Bernard Lewis, FBA (born 31 May 1916) is a British American historian specializing in oriental studies. He is also known as a public intellectual and political commentator. Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Lewis' expertise is in the history of Islam and the interaction between Islam and the West. He is also noted in academic circles for his works on the history of the Ottoman Empire.
Lewis served as a soldier in the British Army in the Royal Armoured Corps and Intelligence Corps during the Second World War before being seconded to the Foreign Office. After the war, he returned to the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and was appointed to the new chair in Near and Middle Eastern History.
In 2007 and 1999, respectively, Lewis was called "the West’s leading interpreter of the Middle East" and "the most influential postwar historian of Islam and the Middle East." His advice was frequently sought by neoconservative policymakers, including the Bush administration. Lewis, therefore, is generally regarded as the dean of Middle East scholars. However, his support of the Iraq War and neoconservative ideals have since come under scrutiny. Lewis is also notable for his public debates with the late Edward Said concerning the latter's book Orientalism (1978), which criticized Lewis and other European writers. Lewis has rejected the designation of the Armenian genocide as genocide, arguing that the deaths resulted from a struggle between two nationalistic movements and that there is no proof of intent by the Ottoman government to exterminate the Armenian nation. These views prompted a number of scholars to accuse Lewis of genocide denial and resulted in a successful civil lawsuit against him in a French court.
Lewis turned 100 in May 2016.
Family and personal life
Bernard Lewis was born to middle-class Jewish parents in Stoke Newington, London. He became interested in languages and history while preparing for his bar mitzvah.
Lewis has been a naturalized citizen of the United States since 1982. He married Ruth Hélène Oppenhejm in 1947 with whom he had a daughter and a son. Their marriage was dissolved in 1974.
In 1936, Lewis graduated from the School of Oriental Studies (now School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS) at the University of London with a BA in history with special reference to the Near and Middle East. He earned his PhD three years later, also from SOAS, specializing in the history of Islam. Lewis also studied law, going part of the way toward becoming a solicitor, but returned to study Middle Eastern history. He undertook post-graduate studies at the University of Paris, where he studied with the orientalist Louis Massignon and earned the "Diplôme des Études Sémitiques" in 1937. He returned to SOAS in 1938 as an assistant lecturer in Islamic History.
During the Second World War, Lewis served in the British Army in the Royal Armoured Corps and as a Corporal in the Intelligence Corps in 1940–41 before being seconded to the Foreign Office. After the war, he returned to SOAS. In 1949, at the age of 33, he was appointed to the new chair in Near and Middle Eastern History.
In 1974, aged 57, Lewis accepted a joint position at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, also located in Princeton, New Jersey. The terms of his appointment were such that Lewis taught only one semester per year, and being free from administrative responsibilities, he could devote more time to research than previously. Consequently, Lewis's arrival at Princeton marked the beginning of the most prolific period in his research career during which he published numerous books and articles based on previously accumulated materials. After retiring from Princeton in 1986, Lewis served at Cornell University until 1990.
In 1966, Lewis was a founding member of the learned society, Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA), but in 2007 he broke away and founded Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) to challenge MESA, which the New York Sun noted as "dominated by academics who have been critical of Israel and of America's role in the Middle East." The organization was formed as an academic society dedicated to promoting high standards of research and teaching in Middle Eastern and African studies and other related fields, with Lewis as Chairman of its academic council.
In 1990, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Lewis for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. His lecture, entitled "Western Civilization: A View from the East", was revised and reprinted in The Atlantic Monthly under the title "The Roots of Muslim Rage." His 2007 Irving Kristol Lecture, given to the American Enterprise Institute, was published as Europe and Islam.
Lewis' influence extends beyond academia to the general public. He is a pioneer of the social and economic history of the Middle East and is famous for his extensive research of the Ottoman archives. He began his research career with the study of medieval Arab, especially Syrian, history. His first article, dedicated to professional guilds of medieval Islam, had been widely regarded as the most authoritative work on the subject for about thirty years. However, after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, scholars of Jewish origin found it more and more difficult to conduct archival and field research in the Arab countries, where they were suspected of espionage. Therefore, Lewis switched to the study of the Ottoman Empire, while continuing to research Arab history through the Ottoman archives which had only recently been opened to Western researchers. A series of articles that Lewis published over the next several years revolutionized the history of the Middle East by giving a broad picture of Islamic society, including its government, economy, and demographics.
