By Michael Curtis
A saying attributed to Emperor Napoleon while in exile is “What a novel my life has been.” Today, an equally fascinating “novel” could be written based on the life of an intellectual emperor, Bernard Lewis, the world’s greatest scholar of the Middle East, past and present, who has just celebrated his 100th birthday. At this moment when deceit and spin have been prominent features of contemporary political activity, the record of Lewis’s pursuit of the truth and his scrupulous analysis of Middle East affairs is especially commendable, and should be honored.
Bernard’s life starting with the passion for books and languages he had already displayed during his Jewish childhood in London, to his first publication in 1937, to his last book of reflections of a Middle East historian is one of devotion to his subject and commitment to truth. His writings on the Middle East, brilliant in the classical British tradition of Gibbon, Macaulay, and Hazlitt, have made an extraordinary contribution to understanding a troubled area of the world. All analysts, even media pundits, will appreciate his two approaches: emphasis on the need for careful historical research; and the importance of understanding a society from within, by learning its languages, reading its writings, visiting it, and talking to its people.
Bernard carried out his research in many countries, especially in Turkey, through his study of texts and documents in national archives that informed his commentaries on Islamic societies and cultures. He was proud of the fact that he was the first scholar to have access to the newly opened Ottoman archives, which then led in 1961 to his magisterial work, The Emergence of Modern Turkey. He was not proud of what Middle East countries have become.
A novel on Bernard would portray him as a man for all seasons. Readers would relish his mastery of a dozen languages, his eloquence in writing and in speech, his love of music, especially opera, his poetry written in a number of languages, his witty comments on people and affairs, and above all, his generosity in helping students and others interested in the Middle East to understand the issues.
One of the amusing events in his career occurred during World War II, while he was supposedly attached to the British Foreign Office but really a member of Army Intelligence. A document in Albanian had been found and possibly contained military information. Bernard learned Albanian in a few days, the only person in Britain who could accomplish this feat, and translated the document that turned out to be not a secret document but a laundry list.
It needs to be said in this era of political correctness that Bernard defended and was proud of his profession as a student of Orientalism, the philology, culture, and religion of the Middle East. Orientalism for him was not, as some literary critics such as Edward Said have asserted, a tool of Western imperialist domination or exploitation by the West to seek power over the Islamic world, but an honorable profession of objective scholarship.
Bernard gave a definitive answer to the critics of “Orientalism.” In his 1993 book he said, “What imperial purpose was served by (Britain and France) deciphering the ancient Egyptian language, for example, and then restoring to the Egyptians knowledge of and pride in their forgotten, ancient past?”
Much of the continuing interest in Bernard’s work on the part of both specialists and the public, stems from his objective analysis of Islamic history and societies. Lewis was never politically correct, and considered political correctness to be anathema. His writings on the religion of Islam and Islamic societies remain vital because of the 1.3 billion Muslims and the role of the Muslim world at the present time. Bernard said he tried to provide a fair and balanced account of the realities of that world, good and bad.
For Lewis, Islam has multiple meanings, a religion with a system of beliefs, doctrines and ideas, and also a civilization that developed under the aegis of the religion. That civilization had gone through several different phases. It was now going through a major crisis, one of hatred and violence.
On the one hand, Lewis’s work shows respect for Islam and the richness of Islamic history. On the other hand, he points out that the political history of Islam is one of almost unrelieved autocracy. It was authoritarian, often arbitrary, sometimes tyrannical, and still is today. There was a sovereign power to which subjects owed and still owe complete and unwavering obedience as a religious duty imposed by Holy Islamic law.
His work is full of unusual insights. In one essay in 1996 Lewis pointed out the absence of the concept of citizenship in the Islamic world, illustrating this by the fact there is no word in Arabic, Farsi, or Turkish for “citizen.” The concept of citizen as participant in governance is absent. In one of his books he discussed a rarely mentioned subject, one that is usually ignored today: the important Muslim involvement in and contribution to slavery and the slave trade. He was the first person to use the term “Islamic fundamentalism.”
Halfway through his career, Lewis almost by accident became a public intellectual. He reached a wider audience through his commentaries on the sad state of Islamic societies today. Perhaps the first influential and controversial publication was his essay in 1990 on The Roots of Muslim Rage. That rage stemmed partly from Muslim anger over the fact that infidels were ruling over true believers, and partly from the Muslim rejection and war on modernity.
The reality is that Muslim societies had not kept pace with the West. Lewis argued that from the 11th century on, Islamic societies have been decaying because if their own internal problems and self-inflicted failures on political, economic, and gender issues. The deterioration was not the result of Western colonialism. Nevertheless, Islamic societies blame the West for their failures rather than seek reform of their autocratic systems that subsidize extremism.
Lewis brought to public attention the concept of a “clash of civilizations,” a term he coined, the struggle between Islam and Christianity, both of which claim universal truth. He was the first analyst to be conscious, three years before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, of the significance of Osama bin Laden and his ideology of jihadism. Lewis saw Osama not as an ordinary terrorist, but as an ambitious warrior, planning to restore the Islamic Empire, first by conquering Andalusia (Spain), the last Islamic stronghold on the European continent that was retaken in 1492.
In this regard, two things were important for Lewis. One was that Islam has not divorced religion and politics. The other was that he rejected the idea that terrorism was not related to Islam. On the contrary, he asserted that terrorists themselves claimed to acting in the name of Islam. In an earlier book, The Assassins, dealing with the medieval group of that name, Lewis indicated that terrorist organizations were a deformation of Islam.
That group, the Assassins, failed and was eliminated. The issue now for the West is to seek the elimination of the present terrorist Islamist groups. How is this to be done? Lewis has warned about taking military action, but also argued that that Western efforts and hopes to democratize the Middle East were unlikely to succeed. Lewis challenges the political world to provide an adequate response to Islamic terrorism. Real peace in the Middle East can only come after the dictatorships in the area have gone.
It is important to recognize the intellectual giants who have contributed to our understanding of the world. Bernard Lewis is one of those giants. His 100th birthday is to be celebrated.