Bernard Lewis and the Dangerous Creed of Freedom

In his memoir Notes on a Century, Bernard Lewis observes that it has become “fashionable to assume that everything Western is bad”. Lewis, nonetheless, allows himself to make one “blatantly chauvinistic statement” by claiming that “the quest for knowledge” is a “peculiarly Western feature”. Throughout the past half-millennium, from the time of the earliest European Orientalists, the intellectual curiosity of Western philologists, adventurers and scholars has transcended provincialism, religion, sentiment and compliance. Notes on a Century goes a long way towards explaining why this phenomenon appears to be under threat, dwelling as we do in an era of “intellectual conformism unknown for centuries”.

Bernard Lewis, speaker of some thirteen languages, has been a leading Western authority on the Middle East for an astonishing seven decades, since the publication of The Origins of Ismailism in 1940: a colossus in his field, impossibly brilliant and an intellect of the highest order. The late Edward Said, one-time professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, described Lewis in 2003 as “a tireless mediocrity”. This says more about the founder of post-colonial studies than it does about his adversary. A more accurate description of Lewis was made by a Muslim critic in 1966: “[He is] either a candid friend or an honest enemy and in any case one who disdains to distort the truth.” Lewis, now ninety-five years old, wants to be regarded as a dedicated and single-minded scholar who successfully avoided the pitfalls of both polemics and apologetics. Despite (or perhaps because of) bouts of celebrity, and interludes as an adviser to various heads of state including the United States of America and Turkey, Lewis has his Western critics. Most—but certainly not all—hail from the ranks of post-colonial studies.           

Notes on a Century coolly deflates the pretensions of Edward Said. Some of the blunders in Said’s Orientalism (1978) “serve no polemical purpose and must be ascribed to straightforward honest ignorance”. Said’s unawareness of chronology, placing the Muslim conquest of Turkey ahead of North Africa even though the latter preceded the former by some four centuries, epitomises ignorance of “the history of the Middle East but also of Europe”. Said’s Orientalism thesis has had an enormously detrimental impact on Western scholarship. His anti-Western ideology, based on “historical absurdity and bewildering inaccuracy”, became “the enforced orthodoxy in most departments devoted to colonial studies and literature of ‘the other’ in American universities”.

Said’s Orientalism, despite acknowledging the critical methods of Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault, amounts to little more than another version of vulgar Marxism. In this latest rendition, European explorers, linguists and scholars who studied the Middle East through the centuries engaged in a racist and imperialist project to advance Western hegemony: “every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric”. Lewis and his scholarly predecessors might have believed they were seeking truth with honest and clear-eyed research, but they were deluding themselves. To quote the writer David Pryce-Jones: 

For Said, these highly eclectic individuals were all engaged in a long-drawn conspiracy, international but invisible, to establish the supremacy of the West by depicting an East not only inferior but static and incapable of change.

According to Lewis, Said’s comprehensive denunciation of Western scholarship consists of a straightforward case of projection. Though the Egyptian-raised Said lived much of his adult life in the cosseted world of Western academia, “he must have assumed that an English professor of Arabic studies would have the same attitude to his subject as Said had to his”.

Lewis submits as a case in point the initial reaction of Arabs to the first Western archaeologists in the Middle East. Muslims, especially, were “mystified” as to why outsiders would be interested in their pre-Islamic forebears: having lived before the time of Muhammad, these ancestors were not a part of “useable history”. Lewis recognises that conventional Islamic culture possesses a type of historiography, in the form of a “recording, collection and critique” of the sayings of the Prophet: “They also devised a complex methodology for studying and classifying hadiths by content, chain of transmission and reliability.” In the end, though, the purpose of this kind of history has been to use “the past to legitimise the present”. History as method of legitimisation did not vanish from the West with the advent of the modernity—“Monarchist history legitimises monarchy; republican history deligitimises monarchy and legitimises the republic”—and yet the diverse set of characters accused by Edward Said of acting in bad faith were driven, not by racism or imperialism but by intellectual inquisitiveness. Said’s suspicions echo the fears of locals who long ago rejected the notion that foreigners would forswear comfort and safety on account of uninhibited curiosity—surely the real business of archaeologists had to be espionage or hidden treasure.

