Revered and Reviled: Bernard Lewis
A Retrospective Of The Scholar Who Provided The Intellectual Ammunition For The Iraq War
Bernard Lewis has just moved to a small apartment in the manicured suburbs on Philadelphia’s Main Line. At 95, it was time for the man the Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing calls the “most influential postwar historian of Islam and the Middle East” to leave Princeton—his home for more than 35 years—for a senior living facility known for attracting retired academics.
“I’m getting old, I’m no longer sure about dates,” he tells me in his polished British accent, though this moment of self-deprecation is hardly convincing: Our conversation reflects his uncanny ability to recollect dates, time lines and facts—both from his lifetime and several centuries before. As we talk, Lewis recalls the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699 as easily as the Turkish elections of 1950. He also regales me with stories, though it is impossible to predict which millennium they will date to. One minute, it’s the Marx Brothers skits he shared with the Shah of Iran in the days before the revolution, the next, an eighth century Arabian joke about a sinful woman praying to Allah for mercy before she dies. And he speaks with eloquence, his ideas organized into complete paragraphs.
In his new home, Lewis is surrounded by bookcases, some filled with collectors editions of his own works. He has published prolifically throughout his seven-decade career: His first scholarly article —on the origins of Ismailism, a branch of Shia Islam—came out in 1937 when he was 21, and his most recent book, The End of Modern History in the Middle East, hit bookstores earlier this year. In between, he wrote more than 20 books, some of them New York Times bestsellers, plus numerous scholarly tomes, racking up countless honors, including the National Humanities Medal, which President George W. Bush presented to him at the White House in 2006.
The Old World gentleman dressed in slacks and a button-down Oxford shirt may be retired, but there is nothing retiring about him. As the scholar who coined the term “the clash of civilizations” to describe the headlong confrontation between Muslim and Christian worlds, Lewis has been extremely outspoken about his belief that the failure of large swaths of the Islamic world to reconcile itself to modernity can be blamed not on Britain or the U.S., but on internal decay. These opinions, coupled with his influence, have made him a lightning rod for the schisms that rock academia and the nation. Both friends and enemies are plentiful: They have strong feelings about him, whether they know him or not, and few, it seems, fall in the middle.