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Bernard Lewis, Islam and the "clash of civilizations"

By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem --


Bernard Lewis, the preeminent scholar of Middle Eastern politics and Islamic history, who died on May 19, 2018, in New Jersey, after six decades of his controversial academic and theoretical work, had shaped some of the Western views and some US policies toward the Middle East and the Muslim world.

He was almost 102. As long as Lewis lived, as much as he brought critics to his controversial work, particularly his favoring of Western military in intervention in the Arab and Muslim world, his denial of the “Armenian genocide”, and his views on “clash of civilizations”, as well as his support to Israel and his “Islamophobia” and “Iranphobia”.

Born in London into a Jewish middle-class family in 1916, Lewis attended the Universities of London and Paris, and he earned his Ph.D. from the School of Oriental Studies (that became later SOAS) on his thesis “The Origin of Ismaili” in 1938. He started working as an assistant lecturer in Islamic Studies at the SOS and during the second world war, he served in British Intelligence in the Middle East.

From 1949 until 1974, Lewis was the professor of Near and Middle Eastern History at SOAS. In 1974, after a brief affair with an Ottoman princess, Lewis divorced his Danish Jewish wife Ruth Helene. This divorce affected his friendship with several Jewish intellectuals such as Elie Kedourie, so he felt isolated and had to emigrate to the United States where he took up a chair of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton.

In America, Lewis became more involved in Middle East politics and he began to make contact with the neo-conservative clan and started to influence the American elites by his controversial views towards Islam, the Arab – Israeli Conflict, “clash of civilizations”, Islamophobia, and the “Great Iranian threat”.

Lewis did not hide his strongest support to Israel and he was something of a favorite of former Israeli PM Golda Meir's. She said that she did enjoy reading his books. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in his condolences letter that Israel would always be proud of Lewis courageous defense of her, and noted that he had had the honor of meeting him several times over the years.

Lewis received the US citizenship in 1982. As the Telegraph noted on Feb 15, 2004, “The key factor to Lewis's rise is that it has always been the power-brokers who have come to him, to learn at his knee.. For all his British background, it is in America that the professor has the most influence.” Richard Perle, the former US Defense Policy Board chairman, Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Defense Secretary, Elliott Abrams, the US National Security Council Middle East chief, all have known and admired and sought to learn about the Middle East from Lewis since the 1970s. “The network is long-established and mutually beneficial. Since Bush's 2000 election victory, it has also been world-changing,” added the British newspaper.

Lewis has made consultations recommendations to a number of US and European governments over the past half-century, which some of them influenced the policies that have affected the history of the Middle East, particularly for the George W. Bush administration. Lewis was one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq. Following September 11 attacks, Lewis warned in December 2001: “If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression."

He was totally right regarding the danger of the suicide bomber phenomena that we witnessed its rise and craziness with Al-Qaeda and ISIS and their sisters. But his prescription to America was stark: "Get tough or get out." The Wall Street Journal defines what it calls The Lewis Doctrine as "seeding democracy in failed Mid-east states to defang terrorism".

Bush was seen carrying articles by Lewis to a meeting in the Oval Office soon after September 11. Only eight days later, Lewis was briefing Richard Perle at a key meeting with the US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the two called for an invasion of Iraq.

Lewis was calling for the use of the minimum amount of Western force for the minimum amount of time in order to return consensual political institutions to the Middle East, starting with Iraq. He argues that democracy has a better chance of taking root in Iraq, than virtually anywhere else in the Islamic world, due to its oil wealth, largely middle class, stable past and “secular society”. Secular was not the right description of the Iraqi society, which was and still a tribal and sectarian conservative society, that formed a fertile soil for ethnical and religious rifts and strives.

Lewis, the historian that specialized in the ottoman history, admired the model of modern Turkey with Kemal Atatürk who had seized control of the Ottoman sultanate and dragged his country into the modern west, by imposing a puritanical secularism that abolished the caliphate, and shuttering religious schools and banned veils and other icons of Islamic culture. His Republican People’s party had ruled autocratically since 1923.

For that matter, Lewis reversed the Kemalist vision of a secularized, westernized state to the Arab countries, to spread democracy and modernity. This was the core of George W. Bush’s vision in Iraq while his administration’s official goal was dictated by the “Lewis doctrine”: a Westernized democracy imposed from above, that is to become a bulwark of security for America and a model for the region.

