Bernard Lewis

Bernard Lewis

Bernard Lewis (born May 31, 1916 in London, England) is a British-American historian, Orientalist, and political commentator. He is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He specializes in the history of Islam and the interaction between Islam and the West, and is especially famous in academic circles for his works on the history of the Ottoman Empire.

Lewis is a widely-read expert on the Middle East, and is regarded as one of the the West’s leading scholars of that region. James L. Abrahmson, [] in "American Diplomacy", accessed March 6 2008] His advice has been frequently sought by policymakers, including the current Bush administration. [cite news | title = AEI's Weird Celebration| publisher = "Slate (magazine)"| date = March 14 2007| url =| accessdate = 2008-02-29] In the "Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing" Martin Kramer, whose Ph.D. thesis was directed by Lewis, considered that, over a 60-year career, he has emerged as "the most influential postwar historian of Islam and the Middle East." cite encyclopedia|encyclopedia=Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing|title=Bernard Lewis|first=Martin|last=Kramer|authorlink=Martin Kramer|publisher=Fitzroy Dearborn|location=London|year=1999|volume=Vol. 1|pages=pp. 719–720| url=| accessdate=2006-05-23] His scholarship has been criticized by Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Israel Charney.


Born to middle-class Jewish parents in Stoke Newington, London, Lewis became attracted to languages and history from an early age. While preparing for his bar mitzvah ceremony at the age of eleven or twelve, the young Bernard, fascinated by a new language, and especially a new script, discovered an interest in Hebrew. He subsequently moved on to studying Aramaic and then Arabic, and later still, some Latin, Greek, Persian, and Turkish. As with Semitic languages, Lewis's interest in history was stirred thanks to the bar mitzvah ceremony, during which he received as a gift a book on Jewish history. [cite book|first=Bernard|last=Lewis|title=From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting The Middle East|publisher=Oxford University press|year=2004|id=ISBN 0195173368|pages=pp. 1–2|url=|accessdate=2006-05-23

He graduated in 1936 from the then School of Oriental Studies (SOAS, now School of Oriental and African Studies) at the University of London with a B.A. in History with special reference to the Near and Middle East, and obtaining his Ph.D. three years later, also from SOAS, specializing in the History of Islam. [ "Bernard Lewis Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus"] , Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of Princeton, retrieved May 26, 2006.] Lewis also studied law, going part of the way toward becoming a barrister, but returned to study Middle Eastern history. He undertook post-graduate studies at the University of Paris, where he studied with the orientalist Louis Massignon and earned the "Diplôme des Études Sémitiques" in 1937. cite encyclopedia|encyclopedia=Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing|title=Bernard Lewis|first=Martin|last=Kramer|authorlink=Martin Kramer|publisher=Fitzroy Dearborn|location=London|year=1999|volume=Vol. 1|pages=pp. 719–720| url=| accessdate=2006-05-23] He returned to SOAS in 1938 as an assistant lecturer in Islamic History.

During the Second World War, Lewis served in the British Army in the Royal Armoured Corps and Intelligence Corps in 1940–41, before being seconded to the Foreign Office. After the war, he returned to SOAS, and in 1949 – as he was one of the very rare specialists – he was appointed to the new chair in Near and Middle Eastern History at the age of 33. [Lewis (2004), pp. 3–4]

In 1974, Lewis accepted a joint position at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, also located in Princeton, New Jersey. The terms of his appointment were such that Lewis taught only one semester per year, and being free from administrative responsibilities, he could devote more time to research than previously. Consequently, Lewis's arrival at Princeton marked the beginning of the most prolific period in his research career during which he published numerous books and articles based on the previously accumulated materials. [Lewis (2004), pp. 6–7] In addition, it was in the U.S. that Lewis became a public intellectual. Upon his retirement from Princeton in 1986, Lewis served at Cornell University until 1990.

Lewis has been a naturalized citizen of the United States since 1982. He married Ruth Hélène Oppenhejm in 1947 with whom he had a daughter and a son before the marriage was dissolved in 1974.

Lewis is a founding member of ASMEA (The Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa). Formed October 24, 2007, the organization is an academic society dedicated to promoting the highest standards of research and teaching in Middle Eastern and African studies, and related fields. Lewis is Chairman of its academic council. []


Martin Kramer, whose Ph.D. thesis was directed by Lewis, claims Lewis as "the most influential postwar historian of Islam and the Middle East" whose authority extends beyond the academe to the general public. He is the pioneer of the social and economic history of the Middle East and is famous for his extensive research of the Ottoman archives.

