From Netanyahu to Leftists, Praise and Scorn for Late Middle East Scholar Bernard Lewis

Israeli PM applauds Lewis as ‘one of the great scholars of Islam and the Middle East,’ while critics blame him for helping upend the region

Princeton University Near Eastern Studies Prof. Bernard Lewis, left, chatting with then-Interim Afganistan Foreign Minister Abdoullah Abdoullah in February 2002. Lewis' death
Princeton University Near Eastern Studies Prof. Bernard Lewis, left, chatting with then-Interim Afganistan Foreign Minister Abdoullah Abdoullah in February 2002.Credit: KERIM OKTEN/AFP

The death of Bernard Lewis, renowned historian of Islam and the Middle East, has been met with the highest accolades from conservative figures like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and stinging critiques of his legacy from those who blame him for fanning conflict in the Middle East.

Lewis, a British-born, longtime history professor at Princeton University, was a hugely influential intellectual figure, particularly among neoconservative officials in the United States and Israeli leaders like Netanyahu, who sought his advice on the historical context of present-day issues in the Muslim and Middle Eastern world.

The prolific Lewis, who died Saturday at age 101, is credited with coining the controversial term “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West in a 1990 piece in The Atlantic titled “The Roots of Muslim Rage.”

Some have blamed him for providing intellectual justification for the United States’ decision to go war with Iraq after 9/11. He later said he did not support the war.

“Bernard Lewis was one of the great scholars of Islam and the Middle East in our time. We will be forever grateful for his robust defense of Israel,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “I will always feel privileged to have witnessed firsthand his extraordinary erudition and I gleaned invaluable insights from our many meetings over the years. I was also deeply moved by his wide-ranging conversations with my late father, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu.”

Pompeo praised Lewis “as a true scholar and a great man. I owe a great deal of my understanding of the Middle East to his work. He was a man who believed, as I do, that Americans must be more confident in the greatness of our country, not less. Thank you, Mr. Lewis, for your life of service.”

Referring to Lewis’ long simmering feud with fellow public intellectual and Middle East expert Edward Said, a professor at Columbia University, journalist Chase Madar tweeted, tongue in cheek: “A shame Edward Said can’t write Bernard Lewis’ obituary.”

Said accused Lewis of having a patronizing attitude toward Islam, and said he was a lobbyist and propagandist.

Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, was among those writing critically of Lewis on Twitter.

“Bernard Lewis seems to have died. He fathered the farce we have come to know as ‘terrorism experts,’ non-Muslims explaining to Westerners why Muslims are bad, proliferating Orientalism and Islamophobia. I heard he knew something about Turkey.”

Striking a more neutral tone, Duke University Prof. Timur Kuran praised Lewis for the scholarship he did in the first half of his life.

“Bernard Lewis (1916-2018) will be remembered for decades of controversial activism, but also for several decades of brilliant scholarship up to around age 60. Istanbul, Emergence of Modern Turkey, and Muslim Discovery of Europe are among his gems that are still read profitably,” he tweeted.

Bill Kristol, conservative analyst and editor of the Weekly Standard, tweeted a quote from an appreciation of Lewis published in his publication last year, in honor of Lewis’ 100th birthday: “None of his former students would disagree: We will not see another like him.”

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