Historian who sent Bush to war

The Times (London)
May 15, 2004, Saturday

Historian who sent Bush to war

by Michael Binyon

Weidenfeld & Nicolson
£20; 350pp
ISBN 0 297 84884 4
£16 (p&p £2.25)
0870 1608080

Professor Bernard Lewis is one of the Western world’s foremost
authorities on Islam. Long a scholar and lecturer at the School of
Oriental and African Studies at London University, he moved to
Princeton 30 years ago, and continued to write incisively and
tellingly not only about the early history of the Muslims, Islamic
theology and Muslim reactions to the West, but also, increasingly,
about how the West should deal with the Muslim world. American
leaders sought him out for advice on the Muslim mind, and since the
September 11 atrocities he has rarely been silent, in demand by
newspapers, universities, conferences and especially at the White

He is now identified as the unofficial author of the Bush doctrine of
spreading, by force if necessary, the values and democracy of the
West in Muslim countries, part of the justification for the Iraq war.
It is a role that has made Professor Lewis, 87, notorious in some
circles. He has become a figure of hatred to many Muslims – partly
because he is Jewish, and is assumed to be lobbying on behalf of
Israel, and partly because he is a relentless critic of what he sees
as decay and spiritual confusion in much of the Muslim world. His
latest book, published last year, on the crisis in Islam, is a
trenchant and incisive analysis of the turmoil now roiling a religion
that he has made his lifetime’s study.

This political role is regrettable. For it has overshadowed Professor
Lewis’s enormous achievements as a linguist – he speaks at least five
Middle Eastern languages – historian and researcher. He is one of a
handful of academics who has been labelled a hawk and whose writings
and research are, therefore, judged largely on the basis on the
policies to which they have been yoked. Richard Pipes suffered the
same fate: a brilliant scholar of the ancien regime in Russia, he was
adopted by the Reagan Administration as its resident apologist for
the anti Soviet line that was seen, at the time, as recklessly
aggressive. The fact that Pipes was largely proved right, after the
fall of communism, never quite restored his academic reputation among
political liberals.

Professor Lewis’s academic credentials are impeccable. Anyone
doubting the breadth of his knowledge and his scrupulously impartial
historical approach has only to dip into this weighty compendium of
his writings. The collection of essays, articles, reviews, lectures
and contributions to encyclopaedias gives a glimpse of his towering
scholarship. The title essay deals with the isolation of the early
Muslims from the learning and experience of the outside world and
their gradual need to find interpreters, “dragomans”, to translate
the manuals and writings, especially on warfare, of a resurgent West.
They tended to rely on people such as Lewis – cosmopolitans, often
Jews, Greeks or Armenians who had mastered another culture by
accident of birth or geography.

Some of the essays are studiously academic – an interpretation of
Fatamid history, the Moguls and the Ottomans, the Shia and attitudes
to monarchy in the Middle East. But the lucid writing is never dry or
obscure, even to the generalist. Even in scholarly analyses,
Professor Lewis brings the wisdom of historical background to issues
that baffle today’s politicians. Why do the Shia in Iraq still lay
such stress on the historical appeal to the wronged, the downtrodden
and the deprived? How much did the Assassins, a 12th-century sect
that prefigured the suicide bombers, influence today’s concept of
martyrdom? Or why, for example, have the rulers of the Middle East
only in the 20th century adopted the title of “king”, a term
originally associated with the West and seen primarily as military
and political rather than traditional weightier titles denoting
religious authority?

Other essays are more topical, political and controversial,
especially to Muslims who resent Western scholars questioning the
contemporary relevance of a theology that is, by definition,
immutable. “The enemies of God”, “The roots of Muslim rage”,
“Religion and murder in the Middle East” and “Not everyone hates
Saddam” deal with the here and now.

Though forthright, Professor Lewis is rarely dismissive or
patronising, although he has become more hawkish over confronting
Islamist activism. “There is an extraordinary belief in some circles
that politics is an exact science like mathematics; and that there
is, so to speak, one correct answer to any problem, all the others
being incorrect,” he says, discussing the Islamic revolutionaries in
Iran. “It is a delusion, a false theory, and its forcible application
has brought untold misery to untold millions of people.”

Professor Lewis is primarily an expert on Ottoman Turkey. This, as he
says in a revealing autobiographical introduction, is because the
Arab world was largely out of bounds to Jews after the establishment
of Israel. History was his first love, but an early fascination with
languages – at one time, he says, he was simulataneously studying
Latin, Greek, Biblical Hebrew and Classical Arabic – drew him to
research in the Middle East. He set out on his first trip there in
1937, enrolling at Cairo University. A year later he was offered the
post of assistant lecturer in Islamic history at the University of
London. With the outbreak of war, he put his languages to good use
with British Intelligence, dealing with Middle East in the Foreign
Office from 1941 to 1945.

After 1949, however, only three countries in the region were open to
Jewish scholars – Turkey, Iran and Israel. He focused on Turkey, and
was lucky to become the first Westerner admitted to the Imperial
Ottoman Archives. It was a treasure-house of neglected learning.
“Feeling rather like a child turned loose in a toy shop, or like an
intruder in Ali Baba’s cave, I hardly knew where to turn first.”

Professor Lewis’s authority rests on his own precept: “The first and
most rudimentary test of an historian’s competence is that he should
be able to read his sources.” He can. Dozens of books and articles
have flowed from his research.

Moving to Princeton in 1974 was a challenge, but a liberation from
the “administrative and bureaucratic entanglements that had built up,
over decades, in England”. Though he reached retirement age in 1986,
and became Emeritus Professor, his political authority grew. He
resisted any censorship or political correctness, just as he resisted
the notion of taboo subjects in many Muslim societies. He says that a
historian “owes it to himself and to his readers to try, to the best
of his ability, to be objective or at least to be fair”. But he
acknowledges the dangers of a historian becoming personally involved
and committed.

That, however, has been his fate. In early studies he says he was
most interested in the period when the Middle East was most different
from the West and least affected by it. Now it is deeply affected,
and scholars are being asked to predict the outcome of this clash.
Eight days after September 11 Professor Lewis was asked to address
the US Defence Policy Board. He has dined with Vice-President Cheney
and advised President Bush. Richard Perle, a lifelong hawk, called
him “the single most important intellectual influence countering the
conventional wisdom on managing the conflict between radical Islam
and the West”.

He has been seen as an apologist for the use of force to instil fear
“or at least respect” in an Islamic world that is on the defensive
and resentful of the West.

Much of this hawkishness can be traced to his loathing of appeasement
before the Second World War and his closeness to a succession of
Israeli prime ministers. It is a pity, for the “Lewis doctrine”, as
some term his call on the West to implant democracy in the Muslim
world, is far from a proven success. And political foolishness, in
Iraq and elsewhere, may yet overshadow the achievements of a great

Read on

Islam in the World by Malise Ruthven (Penguin)

A Fury for God: the Islamist Attack on America by Malise Ruthven

The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? by John Esposito (OUP)

Rethinking Islam and Modernity by Abdelwahab El-Affendi (Islamic