Bernard Lewis began his research career with the study of medieval Arab, especially Syrian, history. His first article, dedicated to professional guilds of medieval Islam, had been widely regarded as the most authoritative work on the subject for about thirty years.cite journal|first=R. Stephen|last=Humphreys|journal=Humanities|title=Bernard Lewis: An Appreciation|volume=vol. 11|issue=3|date=May /June 1990|pages=pp. 17–20|url=]

However, after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, scholars of Jewish origin found it more and more difficult to conduct archival and field research in the Arab countries where they were suspected of espionage. Therefore, Lewis switched to the study of the Ottoman Empire, while continuing to research Arab history through the Ottoman archives, which had only recently been opened to Western researchers. A series of articles that Lewis published over the next several years revolutionized the history of the Middle East by giving a broad picture of Islamic society, including its government, economy, and demographics.

Lewis argues that the Middle East is currently backward and its decline was a largely self-inflicted condition resulting from both culture and religion, as opposed to the post-colonialist view which posits the problems of the region as economic and political maldevelopment mainly due to the 19th century European colonization. In his 1982 work "Muslim Discovery of Europe," Lewis argues that Muslim societies could not keep pace with the west and that "Crusader successes were due in no small part to Muslim weakness." [Lewis, Bernard, "Muslim Discovery of Europe", Norton Paperback, 2001, p.22] Further, he suggested that as early as the 11th century Islamic societies were decaying, primarily the byproduct of internal problems like "cultural arrogance," which was a barrier to creative borrowing, rather than external pressures like the Crusades. .

Revolted by the Soviet and Arab attempts to delegitimize Israel as a racist country, Lewis wrote a study of anti-Semitism "Semites and Anti-Semites" (1986). In other works he argued Arab rage against Israel was startlingly disproportionate to other tragedies or injustices in the Muslim world: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and control of Muslim-majority land in Central Asia, the bloody and destructive fighting during the Hama uprising in Syria (1982), the Algerian civil war (1992–98), and the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). [Lewis, Bernard, "The Crisis of Islam : Holy War and Unholy Terror", Modern Library, 2003, p.90-91, 108, 110-111]

In addition to his scholarly works, Lewis wrote several influential books accessible to the general public: "The Arabs in History" (1950), "The Middle East and the West" (1964), and "The Middle East" (1995). In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the interest in Lewis's work surged, especially his 1990 essay "The Roots of Muslim Rage". Two of his books were published after 9/11: "What Went Wrong?" (written before the attacks) and "The Crisis of Islam".

Views and influence on contemporary politics

In the mid-1960s, Lewis emerged as a commentator on the issues of the modern Middle East, and his analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rise of militant Islam brought him publicity and aroused significant controversy. American historian Joel Beinin has called him "perhaps the most articulate and learned Zionist advocate in the North American Middle East academic community ..." Beinin, Joel. [ "Review of: "Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice" by Bernard Lewis] , "MERIP Middle East Report", No. 147, Egypt's Critical Moment (Jul., 1987), pp. 43-45.] Lewis's policy advice has particular weight thanks to this scholarly authority. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney remarked: " this new century, his wisdom is sought daily by policymakers, diplomats, fellow academics, and the news media." [cite web|title=Remarks by Vice President Cheney at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia Luncheon Honoring Professor Bernard Lewis|date=May 1, 2006|accessdate=2007-01-26 |url=]

A harsh critic of the Soviet Union, Lewis continues the liberal tradition in Islamic historical studies. Although his early Marxist views had a bearing on his first book "The Origins of Ismailism", Lewis subsequently discarded Marxism. His later works are a reaction against the left-wing current of Third-worldism, which came to be a significant current in Middle Eastern studies.

Lewis advocates closer Western ties with Israel and Turkey, which he saw as especially important in light of the extension of the Soviet influence in the Middle East. Modern Turkey holds a special place in Lewis's view of the region due to the country's efforts to become a part of the West.

Lewis views Christendom and Islam as civilizations that have been in perpetual collision ever since the advent of Islam in the 7th century. In his essay "The Roots of Muslim Rage" (1990), he argued that the struggle between the West and Islam was gathering strength. It was in that essay that he coined the phrase "clash of civilizations", which received prominence in the eponymous book by Samuel Huntington.cite web|first=Fouad|last=Ajami|authorlink=Fouad Ajami|title=A Sage in Christendom: A personal tribute to Bernard Lewis|publisher=OpinionJournal|date=May 1, 2006|accessdate=2006-05-23|url=] The phrase "clash of civilizations", was first used by Lewis at a meeting in Washington in 1957 where it is recorded in the transcript. [One on One: When defeat means liberation Ruthie Blum's Jerusalem Post Interview with Bernard Lewis]

In 1998, Lewis read in a London-based newspaper "Al-Quds Al-Arabi" a declaration of war on the United States by Osama bin Laden, a person of whom Lewis had never heard despite his terrorist attacks in Africa and the Middle East. In his essay "A License to Kill", Lewis indicated he considered bin Laden's language as the "ideology of jihad" and warned that bin Laden would be a danger to the West. The essay was published after the Clinton administration and the US intelligence community had begun its hunt for bin Laden in in Sudan and then in Afghanistan.

In August 2006, in an article about whether the world can rely on the concept of mutual assured destruction as a deterrent in its dealings with Iran, Lewis wrote in the "Wall Street Journal" about the significance of August 22 in the Islamic calendar. The Iranian president had indicated he would respond by that date to U.S. demands regarding Iran's development of nuclear power; Lewis wrote that the date corresponded to the 27th day of the month of Rajab of the year 1427, the day Muslims commemorate the night flight of the prophet Muhammad from Jerusalem to heaven and back. Lewis wrote that it would be "an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and, if necessary, of the world." [ [ "August 22. Does Iran have something in store?"] , "Wall Street Journal", August 8, 2006.] The article received significant press coverage. [August 22 coverage:
* [ CNN Headline News host Glenn Beck and MSNBC host Tucker Carlson] .
* [ "World survives, but solution on Iran is no closer"] "Sydney Morning Herald", August 26, 2006.
* [ "World to end on August 22"] "The Guardian", August 9, 2006.
* [ "Nuclear Apocalypse milder than expected"] "The Register", August 23, 2006.
* [ "Apocalypse Now?"] "National Review", August 10, 2006.
* [ "Apocalypse now?"] "Jerusalem Post" August 22, 2006.
* [ "Beware Aug. 22 and Iran's apocalyptic view"] "Toronto Star", August 12, 2006.
* [ "August 22: Doomsday?"] , "ABC News Blotter", August 21, 2006.
* [,1,1571531.story?coll=chi-opinionfront-hed Chicago Tribune] .

Criticism and controversies

Debates with Edward Said

Lewis is known for his literary sparrings with Edward Said, the Palestinian-American literary theorist and activist who deconstructed Orientalist scholarship. Professor Edward W. Said (Columbia University) defined Lewis's work as a prime example of Orientalism, in his 1978 book "Orientalism". Said asserted that the field of Orientalism was political intellectualism bent on self-affirmation rather than objective study, [Said, Edward, "Orientalism" (Vintage Books: New York, 1979). ISBN 978-0394740676. Pg 12] a form of racism, and a tool of imperialist domination. [Keith Windschuttle, [ "Edward Said's "Orientalism revisited,"] The New Criterion January 17, 1999, accessed January 19, [1999] .] He further questioned the scientific neutrality of some leading Orientalist scholars such as Bernard Lewis on the Arab world. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Said suggested that Lewis' knowledge of the Middle East was so biased it could not be taken seriously, and claimed "Bernard Lewis hasn't set foot in the Middle East, in the Arab world, for at least 40 years. He knows something about Turkey, I'm told, but he knows nothing about the Arab world." [Said, Edward. [ "Resources of hope ,"] Al-Ahram Weekly April 2, 2003, accessed April 26, [2007] .]

Edward Said considered that Lewis treats Islam as a monolithic entity without the nuance of its plurality, internal dynamics, and historical complexities, and accused him of "demagogy and downright ignorance." [Said, Edward. [ "The Clash of Ignorance,"] The Nation October 22, 2001, accessed April 26, [2007] .]

Lewis' response

Rejecting the view that western scholarship was biased against the Middle East, Lewis responded that Orientalism developed since then as a facet of European humanism, independently of the past European imperial expansion. He noted the French and English pursued the study of Islam in the 16th and 17th centuries, yet not in an organized way, but long before they had any control or hope of control in the Middle East; and that much of Orientalist study did nothing to advance the cause of imperialism. "What imperial purpose was served by deciphering the ancient Egyptian language, for example, and then restoring to the Egyptians knowledge of and pride in their forgotten, ancient past?" [Lewis, Bernard, "Islam and the West", Oxford University Press, 1993, p.126]

Denial of the Armenian Genocide

Bernard Lewis was fined one franc by a French court for denying the Armenian genocide in a November 1993 Le Monde article. Lewis's position was that while mass murders did occur, he did not believe there was sufficient evidence to conclude it was government-sponsored, ordered or controlled and therefore did not constitute a genocide. The court stated that "by concealing elements contrary to his opinion, he failed to his duties of objectivity and prudence" [ [ Bernard Lewis Condemned For Having Denied The Reality Of The Armenian Genocide] by Nathaniel Herzberg, "Le Monde", p. 11, June 23, 1995] .

When Lewis received the prestigious National Humanities Medal from President Bush in November 2006, the Armenian National Committee of America took strong objection. Executive Director Aram Hamparian released a statement of pointed disapproval: cquote|The President's decision to honor the work of a known genocide denier — an academic mercenary whose politically motivated efforts to cover up the truth run counter to the very principles this award was established to honor — represents a true betrayal of the public trust. [ [ "ARMENIAN GENOCIDE DENIER BERNARD LEWIS AWARDED NATIONAL HUMANITIES MEDAL"] , ANCA, November 22, 2006. Retrieved April 26, 2007.]

Lewis' views on the issue were widely criticized by historians and scholars including Alain Finkelkraut, Yves Ternon, Richard G. Hovannisian, Albert Memmi, Pierre Vidal-Naquet [The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide, by Yair Auron, 2003, Transaction Publishers, ISBN 076580834X, p. 235] [La province de la mort, p. 9, by Leslie A. Davis, Yves Ternon, 1994] , and he has been called a "notorious genocide-denier". [ [ U.S. Denial of the Armenian Genocide] , by Stephen Zunes, Foreign Policy in Focus, October 22, 2007] [The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide, by Yair Auron, p. 230] [ [ "The Armenian Genocide: A New Brand of Denial by the Turkish General Staff - by Proxy"] , Groong, September 21, 2004, By Prof. Vahakn Dadrian] [The Armenian Genocide: Cultural and Ethical Legacies, by Richard G. Hovannisian, 2007, p. 33] [ [ The Key Distortions and Falsehoods in the Denial of the Armenian Genocide] , Prepared by the Zoryan Institute, Revised August 1999] According to historian Yair Auron, "Lewis’ stature provided a lofty cover for the Turkish national agenda of obfuscating academic research on the Armenian Genocide". [ [ The Islamization of Europe, By Andrew G. Bostom,, Friday, December 31, 2004] ] Jewish scholar Israel Charny wrote about Lewis' views, that "the seemingly scholarly concern with putting the historical facts in the context of Armenians constituting a threat to the Turks as a rebellious force who together with the Russians threatened the Ottoman Empire, and the insistence that only a policy of deportations was executed, barely conceal the fact that the organized deportations constituted systematic mass murder". [ [ The Psychological Satisfaction of Denials of the Holocaust or Other Genocides by Non-Extremists or Bigots, and Even by Known Scholars] , by Israel Charny, "IDEA" journal, July 17, 2001, Vol.6, no.1]

Lewis' response

In response, Lewis argued that:

Lewis stated that he believed "to make [the Armenian Genocide] , a parallel with the Holocaust in Germany" was "rather absurd." In an interview with "Haaretz" he stated:

Noam Chomsky

In a 2002 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's "Hot Type" program, Noam Chomsky detailed a series of comments from a declassified Eisenhower Administration memo:

Chomsky claimed that Bernard Lewis, in his writings on the Middle East, omitted this and other evidence of Western culpability for failures in the region. Chomsky claimed:

Lewis' response

On the same program the next month, Lewis responded:

cquote|Well, Mr. Chomsky's views on Middle Eastern history are about as reliable as my views on linguistics, but I'll let that pass. Obviously imperialist powers are not blameless in this respect. They did contribute, but they are not the cause of what went wrong. What went wrong is what enabled them to come and conquer these places. And the record of the Imperialist powers is by no means uniformly bad. They did some bad things, they also did some good things. They introduced infrastructure, they introduced modern education, they established a network of high schools and universities that previously did not exist, and many other things. They even tried to introduce constitutional government, parliamentary and constitutional government. It didn't take in the Islamic lands, but it worked quite well in India.

The other point he raises, I am in agreement with him, much to my surprise. That is the, how shall I put it, the offense of propping and maintaining repressive governments. I don't think the Shah is a good example of that. The Shah's government was certainly not democratic, but it was a Scandinavian democracy compared to what has happened since in Iran.

It's not our business what goes on inside these countries. Let them have tyrants as long as they're friendly tyrants rather than hostile tyrants. This is the familiar method that's been used in Central America, Southeast Asia and other places. [ [ Hot Type: Bernard Lewis Interview] : What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response Originally Aired: May 17, 2002] ]

tance on the Iraq War

Most recently Lewis has been called "perhaps the most significant intellectual influence behind the invasion of Iraq", who urged regime change in Iraq to provide a jolt that — he argued — would "modernize the Middle East". [ [ "AEI'S Weird Celebration" ] ] Critics of Lewis have suggested that Lewis' allegedly 'Orientalist' theories about "What Went Wrong" in the Middle East, and other important works, formed the intellectual basis of the push towards war in Iraq. [ [ "Bernard Lewis Revisited"] , Washington Monthly, November 2004. Accessed April 26, 2007.]

Lewis does not advocate imposing freedom and democracy on Islamic nations."There are things you can't impose. Freedom, for example. Or democracy. Democracy is a very strong medicine which has to be administered to the patient in small, gradually increasing doses. Otherwise, you risk killing the patient. In the main, the Muslims have to do it themselves. " [ [ One on One: When defeat means liberation] , Ruthie Blum, The Jerusalem Post, March 6, 2008]

Ian Buruma, writing for The New Yorker in an article subtitled "The two minds of Bernard Lewis", finds Lewis's stance on the war difficult to reconcile with Lewis's past statements cautioning democracy's enforcement in the world at large. Buruma ultimately rejects suggestions by his peers that Lewis, a Jew, promotes war with Iraq to safeguard Israel, but instead concludes "perhaps he (Lewis) loves it (the Arab world) too much":


*"The Origins of Ismailism" (1940)
*"A Handbook of Diplomatic and Political Arabic" (1947)
*"The Arabs in History" (1950)
*"The Emergence of Modern Turkey" (1961)
*"Istanbul and the Civilizations of the Ottoman Empire" (1963)
*"" (1967)
*"The Cambridge History of Islam" (2 vols. 1970, revised 4 vols. 1978, editor with Peter Malcolm Holt and Ann K.S. Lambton)
*"Islam: From the Prophet Muhammad to the capture of Constantinople" (1974, editor)
*"History — Remembered, Recovered, Invented" (1975)
*"Race and Color in Islam" (1979)
*"Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society" (1982, editor with Benjamin Braude)
*"The Muslim Discovery of Europe" (1982)
*"The Jews of Islam" (1984)
*"Semites and Anti-Semites" (1986)
*"Islam from the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople" (1987)
*"The Political Language of Islam" (1988)
*"" (1990)
*"Islam and the West" (1993)
*"Islam in History" (1993)
*"The Shaping of the Modern Middle East" (1994)
*"Cultures in Conflict" (1994)
*"The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years" (1995)
*"The Future of the Middle East" (1997)
*"The Multiple Identities of the Middle East" (1998)
*"A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of Life, Letters and History" (2000)
*"Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew Poems" (2001)
*"The Muslim Discovery of Europe" (2001)
*"" (2002)
*"" (2003)
*"" (2004)
*"Islam: The Religion and the People" (2008, with Buntzie Ellis Churchill)



External links

* [ Lewis's Princeton University homepage]
* [ The ASMEA Website]
* [ Atlantic Monthly: "The Roots of Muslim Rage"]
* [ Links to online articles by Bernard Lewis at]
* [ BookTV interview with Bernard Lewis]
* [ Booknotes interview with Bernard Lewis What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response]
* [ Bernard Lewis and MESA's Shame] by Martin Kramer
* [ Audio interview with Bernard Lewis at National Review Online]
*The Washington Monthly: [ Bernard Lewis Revisited] by Michael Hirsh
*CounterPunch: [ CounterPunch: "Scholarship or Sophistry? Bernard Lewis and the New Orientalism"]
* [ Bernard Lewis featured in Slate Magazine's "AEI'S Weird Celebration"]
* [ Bernard Lewis's famous post-9/11 commentary on the revolt of Islam against the West]
* [ Ian Buruma, in The New Yorker, considers Lewis's stance on Iraq in light of Lewis's scholarship of the Middle East and views on democracy]

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