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Bernard Lewis’ Stubborn Hope

In Notes on a Century, the historian is still optimistic about a ‘great civilization’ in the Muslim world

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Professor Emeritus Bernard Lewis checking the Near Eastern Dept. bulletin board covered with pictures of Saddam Hussein at Princeton, 1990. (Marianne Barcellona/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Of greater interest is Lewis’ own evaluation of the gaps in his own work. His earliest writings, he concedes, betrayed a Marxist influence—what he calls his own intellectual version of “measles and chicken pox,” a juvenile disease he outgrew in time. Startling, though, is an observation about the authenticity of Islam itself. “When I wrote my chapter on the Prophet in 1947 … I was able to present the advent of Islam in the form of a narrative of events and then try to interpret its significance in the framework of Arab, Muslim and general history.” Since then, “Radical, critical scholarship has called one source after another, one narrative after another into question. In a brief but broad-ranging historical essay of this type, it would not be possible, nor indeed would it be appropriate, to examine the arguments of the radical critics of early Islamic history, but neither is it possible to disregard them.”

Lewis, that is, acknowledges that the received history of Islam might be an invention of whole cloth, but he declines to discuss the matter further. One wishes he were more candid. It is a career-killer (and perhaps a killer of more than a career) to challenge the authenticity of the Quran and the received story of the Muslim conquests, yet a vast body of research over the last several decades makes it impossible for a rational observer to accept the Muslim account at face value. Unlike the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Gospels, the Muslim accounts are close enough to modernity to stand scrutiny against known facts, and on many accounts they fail basic tests of credibility. The German Muslim scholar Sven Muhammed Kalisch of the University of Münster surveyed the evidence in 2008 and concluded that no one resembling the Prophet Mohammed ever existed, and that the figure was concocted to serve the notion that the Arabs rather than the Jews were the chosen people.

If the critics are correct, then Islam cannot coexist with rational inquiry and has no future in modernity. The distinguished Georgetown University political philosopher Fr. James V. Schall wrote last year, “Scholars, mostly German, have been working quietly for many decades to produce a critical edition of the Koran that takes into consideration the ‘pre-history’ of the Koran. Due to the Muslim belief that any effort to question the Koran’s text is blasphemy, the enterprise is fraught with personal risk to the researchers. … The fragility of Islam, as I see it, lies in a sudden realization of the ambiguity of the text of the Koran. Is it what it claims to be? Islam is weak militarily. It is strong in social cohesion, often using severe moral and physical sanctions. But the grounding and unity of its basic document are highly suspect. Once this becomes clear, Islam may be as fragile as communism.”

Schall suggests an alternative that Lewis does not acknowledge, namely that Islam will neither persist in autocracy nor progress to some form of democracy, but will collapse as a civilization just as communism did. Some of Islam’s most obstreperous leaders, like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, proceed from fear of this outcome, and with good reason. The data suggest yet another reason to expect Islam to collapse rather than modernize.

During the middle of the past decade, demographers noted with astonishment that in some Muslim countries, fertility had fallen from among the world’s highest to the world’s lowest within the space of a single generation. The average Iranian woman bore seven children when Ayatollah Khomeini took power but now has only 1.5, the same as the European average. Turkish women (women, that is, whose first language is Turkish) also bear only 1.5 children on average, while Turks whose cradle tongue was Kurdish have between four and five children. “If we continue the existing trend,” Erdoğan warned in May 2010, “the year 2038 will mark disaster for us.”

Lewis, incidentally, has nothing to say about Turkey’s shift to Islamism under Erdoğan. That is his least pardonable omission. His hopes for the Muslim future were founded on his perception of Turkey’s modernization, the subject of his most lauded academic work. Lewis’ affection for the Turks pervades his new book; he recalls nostalgically a decadelong liaison with “an aristocratic Turkish lady” who presided over his Princeton dinner parties. He took an unpopular Turkophile position in declining to characterize the mass murder of Armenians during World War I as a “genocide.” Now that Turkey appears to have returned to political Islam under a government that routinely jails its critics, Lewis’ silence is disturbing.

What drives this great and sudden demographic shift in the Muslim world? As I wrote in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die, almost all the variation in Muslim fertility rates—among population cohorts within Muslim countries, and across the universe of Muslim-majority countries—is explained by education. Muslim girls who complete high school breed like Europeans. Modernity’s great precondition, namely education, leads to a demographic tailspin in the Muslim world, which appears to jump from infancy to senescence without passing through adulthood.

