National Review asked friends and admirers of Bernard Lewis to say some words about the man and his achievements to mark the occasion of his 100th birthday today.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Bernard Lewis once asked me, Is there anyone who as a leader has really impressed you? And I said, well, you do. He smiled and said he was flattered, but asked about a political leader. And I had to think about it. He said the fact that you have to think about it so long is a mark of our time.
Bernard Lewis was born in 1916, into a world writhing with conflict from all corners. A world poised for a century of war, of revolt, of treaties, of fighting for and against modern values. He watched as, from the ashes of destruction, there rose a world transformed: a world embarking farther down the path for freedom, equality, and prosperity than was previously thought possible. Bernard Lewis watched the birth of the modern world.
Having lived through the good times and the hard times, Bernard has truly become a leader whom I admire greatly. An unparalleled mind, a prescient adviser to many, he stands out for his humility, his warmth, and his honesty. There are few who are as respected by their foes as they are by their friends. An ardent historian of the Middle East, Bernard published his book The Middle East and the West in 1964. It was translated into Arabic by the Muslim Brotherhood. The translator wrote in the preface: “I don’t know who this person is but one thing is clear. He is, from our point of view, either a candid friend or an honest enemy and in any case one who disdains to distort the truth.”
I want to thank Bernard for his dedication, for his courage, and for his vast legacy. For this is what truly makes a leader and his work timeless. There is so much to celebrate in the life of Bernard Lewis. Happy birthday to a dear friend.
— Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the Founder of the AHA Foundation, a Fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the best selling author of Infidel (2007) and Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (2015).
I met Bernard Lewis only once, in 2010. I had been living in Istanbul for nearly six years and so had special reason to be awed by his reputation as the Heimdall of Ottomanist Valhalla. He had been the first Westerner to examine the Turkish government archives, in 1950. The Emergence of Modern Turkey, published in 1961, revolutionized the study of the late Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. It consigned his successors to writing footnotes.
The Turkish proverb “Türk’ün Türk’ten başka dostu yoktur” — the Turk has no friend but the Turk — is true and self-fulfilling. Turkey inspires in Arab and European countries suspicion and rancor. The sentiment is reciprocated. Fears of foreign conspiracies endlessly poison Turkish political debate; Turks believe they are under siege, and sometimes they are even right. Lewis had paid Turkey the compliment of curiosity and deep, honest study. In doing so, he had loved the country as no other Westerner had. The proverb is sometimes amended in Turkey: “Türk’ün Türk’ten ve Bernard Lewis’ten başka dostu yoktur” — the Turk has no friend but the Turk and Bernard Lewis.
I was introduced to him by one of his disciples, Harold Rhode. Our drive to his home in Princeton had the aspect of a pilgrimage. Rhode carried with him a digital recorder. He followed Lewis around with it, he told me, just in case. There was something a bit ghoulish about this.
I was expecting a terrifying figure. But to my surprise, he was loveable. He was sweet and avuncular with me, and inspired instant affection and the urge to settle in for a good gossip. “His students call him Uncle Bernie,” Rhodes whispered. Uncle Bernie’s manners were exquisite, and while he walked slowly, he was otherwise suffering no obvious infirmity, nor the characteristic self-absorption of the elderly.
We discussed Turkey, of course. For reasons I wish I better understood, it was at the time widely reported and believed in the West that Turkey, under then–prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was “liberalizing.” This was not true. The government had for years been arresting its opponents, staging show trials, and terrifying journalists into cowed compliance.
Lewis likened Erdogan to Adnan Menderes, who was hanged by the military after the 1960 coup. He recounted an anecdote that subsequently made a translated appearance in his Notes on a Century. He’d been sitting in the faculty lounge in Ankara, he told me, several years into the Menderes regime. To everyone’s bewilderment, a professor said suddenly that Menderes was the father of Turkish democracy. What on earth could you mean, asked another. Well, said the first, Demokrasinin anasini s**ti – “he screwed the mother of Turkish democracy.” I had heard exactly the same joke about Erdogan.
