(photo credit: ARIEL JEROZOLIMSKI)
One of the most influential Middle East scholars, Bernard Lewis, died Saturday, two weeks short of his 102nd birthday, in Voorhees Township, New Jersey.
Lewis, who will be buried at the Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv on Thursday, had a major impact on US foreign policy, particularly under the presidency of George W. Bush. He briefed vice president Dick Cheney and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His phrase, “the clash of civilizations,” was made famous by American political scientist Samuel Huntington, who argued that cultural and religious identities would be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War era.
Lewis attributed the 9/11 attacks to a decaying Islamic civilization that enabled extremists such as al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to conduct an international terrorist campaign. The solution to the growing problems of fundamentalist Islamic ideology was, in a word, democracy. “Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us,” Lewis wrote. In many ways he was a modern-day prophet, although he was sometimes wrong and was often accused by his academic colleagues of being Eurocentric. “For some, I’m the towering genius,” Lewis told The Chronicle of Higher Education
in 2012. “For others, I’m the devil incarnate.”
He warned in 2006 that Iran had been working on a nuclear program for some 15 years. But he wrongly predicted that Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could be planning an apocalyptic attack, perhaps against Israel, on August 22, to coincide with Muhammad’s night flight to Jerusalem.
As Israel deliberates again whether to recognize the Armenian Genocide, it is timely to recall that in the first editions of his well-known book, The Emergence of Modern Turkey
, Lewis described that genocide as “the terrible holocaust of 1915, when a million and a half Armenians perished.” In later editions, he changed the text to “the terrible slaughter of 1915, when, according to estimates, more than a million Armenians perished, as well as an unknown number of Turks.” Critics accused him of “historical revisionism.”
In a visit to The Jerusalem Post
in 2007, the London- born Lewis eloquently discussed the situation in an interview with then-editor David Horovitz and reporter Tovah Lazaroff. He predicted that one way for Muslims to alleviate their growing rage would be “to win some large victories, which could happen. They seem to be about to take over Europe.”
Lewis was asked what that meant for Jews in Europe.
“The outlook for the Jewish communities in Europe is dim,” he replied. “Soon, the only pertinent question regarding Europe’s future will be, ‘Will it be an Islamized Europe or Europeanized Islam?’” In reviewing Lewis’s 2010 collection of essays – Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East – Post
International Edition editor Liat Collins pertinently noted a line of thought appearing throughout the essays was that the Western concept of separating church and state was not compatible with Islam.
“The emergence of a population, many millions strong, of Muslims born and educated in Western Europe will have immense and unpredictable consequences for Europe, for Islam and for the relations between them,” Lewis wrote. Collins commented: “I don’t want to hear a ‘Told you so’ so much as an update in the wake of the current mass migration to Europe’s shores.” Although he didn’t get everything right – who can? – Collins added that his special touches are well-worth noting, such as this classic quotation: “In America one uses money to buy power, while in the Middle East, one uses power to acquire money.”
“Bernard Lewis was one of the great scholars of Islam and the Middle East in our time,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, recalling the wide-ranging conversations Lewis had with his late father and fellow historian, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu. “We will be forever grateful for his robust defense of Israel.”
Most importantly, Lewis helped improve the world’s understanding of Islam and the Arab world. Still today it is difficult to predict how events in the Middle East will play out. His scholarship will live on but his voice will be missed.
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