Lewis argues that the Middle East is currently backward and its decline was a largely self-inflicted condition resulting from both culture and religion, as opposed to the post-colonialist view which posits the problems of the region as economic and political maldevelopment mainly due to the 19th-century European colonization. In his 1982 work Muslim Discovery of Europe, Lewis argues that Muslim societies could not keep pace with the West and that "Crusader successes were due in no small part to Muslim weakness." Further, he suggested that as early as the 11th century Islamic societies were decaying, primarily the byproduct of internal problems like "cultural arrogance," which was a barrier to creative borrowing, rather than external pressures like the Crusades.
In the wake of Soviet and Arab attempts to delegitimize Israel as a racist country, Lewis wrote a study of anti-Semitism, Semites and Anti-Semites (1986). In other works he argued Arab rage against Israel was disproportionate to other tragedies or injustices in the Muslim world, such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and control of Muslim-majority land in Central Asia, the bloody and destructive fighting during the Hama uprising in Syria (1982), the Algerian civil war (1992–98), and the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88).
In addition to his scholarly works, Lewis wrote several influential books accessible to the general public: The Arabs in History (1950), The Middle East and the West (1964), and The Middle East (1995). In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the interest in Lewis's work surged, especially his 1990 essay The Roots of Muslim Rage. Three of his books were published after 9/11: What Went Wrong? (written before the attacks), which explored the reasons of the Muslim world's apprehension of (and sometimes outright hostility to) modernization; The Crisis of Islam; and Islam: The Religion and the People.
The first two editions of Lewis' The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961 and 1968) describe the Armenian Genocide as "the terrible holocaust of 1915, when a million and a half Armenians perished". In later editions, this text is altered to "the terrible slaughter of 1915, when, according to estimates, more than a million Armenians perished, as well as an unknown number of Turks." In this passage, Lewis argues that the deaths were the result of a struggle for the same land between two competing nationalist movements. Lewis was later one of 69 scholars to co-sign a 1985 petition asking the US Congress to avoid a resolution condemning the events as genocide.
The change in Lewis' textual description of the Armenian Genocide and his signing of the petition against the Congressional resolution was controversial among some Armenian historians as well as journalists, who suggested that Lewis was engaging in historical revisionism to serve his own political and personal interests.
Lewis called the label "genocide" the "Armenian version of this history" in a November 1993 interview with Le Monde, for which he faced a civil proceeding in a French court. In a subsequent exchange on the pages of Le Monde, Lewis wrote that while "terrible atrocities" did occur, "there exists no serious proof of a decision and of a plan of the Ottoman government aiming to exterminate the Armenian nation". In reference to both these articles, the court stated that Lewis "failed in his duty of objectivity and prudence in expressing himself without nuance on such a sensitive subject". He was ordered to pay one franc as damages for his statements on the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey. Three other court cases against Bernard Lewis failed in the Paris tribunal, including one filed by the Armenian National Committee of France and two filed by Jacques Trémollet de Villers.
Lewis' views on the Armenian Genocide were criticized by a number of historians and sociologists, among them Alain Finkielkraut, Yves Ternon, Richard G. Hovannisian, Robert Melson, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet.
Lewis has been labelled a genocide denier by Stephen Zunes, Israel Charny, David B. MacDonald and Armenian National Committee of America. Yair Auron suggested that "Lewis' stature provided a lofty cover for the Turkish national agenda of obfuscating academic research on the Armenian Genocide". Israel Charny wrote that Lewis' "seemingly scholarly concern ... of Armenians constituting a threat to the Turks as a rebellious force who together with the Russians threatened the Ottoman Empire, and the insistence that only a policy of deportations was executed, barely conceal the fact that the organized deportations constituted systematic mass murder". Charny compares the "logical structures" employed by Lewis in his denial of the genocide to those employed by Ernst Nolte in his Holocaust negationism.
In response, Lewis argued that:
The meaning of genocide is the planned destruction of a religious and ethnic group, as far as it is known to me, there is no evidence for that in the case of the Armenians. [...] There is no evidence of a decision to massacre. On the contrary, there is considerable evidence of attempts to prevent it, which were not very successful. Yes there were tremendous massacres, the numbers are very uncertain but a million may well be likely... [and] the issue is not whether the massacres happened or not, but rather if these massacres were as a result of a deliberate preconceived decision of the Turkish government... there is no evidence for such a decision.
