Bernard Lewis: a legacy of knowledge but not wisdom

Eminent historian Professor Bernard Lewis, a British born American, passed away on 19 May. He was 12 days short of his 102nd birthday. I was kind of waiting for this news: he was old and living at an assisted living facility near New York and had not been in the press for some time. I was looking forward to the news because I had a certain regard for his learning, I did benefit from his writings but I also developed strong reservations about his scholarship. Some reputed academics had identified him as one who was always interested in finding faults with Arabs and Muslims, and I generally agree with this view.

Lewis began his journey in the field of Muslim history by exploring a splinter Muslim group known as the Isma’ilis. Although the book was published in 1940, it generated very little impact on scholarship in the field. A major breakthrough in his career came with his works on Turkey. He noted the general tendency in countries such as Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Egypt to follow in the footsteps of Europe to “modernise” their economies and societies. Witnessing this trend around the middle of the century, he enthusiastically made a forecast that the idea of nationalism was going to sweep the Muslim world, and Islam as a political force was going to suffer the same fate as that of Christianity in Europe in the 19th century.

By referring to the mission of the Prophet of Islam, he predicted that, “Another such struggle is being fought in our own time – not against Al-Lat and Al-‘Uzza (pre-Islamic objects of worship) – but a new set of idols called states, races, nations; this time it is the idols that seem to be victorious”. However within years he seemed to note the weakness in his sweeping remark and in another article entitled “The Return of Islam” he acknowledged the strength of Islam as a socio-political power and revised his thesis in 1976:

“A Muslim Iraqi would feel far closer bonds with a non-Iraqi Muslim than with a non-Muslim Iraqi. Muslims of different countries, speaking different languages, share the same memories of a common and sacred past, the same awareness of corporate identity, the same sense of a common predicament and destiny. It is not nation or country which, as in the West, forms the historical basis of identity, but the religio-political community, and the imported Western idea of ethnic and territorial nationhood remains, like secularism, alien and incompletely assimilated.”

Read: Controversial Middle East scholar, Bernard Lewis, dies aged 101

Lewis seemed to have been alarmed by the 1973 war (Ramadan/ Yom Kippur) in West Asia which was followed by a successful oil embargo against several pro-Israeli nations. Perhaps more alarming was the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. An intelligent Lewis noted publication of numerous books and articles on a variety of themes such as “fundamentalist Islam”, “militant Islam”, “resurgent Islam”, “political Islam”, “Islamic revivalism”; all indicating renewed interest among Muslims in traditional Islamic ideas and values. A keen observer of international politics, Lewis also noticed the gradual decline and fall of the former Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Within years he transformed his return of Islam thesis to a new thesis called “The Clash of Civilisations”. In an article entitled “The Roots of Muslim Rage” written in 1990 he formulated his argument as follows:

“It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilisations – the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both. It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival.”

Lewis clearly defines the relationship between the Islamic and Western civilisation as “we” and “they”, and in order to justify his thesis, he imposes this division on Muslims: he manipulates the history of both Islamic and Western civilisations. He argues that Muslims believe in dividing humanity into “themselves and others”, and then he says that, “These definitions not only define the outsider but also, and perhaps more particularly, help to define and illustrate our perception of ourselves”. In defining the Muslim understanding of the “other”, his main aim is to develop a new interpretation of what constitutes Western identity. In fact throughout the article Lewis’ interest is to identify him (a Jewish born in Great Britain) with Western civilisation and that the US (according to Lewis a daughter of Europe) as the flag bearer of Western civilisation in the world today.

Why is he so interested in identifying with Western civilisation? This is perhaps because Arnold Toynbee, a far better known historian of Western civilisation than Lewis, barely considered the Jews and the state of Israel as parts of Western civilisation. On his part Lewis seems to have been interested in justifying an ever expanding Israel in international politics. As for the background of the expression Judeo-Christian tradition, a reference Lewis very conveniently approves is also misleading. For, there was no reference to Judeo-Christian heritage for the background of Western civilisation until the late 19th century. At the end of the 19th century Nietzsche used the phrase in a negative sense to criticise the lack of spiritual values in it. However, the use of the phrase was deliberately cultivated in order to neutralise Hitler’s aggression against the Jews in Europe in the middle of the 20th century. It is also interesting to note that Lewis counsels his Western audience not to be provoked by “irrational reaction against that rival”. Lewis seems to be exploiting the perceived superiority complex of some Western policy-makers.