Bernard Lewis’ era was a better one than ours, buoyed by a sense that the victorious West had the power to set a successful example for societies that had lingered in backwardness. His generation went young to World War II and saw the Cold War through at the cusp of middle age. Lewis himself is one of the very last of a race of giants. We have the sorry task of managing the chaotic decline of the Muslim world. If Bernard Lewis speaks to us from a better time, he reminds us all the more poignantly that we had better move on and address the unpleasantness of our own.

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DRitchie says:

Brilliant work, David.  Just enough summary to whet the appetite and enough analysis to raise the questions surrounding this book.  Thank you.

Having come of age during the beginnings of Saidism, Bernard Lewis was and remains a truth teller in an academic environment devoid of any modern meritorious scholarship on the issues pervading the Middle East and Arab world.

Said’s “Orientalism” was one of the most inarticulate infantile books I had ever read on the Middle East. It is also required reading in every class on the Middle East back at its inception and especially today. It’s language was devoid of any talent, strangely written by Said who was a literature professor. Glad to note that others saw Said’s cliched approach to reality.

It is very simple…Lewis, while enamored and respectful of the Arab world, also tells people to take responsibility for their actions while Said tells people nothing is your fault no matter what choices you make. It is the dichotomy being played out in many ways in our society as a whole, and the Modern Arab/Islamic world especially. Honestly it is very disturbing to watch the world implode and the waste of such human potential while the powers that be sit back and do nothing but cajole those (Islamists, Iran, Syria) with an evil agenda.

As usual the book itself sounds like a terrific read. Just as is everything that Bernard Lewis has written over the decades.

Fine review. One correction: Lewis’s parents were not immigrants, they were British-born. (I once made that mistake, and he corrected me himself.)

davidpgoldman says:

Martin, thanks for the kind words, and the correction.

There is a question this fine review does not raise which I wonder if Lewis’ book does. i.e. The capacity of Islamic civilization to be tolerant of and cooperative with other civilizations. The sense I perhaps mistakenly have is that the very existence of other civilizations is somehow considered an affront by Islam. If that is the case how is it possible to expect that Peace will ever come for any neighbor of an Islamic civilization?

So in the West, first you get the money, then you get the power, and in the Middle East, first you get the power, then you get the money?

Jacob Arnon says:

I too loved the article with its critical conclusion of Lewis: he couldn’t bring himself to criticize modern Turkey. That’s too bad since I see modern Turkey (demographic decline and all) as a real threat to non Muslim democratization in the Mid East.

I also chuckled at the description of Lewis having been inoculated against a childhood disease like the measles by being exposed to Communism as a young person. Same here. 

mattnycs says:

Thanks for noting this, Martin. The piece has been corrected.

emunadate says:

good article. thank you. The muslim brotherhood also scares me…http://emunadate.blogspot.com/2010/11/out-of-time-radical-islam-taking-over.html

Mladen_Andrijasevic says:

I wonder if Bernard Lewis in his Notes on a Century mentions his famous warning about the inapplicability of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction to Iran.  Or is it that David Goldman did not consider it worth mentioning. Here is what Bernard Lewis has been saying:  “ During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States had nuclear weapons but both knew that the other was very unlikely to use them. Because of what was known at the time as MAD—mutually assured destruction. MAD meant that each side knew that if it used a nuclear weapon the other would retaliate and both sides would be devastated. And that’s why the whole time during the Cold War, even at the worst times, there was not much danger of anyone using a nuclear weapon,”
says Mr. Lewis.

But the mullahs “are religious fanatics with an apocalyptic mindset. In Islam, as in Christianity and Judaism, there is an end-of-times scenario—and they think it’s beginning or has already begun.” So “mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent—it’s an inducement.”

http://www.madisdead.blogspot.com/2011/07/mad-is-dead-another-iranian-nuclear.html

It is unfortunate that there is no Kindle edition of this book and that I will have
to wait until the hardcover edition arrives.

ProfJMRood says:

His century is past and his views of historical Islam no longer apply to the Salafism of today, and that is why he wisely remains silent on much recent history.

Those of us who’ve studied him are now left with the task of sorting out whether or not the Islam of the Ottoman Empire was what we thought it was, or was our twentieth century understanding really just a mirror of our own desire for ME multiculturalism in the shadow of the Holocaust?  Is neo-Ottomanism another chimera, will the Ikhwan overtake the Levant?  We shudder as we watch our worst fears unfold.