Lewis stated that he believed "to make [the Armenian Genocide] a parallel with the Holocaust in Germany" was "rather absurd." In an interview with Ha'aretz, he stated:
The deniers of Holocaust have a purpose: to prolong Nazism and to return to Nazi legislation. Nobody wants the 'Young Turks' back, and nobody wants to have back the Ottoman Law. What do the Armenians want? The Armenians want to benefit from both worlds. On the one hand, they speak with pride of their struggle against the Ottoman despotism, while on the other hand, they compare their tragedy to the Jewish Holocaust. I do not accept this. I do not say that the Armenians did not suffer terribly. But I find enough cause for me to contain their attempts to use the Armenian massacres to diminish the worth of the Jewish Holocaust and to relate to it instead as an ethnic dispute.
When Lewis received the National Humanities Medal from US President George W. Bush in November 2006, the Armenian National Committee of America objected: "The President's decision to honor the work of a known genocide denier—an academic mercenary whose politically motivated efforts to cover up the truth run counter to the very principles this award was established to honor—represents a true betrayal of the public trust."
Views and influence on contemporary politics
In the mid-1960s, Lewis emerged as a commentator on the issues of the modern Middle East and his analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rise of militant Islam brought him publicity and aroused significant controversy. American historian Joel Beinin has called him "perhaps the most articulate and learned Zionist advocate in the North American Middle East academic community". Lewis's policy advice has particular weight thanks to this scholarly authority. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney remarked "in this new century, his wisdom is sought daily by policymakers, diplomats, fellow academics, and the news media."
A harsh critic of the Soviet Union, Lewis continued the liberal tradition in Islamic historical studies. Although his early Marxist views had a bearing on his first book The Origins of Ismailism, Lewis subsequently discarded Marxism. His later works are a reaction against the left-wing current of Third-worldism which came to be a significant current in Middle Eastern studies.
Lewis advocated closer Western ties with Israel and Turkey, which he saw as especially important in light of the extension of the Soviet influence in the Middle East. Modern Turkey holds a special place in Lewis's view of the region due to the country's efforts to become a part of the West. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Turkish Studies, an honor which is given "on the basis of generally recognized scholarly distinction and... long and devoted service to the field of Turkish Studies."
Lewis views Christendom and Islam as civilizations that have been in perpetual collision since the advent of Islam in the 7th century. In his essay The Roots of Muslim Rage (1990), he argued that the struggle between the West and Islam was gathering strength. According to one source, this essay (and Lewis' 1990 Jefferson Lecture on which the article was based) first introduced the term "Islamic fundamentalism" to North America. This essay has been credited with coining the phrase "clash of civilizations", which received prominence in the eponymous book by Samuel Huntington. However, another source indicates that Lewis first used the phrase "clash of civilizations" at a 1957 meeting in Washington where it was recorded in the transcript.
In 1998, Lewis read in a London-based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi a declaration of war on the United States by Osama bin Laden. In his essay "A License to Kill", Lewis indicated he considered bin Laden's language as the "ideology of jihad" and warned that bin Laden would be a danger to the West. The essay was published after the Clinton administration and the US intelligence community had begun its hunt for bin Laden in Sudan and then in Afghanistan.
Views on Islam
Lewis presents some of his conclusions about Islamic culture, Shari'a law, jihad, and the modern day phenomenon of terrorism in his text, Islam: The Religion and the People. He writes of jihad as a distinct "religious obligation", but suggests that "it is a pity" that people engaging in terrorist activities are not more aware of their own religion:
Muslim fighters are commanded not to kill women, children, or the aged unless they attack first; not to torture or otherwise ill-treat prisoners; to give fair warning of the opening of hostilities or their resumption after a truce; and to honor agreements. ... At no time did the classical jurists offer any approval or legitimacy to what we nowadays call terrorism. Nor indeed is there any evidence of the use of terrorism as it is practiced nowadays."
In Lewis' view, the "by now widespread terrorism practice of suicide bombing is a development of the 20th century" with "no antecedents in Islamic history, and no justification in terms of Islamic theology, law, or tradition." He further comments that "the fanatical warrior offering his victims the choice of the Koran or the sword is not only untrue, it is impossible" and that "generally speaking, Muslim tolerance of unbelievers was far better than anything available in Christendom, until the rise of secularism in the 17th century."
Stance on the Iraq War
In 2002, Lewis wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal regarding the buildup to the Iraq War entitled "Time for Toppling", where he stated his opinion that "a regime change may well be dangerous, but sometimes the dangers of inaction are greater than those of action." In 2007, Jacob Weisberg described Lewis as "perhaps the most significant intellectual influence behind the invasion of Iraq". Michael Hirsh attributed to Lewis the view that regime change in Iraq would provide a jolt that would "modernize the Middle East" and suggested that Lewis' allegedly 'orientalist' theories about "what went wrong" in the Middle East, and other writings, formed the intellectual basis of the push towards war in Iraq.
