April 28, 2006
Bernard Lewis Marking 90 At Grand Fete (ELI LAKE, April 28, 2006, NY Sun)
There are few academics or historians who have matched the achievements of the emeritus Princeton University professor. He has written more than 24 books, received 15 honorary degrees, and fluently speaks, according to Ms. Churchill, eight languages which include the four languages of the Middle East - Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish - as well as Danish.
A former student of Mr. Lewis's and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Ruel Marc Gerecht, said his book, "The Muslim Awakening of Europe," is "one of the best history books ever written. It is one of the rare history books that has a chance to still be read 50 years after it was published." Even his rivals acknowledge his intellectual power. The late literature professor Edward Said built much of his popular theory of Orientalism, the view that Western analysts and historians write about indigenous cultures as a rationalization for their exploitation, as an attack on Mr. Lewis.
Mr. Lewis debated Mr. Said and author Christopher Hitchens in 1983 on the topic of Orientalism that many of Mr. Lewis's followers believe marked the decline of their mentor's field. "They believed it was a predatory conspiracy of western imperialists," Mr. Lewis said. "I took the view this was a legitimate branch of scholarship. Since then the Saidian view has triumphed in western universities."
Mr. Lewis's ideas about the Middle East are also more current today than they were 30 years ago. His name is invoked almost constantly by critics of neoconservatives for the counsel he provided to Vice President Cheney about Iraq and the Middle East. Mr. Lewis first met with the vice president in 1990 on the eve of the first Gulf War. On the eve of the Iraq war, Mr. Cheney went on NBC's "Meet the Press" and called Mr. Lewis "one of the great students" of the Middle East.
Mr.Lewis says his role in shaping war policy has been exaggerated. "I do meet people and talk to people I am not a consultant or adviser. I do not have any security clearances," he said.
"To say Bernard is a double barreled fan of democracy in the Muslim world is not exactly right," Mr. Gerecht said. "What Bernard Lewis has shown is the extent to which a lot of very bad Western ideas have implanted themselves in the Muslim world. The better one, the hardest one to absorb, democracy, has not. But there is reason to believe that might be changing."
On a deeper level, however, Mr. Lewis has become one of the most relevant intellectuals on the region in the twilight of his life. In 1976, he wrote an essay for Commentary called "The Return of Islam" that made the case that Islam was emerging as the primary way Arabs identified themselves and predicted the rise of Islamic demagoguery. At the time, this insight deflated much of the claims of the waning pan-Arabists of the region. In 1978, Mr. Lewis began translating the writings of Ayatollah Khomeinei - before the 1979 revolution in Iran. His scholarship provoked the late senator, Henry "Scoop" Jackson, to ask the CIA formally about the exiled cleric in Paris, who famously insisted his writings (since proved not only authentic but prescient) were forgeries. Mr. Lewis wryly notes that the only texts of Khomeini's "Islamic Government" were in Persian and Arabic. "This meant that most of Washington could not understand it," he said.
Professor Samuel Huntington has even credited Mr. Lewis with coining the phrase, "conflict of civilizations."
Born in London in 1916, Mr. Lewis became interested in studying the Middle East, according to Ms. Churchill during his bar mitzvah.
Perhaps Mr. Lewis's fundamental insight is that because something has clearly gone wrong in Islam things will have to change. There is danger in that, but also reason for optimism. Posted by Orrin Judd at April 28, 2006 7:44 PM