Revered and Reviled: Bernard Lewis
Lewis believes he became a target primarily because he was Jewish and British. “We all tend to judge others by ourselves; that’s human nature,” Lewis says. Edward Said, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem and an English professor, was bitterly and viciously anti-British, he says. “He assumed that an Englishman who was a professor of Arabic would have the same attitude to his subject as he had to his.”
With the eighth anniversary of Said’s death approaching, this debate continues to rage across American college campuses, where a new generation of scholars has taken his lead. “Bernard Lewis is an influential scholar, but his writings, particularly over the past years, have become increasingly polemical and ideological,” says Nader Hashemi, a Middle East expert at the University of Denver and an outspoken critic of Lewis. “He assumes there is a fossilized Muslim core that determines the way Muslims will always behave and ignores changing social conditions in the Middle East.”
Indeed, Lewis has become persona non grata in Middle Eastern studies departments on college campuses across the U.S. Hashemi includes one of Lewis’ books in his syllabus, but mostly as an example of the kind of Orientalist scholarship students should learn to avoid. Lewis himself acknowledges the phenomenon: He was a guest lecturer several years ago at a university in the Midwest and says that while students representing various disciplines flocked to his lecture, not a single student from Middle Eastern studies was present. As a graduate student later told him, attending the lecture “would have harmed his career.” Says Hashemi: “Lewis’ reputation within the community of Middle East scholars has really sunk to an all-time low.”
“In most American universities,” says Ajami, “the battle of ideas between Lewis and Said was, alas, won by Said and his disciples. To me, that is a tragic outcome.”
When the Twin Towers came crashing down on September 11, 2001, Lewis’ book What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Eastern Response was at the printer. When it was released in December, its thesis was on everyone’s mind. As Lewis says, “Osama Bin Laden made me famous.” Kramer phrases it this way: “Bernard Lewis became a household name after 9/11, at a time when followers of Said thought they got rid of him.” No longer just relegated to the Ivy League and the pages of high-brow journals, the academic dispute over the Islamic world now became central to explaining Osama bin Laden and his global jihad.
“Clash of civilizations” thundered across the airwaves, three words often associated with the Harvard political science professor Samuel Huntington, who borrowed it for the title of his landmark 1993 Foreign Affairs article, which was later expanded into a book with the same title. Huntington, a titan in his field, died in 2008, and Lewis hesitates to take credit for the phrase, telling me he never called his theory “the clash of civilizations” per se. “It was an idea I came to in stages after studying the long history of jihad and crusade and counter-crusade and so on throughout the centuries,” he explains. Nevertheless, he believes in its fundamental truths: Christians and Muslims both believe they are the recipients of God’s final word, which they are obligated to share with the rest of humanity—a message that is both universal and exclusive. “This inevitably led to conflict, to the real clash of rival civilizations aspiring to the same role, leading to the same hegemony,” Lewis said during a 2006 Washington, DC event hosted by the Pew Forum. It is not their differences that lead to the clash but their similarities, he adds.