The Legacy of Bernard Lewis
Bernard Lewis, who died on May 19 at the age of 101, wrote more than thirty books. Yet his favorite review of any of his works, or at least a review he referenced often and with obvious relish, was for The Middle East and the West. First published in the United States in 1964 by Indiana University Press, the book was later translated into Arabic by the Muslim Brotherhood. Lewis’s affection for the review was due to the translator not quite knowing what to make of the author.
"I don't know who this person is, but one thing is clear,” the translator wrote of Lewis in the preface. “He is, from our point of view, either a candid friend or an honest enemy . . . ." Friend or enemy, the either-or decision here is one of stark opposites. Yet it’s also a decision muddled by both sides being more or less truthful. Oddly enough, looking back at the century-plus his life spanned, the scholar, adviser, teacher, and commentator leaves a legacy that is best understood in exactly these terms—at least for now.
It depends on one’s point of view. Lewis was either a pioneer as the first professional historian to study, teach, and write Arab history in England — or he was the last of the outmoded Orientalists roundly dismissed by the late Edward Said. He was either the avuncular professor known to his students as “Uncle Bernie” — or he was the canny confidant of kings and queens, prime ministers and presidents. Either Lewis was wise to the threat of Islamic terrorism well before 9/11, sounding the alarm about Osama bin Laden as early as 1998 — or he was the first academic scribbler to gin up the idea of a “clash of civilizations,” which has soured debates about the Middle East ever since. Finally, Lewis was either more influential than anyone in shaping the West’s understanding of the Middle East over the last few decades, at a time when such understand was sorely needed — or, as the scholar most admired by neocons and neocon-adjacent hawks in the George W. Bush administration, he did more than anyone to lay the intellectual tarmac that led the United States into the Iraq War.
Each of these views is truthful, more or less. None alone gets us to the truth.
There was much more to the man who lived for 101 years, after all. Born in London before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Lewis harbored early dreams of becoming a poet. Later he made a try at the Law. Neither panned out. Instead, he followed an interest that first arose when he was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, an interest in the Middle East, beguiled as he was by all of its romance and mystery. So there and then he decided to turn his fledgling but persistent interest into a career, and to do so at a time when studying Middle Eastern history in England was at best an eccentricity. He began his studies at the University of London.
Yet as would reoccur later in his life, the politics of the present soon came crashing down on his otherwise scholarly and innocent pursuit of the past. World War II broke out. Pausing his studies and working for MI6 during the war was, as Lewis later told it, a Flemingesque detour that saw him put his burgeoning skills in foreign languages to use decoding intercepted communications. At the end of the war he shuttled from Jerusalem to Cairo, and from Damascus to Baghdad, working for British intelligence. Even decades later his recollections of WWII focused on the swashbuckling aspects of his service. The terrors of battle and the tales of innocence lost so abundant in other personal accounts were absent in his. What stuck with Lewis instead was having collided, even obliquely, with the good and the great. He lamented just missing meeting Winston Churchill (Lewis was away that day), but it was a small consolation to have met with “C,” the head of the British secret service. “I account myself very fortunate to have had a relatively comfortable war and to have come out of it alive and unscathed,” he wrote.
The war ended, but resuming academic life was no less adventuresome for Lewis. His work took him from London to Tokyo, and from Moscow to Los Angeles, with sojourns to everywhere from Khartoum to Lahore interspersed. In a coup for a young scholar, he was one of the first Westerners allowed into the Imperial Ottoman Archives in Istanbul. In 1974 he landed a post at Princeton University, where he would spend the rest of his career. New Jersey was within striking distance of Washington, D.C., and Lewis soon came to the attention of Richard Perle, then an assistant to Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. The connection would keep him more or less in the orbit of Washington politics for the next few decades.