The Saidians, in their disparagement of conventional Western scholarship, underestimate an intellectual impulse that has less to do with sympathy than empathy, and constitutes “the desire to know other civilisations and the ability to understand them”. They deny the Westerner’s capacity to vicariously experience “the feelings of others”. All of this, of course, would strike academic-activists—who believe “their Marxist or other ideologically defined method gives them an intellectual sword and buckler with which they can confront every danger”—as risible. But even here Lewis has the better of the argument. In the chapter “Why Study History?” he spells out the pre-requisite for genuine historical inquiry: 

The scholar tests his hypothesis against the evidence; he doesn’t test the evidence against his hypothesis, and then accept or reject it, according to whether it fits or does not fit that hypothesis.

In short, the labours of tenured ideologues—in contrast to the inspired amateurs of an earlier era—cannot be categorised as scholarship. What they do fails to meet even the most basic requirement of that discipline.

The Saidians are part of the “deadly hand of political correctness” that has descended on Western universities since the 1970s, and helps to explain why “Islam now enjoys a level of immunity from comment or criticism in the Western world that Christianity has lost and Judaism never had”. Middle Eastern Studies, along with most of the other “Studies”, promotes a kind of cultural relativism in which all things Western are problematic, while everything else is beyond criticism: “Saidians now control appointments, promotions, publications and even book reviews with a degree of enforcement unknown in the Western universities since the eighteenth century.” Even so, there are signs of hope in these grey days of PC orthodoxy, one of them being the establishment of ASMEA, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, by a group of scholars who choose to treat with contempt the enforced groupthink of MESA, the Middle East Studies Association.

Robert Irwin’s For Lust of Knowing (2006) provides a gloriously colourful outline of the lives of Western Orientalists, starting with the crazy father of Orientalism, the Frenchman Guillaume Postel (1510–81). A professor, diplomat, linguist, Cabbalist and religious Universalist, Postal probably exemplifies the spirit of the Renaissance no less than Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo. The founder of modern (or more rigorous) Orientalism was Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy (1758–1838), who, amongst other endeavours, studied “medieval Arab grammarians and lexicographers” with a passion. The life of Ignaz Goldziher (1850–1921), considered the founder of Islamic studies in Europe, is at least as fascinating as any of the others. Irwin’s array of Orientalists is so utterly divergent in character, purpose and interests that Said’s attempt to categorise all of them as one standardised and conspiratorial entity would strike most people as absurd. The two qualities that many of them do share are brilliance of mind and unbridled inquisitiveness. It is in this context that Irwin names Bernard Lewis as one of the last great Orientalists in a long line of virtuosos.

Only Soviet Orientalists might have been guilty of conspiring to weaken traditional religious or cultural Asian beliefs in the name of a European Empire. Lewis, in Notes on a Century, speaks of two modes of anti-Islamic writing in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s, one more openly propagandist, the other imitating scholarship in that it employed references and footnotes. The objective of both, however, was a concerted attack on Islam, questioning the authenticity of the life of the Prophet Muhammad combined with tirades against the falsity of religion in general. At the time a Party-run organisation called the Union of the Militant Godless orchestrated public discourse on Islam. Here, at last, we have a possible example of reality aligning itself with Edward Said’s Orientalism theory. Why, then, are we not surprised Said and his New Left disciples never had anything to say “on the devastating critiques in Soviet writing on Islam” or even “the ruthless Soviet repression of the Muslim peoples under their rule” 

Notes on a Century recounts the circumstances of some of Lewis’s achievements as a scholar-writer, not the least of which was The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961). Lewis, utilising newly opened Ottoman archives, traced the extraordinary journey of the Turks from seventeenth-century Ottoman despotism to the republic’s first free elections in May 1950. At the end of his fascinating narrative, Lewis pronounces Turkey’s embrace of modernity, despite all the problems that would be confronted in the times ahead, as “irreversible”. Critics—not from the politically correct Left but from the other direction—sometimes refer to The Emergence of Modern Turkey as evidence of an apologist element in Lewis’s representation of Islam, especially since newer editions of the book have been published and yet the upbeat conclusion remains, as does the 1950 cut-off date.

