The Chronicle Review

'Osama bin Laden Made Me Famous'

Bernard Lewis Looks Back

Eli Reed, Magnum Photos

The Middle East scholar, now in his 90s, says he opposed the war in Iraq.
April 22, 2012

Bernard Lewis left Princeton Univer­sity in 1986, forced out at the then-mandatory retirement age of 70. At his farewell party, Charles Issawi, who was also retiring from the department of Near Eastern studies, delivered some remarks. "There are five ages of professors," he said, "tireless, tiring, tiresome, tired, and retired; but for people like Bernard and me, retirement means a new set of tires and full speed ahead."

Issawi was right: Lewis isn't the retiring type. He has spent the years since then producing 16 books and countless articles, carried on his decades-long spat with Edward Said over the direction of scholarship on the Middle East, helped found a learned society to challenge "intellectual conformism" in the Middle East Studies Association, coined the idea of a "clash of civilizations," became an informal adviser to the George W. Bush administration, and according to some observers, provided the intellectual firepower for the war in Iraq. Oh, and not least: At the age of 80, Lewis fell in love again.

Next month Viking Press will publish Lewis's 32nd book, a memoir titled Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian. It was written with the help of his companion, Buntzie Ellis Churchill, a former president of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.

"I wasn't happy," Lewis says about his retirement. We're sitting in his two-bedroom apartment at a senior living facility in Haverford, Pa. "I was still active and energetic and could have gone on." He leans forward in his rocking chair. "But these days nobody retires"—he shakes his head—"and they go on until they're senile idiots."

He is a few weeks shy of 96. His British-accented voice is gruff, his shoulders stooped, his hearing diminished, his stamina not what it once was. But Lewis, arguably the most prominent living scholar of the Middle East, seems spry and buoyant, greeting me with a firm handshake and news of a recent acquisition: "I just got some excellent Scotch."

When Lewis began teaching at the University of London, in the late 1930s, fewer than 100 people in all of Britain knew Arabic, he says. But languages came easily to him. He learned Latin and French in grade school, picked up Hebrew from a tutor, and taught himself Italian and Spanish. As an undergraduate, he met a cute Soviet refugee named Ada who insisted that he learn Yiddish. So he did. "Now I can understand the punch lines of Jewish jokes," he writes. In graduate school, he studied Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, and dabbled in Russian.

During World War II, British intelligence put the polyglot professor to work. Lewis is sketchy on the details but allows that he spent time in Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, and Jerusalem. After the war, he set off for Istanbul and became one of the first non-Turks to explore the Ottoman archives, research that established him as a leading authority on Islamic and Ottoman history.

Lewis, however, has never been a reclusive archive dweller. Indeed, he seems to have known everyone and been everywhere. In Notes on a Century, he trades gossip with Golda Meir; cracks wise about the Marx Brothers with the shah of Iran; stays up late chatting with King Hussein of Jordan; spends time in a tent with Qaddafi; speaks on "friendly, personal terms" with Pope John Paul II; counsels secretaries of state, and on and on.

But it is Lewis's relationship with Vice President Dick Cheney that will most intrigue readers. And on that score, Lewis drops a small bombshell. The war in Iraq, Lewis writes midway through the book's last chapter, is "sometimes ascribed to my influence with Vice President Cheney. But the reverse is true. I did not recommend it. On the contrary, I opposed it."

So, wait: The man who more than any other scholar is credited with shaping the Bush administration's view of the Middle East, who wrote widely read op-eds with titles like "Time for Toppling" in the lead-up to the war, in fact, opposed it?

Let us back up here.

It may not be exactly true that Osama bin Laden made Lewis famous, but it's not much of an exaggeration. On September 11, 2001, Lewis was putting the final touches on What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford University Press), an account of how the Muslim world fell into "a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression." It was an instant best seller, and according to Ian Buruma, of Bard College, it was received "in some circles as a kind of handbook in the war against Islamic terrorism." Another best seller, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (Modern Library), soon followed.

Both books echoed themes that Lewis had been striking since the mid-1970s, when he first warned about a surge of religious passion in the Muslim world. Then, in 1979, the Iranian revolution swept the shah out of power. "My historical studies suddenly became relevant, and I was called to Washington more frequently," Lewis writes. Islam had moved "from the realm of musty archives and academic conferences to the evening news."

In 1990, Lewis's Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities was adapted by The Atlantic, which ran it on the cover under the headline "The Roots of Muslim Rage." "We are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them," he famously declared, adding: "This is no less than a clash of civilizations." The magazine hit the newsstands just as Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Lewis was summoned to meet then-Secretary of Defense Cheney. It was the beginning of a long relationship.

After 9/11, Lewis became an occasional visitor to the vice president's home and office, and on the eve of the war Cheney went on Meet the Press and name-checked the professor. "I firmly believe, along with men like Bernard Lewis, who is one of the great students of that part of the world, that strong, firm U.S. response to terror and to threats to the United States would go a long way, frankly, toward calming things in that part of the world."