JehudahBenIsrael says:

Professor Bernard Lewis has been, and will continue to be for many years to come, one of kind; one who could see clearly the reality unfolding in front of him – past, present and even future – and report about it in the clearest and most rational way.

Prof. Lewis, unlike some scholars these days, did operate based on “narratives”, i.e. fictional short stories designed for political expediency. His observation and analysis has always been factually based and rationally analyzed and presented. It is perhaps this aspect that has not appealed to the likes of Prof. Edwar Said who have refined the skill of weaving narratives behind the thin veil of “scholarship”.

Anyone interested in the historic account of the Muslim world, and more specifically the Muslim-Arab world must first and foremost read the studies of Prof. Bernard Lewis.

davidpgoldman says:

Your point is well taken. Prof. Lewis’ warning about Iran is important, and it may not have been the best editorial decision to omit mention of it. In reviewing the work of a scholar with so many important ideas, one can’t mention everything, and every omission is painful.

Mladen_Andrijasevic says:

Can I understand from what you say that Bernard Lewis DOES mention the death of mutually assured destruction with regards to Iran in his book?  If so then it is really indicative that such a crucial warning by a leading scholar of Islam has been omitted.  Since your editorial board in not alone in this, it seems that the death of MAD has almost become a taboo topic, and that our civilization is refusing to discuss the magnitude of the Iranian threat, similar to the attitude of most of Europe in the 1930s, described by Winston Churchill in VOL1 of The Second World War titled The Gathering Storm.

After all, the lives of 2/3 of the human race are at stake!  In Deterrence is irrelevant Israel Kasnett writes :

 Iran is led by a group of irrational men who believe they can hurry the arrival of the Mahdi – the 12th Imam who, according to Shi’ite Islamic tradition, went missing in 874 CE and will return under conditions of global chaos. The Iranian leadership appears willing to sacrifice the population of its own country to achieve this goal.

In his book The Rise of Nuclear Iran, former Israeli ambassador to the UN Dore Gold writes, “Mahdi Khaliji, an Iranian Shi’ite scholar… has noted that there are apocalyptic hadiths [received Shi’ite traditions] that the Mahdi will not return unless one-third of the world population is killed and another third die. But Ahmadinejad and his followers believe man can actively create the conditions for the Mahdi’s arrival in the here and now…”
http://www.madisdead.blogspot.com/2011/11/deterrence-is-irrelevant.html

We in Israel do not have the luxury to bury our heads in the sand, and neither should the rest of the world.  From an article in Ha’aretz  by Ari Shavit  it is clear that the Israeli leadership is taking Bernard Lewis very seriously:

“A few years ago Netanyahu held an in-depth discussion with Middle East expert Bernard Lewis. At the end of the talk he was convinced that if the ayatollahs obtained nuclear weapons, they would use them. Since that day, Netanyahu seems convinced that we are living out a rerun of the 1930s.”

http://www.madisdead.blogspot.com/2012_02_01_archive.html

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Allen Hertz says:

When I defended my 1973 Columbia University doctoral dissertation dealing with the Ottoman Balkans, Bernard Lewis was on the panel of distinguished scholars posing questions. Back then Edward Said was simply a young Columbia University professor of comparative literature who had yet to do much harm to the world. A few years later,  Professor Said had a student who went on to become President of the United States. As a rising Chicago politician, Barack Obama renewed his ties to Edward Said whose worldview in many ways resembled that of Obama, e.g., as expressed in the June 4, 2009 Cairo speech, which still deserves to be very carefully studied for ideological content (see November 2009 posting for line-by-line Israel analysis at  www.allenzhertz.com) There are many aspects to Obamism, but several elements are worth highlighting here. First, Obamism joins with Marxist-Leninism (and the teachings of Said) in holding the USA and the West responsible for imperialism alleged to have hurt the developing countries, including the Muslim world.  Second, in both the domestic and international context, Obamism falsely compares Muslims to other historically-victimized groups like Black Americans. Third, Obamism suggests that the USA and the West owe Muslims both apologies and reparation for past wrongs.  Now, the Goldman article is particularly valuable in showing why the massive corpus of Bernard Lewis’ writing is generally in collision with Obamism. Bernard Lewis has been damned precisely because he carefully distinguishes those elements of social discrimination within Islam that have been its own worst enemy and have significantly contributed to the comparative backwardness of Muslim societies. Moreover, sound historiography like that of Lewis dismisses any suggestion that there is any sense in which Muslims writ large have been historically victimized. Rather, history teaches that over the centuries, Muslims have been generally not victims, but rather spectacular oppressors, as we can easily be learn from listening to the pain of the various aboriginal peoples such as Black Africans of the Sudan, Berbers, Copts, Greeks, Jews, Armenians, etc. Thus, the corpus of Bernard Lewis’s work should help us in framing a very careful criticism of Obamism, especially in the context of the conduct of current USA foreign policy. It is almost inconceivable that at a time when the USA is struggling with the threat posed by the race to nuclear weapons of the “Islamic Republic of Iran,” the office of President of the United States is occupied by an individual who espouses Obamism, including the doctrines of his teacher Edward Said. What effect could this have on USA decision making with regard to Iran? Only the future will tell. However, it is already possible to say that up until now it has already created a bizarre USA foreign policy, the principal thrust of which has remarkably been to deceive the USA public rather than to actually advance concrete USA interests abroad, including by influencing foreign governments. And, it has been a crying shame that the USA foreign policy community has been so shy about taking a critical whack at Obamism, the practice of which has clearly contributed to a precipitous drop in USA prestige and effectiveness around the world. For example, just look at President Putin’s recent decision to skip the upcoming G-8 meeting to be hosted by President Obama. How low the mighty have fallen! Perhaps some careful readers of Bernard Lewis understand.

