Bernard Lewis, the incomparable scholar of the Middle East and Islam, died last week. I cannot claim to have known Professor Lewis well, but one didn’t need to spend much time in his presence to recognize how extraordinary he was. So rather than mourn, I intend to continue learning from him — from his life, literature and legacy. I also plan to raise a glass to him on May 31, his 102nd birthday.
First, let me tell you how I managed to make his acquaintance. We were both panelists on a National Review cruise along the western coast of Mexico. I knew who he was and was eager to engage him in conversation. He had no clue who I was and evinced no particular interest.
Then, early one evening, I sidled up to the bar. Other than the bartender, there seemed to be no one about. I glanced derisively at a bottle of blended scotch. Several shelves above it, behind a glass door, I saw a bottle of 18-year-old single malt.
“Is there any chance,” I implored the bartender, “that I might have that instead?”
“Yes, sir. I think that can be arranged,” was his welcome reply.
“In that case, may I please have two fingers, no ice, just a splash of water?”
Suddenly, from behind me, in stentorian tones and a plummy English accent, came these immortal words: “I’ll have exactly the same. And may I say how encouraging it is to have finally met an American who knows how to drink whisky?” (N.B.: “whisky” without the “e” is the Scottish spelling, and that, I’m certain, is what Professor Lewis would have had in mind.)
After that, we got along famously. I asked him questions. He answered with anecdotes, quotations and citations, drawing on his amazing experiences and astonishing scholarship.
You should know something of his background. As a young man he mastered Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Persian and, before long, several European languages as well. In 1938, at the tender age of 22, he was appointed a lecturer in Middle Eastern history at the University of London.
With the outbreak of World War II, he was assigned as a British intelligence officer in the Middle East. Following the war, he returned to his studies, focusing particularly on Turkey. (Because he was Jewish, he was not welcome in Arab capitals.) In 1974, he accepted an appointment at Princeton University. Eight years later, he became an American citizen and an American patriot for the rest of his life.
“The Return of Islam,” an article he wrote in 1976, presaged the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. “What Went Wrong?” his book on Islam’s thousand years of dominance and the rage that accompanied its subsequent loss was being printed as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were carried out.
By that point, within academe and for over a generation, he had been denigrated more than celebrated. In 1978, Edward Said, a leftist, anti-Israeli, Columbia University professor of comparative literature — by no means learned in history, political science or Middle Eastern languages — published “Orientalism,” a manifesto asserting that American and European scholars cannot understand Muslims and their cultures, and that those who try are imperialists, neo-colonialists, racists, etc.
To grasp how ludicrous is this worldview, ask yourself: Would anyone claim that the Japanese can’t play Bach or comprehend Locke? Would Europeans be offended if a university in Singapore established a School of Occidental Studies? Who would dare say that Professor Said and others of Middle Eastern descent have no business teaching Russian and French literature?
Nevertheless, these “politically correct” views were soon embraced by departments of Middle East studies across the country. If you’ve ever wondered why so few academics and diplomats anticipated September 11, or had coherent explanations afterward, it’s largely because Professor Said and his followers disoriented them. (The pun is both intentional and appropriate.)
Professor Lewis also has been criticized by some on the right for showing respect and even admiration for Islamic civilizations, for not seeing them all as simply milestones on the road to Khomeinism and bin Ladenism.
That’s not to say he viewed Islam as “a religion of peace.” He understood only too well that Islamic empires and “European Christendom” are engaged in a “long and — alas — unfinished struggle,” what he called, as early as 1957, “a clash between civilizations.”
But just as the Spanish Inquisition does not represent the totality of Christian thought and practice, so contemporary Islamism and jihadism do not represent the only authentic readings of Islamic scripture.
After September 11, Professor Lewis was frequently consulted by Western leaders, at least those not befuddled by the Saidian fallacy. He worried about the future of free nations. During World War II, he recalled, “We knew who the enemy was.” Today, by contrast, “We don’t know who we are and we still do not understand the nature of the enemy.”
He added: “It may be that Western culture will indeed go: The lack of conviction of many of those who should be its defenders and the passionate intensity of its accusers may well join to complete its destruction. But if it does go, the men and women of all the continents will thereby be impoverished and endangered.”
The memory of Professor Lewis (actually, it was OK to call him Bernard, as long as you remembered to put the accent on the first syllable) will be a blessing. So, too, the guidance he provided anyone seriously interested in understanding a world shaped by centuries of “attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests.” I fear we will not see his like again.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.