Ironically, Iraq was passing from a secular to an increasingly radicalized and Islamicized society.  This issue brought to Lewis a lot of critics from a number of middle eastern scholars. In his book, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, Richard Bulliet argues that Lewis has been getting his “master narrative” about the Islamic world wrong since his early epiphanic days in Turkey—and he is still getting it wrong today.

Furthermore, It was Lewis who coined the term “clash of civilizations,” and Samuel Huntington admits he picked it up from him. Lewis explained his view in a conversation with Pew Research Center on April 27, 2006. He answered a question saying: “You spoke before of the conflict of civilizations, a term that has been much used and even more misused. When I first used it, I was using it in one strictly limited sense, not as a general principle.. I was referring to one specific conflict between two specific civilizations. Christendom .. and Islam. And it is a conflict that arises not from their differences but from their resemblances”.

He explained that these two religions believe “that their truths are not only universal but also exclusive. They believe that they are the fortunate recipients of God’s final message to humanity”. Therefore, we have two religions with a similar self-perception and a similar historical background, so conflict becomes inevitable when they live side by side.

Lewis has contributed to the spread of Islamophobia and Iranphobia in scientific centers and political circles in the West. One of his recommendations is that Iran is the biggest threat in the Middle East to the United States and its allies, one of the principles of the United States that caused heavy losses to the West and the Islamic world. Lewis is also behind the idea of demonizing Iran in order to intimidate Arabs to let them view the West and Israel as a safe haven. He openly encouraged Muslim and Western countries alike to have a comprehensive confrontation with Iran so that Israel could enjoy peace and stability. "When you look at the region, who are the potential enemies?: In the first place, the Iranian revolution, Iranian imperialism and the Iranian Shiite revolution," he said in an interview.

Lewis believed that creating a better understanding between the Arabs and Israel would be at a time when the Arabs felt "facing a greater danger. Sadat did not make peace because he was suddenly convinced of the merits of the Zionist cause. The same thing happened again on a number of occasions, and now they see Israel as a barrier against the Iranian threat," he said.

In his view of Islam and violence, Lewis said there is a negative view of Muslims as a group of bloodthirsty barbarians who choose you between the Koran and the sword, and that the Muslims brought with them tyranny and oppression. And the other opinion is the opposite, which offers Islam as a religion of love and peace. Lewis believes that the truth is somewhere between these two extremes. Lewis used the term "Islamic fascism" to talk about Islamic fundamentalism, which drew criticism from Muslims. So he turned to use the “extremist Islam” term.

Lewis wrote in The Atlantic in September 1990 that “Islam is one of the world's great religions. Let me be explicit about what I, as a historian of Islam who is not a Muslim, mean by that. Islam has brought comfort and peace of mind to countless millions of men and women. It has given dignity and meaning to drab and impoverished lives. It has taught people of different races to live in brotherhood and people of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable tolerance. It inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievement, enriched the whole world. But Islam, like other religions, has also known periods when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence. It is our misfortune that part, though by no means all or even most, of the Muslim world is now going through such a period, and that much, though again not all, of that hatred is directed against us.”

The historian of Ottoman history considered one of the most prominent desecrators of the Armenian massacres. The British press reported in 1997 that Lewis views on the killing of one million Armenians by the Turks in 1915 did not amount to genocide and that a French court fined him one frank after he denied the genocide. Lewis explained his view in an interview saying: “What happened to the Armenians was the result of a massive Armenian armed rebellion against the Turks, which began even before war broke out, and continued on a larger scale. Great numbers of Armenians, including members of the armed forces, deserted, crossed the frontier and joined the Russian forces invading Turkey. Armenian rebels actually seized the city of Van and held it for a while intending to hand it over to the invaders. There was guerilla warfare all over Anatolia. And it is what we nowadays call the National Movement of Armenians against Turkey. The Turks certainly resorted to very ferocious methods in repelling it. There is clear evidence of a decision by the Turkish Government, to deport the Armenian population from the sensitive areas. Which meant naturally the whole of Anatolia.. There is no evidence of a decision to massacre. On the contrary, there is considerable evidence of attempt to prevent it, which were not very successful. Yes there were tremendous massacres, the numbers are very uncertain but a million nay may well be likely. The massacres were carried out by irregulars, by local villagers to what had been done to them and in number of other ways.”

Lewis criticized the Wahhabi sect and their funding from Saudi Arabia, and the Arabian "culture of command" and the subordination of women.

Lewis had published nearly 30 books and hundreds of articles on Islam, the Middle East, the Ottoman history, especially on the social and economic history of Arabs and Muslims, based on the Ottoman archives.

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