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Bernard Lewis: Studies, stories and legends

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

Published: Updated:

Even after his death, Bernard Lewis continues to be surrounded by controversy. There are those who are grateful for his contributions and there are those who attack him for his “Zionism” and hatred of Arabs and Muslims. When you search his name on YouTube, there are many lectures that dramatize his role in mapping the world and his scheming against Muslims. Much of the discussion around him about his role in the making of American policy is nothing but plain exaggeration. In the interviews held with him discussing recent big events in our history, such as the fall of Baghdad and the American war in Iraq, he spoke of his opposition of the war. He voiced his resentment that he was accused of playing roles he is innocent of and noted that he was solely interested in US political protection of democracy in Iraq.

Unduly vilified

An important discussion broke out on Twitter after Marzouq Bin Tanbak wrote: “Bernard Lewis left last Friday after he designed in 1980 the maps for the project of dividing Arab countries. The features of this project have begun to appear in Iraq, Sudan and Syria, and if this project is incomplete, it is underway.” Youssef al Samaan replied to Bin Tanbak and asked about his sources, and noted: “I did not praise Bernard Lewis; I just want to be guided to these Middle East maps that he drew. I just think that this cartoonist vision of the political ruling establishment which is imagined as a group of committed students following the supreme guide Lewis and obeying him for 40 years is naïve.” On the other side, there is a discussion between Mohammed Al'adadi and Othman al-Omair as the latter was displeased when the former described Lewis as a Jew, considering it that it is an insult. Al’adadi, however, agrees with Samaan that “some people see things through their Arab local lenses, thus they exaggerate the roles of some academics like Lewis or Kissinger.” This Saudi academic discussion draws a clear picture between the populist exaggerations and the main role without any exaggeration or hyperbole.

There can be no denying that Lewis is one of the most important scholars on the history of Muslims. It is only natural that American presidents and eminent leaders read his articles and works (such as Condoleezza Rice is said to have carried his articles around). He delved into the Muslim archives in all its different realms — Arabic, Turkish and Iranian. As such, focusing and praising his articles in the backdrop of every decisive event, like the September 11 attacks and others, is driven by a desire to understand. Researches have a certain status in developed countries, as such consulting with Lewis or Al Ajami or others, is a smart tactic since they are experts in their field.

Much of the discussion around Bernard Lewis and his supposed role in US policy making is nothing but plain exaggeration

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

Amongst Arab researchers, Lewis’ image varies from person to person. Abdel Rahman Badawi attacked Lewis’ researches despite his high appreciation of Lewis’ supervisor of his thesis Massignon. Badawi described Lewis as a conspirator against Islamic culture. Meanwhile, Arkoun criticized them both (Badawi and Louis), as he believed that they were not involved in the new conceptual knowledge tools, thus calling on them to integrate within the concepts of the anthropological revolution, and take advantage of archeology, structuralism styles, and the postmodern results of the "rising intellect.” On the other hand, George Tarabishi questioned Bernard Lewis who refuted the existence of a separation between religion and state in the history of Islam, and I have talked about this before.

Arkoun’s objections

In one of his most recent books Towards a Comparative History of Monotheistic Religions, Arkoun blames Lewis for being like the rest of neoconservatives who strip off the philosophical legitimacy of the United States military actions saying: “I reject the positions expressed by Bernard Lewis after 9/11 when he published in his book entitled What Went Wrong?, which means where is the flaw in in the Islamic civilization that led to the execution of such colossal bombings. There is no doubt that the question should be raised, but the answer shouldn’t be the one given by Lewis. Instead, we should ask what is the problem that occurred in Arab, Iranian, Turkish, and Islamic civilization that led to destructive violence affecting these civilizations and humanity as a whole ?.”(p. 271).

Bernard Lewis brought so much to the research field with exceptional and thoughtful ideas. He wrote about Ismailism, the Hashashin (the Assassins), Istanbul and the Islamic Caliphate civilization. He wrote The Crisis Of Islam and The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. He was not a cartographer in a war sense of the word that satisfies the vivid imagination of some. About his role, he said: “I don’t think the historian can reasonably be expected to predict the future but there are certain things that the historian can and should do. He can discern trends. He can look at what has been happening and what is happening and see change developing. From this he can formulate, I will not say predictions, but possibilities, alternative possibilities, things that may happen, things that may go this way or that way, in evolving interactions. It is of course much safer to predict the remote rather than the immediate future.” Hence his conclusion about the groups of political Islam and democracy, as he said: “Political Islam did change over time but not necessarily for the best. A dash toward Western-style elections, far from representing a solution to the region’s difficulties, constitutes a dangerous aggravation of the problem and I fear that radical Islamic movements are ready to exploit so misguided a move. In genuinely fair and free elections, the Muslim parties are very likely to win.”

Myth and the man

When he was asked who his favorite author is, he said: “Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, who studied in European universities and spent his life in Egypt in the mid-19th century, wrote several important works about Islam and its compatibility with modernity during an important period of change as the Muslim World interacted with Europe in the 19th century. His perspective and arguments were enriched by his understanding of Europe and how principles of Islam and European modernity could complement one another.” Here we can notice his implied dismissal over the allegation of the Orientalist impressionism that has been attributed to him about the impossibility that Islam and modernity can be compatible.

Lewis is said to be the one who prophesied the clash of civilizations, since he presented the idea before Samuel Huntington, while the truth is the thesis didn’t build the conflict nor did it plan it but it predicted it, just like a historian predicts a major event or a great speech when looking at facts.

Lewis passed away, and in his death as in his life, he stirred controversy. He had an exceptional personality and was an extraordinary researcher. Things he didn’t say were attributed to him, and he was accused of roles that he got bored refuting. Myths were told about his character in legends of wars and he was credited with managing the room where they were redrawing maps and planning divisive plots, but all of these are mere illusions.

This article is also available in Arabic.

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Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Alarabiya.net, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.