Bernard Lewis’ Stubborn Hope
In Notes on a Century, the historian is still optimistic about a ‘great civilization’ in the Muslim world
Bernard Lewis beckons to us as if from the mists of legend. A poet-scholar, linguist, observer and sometime participant in the great events of the Middle East for seven decades, the London-born scholar belongs more to the world of T.E. Lawrence than to ours. At 95, his prose is translucent and his recollection luminous.
But Notes on a Century—his personal and professional memoir—makes for sad reading, for two reasons. The first is that we will not find another like Bernard Lewis; it is a valedictory essay not just for a remarkable man but for an epoch. No university today could train a poet capable of extracting the red thread of history from the obscure orthography of official archives, or a historian-diplomat who knows the songs of a dozen peoples in their own dialects. Part of the reason is ideological. The post-colonial-studies movement typified by the late Edward Said has ruined a field that once was called “Orientalism”—meaning simply a specialty in Near Eastern philology rather than Greek and Roman. Saudi and other Gulf State funding of Middle East studies programs, meanwhile, has made a critical stance toward Muslim culture an academic career-killer. Even without the ideological divide, though, our culture has grown too brittle to nurture another mind of Lewis’ depth.
The second, even sadder reason is the disappointment of Lewis’ hope for what he calls the “heirs of an old and great civilization.” For decades, Lewis balanced a clear-sighted critique of the failings of Muslim society with an underlying optimism about the future of the Arabs, Turks, and Persians. The backwardness of Muslim societies, he insisted, was a self-inflicted condition rather than the crime of Western colonialists. But he never lost faith that the West that defeated Hitler and overcame communism also could find a way to nurture modern institutions of civil society in Muslim countries. Lewis not only reported their history but also translated their poetry, befriended their men, and loved their women.
This optimism made Lewis an icon for American conservatives, and an enormous, if reluctant influence on American policy: Although he advised against the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, Lewis is indelibly (if unfairly) linked with inflated neo-conservative expectations for Muslim democracy. But Lewis explicitly warned against a simple-minded rush to parliamentary forms in the Muslim world, hoping instead for a gradual expansion of existing consultative mechanisms into something that would approach democracy at some undermined date. But Lewis and the neo-conservatives shared an inherent optimism about the changing Muslim culture that informed the national mood after Sept. 11.
Lewis’ autobiography went to press just as the wave of optimism that attended the Arab Spring had begun to fade, and his lifelong optimism appears to be curling a bit around the edges, as a different and much darker picture than the one he imagined is emerging from Morocco to Afghanistan. His criticism of Muslim society was always tempered by respect and even affection. Part of his great popularity as a writer may be explained by the fact that his hopes resonated with characteristic American generosity and optimism. And so his disappointment also is ours.
Bernard Lewis was the child of Jews born in England whose modest success in business made it possible for him to attend a respectable school and then the University of London. His skill at languages brought him to the wartime British intelligence services. He stood out from his peers both as a writer for a broad audience—his 1950 popular work The Arabs in History went through six editions—and as a scholar. He was the first Western scholar to gain access to the vast archives of the Ottoman Empire, and one of very few with the skills to examine them. His 1961 book The Emergence of Modern Turkey made him the outstanding scholar in the field.
But his single most influential utterance may have been a 1990 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” with a warning that would be remembered 11 years later after the World Trade Center attack:
Islam is one of the world’s great religions. Let me be explicit about what I, as a historian of Islam who is not a Muslim, mean by that. Islam has brought comfort and peace of mind to countless millions of men and women. It has given dignity and meaning to drab and impoverished lives. … It has taught people of different races to live in brotherhood and people of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable tolerance. It inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievement, enriched the whole world. But Islam, like other religions, has also known periods when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence. It is our misfortune that part, though by no means all or even most, of the Muslim world is now going through such a period, and that much, though again not all, of that hatred is directed against us.
Islam saw itself as the center of truth and enlightenment, Lewis explained, and divided the world into the House of Islam and the House of War—that part of the world yet unassimilated into the true faith. Muslims could not accept that the ascendancy of the West had left them weak, backward, and humiliated. As he explained,
The Muslim has suffered successive stages of defeat. The first was his loss of domination in the world. … The second was the undermining of his authority in his own country, through an invasion of foreign ideas and laws and ways of life. … The third—the last straw—was the challenge to his mastery in his own house, from emancipated women and rebellious children. … It was also natural that this rage should be directed primarily against the millennial enemy and should draw its strength from ancient beliefs and loyalties.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Lewis explained Muslim rage to anguished Americans in two best-selling books, What Went Wrong? (2002), and The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (2003). He notes that in April 2003, the former was at the top of the New York Times paperback best-seller list while the latter topped the hardcover list. As a public intellectual who knew personally most of the leading figures in Middle Eastern politics and as a scholar of unquestioned credentials, Lewis combined admonition and reassurance. The dark side of Islam, he continues to insist, ultimately is an anomaly for this “great civilization” in whose ultimate success Lewis still believes.
