National Review asked friends and admirers of Bernard Lewis to say some words about the man and his achievements to mark the occasion of his 100th birthday today.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali Bernard Lewis once asked me, Is there anyone who as a leader has really impressed you? And I said, well, you do. He smiled and said he was flattered, but asked about a political leader. And I had to think about it. He said the fact that you have to think about it so long is a mark of our time. Bernard Lewis was born in 1916, into a world writhing with conflict from all corners. A world poised for a century of war, of revolt, of treaties, of fighting for and against modern values. He watched as, from the ashes of destruction, there rose a world transformed: a world embarking farther down the path for freedom, equality, and prosperity than was previously thought possible. Bernard Lewis watched the birth of the modern world.
Having lived through the good times and the hard times, Bernard has truly become a leader whom I admire greatly. An unparalleled mind, a prescient adviser to many, he stands out for his humility, his warmth, and his honesty. There are few who are as respected by their foes as they are by their friends. An ardent historian of the Middle East, Bernard published his book The Middle East and the West in 1964. It was translated into Arabic by the Muslim Brotherhood. The translator wrote in the preface: “I don’t know who this person is but one thing is clear. He is, from our point of view, either a candid friend or an honest enemy and in any case one who disdains to distort the truth.” I want to thank Bernard for his dedication, for his courage, and for his vast legacy. For this is what truly makes a leader and his work timeless. There is so much to celebrate in the life of Bernard Lewis. Happy birthday to a dear friend. —
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the Founder of the AHA Foundation, a Fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the best selling author of Infidel (2007) and Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (2015).
Claire Berlinksi I met Bernard Lewis only once, in 2010. I had been living in Istanbul for nearly six years and so had special reason to be awed by his reputation as the Heimdall of Ottomanist Valhalla. He had been the first Westerner to examine the Turkish government archives, in 1950. The Emergence of Modern Turkey, published in 1961, revolutionized the study of the late Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. It consigned his successors to writing footnotes. The Turkish proverb “Türk’ün Türk’ten başka dostu yoktur” — the Turk has no friend but the Turk — is true and self-fulfilling. Turkey inspires in Arab and European countries suspicion and rancor. The sentiment is reciprocated. Fears of foreign conspiracies endlessly poison Turkish political debate; Turks believe they are under siege, and sometimes they are even right.
Lewis had paid Turkey the compliment of curiosity and deep, honest study. In doing so, he had loved the country as no other Westerner had. The proverb is sometimes amended in Turkey: “Türk’ün Türk’ten ve Bernard Lewis’ten başka dostu yoktur” — the Turk has no friend but the Turk and Bernard Lewis. I was introduced to him by one of his disciples, Harold Rhode. Our drive to his home in Princeton had the aspect of a pilgrimage. Rhode carried with him a digital recorder. He followed Lewis around with it, he told me, just in case. There was something a bit ghoulish about this. I was expecting a terrifying figure. But to my surprise, he was loveable. He was sweet and avuncular with me, and inspired instant affection and the urge to settle in for a good gossip. “His students call him Uncle Bernie,” Rhodes whispered. Uncle Bernie’s manners were exquisite, and while he walked slowly, he was otherwise suffering no obvious infirmity, nor the characteristic self-absorption of the elderly. We discussed Turkey, of course. For reasons I wish I better understood, it was at the time widely reported and believed in the West that Turkey, under then–prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was “liberalizing.”
