Revered and Reviled: Bernard Lewis

By | Nov 16, 2011

Hashemi also questions Lewis’ understanding of the situation: “Lewis is a medievalist and he tries to interpret contemporary Islamic politics by going back to an earlier time period where an ‘essential’ Islam allegedly existed. He uses this framework to explain events that happen half a millennium later. He plays into a neoconservative right-wing agenda that wants to control, manipulate and dominate the Middle East. His apocalyptic narrative fits well with a Fox News audience, but it’s not serious political analysis or scholarship.”

When I ask Lewis about his role in the formulation of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy, he minimizes it and calls any reference to a “Lewis Doctrine” misleading and “worse—it’s false.” He tells me that the White House asked him to email his opinions from time to time, which he did, “but I don’t know that they took any notice of it.”

He takes pains to distance himself from the military invasion, and despite some of his earlier writings, says that he advocated for the U.S. to recognize an independent government in the north of Iraq, which would have potentially fomented democratic movements in the rest of the country. As he tells me repeatedly: “It was a profoundly mistaken decision to invade Iraq. What should have been done was to help the people in the north. But to invade the country was a mistake; I said so at the time and I’ve said so ever since.”

“Do you think people misrepresented your opinions?,” I ask. “Definitely,” he says. Ajami, for his part, says he doesn’t remember his mentor’s opinions about the Iraq invasion. But he says the malice coming from both the Ivory Tower and elsewhere about Lewis’ role in the Bush administration is misguided. “For enemies of Lewis, he became the godfather of the Iraq war, which was ridiculous,” Ajami says. “Academics don’t lead governments to war.”

As Lewis knows well, what his legacy will look like depends largely on who writes the history. He is reluctant to predict what contours it will take; most likely, the work will be left to his disciples, much as Said’s worldview continues to live and thrive—both in academe and elsewhere—thanks to his followers. But in 2007, Lewis and his coterie took a step toward reshaping the academic battleground. They founded the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), an academic group meant to counter the influence of MESA. “In the democratic world, universities are free and you don’t have an imposed orthodoxy,” Lewis tells me. “That’s not the case [in Middle Eastern Studies departments] where you have an imposed orthodoxy to a greater degree than any other time since the Middle Ages. It makes free discussion, if not impossible, very difficult.”

With Lewis as its chairman and other big names like Ajami on board, ASMEA hopes to challenge MESA’s hegemony. At 1,100 members, it’s significantly smaller than its competition (MESA has more than 3,000, according to its website), but David Silverstein, the group’s executive director, says its ranks are growing. For the most part, it is funded by member dues, as well as organizations like the Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee-based group that aims to strengthen capitalism and limited government and also supports conservative thinktanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. “ASMEA is restoring competition in the marketplace of ideas in Middle Eastern studies,” Silverstein says. “This is an issue of ongoing concern to [Lewis] because of his love for the discipline and his horror at the way it slid from its former glory to something so politicized.”

Back in his apartment, Lewis tells me he is slowing down, but, again, this is relative. “He is so unlike the stereotypes of aging,” says his partner of 15 years, Buntzie Churchill, who has co-authored two books with Lewis and is former president of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. Lewis attends ASMEA events (“people call just to make sure that he will be there,” says Silverstein. “They just want to be in the presence of a great man”), and he is currently putting the finishing touches on a memoir, What and When, How and Why: Reflections of a Middle East Historian, due out next year. Rather than focus on current political events in the Middle East, which he has been following on television, he has been sorting through old notes and turning his attention to poetry. Right now, he’s at work on a collection of poetry he’s translating from Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew—four of the dozen or so languages he’s mastered.

Lewis remains an ardent student of Islam, which despite his criticism of its present-day manifestations, he admires as one of the world’s great religions. It could be this love, says Ian Buruma, writing in The New Yorker, that has led Lewis to overreach in his belief that the west may be able to save his beloved Muslim civilization. Wrote Buruma, “Perhaps he loves it too much.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.