“They have gone through some bad times,” Lewis writes in the present volume, “but there are elements in their society which will help, which can be nurtured to develop into some limited consensual government in their own cultural tradition.” This guardedly optimistic view Lewis opposes to the uncharitable claim “that these people are not like us; they have different ways, different traditions. We should admit that they are incapable of setting up anything like the kind of democracy we have. Whatever we do, they will be governed by tyrants.”
Lewis parses the world of policy into two camps: those who believe in the promise of modernity in the Muslim world, even if it is achieved by a cautious and circuitous path; and the self-styled realists who consign a fifth of the world’s people to perpetual tyranny. Surely these two possibilities do not exhaust the list of possible outcomes; it is conceivable, for example, that both putative democrats and tottering autocrats will go together to their mutual ruin, and Muslim society will deteriorate into chaos and depopulation. It is sad that this elegant and affecting memoir should appear at a moment when the path of least resistance in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Yemen leads neither to dictatorship nor to “consensual government” but to chaos.
During the George W. Bush Administration, senior officials frequently sought Lewis’ advice, although they did not always follow it. “The second invasion of Iraq in 2003,” he observes, “is sometimes ascribed to my influence with Vice President Cheney. But the reverse is true. I did not recommend it. On the contrary, I opposed it. It is, to say the least, annoying to be blamed for something I did not do.” There is a broader sense, though, in which Lewis does bear some responsibility for America’s abortive campaign to institute democracy in the Middle East: His eloquence and unfeigned affection for the Muslim world helped persuade Americans that their blood and treasure were well spent on the ultimate goal of Islamic democracy. That was not a casual conclusion, but the distillation of long reflection on the character of Muslim as well as Western societies.
His greatest worry today is about the Muslim Brotherhood. As he writes, “The Muslim Brotherhood is a very dangerous, radical Islamic movement. If it obtains power, the consequences could be disastrous for Egypt. I can imagine a situation in which the Muslim Brotherhood and other organizations of the same kind obtain control of much of the Arab world. I would not say it’s likely, but it is not unlikely. If that happens, they would gradually sink back into medieval squalor.” Considering that the Brotherhood and its allies won 77 percent of the vote in Egypt’s parliamentary elections earlier this year, Lewis’ dictum already seems overtaken by events.
Medieval squalor really is not an option for Egypt, which had fewer than 8 million people in late antiquity and exported food. With 10 times that number, Egypt imports half its caloric consumption. The country is a modern construct, with a population that is more than two-fifths illiterate and dependent on a military autocracy for subsidies. Were Egypt to revert to medieval conditions, the result would not be squalor but starvation on a horrifyingly large scale.
Academic criticism of Lewis’ work came overwhelmingly from the left, starting with Edward Said’s 1978 polemic Orientalism, “in which,” Lewis writes, “Said imputed to Orientalists a sinister role as part of the imperialist domination and exploitation of the Islamic world by the West. In particular, he imputed to me an especially sinister role as what he called the leader of the Orientalists.” With a few strokes in this present book, Lewis severs Said’s head and holds it up to show that it is empty. For those who care about defending the saving myths that all groups concoct for themselves, Said’s work will stand as a cri de coeur on behalf of Muslim dignity. Those who are interested in facts will agree with the assessment of Robert Irwin, the Middle East editor of the Times Literary Supplement, who called Said’s book “a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is difficult to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misinterpretation.”
Said’s attacks on Lewis seem especially churlish given that the British scholar did more than give Muslim society the benefit of the doubt; he sees a moral equivalence in a way that some Americans may find surprising. “Corruption and oppression are corruption and oppression by whichever system you define them,” he writes. “There’s not much difference between [the Muslim] definition of corruption and our definition of corruption. In the Western world one makes money in the marketplace and then uses it to acquire political influence or access. In the Middle East the traditional practice is to seize power and use that power to get money. Morally I see no difference between them; economically, the Middle Eastern method does greater damage.” That seems an odd parallel; Mitt Romney did not stage a military coup and kill his opponents to get rich with Staples. Is he really morally equivalent to Bashar al-Assad or Saddam Hussein?
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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