paul delano says:

 The reason the Moslem world cannot abide the West generally, and Israel particularly, is jealousy. Jealousy – and something else: Moslems cannot understand why non-believers are so materially successful, while Moslems world wide wallow in squalour.
 
Allah, the Moslem god, is the god of material success and victory. Moslems are called to prayer with the words: “I bear witness that Muhammad is the prophet of G-d. Come to prayer, Come to prayer, Come to success, Come to success.” Moslems are supposed to enjoy great rewards and initially they did, exploding out of the sands of Arabia and conquering an immense swath of territory from the borders of China in the east to Spain in the west.Conquest, victory and tangible benefits formed the foundational ethos of Islam. Failure is unthinkable, humiliation unendurable.

 

Moslems live only in the here and now. Islam has been in decline for a millenium, compared to the West, and Moslems know it. That the Ummah, the Moslem Nation, shouldbe backward and failing is incomprehensible.

 

As long as Israel was a land of swamps and desolation, a backwater of the disintegrating Ottoman empire, the Arabs (Egyptians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese) who subsisted in the Jewish homeland never felt the need for much of anything, least of all independence. Not a single Moslem on the planet saw the Turks as invaders or usurpers. After all, they were Moslems, and that’s what Moslems are supposed to do.

 

But now it’s controlled by non-Moslems, kafirs. So what if they are the true sons and daughters of the Land? Worse still, with their labor and intellect, they strived and succeeded where Moslems had only failed.

 

How appropriate that this motley crew of  Moslems now became “Palestinians” (stealing the word from the Roman Palestina, which in turn stems from the Biblical P’lesheth, the land of the Philistines). There is no Palestinian language or culture or history; there is no justification for a Palestinian state. But that’s not the point, is it? The Jews, and the West, cannot be allowed to succeed, thus showing up the Ummah for what it is.

 

So you strap on your explosive vest, catch a bus, and blow up some Jews. And burn down an forest in the land you claim is yours. And set fire to your own oil wells. And fly a plane or two into the WTC. Anything but turn your gaze inward and discover the truth about yourself.

 

cesera cesera says:

Dear  ,
 they are right for looking for the historic truth about Gertrude Stein in this however wonderfull exhibition,”The Steins Collect;Matisse,Picasso,Cezanne and the Parisian Avant Garde” in NewYork at the Metropolitan Museum of Art .

Because what a pleasure to see the portrait of Gertrude Stein by Riba-Rovira .Who was as Picasso an antifascist and antinazi artist .Persecuted by Franco and the Nazis .
But who is in this exhibition ,thanks to Rebecca Rabinow and Edward Burns, perhaps
the only one artist would fought  them weapons in his hands .
Whose father was in jail after the spanish civil war .So Riba-Rovira is beside Tchelitchew and Balthus and Francis Rose near Picabia and Picasso in the last room of this exhibition with Cézanne, Matisse  .

And you have an interesting article in Appollo London Revew about him .And also in Artes Magazine from San Francisco where the exhibition was before .