Writing in 2008, Lewis did not advocate imposing freedom and democracy on Islamic nations. "There are things you can't impose. Freedom, for example. Or democracy. Democracy is a very strong medicine which has to be administered to the patient in small, gradually increasing doses. Otherwise, you risk killing the patient. In the main, the Muslims have to do it themselves."
Ian Buruma, writing for The New Yorker in an article subtitled "The two Minds of Bernard Lewis", finds Lewis's stance on the war difficult to reconcile with Lewis' past statements cautioning democracy enforcement in the world at large. Buruma ultimately rejects suggestions by his peers that Lewis promotes war with Iraq to safeguard Israel, but instead concludes "perhaps he loves it [the Arab world] too much":
It is a common phenomenon among Western students of the Orient to fall in love with a civilization. Such love often ends in bitter impatience when reality fails to conform to the ideal. The rage, in this instance, is that of the Western scholar. His beloved civilization is sick. And what would be more heartwarming to an old Orientalist than to see the greatest Western democracy cure the benighted Muslim? It is either that or something less charitable: if a final showdown between the great religions is indeed the inevitable result of a millennial clash, then we had better make sure that we win.
Alleged nuclear threat from Iran
In 2006, Lewis wrote that Iran had been working on a nuclear weapon for fifteen years. In August 2006, in an article about whether the world can rely on the concept of mutual assured destruction as a deterrent in its dealings with Iran, Lewis wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the significance of 22 August 2006 in the Islamic calendar. The Iranian president had indicated he would respond by that date to U.S. demands regarding Iran's development of nuclear power. Lewis wrote that the date corresponded to the 27th day of the month of Rajab of the year 1427, the day Muslims commemorate the night flight of Muhammad from Jerusalem to heaven and back. Lewis wrote that it would be "an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and, if necessary, of the world."
According to Lewis, mutual assured destruction is not an effective deterrent in the case of Iran, because of what Lewis describes as the Iranian leadership's "apocalyptic worldview" and the "suicide or martyrdom complex that plagues parts of the Islamic world today". He then suggested the possibility of a nuclear strike on Israel on 22 August 2006:
What is the significance of Aug. 22? This year, Aug. 22 corresponds, in the Islamic calendar, to the 27th day of the month of Rajab of the year 1427. This, by tradition, is the night when many Muslims commemorate the night flight of Muhammad on the winged horse Buraq, first to "the farthest mosque," usually identified with Jerusalem, and then to heaven and back[Quran 17:1]. This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world. It is far from certain that Mr. Ahmadinejad plans any such cataclysmic events precisely for 22 Aug.. But it would be wise to bear the possibility in mind.
Lewis' article received significant press coverage. However, the day passed without any incident. In his 2009 book Engaging the Muslim World, the left-wing American academic Juan Cole responded that there was no evidence to suggest that Iran had been working on a nuclear weapon for fifteen years. He also disagreed with Lewis' suggestion that Ahmadinejad "might deploy this weapon against Israel on 22 August 2006":
Debates with Edward Said
Lewis is known for his literary debates with Edward Said, the Palestinian American literary theorist whose aim was to deconstruct what he called Orientalist scholarship. Said, who was a professor at Columbia University, characterized Lewis' work as a prime example of Orientalism in his 1978 book Orientalism. Said asserted that the field of Orientalism was political intellectualism bent on self-affirmation rather than objective study, a form of racism, and a tool of imperialist domination. He further questioned the scientific neutrality of some leading Middle East scholars, including Lewis, on the Arab World. In an interview with Al-Ahram weekly, Said suggested that Lewis' knowledge of the Middle East was so biased that it could not be taken seriously and claimed "Bernard Lewis hasn't set foot in the Middle East, in the Arab world, for at least 40 years. He knows something about Turkey, I'm told, but he knows nothing about the Arab world." Said considered that Lewis treats Islam as a monolithic entity without the nuance of its plurality, internal dynamics, and historical complexities, and accused him of "demagogy and downright ignorance."
Rejecting the view that Western scholarship was biased against the Middle East, Lewis responded that Orientalism developed as a facet of European humanism, independently of the past European imperial expansion. He noted the French and English pursued the study of Islam in the 16th and 17th centuries, yet not in an organized way, but long before they had any control or hope of control in the Middle East; and that much of Orientalist study did nothing to advance the cause of imperialism. In his 1993 book Islam and the West, Lewis wrote "What imperial purpose was served by deciphering the ancient Egyptian language, for example, and then restoring to the Egyptians knowledge of and pride in their forgotten, ancient past?"