Bernard Lewis and His Reputation
In the measured (mildly critical) response to Edward Said’s Orientalism, Maxime Rodinson commented in La Fascination de l’Islam that Said was effective in shaking the arrogant self-confidence of some classical Orientalism. Rodinson did not mention Lewis, but he may have been talking about him. There is no classical Orientalist who exhibited the arrogance (and sometimes the arrogant ignorance) of Bernard Lewis.
Lewis had a different role when he lived in the UK: his move to the US transformed him into a political figure, a role that he played with relish. An academic biography of Bernard Lewis and his political role is needed. The man played an important role in republican and democratic administrations. He is by far the most widely known expert in the Middle East in the US, and he has the influence to advise Harvard and Princeton on who to hire (he urged both institutions to hire Fouad Ajami, by the way, and the former made an offer to him). Some of Lewis’s loyal students became officials in the US government. Lewis’ recent book, Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian is not really written; it reads as if it was dictated to his girlfriend, who shares the authorship according to the cover.
In the book, Lewis is most unrestrained and his bigotry shines through. But what is disturbing about the book is that Lewis is willing to comment and pontificate on topics that he is not informed about and often sounds ridiculous and ignorant. His statement that chairs are alien to Middle East “tradition and culture” has been widely ridiculed by Arabs and non-Arabs after I posted it on my blog. Yet this is where the distinction lies in the biography of Lewis: he was more cautious as a professor in the UK, when he advanced his political agenda in his academic writings, while in the US he was transformed into the role of pundit, willing to dispense advice and preachments on any topic, small or big.
The arrogance of Lewis is exhibited in every chapter of this book and he refuses to concede that his critics may have a valid point about his political and religious biases. Worse, he resorts to a trick long used by right-wing Fox News host, Bill O’Reilly, who despite his well-known views on issues, night-after-night spotlights a letter attacking him for being a rightist and another letter attacking him – allegedly – for being a liberal, although O’Reilly never has been able to find a real person or guest to appear on his show and accuse him of being a liberal.
Bizarrely, Lewis resorts to the same cheap tactic. He begins his book by claiming that he is often attacked for hostility to Islam and Muslims and that he is also attacked by people who accuse him of being apologetic about Islam and Muslims (see page 5). But Lewis does not give one example of him being attacked for being an apologist for Muslims or Islam. One strains to find one example anywhere where Lewis is accused of being an apologist for Muslims. Lewis then confidently declares his objectivity that has been arrived at through the aforementioned trick: “As long as the attacks continue to come from both sides, I shall remain confident of my scholarly objectivity.”
This must have been the example of arrogant self-confidence that Rodinson had in mind when he evaluated Orientalism. Can Lewis give one example where a Zionist ever attacked him for bias against Israel or Zionism or even against Judaism? Such are the methods of Lewis in his political articles. He does not bother with evidence or footnotes. His historical work is often filled with evidence and footnotes, but his political works, like The Middle East and the West (it was first published as Islam and the West), include references to a letter to the editor in a newspaper or even to a conversation with an Arab at a shop.
There are several ignorant references in the book. He calls the well-known Cairo University as “Egyptian University of Cairo” (p. 39). It is true that the university changed names: Lewis visited Cairo prior to the Egyptian revolution, but it was then known as Fu’ad I University. But Lewis is not averse to making things up. In the section when he talks (with a sense of outrage) about Lebanese and Syrian opposition to the French colonial power, he writes: “A poster was put up in Damascus in that time showing a black Senegalese soldier with a French kepi and a French uniform and a knife between his teeth saying, ‘Je viens te civilizer’” (p. 60).
But Lewis was either confused or made this story up. The use of the posters was not common in the 1930s. What happened is that the Lebanese weekly As-Sayyad published on 24 May 1945 an admittedly racist cartoon in which an African soldier (not identified as Senegalese) not wearing a French uniform and with no knife between his teeth, stands wearing nothing except what covers his private parts and says: “moi civilizer vous.” This was not a poster and it did not appear in Damascus.
But Lewis does not even try to take any criticisms of Orientalism seriously, and his references to Edward Said are an anthology of insults. He says that Said was ignorant. He then advances a funny theory: just as Russia later welcomed anti-Soviet US academics with open arms, the new presumably free Arab countries would welcome Lewis and other Zionist scholars with open arms (see his theory on p. 267). He was presumably talking about Richard Pipes although there are still critics of his scholarship in Russia, just as there were American scholars who were less hostile to the Soviet Union who were welcomed in the new Russia (like Stephen F. Cohen among others). But Lewis does not bother with facts when they run counter to his argument.
So Lewis is more than implying that hostility to him and to his work in the Arab world is merely the work of the propaganda of the ruling Arab dictatorships. But Lewis makes it clear in this book that he was on very friendly terms with several of the Arab and Middle East dictatorships. He was very close to the dictatorial Turkish generals, the Hashemite monarchy, the Shah in Iran, and the Gaddafi regime after it became an ally of Western countries. Surely then, the hostility to his work comes not from the regime but from the people themselves.
Lewis often cites the translation of his work into Arabic as a sign of his acceptability in the Arab world, as if Zionist writers are not translated into Arabic, and Arabic newspapers often have sections for translations from the Hebrew press. Translation does not mean endorsement, although Lewis is always at pains to flatter himself.
Lewis has poisoned the Middle East academic field more than any other Orientalist and his influence has been both academic and political. But there is a new generation of Middle East experts in the West who now see clearly the political agenda of Bernard Lewis. It was fully exposed in the Bush years.