Bernard Lewis

The Islam scholar U.S. politicians listen to.

What Went Wrong? is the title of the latest book (there have been more than three dozen) by 85-year-old scholar of the Islamic world Bernard Lewis. It is scheduled to be published next year, but no one can wait for this hardcover answer. High-level administration officials are said to have met with him. Journalists cite him as a pre-eminent authority. Bookstore owners can barely keep his oeuvre in stock. He is making speeches, appearing on talk shows, writing op-ed columns. The New Yorker this week ran his huge essay, “The Revolt of Islam,” which updates his much-cited 1990 Atlantic article “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” For more than 60 years as a scholar he has explored the sometimes fruitful, often violent meeting of Islam and the West. It was he, after all, who called it a “clash of civilizations.” Lewis, as comfortable discoursing on the 12th-century leader Saladin as on Osama Bin Laden, knows why we are under attack.         

Lewis is not just a historian, he is himself a historical figure: the magisterial scholar who writes Olympian prose, who has been everywhere, done everything, met everyone. He has produced the kind of groundbreaking, though specialized scholarship appreciated only within the academy and written lucid works of high order for popular audiences—his The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years was recently on the best-seller list. Among his languages are Arabic, Aramaic, French, German, Hebrew, Latin, Persian, and Turkish. (A witty raconteur, he drops jokes in Arabic or Persian to younger scholars to see if they are on their toes.) He has shepherded his students’ dissertations and had coffee with world leaders. When he is gone, there will be no one with his depth and breadth to pick up his mantle.

It is because he knows so deeply the ancient rivalries that still animate modern resentments—he did much of the original scholarship revealing that history—that his counsel is so prized today. He is one-stop shopping for baffled Westerners needing a coherent worldview to explain our current situation. His major themes on the subject are these: For a thousand years Islam dominated the West in culture, science, and military prowess. But since 1683 and the failed Turkish siege of Vienna, Islam has been in retreat—dominated and bettered by the West by every possible measure. Because the Islamic world has an acute sense of history and America does not (Lewis is fond of pointing out that our phrase “That’s history” means something is to be forgotten), this reversal has fed centuries of acrimony. America is the target because it has inherited the mantle of European imperialism and because it produces a culture of temptation and seduction. Rage is also fed by our policy of cosseting oppressive governments in the region who serve our ends. We are also the victim of an existential dilemma—Islam’s failures to succeed at modernity. Because Islam says it is God’s will that Islam triumph, how can the infidels be on top?

Lewis himself started his career as a scholar steeped in the medieval world, specializing in Islamic religious movements—but then the modern world, in the form of World War II, awakened a fascination with current events. Born and raised in London, Lewis spent most of the war dealing with Middle Eastern matters for the British Foreign Office. After the war, he resumed teaching at the University of London and continued his scholarship and writing, turning out reams of articles and books on the history of the Islamic world and such myriad topics as economics, trade, the creation of guilds, slavery, linguistics, cultural identity, the role of women, and the status of Jews. (Lewis himself first became fascinated with the languages of the Middle East when he learned Hebrew for his own bar mitzvah.) In 1974, he was recruited to cross the Atlantic and become a professor at Princeton—an acknowledgement that America was then still dependent on importing European scholars in the field in order to overtake European scholarship.

It’s easy to pick up Lewis’ books and open almost at random to a page that has chilling relevance to today. From The Middle East: “[B]y far the most important contribution of the West to life—and death—in the Islamic world was in weaponry. … No less a person than Saladin … in allowing the continued presence of European merchants … explain[ed] that they were useful since ‘there is not one of them that does not bring and sell us weapons of war, to their detriment and to our advantage.’ ” On the 19th-century rise of Wahhabism, (the branch of Islam practiced by Bin Laden): “Puritanical in precept, militant in practice … the religious revivalism which it represented influenced Muslims in many countries and imbued them with a new militancy in the coming struggle against European invaders.”

Or take The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam, published in 1967. That book comes out of Lewis’ own pioneering scholarship for his 1939 doctoral thesis on the murderous Islamic dissidents who gave the world the word for political killing. Concerning the Assassins’ place in Islamic history, he writes: “[T]heir movement … was regarded as a profound threat to the existing order. … [They] succeeded in reshaping and redirecting the vague desires, wild beliefs and aimless rage of the discontented into an ideology and an organization which, in cohesion, discipline and purposive violence, have no parallel in earlier or in later times.” Until now. But at least, as he writes of the Assassins, “[P]erhaps ultimately the most significant point, is their final and total failure.”

In the late 1970s, two events shook the field of Middle Eastern studies. One was the publication in 1978 of Edward Said’s Orientalism. In Orientalism, Said, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, attacked the entire enterprise of Western study of the Middle East as an extension of colonial oppression. What was previously regarded as scholarship—trying to understand by examining original sources the creation and beliefs of another culture—Said asserted was itself a means of reducing and dominating that culture. Lewis, who spent a career through painstaking scholarship reconstructing the world of medieval Islam, was deconstructed by Said in a fevered, often ludicrously unsupported caricature. Although Said claimed to expose the hidden biases of Middle Eastern scholars, his own obsessive anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism animates all his work. His critique has been widely embraced and adopted in departments of Middle Eastern study throughout academia.

Lewis, however, decided that more important than ritual accusations of post-colonial bias and studies in self-reference was understanding what was going on in the Islamic world, an urgent question in 1979, the year of the Iranian revolution. While continuing his historical scholarship, he has continued to address contemporary issues for a larger audience. And as the rise of Saidism began to overshadow Lewis’ importance as a figure in academia (he could never be dismissed, his scholarship is too vast and fundamental for that), Lewis became a more revered figure outside academia, for people seeking context for our political crises.

Since Sept. 11, Said, who in recent years has dismissed as racist hysterics anyone who has warned of the dangers of militant Islam, has been nearly invisible. He did emerge in the pages of The Nation to again denounce Lewis for daring to assert there are such entities as “Islam” and the “West,” and to claim the attacks were committed by a “tiny band of crazed fanatics” who are no more a threat to the world than were the Branch Davidians. It remains to be seen if self-indictments such as this will cause a reassessment of Said’s influence among Middle Eastern studies departments.

Among Lewis’ many contributions to scholarship that can’t be undone by even the most fervent post-colonialist, postmodernist, deconstructionist, it’s-all-our-faultists was to pioneer the field of social history—telling the story of a civilization by portraying the lives of average people, not just accounts of rulers, military leaders, the towering figures of their times. But as he continues to produce cogent, necessary work in his ninth decade, Lewis has to be seen as the towering figure in his field.