In Notes on a Century, Lewis reminds us that any fair-minded observer of the May 1950 elections would have had reason to be optimistic, given that “a regime which had for decades enjoyed a virtual monopoly of power” organised and presided over “its own electoral defeat”. Locking The Emergence of Modern Turkey into the 1950 timeframe and retaining the optimistic conclusion help preserve the integrity of the book. Moreover, to re-read The Emergence of Modern Turkey, at a time when Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party continues to subvert the conventions of the Turkish Republic, is devastating. What also should not be overlooked is one of the reasons Lewis shifted his research to Turkey in the first place. After the founding of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, Jews—even British Jews such as Bernard Lewis—could no longer obtain a visa for Syria, the country in which he had been pursuing much of his research.

Another controversy that followed The Emergence of Modern Turkey came from his reference to the massacres of Armenians by the Turks in 1915. Originally he used the word holocaust to describe this dreadful event but in the third edition changed it to slaughter. In Notes on a Century Lewis provides a perfectly reasonable explanation for the amendment, which neither questions nor minimises what happened. However, an interview he gave to Le Monde in 1993 on the matter led to four lawsuits being served on him, two criminal and two civil, all of them preposterous and premised on people’s (professed) hurt feelings. Eventually, three of the charges were dropped, although the French judge found him partially guilty on the fourth charge but ordered him to pay only a token one franc each to the plaintiffs, the Forum of Armenian Associations and the Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et l’Antisémitisme. Lewis’s ultimate response is that of the genuine scholar: “What was at issue was not the correctness of my opinion but my right to express it …” 

Lewis’s enduring reputation as a renowned authority on the interrelationship between the West and Islam—The Middle East and the West (1964), The Muslim Discovery of Europe (1982), Islam and the West (1993), for instance—meant that his scholarly opinion on the “root cause” of September 11 suddenly had a vast audience, at least for a time. On April 27, 2003, What Went Wrong (2002) was the number one paperback on the Sunday New York Times best-selling list, while The Crisis of Islam (2003) hit number one on the hardcover list. Lewis’s central thesis, at the risk of oversimplification, is that a three-cornered struggle between autocrats (tribal or otherwise), Islamists and secular-minded reformers extends throughout much of the Islamic world. Here we encounter the same premise that runs through The Emergence of Modern Turkey, only with the author now sounding far less sanguine about the ultimate outcome.

Common to all these combatants, Lewis wrote in the January 2002 edition of the Atlantic, is a devastating sense of humiliation at having to live in the shadow of the formerly inferior West: 

Why did the discoverers of America sail from Spain rather than from a Muslim Atlantic port, out of which voyages were indeed attempted in earlier times? Why did the great scientific breakthrough occur in Europe and not, as one might reasonably have expected, in the richer, more advanced, and in most respects more enlightened realm of Islam?

Lewis’s spell as a celebrated commentator and journalist in the mainstream media declined as the immediacy of September 11 receded. The population mostly went back to sleep and PC rectitude reasserted itself. His fourteen-page article “The Revolt of Islam” in the November 19, 2001, edition of the New Yorker earned Lewis the George Polk Award for magazine reporting. All the same, the editor never again invited Lewis to write for the magazine. The notion of a clash of civilisations, Lewis wryly observes in Notes on a Century, was “obviously not in accord with their worldview”.

Edward Said, not unexpectedly, gave no credence to Lewis’s explanation for September 11. Although Said never actually condoned the terrorist attacks, as he never quite condoned Saddam Hussein, he effectively presented their case to the Western world. To borrow from Robert Irwin, Said praised the terrorists with faint damns. The best the leftist contingency could do to rationalise September 11 was to speak of “chickens coming home to roost” and “blowback”. In Notes on a Century, Lewis argues that those who blame the West for everything bad that happens in the world are “being extremely ethnocentric and arrogant”. They perpetuate, paradoxically, an old triumphalist prejudice—albeit “turned inside out”—since their underlying assumption remains “that everything that happens in the world is determined by the West”.

