Bernard Lewis came to the New World in the nick of time. Fate–or, more appropriately, history–decreed his American journey and the direction it would take. The historian, who will turn 90 in a handful of days, had come to Princeton from London, at the age of 58, in 1974, to do the work of Orientalism which had gained him scholarly renown. But there would be no academic seclusion for him in the years after. The lands of Islam whose languages and cultures he knew with such intimacy would soon be set ablaze.
He sounds like my kinda guy.
The rage of Islam was no mystery to Mr. Lewis. To no great surprise, it issued out of his respect for the Muslim logic of things. For 14 centuries, he wrote, Islam and Christendom had feuded and fought across a bloody and shifting frontier, their enmity a “series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests.” For nearly a millennium, Islam had the upper hand. The new faith conquered… old Christian lands, it should be recalled.
A pain afflicts modern Islam–the loss of power. And Mr. Lewis has a keen sense of the Muslim redeemers and would-be avengers who promise to alter Islam’s place in the world. This pain, the historian tells us, derives from Islam’s early success, from the very triumph of the prophet Muhammad. Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land; he had led his people through wilderness. Jesus had been crucified. But Muhammad had prevailed and had governed. The faith he would bequeath his followers would forever insist on the oneness of religion and politics. Where Christians are enjoined in their scripture to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s,” no such demarcation would be drawn in the theory and practice of Islam.
And one last little bit:
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which once translated one of Mr. Lewis’s books into Arabic, said that his book was “the work of a candid friend or an honest enemy.” Either way, the Brotherhood said, it was the work of “someone who disdains falsification.” And this, to me and to his countless readers, runs to the core of this historian’s craft–the aversion to falsification. He has been, always, a man of his own civilization and convictions–a fact that accounts for the deep reservoirs of reverence felt for him in many Muslim and Arab lands. In the American academy, he may be swimming against the currents of postmodernism and postcolonial history; he has given up his membership in the Middle East Studies Association, of which he had been a founding member. But countless Arab and Iranian and Turkish readers recognize their tormented civilization in what he has written. They know that he has not come to the material of their history driven by bad faith, or by a desire for dominion. They take him at his word, a man of the Anglo-Saxon world, convinced that the ways of the West today carry with them the hopes of other civilizations.
As your reading sommelier, may I recommend the whole thing.
The Times – A pillar of wisdom in the great Islamic debate, by Dean Godson (research director of the Policy Exchange think-tank)<br/> For years the US Government has listened to and learnt from the 90-year-old Professor Bernard Lewis
…his great detractor in Western academe, the late Edward Said, who in his work Orientalism (1978) argued that the predominant school of scholarship on the Middle East and Islam (which Lewis personified) was little more than a tool of imperialism and domination.
Lewis successfully rebutted the accusations in intellectual terms, but for the time being has lost the war of numbers in academe. The Saidians triumphed, peddling an account of Arab and Muslim victimhood that is now the norm. “Narratives” of “humiliation” and “disempowerment” came to be valued above solid textual and philological analysis, Lewis says. …
As the leading historian of modern Turkey, he argues that late Ottoman decline was self-inflicted rather than due to Western expansion. It resulted from an outdated cultural superiority complex, which held that infidels had little to teach them.
Similarly, Lewis contends that the West cannot be blamed for the ills of modern Muslim societies: it is up to Muslim elites to make the right choices that will be bring their societies into the 21st century — just as Ataturk did in the ruins of the Ottoman empire in the first half of the 20th century (Lewis is one of the last Westerners actually to have seen the founder of the Turkish Republic). …
But as he enters his tenth decade, Lewis is most alarmed not by the Arab world — where he detects signs of hope — but by what is happening in the EU and specifically in his native land. “The very composition of society is at stake,” he warned me. “The rate of immigration from parts of the Muslim world is altering the way in which society is run. And the Muslim populations of the EU, many of whom started out as quite moderate in their native lands, seem to be indoctrinated by some of the worst elements of their own co-religionists. Central to this is the oil money of Saudi Arabia, funding extreme Wahhabite doctrines.”