Over lunch he said that while his memory for the archives remained unerring, his ability to commit to mind recent events was less reliable. For my part, I’m not sure if my most vivid recollection of him is true (it’s possible I later superimposed it over my real memories). But this is what I seem to remember him saying to me, in a voice low enough to escape Harold Rhode’s recorder: that I was not wrong, that the situation was as bleak as it looked, that the West and the Islamic world would exhaust and destroy each other, leaving the world to China and India.
The remark weighs on my mind. It’s easy to dismiss my own assessment as so much pessimistic self-indulgence. After all, what do I know? But it is not so easy to say, “What does he know?”
— Claire Berlinski is the author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too. She writes for Ricochet.com.
Victor Davis Hanson
Bernard Lewis reached a considerable popular audience after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when his earlier assessments of Muslim anger at the West (e.g., “The Roots of Muslim Rage”; What Went Wrong?) proved prescient. From the 1990s onward, Lewis, almost alone among scholars of Islam, had warned that the traditional diagnoses of contemporary Muslim and Arab furor at Europe and the United States, the dysfunction of the Middle East, and the either/or nihilism of Middle Eastern theocracy and autocracy were misguided and politicized. For Lewis, the implosion of the modern Middle East was not attributable to the usual academic bogeymen: imperialism, colonialism, Westernization, exploitation, or Zionism. Rather, he drew on a rich learning of Muslim history and literature, both to pay homage to earlier Islamic cultural achievements and to suggest that the recent spate of Islamic terrorism was largely aberrant and a reflection of late-19th- and 20th-century dysfunctions in Middle Eastern societies, which had mostly failed to adopt constitutional systems, transparency, human rights, free-market capitalism, religious tolerance, and equality of the sexes — at least in comparison with modern Western and Westernized nations that have found such protocols the keys to economic progress and social stability.
Millions in the late-20th-century Middle East, who had not found parity with the West and who lived in poverty and danger, were persuaded by both religious and autocratic authorities to redirect their rage at supposed Western oppressors — and especially at their own modernist detours from religious purity, which had left Islam weak and a shadow of its supposedly glorious past. In other words, if a man in Damascus or Cairo could not get a job, it was the fault of the West — and it was his own lack of religious purity that had permitted such injustice.
Because Lewis, a classical liberal, was not an activist and had enjoyed a half-century-long reputation as a sympathetic student of Islam, critics were at first dumbfounded and unable to deal with his bleak analyses. Detractors on the left charged that he was “blaming the victim”; even as some on the right, although more sympathetic to Lewis’s views, nevertheless objected that he was naïve in that the roots of Muslim rage were hardly new, but discernible throughout East–West tensions since the seventh century, that Islamic culture was fundamentally different from Christian culture (i.e., inherently more violent and intolerant), and that Lewis danced around issues such as the Armenian genocide.
Yet, because of his calm demeanor, engaging prose style, wit, and prolific and long record of scholarship, Lewis usually came out on top in these many disputes that arose in the second half of his career. Such was Lewis’s historical insight that almost alone he fashioned a framework for understanding the modern Middle East in ways that were both empirical and commonsensical — and more or less remain the standard Western understanding of why global terrorism is largely an Islamic phenomenon: Middle Eastern political, social, cultural, and economic failure — widely apparent to the Arab masses in the age of instant global communications — is blamed on the West rather than addressed through reform by the various countries’ autocratic rulers, who in turn buy off internal opposition from Islamic theocrats by subsidizing their extremism and terrorism as long as it is directed westward.
Until there is massive reform inside the Middle East and within Islam, we should expect the post–September 11 world to continue to be a place of instability and violence. In sum, the events of the new century seem to keep proving Lewis right about his diagnoses of the prior one.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.
Andrew C. McCarthy
As a federal prosecutor in 1993, I was placed in charge of one of the most important and unusual criminal investigations in the United States. Its focus was the terrorist cell that had just bombed the World Trade Center and was at that moment engaged in an even more ambitious plot to bomb several New York City landmarks. The case was important for obvious reasons. It was unusual because we did not know what we were dealing with.
That’s where Bernard Lewis comes in.
