Books: His own history

Bernard Lewis talks about the polarization of Middle East Studies departments, political correctness and Islamism, and the importance of understanding primary sources.

Bernard Lewis 521 (photo credit: Viking Adult via Bloomberg)
Bernard Lewis 521
(photo credit: Viking Adult via Bloomberg)
When he found himself a guest of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2006, Bernard Lewis was surprised. This was not the first world leader he had met; he had become friends with several over the years But Gaddafi was still Gaddafi.
“They offered me an honorarium of $15,000, which I refused as I did not want to be in the pay of a Middle Eastern government,” the author writes in his latest book, Notes on a Century. Lewis was taken to Gaddafi’s tent, a traveling prop that the man brought with him wherever he went. His “main message, that for which he had brought me to hear and pass on to Washington, was something of a surprise. You are all worried about Iran, he said… you are quite wrong. Iran is not important and is not a real danger. The real danger, the source of all your Saudi Arabia.”
Today Gaddafi is dead, beaten at the hands of a savage mob, and the Saudis are riding high, encouraging the world to bring down Syria’s Bashar Assad and posing as the good guys in the Middle East.
BERNARD LEWIS’S life has spanned it all. He was born in 1916, before the house of Saud had even plopped itself upon the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina and before the secularist Ataturk had ascended to power in Ankara. It is to this changing mosaic in the Middle East that the erudite and famous historian devoted his work. An author of over 30 books, some of which, like the 800-page History of the Arabs, have gone through 10 editions, Lewis is one of the most influential, and sometimes controversial, scholars on the Middle East in modern memory.
Lewis does what many of his students and admirers have wished he would do for a long time: set down a sort of memoir. It is not a full autobiography, but rather, as he explains in an interview, “a compilation of bits and pieces gathered together from articles and interview transcripts.”
Buntzie Ellis Churchill, his companion, helped him compile the work and edit it. As 96-year-old Lewis tells it, “it is my last book, and in a sense, it is a full stop in my life.”
Born to a Jewish family, the erudite scholar writes that as a young man he was consumed by a passion to put pen to paper. “By the time I was bar mitzva I was already writing a great deal… I wrote in English of course but I also tried my hand at writing in Hebrew.”
Being a Jew, Lewis says, “aided and informed my view of the Middle East, helping me understand it from both inside and outside. It was, of course, a hindrance in that it barred me from entering a number of Arab countries.”
The author studied Middle Eastern history and became fascinated by an Islamic minority sect, the Isma’ilis. By the time his PhD had been published, World War II had broken out and he was called up to serve in the army, eventually finding his way into intelligence.
“I spent the rest of the war doing jobs which, bound by the Official Secrets Act, I am still not at liberty to discuss in any detail,” he writes.
But Lewis did take one important lesson away from his war work. “I learned a profound mistrust of written documents, which do not tell the whole story.” This is an important insight for a historian.
Over the years, he also learned that mistrust of received wisdom and what he called the “cult of right thinking” can be destructive. “The ivory tower can be a prison with bars to real understanding. Knowledge of languages is a primary and essential requirement – one must be able to read the sources in the original and communicate with people in their own language. My archival studies revealed a pattern of purposeful mistranslation.”
He goes on to note that “ignorance is bad; untruth and half-truth are dangerous and potentially destructive. Being able to spend periods of time in these countries and communicate with people in their own language was invaluable.”
But throughout, Lewis is careful not to make too many predictions. “I am a historian, I deal with the past, not the future.”
Notes is divided into chapters that explore different themes. While the beginning of the book is chronological, as it goes on it begins to examine certain scenes or controversies that the author evidently felt were the most interesting.
Lewis gained his laurels studying in the Ottoman archives, but he was also lucky enough to visit Sudan, Pakistan and Afghanistan during the 1950s and ’60s. He also made connections in the world of politics. At a speaking engagement in Washington before he moved to the US in 1974, he met Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Richard Perle. In the late 1960s and early ’70s he was also an occasional visitor to Egypt.
