Unpicking the Politics of Bernard Lewis from his Scholarship

Faisal Al Yafai

A week on from the passing of Bernard Lewis, one of the 20th century’s most eminent and controversial scholars of the Middle East, the political fault lines so evident in public reaction to his work during his lifetime have been replicated in the obituaries and articles published after his death.

For those who saw prescience in his analysis of an inherent “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West – it was Lewis who coined the phrase, not the political scientist Samuel P Huntingdon, to whom it is often ascribed – Lewis was a diligent scholar, a man who dove into the archives of the Ottoman empire and the depths of Arab history and emerged with a clear understanding of the “threat” posed by these civilizations.

For others, Lewis was a mere cheerleader for raw power, weaponizing his considerable scholarship in pursuit of narrow, always confrontational and violent, political goals. Here was a man who looked at the centuries of Islamic and Christian empires and saw only clashes, never cooperation.

That Lewis was a serious scholar is not in doubt. For one, his life experience was vast. He not only lived through many of the pivotal experiences that shaped the modern Middle East – the Egyptian revolution of 1952, the creation of Israel in 1948, the Iranian revolution of 1979 – but studied their build-up, too. (Lewis was proud to say he read Ayatollah Khomeini’s writings before most Iranians were aware of him.)

But politics skewed his priorities and his understanding. Once he became involved in Washington’s power politics in the 1970s, his academic work was suffused with the longing for a political outcome. Outcomes shaped the facts, and not the other way around.

Every academic who has grown close to political power in the West, and in particular to American, British and French power, has ended up minimizing the role of the West in the creation of the fault lines of the modern Middle East. There is a willful collective amnesia, a dogged reluctance to see the facts. The decades of war and sanctions, invasions and colonizations, the unrelenting economic, political and social interference in the affairs and societies of the Middle East are dismissed in favor of a simple maxim: the wounds of the Arabs are self-inflicted.

Lewis, as others did, provided the intellectual arguments to prove that whatever the West and its proxy, Israel, did in the Middle East was right. Any unfortunate outcomes were always the fault of the Arabs. Rather remarkably, the circles of power adored him for it.

That remains the most difficult aspect to reading Lewis’ work, that it requires considerable effort to unpick his politics from his scholarship. Lewis’ instincts were to constantly compare the Middle East and Islam with European societies and Christianity – and always unfavorably. For him, there was a clear hierarchy of cultures and values, and the world he was born into just happened to be at the top.

His scholarship seethes with barely disguised anger toward the civilizations of the Middle East. He seems angry at their historic success and cannot bring himself to recognize any of their contributions to the modern world. For him, Arabs and Muslims are always outside of world history, which is always driven by Westerners.

Any reading of his works thus always feels partial, as if he is omitting the parts of history that don’t fit this mold. That doesn’t make his scholarship worthless – on the contrary, he remains an indispensable author to those studying the region – but his conclusions always feel incomplete, tainted by a proximity to power.

That, of course, is precisely why he was revered in right-wing political circles. All politicians require assistance in creating a coherent, actionable world view. They require what is sometimes called “intellectual scaffolding,” meaning the ideas and facts that come together to turn political instinct into political policies.

Lewis was, for years, one of, if not the, prime provider of intellectual scaffolding for those who had racist, militaristic instincts about the rest of the world, but especially the Middle East. There was no view so outlandish that he could not search his vast mind for facts or ideas that would support it. The endlessly touted view that the diverse peoples of the Middle East “only respect power” was one of his staples, regardless of the fact, which he must have known, that it has been since time immemorial as justification for attacking political enemies.

Such views, as well as his notions of cultural superiority, are the chief reasons why he has become sidelined as an authority in the Middle East departments of Western universities. Although he remains taught, his work is no longer seen as the mainstream. As a student, Lewis was equally fascinated by languages and history, seeing in the former the keys to unlocking the latter. But in later life he became too enamored by political power, too willing to flatter the powerful with his scholarship.

For a man with such broad intellectual interests, his conclusions were astonishingly narrow, yet were perfectly suited to the right-wing of American power, for whom, as the 1990s wore on into the new century, he became an increasingly devoted cheerleader. As a public intellectual he was immensely proud of the influence he wielded among the men with power. But as a historian of the tumultuous last years of the Ottoman empire, he should have known how corrupting proximity to power can be, and how the expedient political decisions of the moment can look very different when seen with the judgement of history.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.