We were straining against the Nineties manifestations of what today is rampant political correctness. Our suspects were all Muslims and proclaimed Islam as their motivation for war against the United States. Yet the official position of our government — then as now — was that Islam had nothing to do with their atrocities.
Having had little intersection with the faith that boasted over a billion adherents worldwide, I badly wanted our official position to be true. But doubts gnawed. Khomeini’s 1979 revolution, a self-proclaimed jihadist upheaval, was still fairly fresh history. So was Hezbollah’s mass murder of our marines in Lebanon, the emergence of Hamas, and the mujahideen triumph in Afghanistan, which seemed a pivotal domino in the Soviet Union’s collapse. Plus, my top suspect, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, was a blind man unfit to perform any acts useful to a terrorist organization, yet he was its unquestioned leader — a fact that obviously owed to his status as a renowned scholar of Islamic jurisprudence. Why, I wondered, would anyone figure that Bill Clinton and Janet Reno knew more about “true” Islam than the Blind Sheikh did?
Prosecutors can’t prove cases unless they can demonstrate what motivated the defendants to act. Political correctness is for the press room, not the courtroom. I needed to get a grip on what we were dealing with — fast.
So I made my best professional decision ever: I bought a copy of Islam and the West by Bernard Lewis.
What the West’s preeminent scholar of Islam taught this grateful student was that it was possible to acknowledge the richness of Muslim history yet still see Islam plain. One could appreciate the diversity and accomplishments in Islamic traditions and still see as sheer nonsense the notions that Islam was monolithically peaceful and tolerant, that its legal and political systems were seamlessly compatible with Western democracy, and that jihad was merely, as modern Western apologists insisted, an internal struggle for personal betterment. To the contrary, Lewis explained, “the overwhelming majority of early authorities . . . citing relevant passages in the Koran and in the tradition, discuss jihad in military terms.”
Professor Lewis made me realize that Islam was not one thing but several, many of them internally contradictory, often to the point of bloody conflict. Perhaps none of them have a monopoly on authenticity. The Blind Sheikh was an Islamic scholar and a dyed-in-the-wool terrorist. Emad Salem, my main informant witness who infiltrated the Blind Sheikh’s cell and almost single-handedly thwarted the New York City landmarks plot, was Egyptian-educated and patriotically drawn to America and the West. They are both devout Muslims.
Lewis is also an observer of incomparable insight. Over a half-century ago he foresaw the difficulty of democratizing Islamic societies, noting that attempts “to show that Islam and democracy are identical” were “usually based on a misunderstanding of Islam or democracy or both.” Islam, in fact, traditionally had a tyrannical streak, a culture of obedience to authority that was depressingly reminiscent of Communist societies, including in its antipathy to the West. Lewis ruefully wrote, “The humorist who summed up the Communist creed as ‘There is no God and Karl Marx is his Prophet’ was laying his finger on a real affinity.”
In 2004, Professor Lewis told Die Welt that “Europe will be Islamic by the end of the century.” A dozen years later, London has just elected its first Muslim mayor, an Islamist. I wouldn’t bet against Bernard Lewis.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.
After the very few occasions I have been invited to speak at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London my feeling has tended to be that the place should be knocked down and the earth salted over. The memory of a single person reminds me to refrain from such uncharitable thoughts. For though it may now be unpleasantly radical, this part of the University of London once helped produce the young Bernard Lewis. For this, almost any subsequent sin ought to be forgiven.
But the truth is that scholars and writers of Lewis’s stature do not appear anywhere very often, not even in the course of a lifespan as considerable as the one he has lived. There have been few enough experts in any discipline of such depth, range, and influence. I doubt that there is any scholar — professional or amateur — of the Middle East or Islam who does not have a shelf dedicated to the works of Bernard Lewis. From The Arabs in History to Notes on a Century, his output is striking for its depth and broad accessibility as well as its extraordinary span. His works have long been the indispensable resource of academics, journalists, and policy makers alike.
If few people have matched Lewis’s depth of research, even fewer have returned to tell the tale without falling through the looking glass. Lewis came back time and again to tell the world what he found, in works filled with respect not only for his subject but also for his readers.
