Friday, July 1, 2011

Bernard Lewis

On May 31, Bernard Lewis celebrated his 95th birthday. He has been a well known and much respected scholar of the Middle East for some 70 years, and even his academic opponents—and there are many—would probably have to grant that Lewis has been one of the most influential historians of the last half-century.

Booksellers have been aware of Lewis for a long time. His small volume, The Arabs in History, first published in 1950 and still in print today, was for many years a mainstay of college courses and a go-to book to recommend to anyone wanting to know about the history of the Arabs and the early centuries of Islam. But it was only in 2002, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, that Lewis became a bestselling author. What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response was the book that everyone seemed to be reading then to learn about Islam and the Arabs. (For the paperback edition, the subtitle was changed to the zippier The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.) He followed it in 2003 with another bestseller, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror; the retired Princeton professor was now an unquestioned publishing star. NPR and Charlie Rose beckoned, and the dignified, famously eloquent (if slightly pompous) Lewis was a memorable and most enlightening guest.

As it turned out, the scholarly media star also had some big-name admirers in the administration of President George W. Bush, including (as was widely reported) Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Richard Perle. After the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq in March 2003, there were frequent intimations in the media that Lewis, who had previously made public statements that seemed to promote the idea of an invasion, had done much to point his friend Dick Cheney in the direction of war. I have no idea how true this allegation is—my own sense is that Cheney didn’t need a lot of pointing. But I was well aware of how persuasive Lewis the writer could be, and it wasn’t hard to imagine him being that much more persuasive over dinner and a few bottles of wine.

Here we go, full disclosure time. Back in 1974, as I was finishing up a master’s in Hebrew Bible and making plans to apply to doctoral programs in Islamic history, Bernard Lewis left the University of London to accept a joint appointment at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study (also in Princeton, N. J. but not affiliated with the university). I had read The Arabs in History (read it twice, actually, for two different courses), and I thought Bernard Lewis was about the smartest, most learned, most literate person on the planet. Well, I didn’t think he was smarter than the physicists and mathematicians who made up most of the rarefied Einstein-like gang at the Institute for Advanced Study, but when it came to academic disciplines that I had some (however piddling) understanding of, Lewis seemed like an intellectual Wilt Chamberlain towering above his peers. I was 22 years old; what the heck did I know?

What impressed me the most about Lewis was that he was reputed to have mastered Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Hebrew. I was struggling with Arabic, feeling like a real dummy for the first time since those horrible shop classes I’d been forced to take in junior high, and it boggled my mind that Lewis—who was not only capable of reading complicated medieval texts in all four languages but was also said to be pretty comfortable carrying on conversations with Arabs, Turks, Persians, and Israelis on the street—had been able to accomplish something in one lifetime that I was reasonably certain I’d be unable to accomplish in four, which of course was three more lifetimes than I’d been allotted (I’m absolutely certain of that last fact).

So in 1974-75, my chief goal in life was to be admitted to the graduate program in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton and earn a doctorate under Bernard Lewis. Let me give you the short version: I got rejected by Princeton, I ended up at Indiana University (a place that I liked a lot), I never became anything more than a painfully mediocre student of languages, and I left grad school after two years with a consolation-prize M.A.

Long after I left grad school, I did have the opportunity to teach college students for a while, and I found that, Princeton degree or no Princeton degree, teaching wasn’t for me. By this time (we’re in the ‘90s here), I was well over my Bernard Lewis-worship (this was long before anyone that I knew had cause to mention Lewis and Dick Cheney in the same breath). From time to time I would read one of Lewis’s books, and while I continued to find his prose stirringly clear and elegant—not to mention hugely informative—I began to notice some not-so-likable qualities in his work. Hubris for one. Too often, instead of reminding the reader of the tentativeness, the provisional quality of historical reconstruction and interpretation, he seemed all too willing to proclaim from on high with a certainty that was, well, unappealing. I don’t know if Lewis changed in this regard or I did; it’s certainly possible that the scholarly equivalent of fighter-pilot cockiness that impressed me so much when I was in my early twenties simply became unattractive to my forty-something and fifty-something self.

There is something else about Lewis that I’m sure did change over the years. When he was younger, he wrote about all the Muslim peoples of the Middle East—Arabs, Turks, Iranians, and Kurds—with obvious respect and admiration. His books were translated into Islamic languages; he was welcome as a lecturer and researcher all around the Muslim world. But as his enthusiastic support of the state of Israel (and, some would add, his Jewishness) became more widely known, Lewis became less welcome in some parts of the Arab world. However, he remained a much-honored guest in Turkey throughout this whole time. He began to focus his scholarship more on the Ottoman Empire and somewhat less on the early Islamic centuries that were usually seen as the high-water-mark of Arabic civilization. You can’t really blame him. But when he did write about the Arabs, it seemed that he was now much more likely than his younger self to dwell on topics that did not reflect especially well on them as a people—their historical attitudes toward race and slavery, for example.

It’s not that he was cooking the books—like some academic Bernie Madoff—by doing fraudulent, dishonest scholarship; it’s more that he was selecting subjects that were apt to make Arabs seem, in a particular historical context, not very admirable, and certainly not as admirable as the Turks, for whom Lewis continued to demonstrate a special (and fully understandable, given his history) fondness. The way he sometimes played ethnic favorites left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, although to this day he is quite capable of extolling the glories of classical Arabic civilization (and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity when he does).

So let me wish you a belated happy birthday, Professor Lewis. I may not admire you in the unqualified, starstruck way I once did, but I still believe you’re an extremely important and relevant historian and a wonderful writer. And though I do respect you less than I once did, I can’t, in the end, say for sure that it’s your fault. Or mine. It’s just life.

Barry Hoberman