This was not true. The government had for years been arresting its opponents, staging show trials, and terrifying journalists into cowed compliance. Lewis likened Erdogan to Adnan Menderes, who was hanged by the military after the 1960 coup. He recounted an anecdote that subsequently made a translated appearance in his Notes on a Century. He’d been sitting in the faculty lounge in Ankara, he told me, several years into the Menderes regime. To everyone’s bewilderment, a professor said suddenly that Menderes was the father of Turkish democracy. What on earth could you mean, asked another. Well, said the first, Demokrasinin anasini s**ti – “he screwed the mother of Turkish democracy.” I had heard exactly the same joke about Erdogan. Over lunch he said that while his memory for the archives remained unerring, his ability to commit to mind recent events was less reliable. For my part, I’m not sure if my most vivid recollection of him is true (it’s possible I later superimposed it over my real memories). But this is what I seem to remember him saying to me, in a voice low enough to escape Harold Rhode’s recorder: that I was not wrong, that the situation was as bleak as it looked, that the West and the Islamic world would exhaust and destroy each other, leaving the world to China and India.
The remark weighs on my mind. It’s easy to dismiss my own assessment as so much pessimistic self-indulgence. After all, what do I know? But it is not so easy to say, “What does he know?” —
Claire Berlinski is the author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too.She writes for Ricochet.com.
Victor Davis Hanson Bernard Lewis reached a considerable popular audience after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when his earlier assessments of Muslim anger at the West (e.g., “The Roots of Muslim Rage”; What Went Wrong?) proved prescient.
From the 1990s onward, Lewis, almost alone among scholars of Islam, had warned that the traditional diagnoses of contemporary Muslim and Arab furor at Europe and the United States, the dysfunction of the Middle East, and the either/or nihilism of Middle Eastern theocracy and autocracy were misguided and politicized.
For Lewis, the implosion of the modern Middle East was not attributable to the usual academic bogeymen: imperialism, colonialism, Westernization, exploitation, or Zionism. Rather, he drew on a rich learning of Muslim history and literature, both to pay homage to earlier Islamic cultural achievements and to suggest that the recent spate of Islamic terrorism was largely aberrant and a reflection of late-19th- and 20th-century dysfunctions in Middle Eastern societies, which had mostly failed to adopt constitutional systems, transparency, human rights, free-market capitalism, religious tolerance, and equality of the sexes — at least in comparison with modern Western and Westernized nations that have found such protocols the keys to economic progress and social stability. Millions in the late-20th-century Middle East, who had not found parity with the West and who lived in poverty and danger, were persuaded by both religious and autocratic authorities to redirect their rage at supposed Western oppressors — and especially at their own modernist detours from religious purity, which had left Islam weak and a shadow of its supposedly glorious past. In other words, if a man in Damascus or Cairo could not get a job, it was the fault of the West — and it was his own lack of religious purity that had permitted such injustice.
Because Lewis, a classical liberal, was not an activist and had enjoyed a half-century-long reputation as a sympathetic student of Islam, critics were at first dumbfounded and unable to deal with his bleak analyses. Detractors on the left charged that he was “blaming the victim”; even as some on the right, although more sympathetic to Lewis’s views, nevertheless objected that he was naïve in that the roots of Muslim rage were hardly new, but discernible throughout East–West tensions since the seventh century, that Islamic culture was fundamentally different from Christian culture (i.e., inherently more violent and intolerant), and that Lewis danced around issues such as the Armenian genocide.
Yet, because of his calm demeanor, engaging prose style, wit, and prolific and long record of scholarship, Lewis usually came out on top in these many disputes that arose in the second half of his career. Such was Lewis’s historical insight that almost alone he fashioned a framework for understanding the modern Middle East in ways that were both empirical and commonsensical — and more or less remain the standard Western understanding of why global terrorism is largely an Islamic phenomenon: Middle Eastern political, social, cultural, and economic failure — widely apparent to the Arab masses in the age of instant global communications — is blamed on the West rather than addressed through reform by the various countries’ autocratic rulers, who in turn buy off internal opposition from Islamic theocrats by subsidizing their extremism and terrorism as long as it is directed westward. Until there is massive reform inside the Middle East and within Islam, we should expect the post–September 11 world to continue to be a place of instability and violence. In sum, the events of the new century seem to keep proving Lewis right about his diagnoses of the prior one. —
NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.