Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Quandary of Bernard Lewis: An Academic Life Between Saidian Orientalism & True Scholarship

He is perhaps the best known scholar of the Middle East and Islam living today. He has mastered numerous languages, from Ottoman and Modern Turkish to Arabic, Persian, French, Classical Hebrew, and German. He has written or edited several standard works in the field of Middle Eastern studies, including The Emergence of Modern Turkey (currently in its third edition), The Arabs in History (recently reprinted), and Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew Poems. He has specialized in the history of the Ottoman Empire and the Medieval Islamic Middle East. His advice and thoughts on the region's current events are sought by the most senior current and former members of the U.S. government, including Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleeza Rice. He is Bernard Lewis (right) and he has worked extensively as a scholar and with several world governments. He has crossed over between the worlds of the academe and policy makers, and has been criticized for it.

Bernard Lewis, Edward W. Said, & The Debate Over 'Orientalism'
In 1978, Lewis was one of the central targets in Edward W. Said's (left) classic polemical work Orientalism, which sought to expose the biased, West-centric scholarship on peoples of the East that was common during the 19th and 20th centuries. Said, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University in the City of New York, lambasted Lewis for painting a "one-size-fits-all" paradigm of both the Arab peoples and Muslims in general, exemplifying the kind of arrogant, Western scholarship of the lands and cultures east of Europe that Said bashed in Orientalism. Said repeated his criticisms of bias in Western scholarship on "the East" in his 1981 book, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, which was released in an updated edition in 1997.

Lewis responded to Said's criticisms by arguing that Orientalist scholarship on the Middle East and Islam was not necessarily tied to the European Colonial governments that ruled large swaths of the Islamic World during the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, Lewis argued that Orientalism was often opposed to the interests of the European states that ruled parts of the Islamic World. He also rejected what he saw as Said's unspoken thesis statement: that only Arabs or Muslims could write their history; Lewis dubbed this, "intellectual protectionism." Lewis also said that in his view, as long as a scholar was well equipped with the necessary academic tools (i.e. foreign language and research skills) and was curious and empathetic (and not overtly biased) toward their subject(s), they were more than qualified to study Eastern cultures.

The criticism of Said's work by Lewis' supporters (Michael Doran, Martin Kramer, Daniel Pipes, the disgruntled former Muslim-turned-wannabe scholar Ibn Warraq) was fiery and much more blunt (and less academic) than Lewis' own response. Lewis' supporters dismissed Said's criticisms and his book as overly wordy and lacking in substance. Said was criticized for painting the majority of, if not all, scholarship on the Islamic World written by Westerns as being somehow tainted, and thus of less worth. Kramer in particular, in his recent attack on Middle Eastern studies in the United States, the nauseating Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America (right) devoted an entire chapter (and much of the rest of the book) on hammering away at Said's theories of Orientalism.


However, avowed ultra-Zionists such as Kramer and Pipes (left) were not the only ones who were critical of aspects of Said's book. Respected Middle East scholars, including the late Albert Hourani, the late Annemarie Schimmel, and Nikki Keddie, were wary of the all-encompassing nature (as they saw it) of Said's blistering critique. All warned that there was a danger that his conclusions, while valid in some cases, would be misused against all scholars of the Middle East that were not from the region themselves.

There is a point to this kind of criticism of Said's two books. In his passion for his subject, Said often blurs the lines between the group of "Orientalist" scholars that he is criticizing and the larger array of Western scholarship on Islam and the Arab peoples. In short, not all Western scholars are devoted to the maintenance of neo-Colonial/Imperial systems in the Middle East and not all Western scholars are inherently dismissive of "the East," in favor of their own, Western (i.e. European or American) cultures. Cases in point of contemporary non-Muslim scholars of Islam who are highly respectful of Islam while still showing an academic interest (and thus an element of incredulity) include Georgetown University's John O. Voll and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad; Duke University's Bruce B. Lawrence; and the University of Michigan's Juan R. I. Cole. One of the (few) major flaws in Said's books is the failure to clearly differentiate between Imperialist Orientalist scholarship and the scholarship of Western academics who approach their fields of study with a respect of the peoples involved and who have no public policy goals.

The Education of an Academic
Lewis, educated at the University of London's famed School of Oriental and African Studies, earned a B.A. and Ph.D. in the history of the Near (Middle) East and Islamic history respectively. His doctoral dissertation was on Isma'ili Shi'ism, but by 1950, he began to focus his research on the Ottoman Empire and the modern nation-state of Turkey, which emerged shortly after the end of the First World War. Since 1974, he has been a professor at Princeton University, in the Department of Near Eastern Studies; he has been retired since the early 1990s, but remains the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus, at Princeton.

Between Scholarship & Polemic: The Tragedy of Bernard Lewis, the Middle East Historian
Lewis' greatest achievement as an academic is surely his mastery of the major Middle Eastern source languages (Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish), European scholarly languages (French, German, Latin, Greek), and his knowledge of the source material (archives, manuscripts, books, diaries, memoirs, etc.) relevant to Middle Eastern studies. No one really questions Lewis' scholarly abilities; he has proven his mettle and academic abilities time and time again. What many do question is his tendency to mesh his politics with his scholarship.