“I came away with a very clear impression that Egypt was ready for peace… I did not meet Sadat, who took over the presidency on Nasser’s death in 1970 but I met some of his close advisers and was absolutely convinced that a direct approach to Egypt [by Israel] would produce results,” he writes.
For all those who now claim that Israel made a peace deal with Sadat over the wishes of the Egyptian people, Lewis argues that in fact Sadat “was following rather than leading them in this... there was a feeling that the Egyptians were suffering for a cause which was not theirs.”
The last several chapters bring Lewis face-to-face with some of the greatest controversies haunting the Middle East today. In discussing the “clash of civilizations,” Lewis examines how Islamism has grown throughout the Arab world as secularism has declined. He also disabuses the reader of the claim that many of the Arab “republics” of the 1960s in Syria and Egypt were secular. For instance, Egypt published pamphlets in 1965 asserting that its wars against Israel and against the Saudis in Yemen were a “Jihad, a holy war for God against the unbelievers.”
Lewis is toughest in discussing his views of modern academia and the state of Middle East Studies. Since Edward Said published Orientalism in 1978, academics who study the Middle East have been subjected to a careful examination. Those like Lewis, who seek to subject Islamic history to historical scrutiny, are bashed as “orientalists” and those patriotic philo- Islamists like Said are foisted upon academic departments to weed out those who think differently.
“The Saidians now control appointments, promotions, publications and even book reviews with a degree of enforcement unknown in the Western universities since the 18th century,” writes Lewis. Furthermore, “Islam now enjoys a level of immunity from comment or criticism in the Western World” that other religions do not.
One of the subjects that Lewis has explored that today’s scholars shun is the question of race and slavery in Islamic history. His book on the subject is still one of the few deep explorations of this topic. Asked if he feels that this dearth of study will change, he is not optimistic.
“It is highly unlikely,” he says. “Political correctness, often rigorously enforced in the academic world, makes it difficult and dangerous for scholars to discuss sensitive issues concerning the Muslim world. Young scholars want to be published and promoted and a frank discussion of race and slavery would not be helpful in either.”
LEWIS KNOWS that his work has inspired many and it leads one to wonder whether, in Middle East studies, there is a struggle between those who prefer the open-minded line of Lewis, which supports traditional Western views of critique and investigation, or a Saidian view which prefers a Soviet-style line.
“I was not trying to inspire or promote a particular point of view,” says Lewis. “My aim was to fight against the imposition of a political and ideological orthodoxy… if as a side effect I inspire, I regard that as a bonus and applaud the intelligence and courage of my disciples. The next generation of scholars will have to begin their careers swimming against the current.”
Ever the optimist, he notes, “the good ones will examine the facts and draw their own conclusions.”
The last chapter of Notes deals with the Iraq war. In it, he seeks to present a corrective to the view that he was a key adviser to the Bush administration. His main connection was through vice president Dick Cheney. “I found Cheney to be thoughtful and unusual among politicians in that he wanted to hear what I had to say,” says Lewis.
It was theorized that Lewis had supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, although he asserts that he did not. Instead, he wrote a key and prescient analysis of how to deal with Iran, a copy of which is reprinted in the book. It leads one to wonder if anti-Semitism perhaps played a role in wanting to imagine Lewis leading a cabal of neo-conservative Jews, such as Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, to encourage an invasion.
“I think anti-Semitism may have been a factor, but not a major one. I did not feel threatened by it,” he says.
Today, Lewis looks back on a lifetime of accomplishment. He is most proud of one of his more academic books, A Middle East Mosaic, which is a collection of primary sources. This is because he remains true to the view that the scholar should explore the original for herself and not be burdened by the latest academic fad. Now that Notes is finished, the author says he seeks a nice stroll on the promenade in Tel Aviv. Maybe in the future, “a collection of poems, translated and original.”