But the main document as a revelation is with the mention beside the picture with the Preface Gertrude Stein wrote for first Riba-Rovira’s exhibition in the Galerie Roquepine in Paris on 1945 .
Where we can read Gertrude Stein writing Riba-Rovira “will go farther than Cezanne…will succeed in where Picasso failed…I am fascinated ” by Riba-Rovira Gertrude Stein tells us .

And you are you also fascinated indeed as Gertrude Stein by Riba-Rovira ?

Me I am when I see « L’Arlequin » on the free access website of « Galeria Muro ».

But Gertrude Stein spoke also in this same document about Matisse and  Juan Gris .
Riba-Rovira went each week in Gertrude Stein’s saloon rue Christine with Masson ,Hemingway and others. By Edward Burns and Carl Van Vechten we can know Riba-Rovira did others portraits of Gertrude Stein .

But we do not know where they are ;and you do you know perhaps ?

With this wonderful portrait we do not forget it is the last time Gertrude Stein sat for an artist who is Riba-Rovira .
This exhibition presents us a world success with this last painting portrait before she died .And her last Gertrude Stein’s Art Retrospective before dead .

It illuminates the tone as an esthetic light over that exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York thanks to Curator Rebecca Rabinow .

Coming from San Francisco “Seeing five stories” in the Jewish museum to Washington in National Portrait Gallery .And now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York for our pleasure .

And the must is to see for the first time in the same place portraits by Picasso, Picabia, Riba-Rovira, Rose ,Tall-Coat, Valloton .Never before it was . 

You have the translate of Gertrude Stein’s Riba-Rovira Preface on english Gertrude Stein’s page on Wikipedia and in the catalog of this Roquepine exhibition you can see in first place the mention of this portrait .And also other pictures Gertrude Stein bought to Riba-Rovira .
There is another place where you can see now Riba-Rovira’s works in an exhibition in Valencia in Spain “Homenage a Gertrude Stein” by Riba-Rovira in Galleria Muro ,if you like art … 

But we do not missed today that all over Europe a very bad wind is blowing again bringing the worth in front of us .And we must know that at least were two antinazis and antifascists in this exhibition but the only one fighting weapons in hands would be Riba-Rovira who did one of the first three « affiches » supporting Republicans in the beguining Spanish civil war .

Seeing Potrait of Gertrude Stein by Riba-Rovira in the Metropolitain Museum of New York with Picasso ,Cézanne ,Matisse we feel a recreation of spirit .

davidpgoldman says:

Thanks for this informative comment. I’m Columbia College ’73, and I managed to avoid meeting Edward Said.
Obama not only studied with Said, but he ate a dog. That’s not a minor issue, even if he was eight years old at the time. How many American eight-year-olds would eat meat if they were told it was dog? Obama cites the incident in his memoirs to make clear that he viscerally identifies with the supposedly oppressed colonial peoples of the so-called Third World, along with daddy, step-daddy, and anthropologist mommy. 

Raymond_in_DC says:

Goldman: “Modernity’s great precondition, namely education, leads to a demographic tailspin in the Muslim world, which appears to jump from infancy to senescence without passing through adulthood.”

One of the few issues I had with Goldman’s “How Civilizations Die” concerns not this general principle, but how extensively it manifests. The Muslim world is far larger than Turkey and Iran. Egypt, as you point out, is some 40% illiterate, and its population continues to grow. So too with Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan and a slew of failing Muslim states, including many along the “confrontation line” of the 10th parallel. 

As to the notion of the “great civilization” Lewis hoped would (re)emerge, as from Turkey or Iran, I had the opportunity to visit Iran in 1976 (passing through Turkey on the way). Infused with new oil riches, Iran was certainly opening up, but it was a *secular* modernization. As I’ve frequently argued, Iran has cycled over time between its Persian culture and its Islamic culture. When the former is ascendant, Iran opens up and advances; when the latter is ascendant (as it’s been since the late 1970s) they become a threat to themselves and everyone around them. (I was less impressed by Turkey back then. They of course didn’t have oil.) 

boazkhait says:

Islamic civilization can be ‘tolerant’ of neighbors assuming that the neighbors are inferior, not a threat and are open to Islamic proselytism. Alternatively it can be ‘tolerant’ if the neighbor is vastly superior in power leaving them no choice. Those are the two options for peace.

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Bernard Lewis’ Stubborn Hope

In Notes on a Century, the historian is still optimistic about a ‘great civilization’ in the Muslim world

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