Although he is perhaps one of the greatest living historians of the Middle East, in terms of his academic abilities and skills, Lewis is a near-outcast in some circles within the American community of Middle East scholars, including the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA), the premier academic collective of North American scholars specializing in the region. His work, while commercially successful with the general public, who by and large are not very knowledgeable about the Middle East as a region, its people, or Islam, Lewis is dismissed by some as a Zionist polemicist whose scholarship generally should not be used or relied on. On the other hand, Lewis also has his diehard acolytes, including the aforementioned Pipes and Kramer (of the Middle East Forum, an overtly political think tank, and the pro-Israeli Washington Institute for Near East Policy) and they reject any criticisms of their hierophant-teacher.

The truth about Lewis the scholar, however, is somewhere in between the two extremes. On the one hand, much of his past work on the Middle East, the Arab peoples, and Islamic history has been thoroughly colored by his personal biases and views, as well as his political positions on several issues, including the existence of the modern nation-state of Israel. On the other hand, he has also written some of the 20th century's classic works on the region and its history, including the aforementioned The Emergence of Modern Turkey, and he has the scholarly abilities necessary to produce more of such works. The central issue, again, is his mix of political rhetoric with his scholarship.

In many ways, Lewis resembles a kind of tragic hero, an individual blessed with numerous gifts or abilities who makes a severe error in judgment or has a fatal flaw that leads to their ultimate downfall and the downfall of those around them. Lewis' aforementioned severe error in judgment has been the kind of politicized scholarship that has made up the bulk of his work during the last several decades, from the infamous (among his critics) What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response to his post-September 11, 2001 mini-work, The Crisis of Islam (left), which was basically an enlarged and updated version of an earlier essay, "The Revolt of Islam."

Due to his connections with governments and political leaders in both the United States and Israel, Lewis' objectivity has rightfully been questioned by many of his colleagues. However, it is still possible, even this late in his life, for Lewis to again show his true scholarly abilities, to again produce a classic in the field of Middle Eastern studies in the twilight of his life. However, to do this, he must divorce his academic work from his political leanings. If this means abandoning the study of the modern Middle East, which he has favored in recent years, and moving back to his original sub-fields of study (the Ottoman Empire and Medieval Islamic History), then that is what he must do. However, this may not be necessary for Lewis to "redeem" himself, as it were.

The Re-education of Bernard Lewis?
Despite his quasi-demonization among certain circles, Lewis recently wrote a lengthy essay for the May/June 2005 issue of the influential public policy journal Foreign Affairs, "Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East." In it he argues that the democratic ideal and spirit is not completely foreign to the Middle East, as some radical American Neo-Conservatives have alleged. Summarizing his article, Lewis emphatically states, "To speak of dictatorship as being the immemorial way of doing things in the Middle East is simply untrue. It shows ignorance of the Arab past, contempt for the Arab present, and lack of concern for the Arab future." In and of itself, this is a powerful statement, one that seems to show a real concern on the part of Lewis for the future prosperity of the Middle East as a region. Through this statement, a portrait emerges of a man who, deep down, has a high sense of admiration and respect for the Arab peoples and their cultural achievements throughout history, but who has become engrossed with the fad of being a public policy wonk.

A supporter of the forcible removal of former Iraqi President Saddam Husayn al-Tikriti, Lewis failed to see the turmoil that the removal of the Iraqi Ba'th Party would result in. However, in his article, he remains optimistic about the chances of an indigenous democracy emerging in post-Ba'th Iraq: "Creating a democratic political and social order in Iraq or elsewhere in the region will not be easy. But it is possible, and there are increasing signs that it has already begun."

Although one essay, however substantive, is hardly enough to "redeem" Lewis the historian, I hold onto my hope that he will move away from politicized scholarship and back to researching the world of Medieval Islam and the Ottoman Empire. The beauty of Lewis' translations of Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Hebrew poetry contained within Music of a Distant Drum are how I would like to remember him after he is called back by his Creator. He has the skills. He has the ability. The question that still remains is, will he use them in a non-politicized manner again? As a newcomer to the field and someone who looks up, in many ways, to him, I sincerely hope that What Went Wrong? will not be a permanent blot on the lifetime record of an old school scholar who is one of the giants in the field of Middle East studies.


For Martin Kramer's biographical sketch on Bernard Lewis, see:

For Bernard Lewis' own autobiographical sketch on the web site of Princeton University's Department of Near Eastern Studies, see:

For Emily Yoffe's article on the life and work of Bernard Lewis in the November 13, 2001 "issue" of the online publication Slate, see:

For a severe critique of Bernard Lewis and other "Orientalist" scholars by the late Professor Edward W. Said, see:

For Edward W. Said's critique of Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong?, see:

For a critique of Bernard Lewis' work by Hugh Fitzgerald, a contributor to the anti-Muslim web site (an example of how radical Americans view him, since he has refused to review the works of radical anti-Muslim writers such as Bat Ye'or), see:

For a partial list of Bernard Lewis' books currently available in print, see: