The British-born American historian Bernard Lewis (born 1916) became one of the most prominent English-language scholars of Islam and the Middle East during the 20th century. His analysis of modern Islamic society has highlighted an ongoing controversy deeply rooted in history, faith, and culture.
Lewis was born on May 31, 1916, in London, England. His parents were adherents of Orthodox Judaism, but they rarely attended services; they did, however, send their son for lessons in the newly revived Hebrew language. Lewis's teacher recognized his intelligence and his talent for learning languages, which by his teen years expanded to include French, Latin, German, and Aramaic (Jesus Christ's native tongue). He was fascinated by the history of the Crusades and the extended conflict between the Christian and Islamic worlds, and he majored in Near and Middle East Studies at the University of London. Graduating first in his class in 1936, he applied to graduate school at the same institution and earned a Royal Asiatic Society stipend enabling him to travel around Egypt, British Palestine, Syria, and Turkey for a semester. He completed his Ph.D. thesis on Islamic history in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II.
Lewis accepted an assistant lectureship at the University of London, and his first book, Origins of Isma'ilism: A Study of the Historical Background of the Fatimid Caliphate (1940) presented a detailed examination of a Shia sect that expanded its control over much of the Arab world in the 10th and 11th centuries. Lewis's academic career was interrupted when he was drafted into the British army and assigned to a tank regiment. He was transferred to the intelligence service due to his linguistic skills, serving predominately in London but also traveling to Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq. Back in London after the war, he was appointed chairman of the Near and Middle Eastern History Department at the University of London. In 1947, he married Ruth Helene Oppenhejm, a Danish Jewish woman, and the couple would raise two children, daughter Melanie and son Michael, before divorcing in 1974.
Two major books established Lewis's lasting reputation as the first English-language scholar to apply the methodology of contemporary history to Turkey and the Arab world. The Arabs in History, his general study of the Arab countries, was published in 1950 and remains revised and in print. Released in 1961, his landmark The Emergence of Modern Turkey was based in part on studies he undertook as the first Western scholar to gain access to Turkish government archives. In the 1950s and beyond, he increasingly focused on Turkey and Iran rather than on the Arab countries, perhaps because, as a Jew, he was restricted in his ability to travel within the Muslim world.
Throughout his career, Lewis has tackled controversial topics in his writing. In his 1967 book The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam, he profiled a sect of the Fatimid period that used political violence to achieve its goals; the word “assassin” is derived from the name of this sect. In his profile, Lewis focused on a rarely addressed issue: the prevalence of terrorism in the Islamic world. He also questioned the role of women in Islamic societies and attacked the extreme Wahhabi sect of Islam that then ruled Saudi Arabia.
Sympathetic to Marxism in his earlier writings, Lewis turned more conservative over time. He was a strong supporter of the State of Israel, both before and after it was invaded by Arab countries in the Six-Day War of 1967, and he was strongly critical of the Soviet Union. He viewed Israel and, potentially, Turkey (then Israel's ally) as models for secular democracy in the Middle East, and he believed that cultural stagnation within Arab Islamic countries shared responsibility with European colonialism for the scientific and economic decline in those nations.
Meanwhile, Lewis gained an increasing profile in the media as his involvement in U.S. foreign policy deepened. That involvement began with his influence on U.S. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a conservative known in the 1970s for being strongly supportive of Israel and critical of the Soviet Union. Conservatives such as Richard Perle and future vice president Richard Cheney, who served on the foreign-policy advisory staff during the two Bush administrations—those of George H.W. Bush during the late 1980s and his son George W. Bush in the 2000s—studied Lewis's writings closely. As quoted by Berman, noted journalist and editor Jacob Heilbrunn dubbed Lewis “the elder statesman of the neoconservative movement,” and Lewis accepted the neoconservative label as an accurate representation of his beliefs.
Lewis's public profile increased in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as observers of all political stripes sought to understand the emergence of political violence in the Muslim world. His influence in foreign policy circles played a role in persuading President George W. Bush to launch an invasion of Iraq in 2002; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was an admirer and may have given Bush a copy of Lewis's book What Went Wrong prior to the invasion's implementation. Vice President Cheney specifically cited Lewis's suggestion that the United States should promote democratic values in the Middle East in arguing for the invasion, and Lewis reaffirmed this position in a 2002 Wall Street Journal op-ed column in which he predicted scenes of rejoicing in Iraq if its tyrannical leader, Saddam Hussein, were overthrown.
Although conservative pundits began to speak of a “Lewis Doctrine,” when the invasion of Iraq bogged down in a long struggle with militant groups, Lewis distanced himself, claiming that his contribution to Bush's policymaking was limited to occasional e-mails. The Iraq invasion and its aftermath sparked a fresh round of criticism of the nonagenarian academic. As writer Michael Hirsh told Berman at the time, “Really, the U.S. had to just wipe out Al Qaeda, but instead, they took on the entire Arab world. That's where people like Lewis led us astray and I don't think anyone would cite him today without some sense of irony.”
Another point of criticism with regard to Lewis's views involved the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey that occurred between 1915 and 1923. Lewis removed the word “genocide” from later editions of The Emergence of Modern Turkey, arguing that this violence might instead be viewed as an armed conflict between two nationalist groups. This view differed substantially with established historical consensus, but U.S. presidents of both parties subsequently avoided references to the historical incident using the emotion-laden term.
Lewis discussed his provocative viewpoint regarding the violence in Turkey following World War I in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde in 1993. After the interview was published, he was sued in both criminal and civil court as a holocaust denier. Three cases were dismissed and in the fourth, a civil case settled two years later, he was fined only a symbolic one franc.
Into the 2010s, Lewis continued to write prolifically, and his books have been translated into over 20 languages. His 2008 general study Islam: The Religion and the People, was written with his personal partner, Buntzie Ellis Churchill. His Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East was published by Oxford University Press in 2010, while the following year's The End of Modern History in the Middle East was issued by the conservative Hoover Institution Press. Also coauthored by Churchill, Lewis's widely praised memoir Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian, appeared in 2012, when the 96-year-old historian was serving as Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University.
Lewis, Bernard, Note on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian, Viking, 2012.
Moment, September–October 2011, Daphna Berman, “Revered and Reviled: Bernard Lewis.”
Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/ernard-lewis (January 24, 2018), “Bernard Lewis.”
Princeton University Department of Near Eastern Studies, https://nes.princeton.edu/people/bernard-lewis (January 24, 2018), “Bernard Lewis.”
Telegraph (London, England), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/3602621/Profile-Professor-Bernard-Lewis.html (January 24, 2018), “Profile: Professor Bernard Lewis.”□