Those who employ a Marxian or secular evaluative framework are destined to remain clueless when it comes to the realities of the Middle East. They have no more insight into (say) the Arab Spring than any other uninformed Westerner who reacts with “bafflement and incomprehension” to every new political development in the region, from the 1978 Iranian revolution to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Lewis makes it clear, for instance, that because of cultural constraints Yasser Arafat was never in a position to recognise, even on a provisional basis, the right of Israel to exist. His sense of shame would have been too appalling. The PLO was always free to endorse Resolution 181 of the United Nations, which recommended in 1947 the establishment of a Jewish state and an Arab state in the territory of Mandatory Palestine, but Arafat’s pride precluded him from doing so. It was all of Mandatory Palestine or nothing, as he explained to Habib Bourguiba, the ruler of Tunisia, in 1974: “He could not stand up before the world assembly and renounce the rest of Palestine, not even as a tactic.” The so-called Oslo peace process had no chance of success, because it could not grant Arafat what his code of honour demanded—the eradication of the State of Israel.

Campaigners for Boycott, Divest and Sanctions dismiss this kind of analysis as partisan and devoid of any pretensions to scholarship. Bernard Lewis, one of the great scholars of the century, turns out to be nothing more than an apologist for Israel and, therefore, fair game for any kind of smear. He himself mentions, for example, Norman G. Finkelstein’s comment in his 2008 book Beyond Chutzpah that Lewis was “indicted and convicted by a French court for denying the Armenian holocaust”. Forever the gentleman, Lewis allows himself nothing more than a mild rejoinder: “It would appear the author lives up to the title of the book.” 

Critics of Lewis are not only on the anti-Zionist Left. Those on the other side of the political divide, especially the denouncers of neo-conservatism, ascribe to him the “Lewis Doctrine”, the supposed set of guidelines that informed Vice-President Cheney and in turn President George W. Bush, which ultimately resulted in the intervention of the United States in Iraq. Lewis denies the charges and claims to have had little sway over the Bush administration, not the least reason being that he advocated a completely different plan for dealing with Saddam Hussein: 

I still feel that the liberation of Iraq could have been achieved far more peacefully and more effectively by collaborating with the rulers of the free zone in the north. I have sometimes been blamed by the media for the second invasion of Iraq. This is the opposite of the truth. What I actually proposed, the recognition of a “Free Government of Iraq,” would have given international legitimacy to a home-grown, independent movement and thus would have accelerated the overthrow, from within, of the already crumbling tyranny of Saddam Hussein. But it was not to be.

Bernard Lewis belongs to a very exclusive club. He has been roundly criticised by some as an apologist for Israel and by others as an apologist for Islam. The accusation that he is “soft” on Islam derives, at least partly, from his use of the term Islamic Fundamentalism. It is as if he were letting Islam off the hook, a notion supposedly exemplified by the remark that the crime of suicide bombing was a “perversion” of Islam, and against the teachings of the Koran. Similarly, he is on record as saying that while “honour killings” are part of the Middle Eastern tradition, “they are condemned and forbidden by Islamic law, but with limited effect”. The critics of Lewis are free to argue their case, but the idea of Lewis as an apologist for anything seems unlikely.

Despite his celebrity status at times, and his mixing with influential political figures on occasion, Lewis appears to have remained true to his calling as a scholar and, more specifically, an Orientalist. Orientalists have been a subversive lot, but not in the fictitious way attributed to them by Edward Said. Orientalists, like all genuine scholars, apply the blowtorch of reason without fear or favour. Let Bernard Lewis’s research into the nature of slavery in the Arab world, Race and Slavery in the Middle East (1990), serve as but one example of the authenticity of his scholarship.

Europe’s Renaissance unleashed an almost fiendish craving to understand the truth of what it means to be human. One of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks contains the drawing of the womb of a woman who died in the later stages of pregnancy. Leonardo cut open her body and sketched an unnervingly accurate depiction of the exposed foetus, huddled, plump, face resting forlornly on its small hand. More than five hundred years later the resultant image still has the power to disturb, and yet such a reaction is in a sense beside the point, as it would have been to the artist. The first Orientalist, the Frenchman Guillaume Postel, was possessed of this same desire to seek out the truth irrespective of convention or sentiment. Edward Said, in other words, had the Orientalists exactly wrong. Not so long ago an anonymous Iranian dissident wrote: “I believe in freedom of religion, but my own religion is freedom.” Notes on a Century is a testament to Bernard Lewis’s devotion to that dangerous creed.

Daryl McCann’s reviews appear frequently in Quadrant. He has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au.   

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