Bernard Lewis’ Stubborn Hope

In Notes on a Century, the historian is still optimistic about a ‘great civilization’ in the Muslim world

Bernard Lewis beckons to us as if from the mists of legend. A poet-scholar, linguist, observer and sometime participant in the great events of the Middle East for seven decades, the London-born scholar belongs more to the world of T.E. Lawrence than to ours. At 95, his prose is translucent and his recollection luminous.

But Notes on a Century—his personal and professional memoir—makes for sad reading, for two reasons. The first is that we will not find another like Bernard Lewis; it is a valedictory essay not just for a remarkable man but for an epoch. No university today could train a poet capable of extracting the red thread of history from the obscure orthography of official archives, or a historian-diplomat who knows the songs of a dozen peoples in their own dialects. Part of the reason is ideological. The post-colonial-studies movement typified by the late Edward Said has ruined a field that once was called “Orientalism”—meaning simply a specialty in Near Eastern philology rather than Greek and Roman. Saudi and other Gulf State funding of Middle East studies programs, meanwhile, has made a critical stance toward Muslim culture an academic career-killer. Even without the ideological divide, though, our culture has grown too brittle to nurture another mind of Lewis’ depth.

The second, even sadder reason is the disappointment of Lewis’ hope for what he calls the “heirs of an old and great civilization.” For decades, Lewis balanced a clear-sighted critique of the failings of Muslim society with an underlying optimism about the future of the Arabs, Turks, and Persians. The backwardness of Muslim societies, he insisted, was a self-inflicted condition rather than the crime of Western colonialists. But he never lost faith that the West that defeated Hitler and overcame communism also could find a way to nurture modern institutions of civil society in Muslim countries. Lewis not only reported their history but also translated their poetry, befriended their men, and loved their women.

This optimism made Lewis an icon for American conservatives, and an enormous, if reluctant influence on American policy: Although he advised against the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, Lewis is indelibly (if unfairly) linked with inflated neo-conservative expectations for Muslim democracy. But Lewis explicitly warned against a simple-minded rush to parliamentary forms in the Muslim world, hoping instead for a gradual expansion of existing consultative mechanisms into something that would approach democracy at some undermined date. But Lewis and the neo-conservatives shared an inherent optimism about the changing Muslim culture that informed the national mood after Sept. 11.

Lewis’ autobiography went to press just as the wave of optimism that attended the Arab Spring had begun to fade, and his lifelong optimism appears to be curling a bit around the edges, as a different and much darker picture than the one he imagined is emerging from Morocco to Afghanistan. His criticism of Muslim society was always tempered by respect and even affection. Part of his great popularity as a writer may be explained by the fact that his hopes resonated with characteristic American generosity and optimism. And so his disappointment also is ours.

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Bernard Lewis was the child of Jews born in England whose modest success in business made it possible for him to attend a respectable school and then the University of London. His skill at languages brought him to the wartime British intelligence services. He stood out from his peers both as a writer for a broad audience—his 1950 popular work The Arabs in History went through six editions—and as a scholar. He was the first Western scholar to gain access to the vast archives of the Ottoman Empire, and one of very few with the skills to examine them. His 1961 book The Emergence of Modern Turkey made him the outstanding scholar in the field.

But his single most influential utterance may have been a 1990 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” with a warning that would be remembered 11 years later after the World Trade Center attack:

Islam is one of the world’s great religions. Let me be explicit about what I, as a historian of Islam who is not a Muslim, mean by that. Islam has brought comfort and peace of mind to countless millions of men and women. It has given dignity and meaning to drab and impoverished lives. … It has taught people of different races to live in brotherhood and people of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable tolerance. It inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievement, enriched the whole world. But Islam, like other religions, has also known periods when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence. It is our misfortune that part, though by no means all or even most, of the Muslim world is now going through such a period, and that much, though again not all, of that hatred is directed against us.

Islam saw itself as the center of truth and enlightenment, Lewis explained, and divided the world into the House of Islam and the House of War—that part of the world yet unassimilated into the true faith. Muslims could not accept that the ascendancy of the West had left them weak, backward, and humiliated. As he explained,

The Muslim has suffered successive stages of defeat. The first was his loss of domination in the world. … The second was the undermining of his authority in his own country, through an invasion of foreign ideas and laws and ways of life. … The third—the last straw—was the challenge to his mastery in his own house, from emancipated women and rebellious children. … It was also natural that this rage should be directed primarily against the millennial enemy and should draw its strength from ancient beliefs and loyalties.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Lewis explained Muslim rage to anguished Americans in two best-selling books, What Went Wrong? (2002), and The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (2003). He notes that in April 2003, the former was at the top of the New York Times paperback best-seller list while the latter topped the hardcover list. As a public intellectual who knew personally most of the leading figures in Middle Eastern politics and as a scholar of unquestioned credentials, Lewis combined admonition and reassurance. The dark side of Islam, he continues to insist, ultimately is an anomaly for this “great civilization” in whose ultimate success Lewis still believes.