In recent decades the world has come to have special need of that learning. Always appreciated by the best among his peers, Lewis has also become the possession of the widest — and most grateful — possible public. Our public discussions on Islam and the West are always in need of improvement, but if they are more informed than they once were (and, despite some evidence to the contrary among a certain subset of elites, I sense that they are), it is in no small part because a young British scholar immersed himself in his subject, went to America, and helped influence the course not only of scholarship but of ideas. His mother country, as well as his alma mater, should feel enormous pride at the centennial of this son’s birth.
— Douglas Murray is the author of a number of books, including Bloody Sunday and is working on an expanded version of his earlier work Islamophilia.
I first heard about Bernard Lewis in the 1980s, when I was in college. I took some courses in Middle East studies. My professors (leftists) mentioned him, as a Big Bad Conservative. But they couldn’t help speaking of him with respect. I was intrigued.
Flash forward to National Review after 9/11. We prevailed on Lewis to write a piece for us on the general situation. I say “we”: It was really our senior editor David Pryce-Jones, an old friend of Bernard’s. When people at other magazines saw Lewis in our pages — they might have been a touch envious. One couldn’t blame them.
In later years, I asked Bernard, “Did you ever think your expertise would turn out to be so useful to the world, and craved by it?” No, he said, absolutely not.
He has been a frequent guest on NR cruises: a sparkling guest, as well as a learned one, of course. I can see him holding court in a lounge, wearing a tuxedo, delighting his listeners, especially the women. But the woman he cares most for is Buntzie.
I have prized every meal, every conversation, with Bernard Lewis. One always learns things, and expands one’s repertoire of stories. I expect to be drawing on what Lewis has taught me for a lifetime. His teaching includes not a few jokes (from assorted countries).
In 2011, I filmed an interview with him, for a series called “The Human Parade.” In his home, two chairs had been set up: a big, comfortable armchair and a quite modest, uncomfortable-looking one. Bernard insisted he would be more comfortable in the second chair — leaving me in the grand one, and feeling sheepish.
Have you read his memoirs, Notes on a Century? When you do, you will know Bernard, pretty well.
In 1966, he was a founding member of MESA, the Middle East Studies Association. Forty years later, he was a founding member of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). This had been created as an escape from MESA. The older organization had been taken over by radicals and ideologues, just as the Maoists had taken over Chinese studies.
That’s the way Bernard put it. He was genuinely hurt, I sensed, at what had happened to his field.
In his address inaugurating ASMEA, he quoted Dr. Johnson: “A generous and elevated mind is distinguished by nothing more certainly than by an eminent degree of curiosity. Nor is that curiosity ever more agreeably or usefully employed than in examining the laws and customs of foreign nations.” That is Bernard.
He is obviously one of the greatest historians of the Middle East we have ever had. He is a great historian, period, and a great scholar.
One year, a book of his was published in Hebrew translation — by the Israeli defense ministry. That same book was published in Arabic — by the Muslim Brotherhood. In his preface, the translator of the Arabic version said, “I don’t know who this author is, but one thing about him is clear: He is either a candid friend or an honorable enemy, and in either case is one who has disdained to falsify the truth.”
Some former students of Bernard’s refer to him as “the Imam.” I know just what they mean. Happy birthday, great one.
— Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor at National Review.
Three quotes establish Bernard Lewis’s career. Martin Kramer, a former student of Lewis, sums up his teacher’s accomplishments:
Bernard Lewis emerged as the most influential postwar historian of Islam and the Middle East. His elegant syntheses made Islamic history accessible to a broad public in Europe and America. In his more specialized studies, he pioneered social and economic history and the use of the vast Ottoman archives. His work on the premodern Muslim world conveyed both its splendid richness and its smug self-satisfaction. His studies in modern history rendered intelligible the inner dialogues of Muslim peoples in their encounter with the values and power of the West.
The University of California’s R. Stephen Humphreys notes “the extraordinary range of his scholarship [and] his capacity to command the totality of Islamic and Middle Eastern history from Muhammad down to the present day.” And, as the late Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University put it on Lewis’s 90th birthday, he is “the oracle of this new age of the Americans in the lands of the Arab and Islamic worlds.”
