May 31, 1916, is the birth date of Bernard Lewis, the British-born historian of Islamic religion and culture. Although highly regarded for the sweep of his scholarship and the accessibility of his writing, Lewis has also served as a lightning rod in recent decades for attacks by scholars and political analysts who view him as an apologist for Israel and the West. He is also seen as an instigator of the Allied invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Bernard Lewis was born in London’s Stoke-Newington section to Jewish parents - his father dealt in real estate, and his mother minded the home. He has said that his interest in the Middle East began during his preparation for his bar mitzvah. His family was only moderately traditional, but encouraged his fascination with languages and history.
Lewis earned both his bachelor’s degree and his Ph.D., in 1936 and 1939, respectively, from the School of Oriental Studies, at the University of London (today called SOAS, the University of London). During World War II, he served in the Royal Armoured Corps and the Intelligence Corps, as well as in the British Foreign Office, before returning to SOAS to teach. In 1949, he became the head of the school’s department of Near and Middle Eastern history.
In 1974, Lewis moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where he accepted a joint position at both Princeton University and at the Institute for Advanced Studies. He remains an emeritus professor at Princeton to this day.
As a classically trained scholar, Lewis approached his studies of the region through philology, with expertise in Arabic, Turkish and Persian. His earliest work was on medieval Arab history, and his first scholarly article on medieval professional guilds in Islam.
After 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel, it became very difficult for Jewish scholars to work in the Arab world: Lewis refocused his gaze on the Ottoman Empire and the origin of modern Turkey, becoming one of the first Western academics to gain entry to the Ottoman archives. Because the empire had covered most of the Middle East until after World War I, this also meant having access to records from all over the region.
Lewis has published more than 30 books, many of which became popular best-sellers, both because of the author’s highly readable prose and also because of his frequent attempts over the past two decades to look at the conflict between the Muslim world and the West, and to understand it in the context of Islamic history.
Because Lewis has dared to hold the Arab world itself responsible for its backwardness, rather than placing blame exclusively on Western colonialism and exploitation, he has earned himself a number of foes, not only in the Middle East, but among left-leaning Western intellectuals too.
As a scholar who frequently advised and was quoted by members of the Bush administration after 9/11 and in the early years of the Iraq War, he also drew significant fire from early opponents of the war, even though he never was the advocate many have portrayed him as being.
Waffling on genocide?
Lewis, who remains active even at age 97 – the birthday he celebrates today – has been at the center of frequent controversies since the late 1970s. He was one of the central villains depicted in the late Edward Said’s 1978 study “Orientalism,” which portrayed early generations of Middle Eastern scholars as providing academic cover for the West’s imperialist efforts in the region, and of lacking objectivity. Lewis he accused of “demagogy and outright ignorance.”
Lewis denied the charges, and pointed to the history of Oriental studies as predating European political domination of the Middle East, and starting with philological studies that “did nothing to advance the cause of imperialism.”
Although early editions (in 1961 and 1968) of one of Lewis’ groundbreaking books, “The Emergence of Modern Turkey,” spoke about “the terrible holocaust of 1915, when a million and a half Armenians perished,” in later editions, the wording was changed to refer to “the terrible slaughter of 1915,” and lowered the estimate to one million Armenians, as well as mentioning “an unknown number of Turks, killed by Armenians. Lewis explicitly argued that, although the Turks massacred countless Armenians, there is no evidence that they operated according to a centralized policy of genocide, and that calling the killings that had the effect of diminishing the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust.
Lewis’ revisionism on the Armenian question led to his being charged and tried in France for denial a genocide, a crime there, and in the mid-1990s, he was ordered by a French court to pay one franc in damages after losing a case. Three other lawsuits against him in another French court, however, failed. But Lewis faced a great deal of criticism, including from a number of Jewish and Israeli scholars, for his “denial” of the Armenian genocide.
Shortly before September 11, 2001, Lewis published an essay and then a book that pointed to Osama bin-Laden and Al Qaida as a significant threat to the West. He also accused misinterpreters of Islam within the religion of distorting the meaning of “jihad,” and of using it to justify suicide bombings and other acts of terror that had “no antecedents in Islamic history, and no justification in terms of Islamic theology, law, or tradition.”
But despite the fact that Lewis was often quoted by such people as President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, he has long denied that he supported the invasion of Iraq or that he believed the democracy could be imposed on Iraq from outside. That hasn’t stopped his opponents from depicting him as an ideological architect of the war, and they point to a number of appearances and statements of his early on in the war as giving credence to the charge.
Among Lewis’ most well-known books are “The Arabs in History” (1950), “Semites and Anti-Semites” (1986), “What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East” (2002) and “The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (2003). His most recently published book, from 2012, was a memoir, “Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian.”