The Usefulness Of A Clash
A prolific historian of the Middle East has died, but is his legacy relevant?
During his long career, Bernard Lewis never shied away from polemics. He confidently inserted his voice into hotly contested debates, some of which included the decline or “decay” of Islamic civilization, the murder of Armenians during World War I, the creation of the modern state of Israel, and the “War on Terror” following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Nevertheless, even his toughest critics acknowledged the professor’s keen intellect, linguistic competence (he spoke and read at least a dozen languages), and passionate resolve to grapple with complex ideas. Many of his books— he wrote more than 30—and articles—more than 100—are still assigned reading in universities and standard fare among the general public.
Lewis died at an assisted living facility in New Jersey on Saturday, May 19, just 12 days shy of his 102nd birthday. No details regarding the cause of death were given.
On his passing, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a statement lauding him as one of today’s greatest scholars of Islam and the Middle East.
“We will be forever grateful for his robust defense of Israel,” Netanyahu’s office added in a statement. “Professor Lewis’s wisdom will continue to guide us for years to come.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also added to the praise: “There is less knowledge and less wit with us today following his passing. I met him only once, but read much of what he wrote,” Pompeo said in a statement released Sunday.
Bernard Lewis was born on May 31, 1916, to a Jewish family in London as World War I was raging on the continent. In 1938, he accepted a position as assistant lecturer at the University of London, where he earned his Ph.D. the following year. During World War II he served in the British Army’s Royal Armored Corps and Intelligence Corps, and returned to teaching after the war.
His talents eventually took him to America where he taught at Princeton and Cornell University before retiring in 1990.
A recent article in The Washington Post depicts a more glamorous life beyond the walls of academia. Lewis “roamed souks and back streets for British intelligence during World War II; had tea in Golda Meir’s kitchen in honor of his ardent support of Israel; dined with Pope John Paul II; and was hosted in the Peacock Throne court of Iran’s former shah.” The professor also found his way into “the folds of Washington’s power brokers and policy shapers.”
It was his entry into the corridors of power that earned Lewis a good share of critics. They derided him for espousing a Eurocentric, neo-colonialist view of the world. Many attacked him for backing the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq (though Lewis clarified that he believed fomenting rebellion in Iraq was a better strategy than invading the country).
When it comes to the notoriety, however, Lewis is best known for his “clash of civilizations” view, which posits a fundamental clash between the Islamic world and the West. Long before Harvard professor Samuel Huntington was credited with popularizing the term, Lewis had, by 1957, coined the phrase.
Does this model, still hold water?
Imad Salamey, a professor of political science and international affairs at Lebanese American University in Beirut, told The Media Line that many political developments in the region have “helped consolidate Lewis and Huntington’s clash thesis.”
They include the Iran’s anti-Western rhetoric along with that of the Taliban, Al-Qa’ida, and the Islamic State, all of whom have “vowed to destroy the unfaithful West.”
“The 9/11 attacks against the U.S. and the prisons the U.S set up in Iraq, especially Abu Ghraib, where Islamic culture was denigrated, expresses a deep-rooted cultural clash,” Salamey said, including “violent encounters such as the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as well as its other military operations in Syria, Yemen, and Somalia.”
The late Palestinian literary critic Edward Said—who was Lewis’s most prominent opponent—wrote in The Nation that Lewis and Huntington, reasoned “as if hugely complicated matters like identity and culture existed in a cartoonlike world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly.”
Nevertheless, Salamey added, the perspectives of Lewis and Huntington “remain prominent and relevant as we confront a world polarized along religious lines.”
Martin Kramer, the chair of the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, was Lewis’s student at Princeton. “Whatever one thinks of the policies advocated by Lewis,” Kramer said, “it can’t be denied that he mapped the trajectory of the present-day Middle East in advance.”