Lewis’s career spanned a monumental 75 years, from his first article (“The Islamic Guilds”) in 1937 to his autobiography in 2012. Midway, in 1969, he entered my life. In Israel the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, with my aspirations to become a mathematician in doubt, I thought of switching to Middle East studies. To sample this new field, I visited Ludwig Mayer’s renowned bookstore in Jerusalem and purchased The Arabs in History, Lewis’s 1950 book.
It launched my career. Over the next 47 years, Lewis continued to exert a profound influence on my studies. Although never his formal student, I absorbed his views, reading nearly all his writings and favorably reviewing seven of his books, far more than those of any other author. His name appears on 508 pages of my website. Beyond numbers, he more than anyone else has influenced my understanding of the Middle East and Islam.
That said, Lewis and I argued strenuously during the George W. Bush years, narrowly on Iraq policy (I was more skeptical of U.S. efforts) and broadly on the matter of bringing freedom to the Middle East (ditto).
I first met Professor Lewis in 1973 in London, when he generously invited me to his house and offered advice on my Ph.D. studies. I saw him recently at his small apartment in the Philadelphia suburbs. He’s impressively fit in body and mind, spending time on the computer, ever the raconteur (“What’s a Jewish joke? One which non-Jews can’t understand and Jews have heard a better version of”), and conjuring up anecdotes from a time before the rest of us were born (such as his 1946 discussion with Abba Eban about the latter’s career choices). It’s wonderful to see him doing well even if it’s sadly understandable that he no longer engages in scholarship nor opines on current events.
Lewis was born a mere 15 days after the Sykes-Picot agreement that defined the modern Middle East, and their common May centennial finds Syria and Iraq in shreds. And yet Bernard Lewis more than ever is an inspiration to his many self-identified disciples, including this one.
Bernard Lewis knows more than anyone else about the world of Islam. That world is beyond the experience of most of us. Specialists, or “Orientalists” in the academic jargon, have familiarized the unfamiliar. Nowadays, pretty well all such specialists are either narrow-minded partisans in one or another of the causes that have turned the Middle East into an extensive battlefield, or else immersed in trivia of interest only to professors. Bernard is different; he’s the last in the Orientalist tradition of interpretation based on careful scholarship. There’s no one like him, and probably never will be.
Already as a teenager, he showed himself to be a born linguist, and it’s impossible to be interested in languages without also being interested in the people who speak them. I once heard him wonder if his Italian were good enough to give a lecture in it in Siena. He’s published authoritative studies illuminating some aspect of Turkish, Persian, or Arab society and culture, studies on faith and ethnicity, or race and slavery and Jews, war and politics and modernity. Brilliantly original books like The Muslim Discovery of Europe and What Went Wrong? are based on a lifetime’s research, reaching the painful conclusion that Muslims have believed in their superiority so uncritically and for so long that they lost contact with reality. However bad things may be, though, he never quite rejects hope for a better life.
Objective analysis of the sort was too much for Edward Said, a Christian who became the foremost apologist for the Arabs of his day. In his view, there was no such thing as Western scholarship about the world of Islam: Each and every Orientalist was an aggressor, sometimes openly, sometimes secretly, and in any case disqualified from any comment about the Middle East, especially where Israel was concerned. In the polemic that ensued, Said attempted to fit Bernard into this fanciful conspiracy. Bernard got the better of it by insisting on the universality of knowledge and reason.
A day came when I received a letter from Bernard approving of a book I had written. Since then, it has been my privilege to discover that friendship is as much part of his personality as scholarship. I see the humor in his face when he told me that the United States ought to deal with Iran and Iraq in alphabetical order. I see it again when he described the first Gulf war as “Kuwaitus interruptus.” Among his wonderful stories is one about training Cypriot waiters as possible intelligence agents in 1940. I can recall almost word for word his warning that a clash of civilizations was now upon us. Sometimes I am asked if I have met any great men — Bernard is certainly one. In the words of the Jewish blessing, may he live to be 120.
— David Pryce-Jones is a senior editor at National Review and the author of The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.