Lewis's reported influence in Washington reached an apotheosis in February 2004, when The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about how Lewis's "diagnosis of the Muslim world's malaise, and his call for a U.S. military invasion to seed democracy in the Mideast, have helped define the boldest shift in U.S. foreign policy in 50 years."

In his living room, Lewis seems uninterested in rehashing recent history. He listens patiently, stone-faced. His disagreement with the Bush administration, he explains with a sigh, was not over the goal (regime change), but the tactic (full-scale invasion). Lewis says he argued for recognizing the leadership in northern Iraq as the country's legitimate government and arming those forces if necessary. In the decade since the first Persian Gulf war, he says, Kurds and Arabs had managed to build a nascent democracy under the protection of the no-fly zone.

"That was the way to do it," he says. "Simply to invade was the wrong way to do it, and I thought so and said so at the time." Why didn't he speak out before the invasion? "I didn't feel at that crucial moment that it was right to take a public stance against the war."

Private advice is difficult to verify, of course. But in Notes on a Century, Lewis tries to build a case, reprinting long excerpts from e-mails he sent to then-National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley in 2006. They suggest that Lewis was at that time more concerned about Iran than Iraq. "My job was not to offer policy suggestions but to provide background," Lewis recalls in the book, emphasizing that his "role in policy making was, at most, minimal." Furthermore, he says, his name appears only once, in passing, in Cheney's memoir, In My Time. (Notes on a Century incorrectly states that Lewis does not appear at all in Cheney's memoir.) Asked if he was relieved when he read Cheney's book, Lewis mumbles something unintelligible and smiles.

Age has not mellowed Lewis, especially on the topic of the late Edward Said, whose 1978 polemic, Orientalism, upended Middle East studies and placed Lewis in the position of having to defend his scholarship against charges of racism and imperialism. Lewis vividly remembers reading Orientalism for the first time. "Apart from Said's ill will," he says, "I was appalled by his ignorance."

He had never heard of Said, and it didn't occur to him that the Columbia English professor's ideas would get much traction. In 1982, however, Lewis responded at length in The New York Review of Books, highlighting what he saw as numerous factual errors in Orientalism. Said punched back, and their exchange remains one of the great intellectual donnybrooks of recent decades.

Lewis and Said met only once, in 1986, for a debate at the annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association. Dubbed the "shoot-out at the MESA corral," the event drew 3,000 spectators. Whether or not Lewis thinks he won that day's battle, however, he seems to be under no illusion that he lost the war.

"Middle Eastern studies in this country is dominated by the Saidians," he says, his voice rising in indignation. "The situation is very bad. Saidianism has become an orthodoxy that is enforced with a rigor unknown in the Western world since the Middle Ages." This groupthink, he says, taints everything: jobs, promotions, book reviews. "If you buck the Saidian orthodoxy, you're making life very difficult for yourself."

In 2007, Lewis and some like-minded scholars, including Fouad Ajami, of the Johns Hopkins University, founded the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. The idea, Lewis says, was to create space for opinions that deviate from the MESA mainstream, "to maintain an independent academic integrity in Middle Eastern studies." Lewis continues to serve as chairman.

As dinner approaches—Lewis eats at 6 p.m. sharp—he offers a tour of his apartment. He leads me to a small bookshelf in the living room. It's a far cry from the 15,000-volume library he maintained at his home and office in Princeton. When he moved here, last year, he donated those books to the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, where he has for many years been a visiting scholar.

Lewis pulls a Russian book off the shelf and slowly reads his name, in Cyrillic, on the cover. He smiles. His books have been translated into 29 languages. The Middle East and the West, published in 1964, was even translated into Arabic by the Muslim Brotherhood. Lewis is particularly fond of that edition's preface: "I don't know who this person is," the translator wrote, "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." Lewis chuckles at that.

In the second bedroom, which he uses as an office, is a large desk, on which rests a small black-and-white photograph of Lewis on his first visit to the Middle East, in 1937. He's dressed in a long dishdasha. On that journey, he has said, he felt "like a Muslim bridegroom first seeing his bride, with whom he is to spend the rest of his life."

He can't get to the Middle East much these days. And even if he could, he says, it wouldn't do much good. "No one will tell you anything in the Middle East unless you have personal contacts. Otherwise it's too dangerous." He stares down at the photograph. "I used to have excellent personal contacts, but with very, very few exceptions, they're all dead."

The conversation turns to his legacy. Does he worry that his wading into current affairs has tarnished his reputation as a scholar? "No," he says flatly. "My scholarship is evaluated for what it's worth. People agree with me and people disagree with me, but that's on scholarly grounds." What about his standing as a public intellectual? Lewis flashes a smile. "Oh, that's easy," he says. "For some, I'm the towering genius. For others, I'm the devil incarnate."

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