The late Columbia University professor Edward Said, author of the 1978 book Orientalism, accused Lewis of “demagogy and downright ignorance,” and more recent critics have accused him of fanning the flames of Islamophobia. But he is a prophet to his tight circle of admirers, which includes influential policymakers, many of whom served in the administration of President George W. Bush. They include former Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Policy Board Chair Richard Perle, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and National Security Council for Near East and North African Director Elliott Abrams.
“Bernard Lewis is the great Orientalist of our time, and we shan’t see the likes of him again,” says Fouad Ajami, senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute. Ajami, who was born and raised in Lebanon, describes himself as a “self-appointed disciple” of Lewis. The two have been close since Ajami’s days at Princeton some 35 years ago and Ajami gushes freely about his mentor. “His ability to track Islam’s journey over the 70 years of his career and really see the deeper currents of Islam—that is his genius. He is able to bridge the gap between scholarship and modern affairs and make a seamless connection between the past and the present.”
Although Lewis hasn’t particularly revelled in the media spotlight, he hasn’t shied away from injecting his ideas into the political debate. As Ajami, a note of reverence in his voice, tells me: “Bernard Lewis is not a coward.”
Many Jewish boys study Hebrew in preparation for their bar mitzvahs, but few fall passionately in love with the language. That ’s what happened to Lewis. Born in London in 1916 and raised by “twice-a-year Jews,” as he puts it, he accompanied his parents—a businessman who dealt in real estate and a homemaker—to a “nominally Orthodox” synagogue on the High Holy Days and Passover.
“It was a new language and a new history, and it was my supreme good fortune that the Hebrew teacher my parents found for me was a scholar, a real maskil, who responded to my childish enthusiasm,” he recalls. Lewis has recounted this 80-year-old story countless times, but his eyes still light up at the memory. His parents were willing to continue funding his Hebrew studies after his bar mitzvah and so he continued his language instructions, adding Aramaic as well. This, of course, was in addition to the French, Latin and German he studied as part of his regular school curriculum. He was also deeply taken by history. “When we learned about British history and the wars with France, I became interested in French history, and later, when we learned about the Crusades and the eastern question, my interest in Islamic history was first aroused. I was always interested in hearing the other side,” he says of his attraction to the Islamic world.
In 1936, Lewis completed a bachelor’s degree in history with a concentration in the Middle East, graduating first in his class from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He started graduate studies and when, a year later, a professor asked if he’d like to travel to the Middle East, Lewis jumped at the opportunity. With no funds to speak of—“I could no more go to the Middle East than I could go to the moon”—but with a stipend provided by the Royal Asiatic Society, he explored Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Turkey for six months. “I felt like a Muslim bridegroom meeting the bride with whom he is to spend the rest of his life, and seeing her for the first time after the wedding,” he wrote of the trip in his 2004 From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, one of many passages that critics cite to accuse him of eroticizing the “exotic” east.