A contradictory Bernard Lewis

A collection of essays and articles by a major Middle East authority tries to live up to his reputation.

311_Bernard Lewis (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
311_Bernard Lewis
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Bernard Lewis is a name, a member of that very exclusive club: the celebrity historian. For decades Lewis has enjoyed huge prestige both within the academic world and among the general public. It was Lewis who coined the phrase made famous by Samuel Huntingdon – “the clash of civilizations” – and many of his studies on the Ottomans and the Middle East are considered classics.
Faith and Power, unfortunately, does not fall into that category. To borrow the title of another of Lewis’s own works: “What went wrong?” The latest book by Princeton’s most prolific nonagenarian is a collection of essays, speeches and articles, some never before published and some appearing for the first time in English.
It is hard to figure out exactly who this compilation is aimed at. The scholar will find it sorely lacking: At the most basic level, there is no index or footnotes and – particularly since they are not in chronological order – it would have been helpful if the information concerning when and where each piece was conceived were to appear with each chapter rather than lumped together in the credits.
Nonexperts would benefit from a glossary.
And nearly all readers, I suspect, will find the repetition tiresome. A line of thought developed in one essay appears again and again, losing its shine of brilliance on the way.
An underlying premise is that the separation of “church and state,” such a basic concept in most of the Western world, is not compatible with Islam. The collection, however, touches on much broader themes including the “gender clash” and peace in the Middle East.
Some statements appear outdated, for example: “Even the Arab struggle against Israel, which was once seen as the last outpost of European imperialism, has now become more and more a regional, even a local issue, in which the European powers have virtually no part and the superpowers appear as cautious patrons and sponsors, rather than direct participants.”
Far sharper is his summation: “If the conflict is about the size of Israel, then long and difficult negotiations can eventually resolve the problem. But if the conflict is about the existence of Israel, then serious negotiation is impossible.”
Other insights, once ahead of their time, now seem obvious: “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.”
In a meeting in 2007 with members of The Jerusalem Post editorial staff, Lewis elaborated on this theme, speaking in his trademark British cultured tones and style, which belie both his modest Anglo-Jewish origins and the fact that he has been a naturalized American citizen for nearly three decades. Soon, he warned, the only pertinent question regarding Europe’s future would be, “Will it be an Islamized Europe or Europeanized Islam?” The meeting was equally fascinating and depressing. At least the quotes were good.
THERE ARE some special Lewis touches that redeem Faith and Power, too: “Comparing the relationship between property and power in the modern American and classical Middle Eastern systems, one might put the difference this way: In America one uses money to buy power, while in the Middle East, one uses power to acquire money.”
Despite his acknowledgment that this is an oversimplification, with exceptions on both sides, it does point out an important distinction.
Similarly, Lewis recognizes the “intensely personal character” of almost all aspects of Muslim government, where the ruler, families, clans and ethnic loyalties are far more important than the state itself.
His understanding of the nature of Muslim society has been criticized by both Left and Right. Lewis briefly returns the favor. “The temptation of the Right is to accept, and even to embrace, the most odious of dictatorships as long as they are acquiescent in our own requirements, and as long as their policies seem to accord with the protection of our own national interests,” he notes, before accusing the Left of an even “more insidious temptation”: to “press Muslim regimes for concessions on human rights and related matters. Since ruthless dictatorships are impervious to such pressures, and are indeed rarely subjected to them, the brunt of such well-intentioned intervention falls on the more moderate autocracies, which are often in the process of reforming themselves in a manner and at a pace determined by their own conditions and needs. The pressure for premature democratization can fatally weaken such regimes and lead to their overthrow, not by democratic opposition, but by other forces that then proceed to establish a more ferocious and determined dictatorship.”
In the first chapter, “License to kill,” he stresses: “At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder,” adding, however: “Terrorism requires only a few.”
Like his subject, Lewis is full of contradictions. “All in all, considering the difficulties that Middle Eastern countries have inherited and the problems they confront, the prospects for Middle Eastern democracy are not good,” he writes. “But they are better than they have ever been before.”
Faith and Power is not Lewis at his best, but in the end – assuming you persevere that far – you should come out enlightened, and occasionally entertained by a pithy comment.