Read: Orientalism, Palestine and covering Islam

Scholars have generally traced the setting of Western civilisation to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment tradition. Particularly the founding fathers of the United States never considered the US a Christian country. In fact in one of the earliest formal international documents the US declared that:

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

However, our point of reference here is not a demonstration of cordial early Muslim-US friendship, but we would like to highlight the fact that the US was not founded on the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition of Europe. Also one should note that John Tyler, the mid-19th century American President whom Lewis quotes in his 1990 article to demonstrate American tolerance, identified Jews along with Muslims and East Indians as strangers to America. Tyler wanted to grant all immigrants an “abode among us”. And yet in the article later Lewis would insist on himself and the state of Israel as being a part of Western civilisation. Yet one should note that following Lewis’ article a galaxy of academics, journalists and filmmakers followed Bernard Lewis in order to establish a clash of civilisations scenario in international politics. A concerted effort was introduced to achieve this goal. In the process Islam and the Muslim world moved to the centre stage of international politics. What do the Muslims want?

According to Lewis Muslims are enraged at Westerners and their “hatred is directed against us”. He elaborates his thesis by stressing that since most Muslims want to revive the teachings of the Qur’an and the Prophet, they must have been directed by “a desire to reassert Muslim values and restore Muslim greatness” in the world today. Such “Muslim desire”, Lewis asserts, would pose a serious threat to the existing international order.

This was a shrewd move on the part of Bernard Lewis. Obviously with no reference to the conflict in Palestine which caused the 1973 war and the oil embargo that followed, and the unqualified US support for the former Iranian dictator that resulted to the mass revolution, common Americans would find fault with the Muslims who are, according to Lewis, “convinced of the superiority of their culture”, but “obsessed with the inferiority of their power”. The late Edward Said, former professor of literature at Columbia, has rightly pointed out that Israel’s identification with Western civilisation was done “in the hope that more Americans and Europeans will see Israel as a victim of Islamic violence”. This scheme has definitely been successful: many others around the globe joined to highlight the danger of the “Islamic threat”. Newspaper columnists, reporters, movie makers and even some novelists joined the academicians in a mission to demonstrate that “The Red Menace is Gone. But Here’s Islam”. Islam became a theme of discussion among the policy-makers and the media circle.

Huntington joined this debate with a justification for his “Weltanschauung” by quoting a novelist. Like Lewis, Huntington too argues for the need of an enemy in order to define self-identity. On his part, the novelist refers to a Venetian nationalist demagogue saying that, “There can be no true friends without true enemies. Unless we hate what we are not, we cannot love what we are. These are the old truths we are painfully rediscovering… Those who deny them deny their family their heritage, their culture, their birthright, their very selves! They will not lightly be forgiven”.

Read: Irreversible disintegration of the Arab World?

By quoting this Huntington expresses his conviction that, “the unfortunate truth in these old truths cannot be ignored by statesmen and scholars”. Although the argument seems naïve by scholarly standards, Huntington wants to cultivate the idea that “enemies are essential” for “people seeking identity”. He echoes Lewis in suggesting potential enemies of Western civilisation. In the post-Soviet era Huntington identifies mainly Islamic and occasionally Chinese civilisation as enemies of Western civilisation. The events of September 11 2001 came to support Huntington’s thesis. Both Lewis and Huntington extended the clash of civilisation thesis further with more writings: Lewis wrote a series of books such as “What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East” (2002), “Roots of Muslim Rage” (2003), and “The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror” (2003), and many articles – one entitled “Muslims about to take over Europe” in the Jerusalem Post (29 January 2007). Huntington reiterated his thesis in an article entitled “The Age of Muslim Wars” saying that, “throughout the Muslim world… there exists a great sense of grievance, resentment, envy and hostility toward the West and its wealth, power and culture”.

With the support of the Bush administration and its allies, the thesis did become a reality in the early years of the 21st century. Consequences of the conflicts that the thesis generated are well-known. How can a person of conscience promote such butchery of innocents? The butchers are known to have been inspired by his writings.

This reminds me of Socrates’ struggle against Sophists: the Sophists were knowledgeable, skillful, and professionally committed. I never met Lewis, but heard about his approach toward his Arab students: he never victimised them although he had publicly expressed his commitment to Zionism. The late Professor Fazlur Rahman told me that once he was desperately looking for certain information which he received through Bernard Lewis. In my view Lewis could only be compared with Amr Ibn Hisham who was known for his knowledge and skills for which he used to be called Abu Hikm or father of wisdom but the Prophet of Islam called him Abu Jahl or the father of ignorance. By doing so the Prophet had only made a distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Lewis was an Abu Jahl of our day.