line from the preface to one of his books that was published by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: "I don't know who this man is," the translator wrote, "but one thing is clear: He is either a candid friend or an honest enemy who disdains to tell lies."

In the fading light of a late autumn afternoon, the patriarch chuckles softly. "I was rather pleased with that."


BORN London, May 1916

EDUCATION University of London:B.A. 1936; Ph.D. 1939

ACADEMIC AFFILIATIONS University of London, 1938-74; Institute for Advanced Study, 1974-86; Princeton University, 1974-present

HONORS Jefferson lecturer, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1990; Atatürk Peace Prize, 1998

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