Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian Bernard Lewis, with Buntzie Ellis Churchill

Weidenfeld, pp.386, 20

Not bad, this life. Now 95, Bernard Lewis, is recognised everywhere as a leading historian of the Middle East.He is the author of 32 books, translated into 29 languages, able in 15 languages, consulted by popes, kings, presidents and sheiks, on good or argumentative terms with many Western and Middle Eastern scholars and politicians, husband more than once, father, grandfather, and — true love at 80! — partner of the joint author of this book.

He speaks with authority, although he is often disputed and occasionally sued, on so many different matters that his frequent name- and award-dropping somehow don’t exasperate. A non-observant English Jew, Lewis has visited most of the countries of the Middle East, even those that from time to time forbade Jews from entry.

He has some well-developed hatreds, notably of the late Edward Said, the main exponent of the notion of ‘Orientalism’, which Said condemned as a condescending attitude, born of imperialism, towards the Islamic world. ‘Edward Said’s thesis is just plain wrong,’ states Lewis in his always confident way. The exchange of letters between Said and Lewis in the New York Review of Books. 12 August 1982. is a model of personal and scholarly venom. ‘His linking European Orientalist scholarship to European imperial expansion in the Islamic world is an absurdity. ’ ‘Orientalism’— the study of Arabic and Islam in Europe — occurred at a time not of European imperialism among the Muslims, but of Muslim imperial expansion in Europe’, beginning in the eighth century and lasting for many more. Nonetheless, Said’s formulation, contends Lewis, has so infected his field that many young scholars do not dare to speak or write honestly about the Middle East. (I can understand this from my own area of interest — China — about which some scholars, not to say businessmen and politicians, avoid controversy, fearful of being banned from travel or study there.)

Lewis had an interesting war, serving various agencies in duties he claims he still may not describe — but says revealingly that he analysed enough hacked telephone transcripts that he still feels uneasy when speaking on the phone. After serving as professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies he was called to Princeton, and eventually divided his time there with the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study. He learned to abandon British academic irony when lecturing, he says, because it baffled his American audiences.

As one would expect there are profound subjects on which Lewis makes pithy observations:

For the vast majority of the Muslim peoples of the Middle East, country and ethnicity, the main determinants of identity and therefore of loyalty in Christian Europe, were of secondary and usually of minor importance … the basic identity and therefore loyalty was religion … In the Middle East the Western nations, primarily seen as Christendom, are often perceived as one group.

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As for terrorism:

The activities of those who present themselves as terrorists in the name of Islam are not in any sense encouraged or even condoned by Islamic doctrine, tradition or law.

Nor is Islam traditionally anti-Semitic, argues Lewis:

After the death of the Prophet, Christendom was the main rival and enemy; the Jews were unimportant and at times useful. I wouldn’t say [the attitude] was friendly, but it was more tolerant than toward Christians.

Middle Eastern anti-Semitism, Lewis further explains, began with some force after the Dreyfus Affair in the 1870s, when Arab Christians distributed French texts in the region. With the accession of the Nazis, hatred of Jews accelerated in the Arab world, and nowadays ‘an attempt is made to justify [anti-Semitism] in terms of Islam, the Prophet, and the sacred writings and traditions’.

I was fascinated by Lewis’s account of slavery in the Muslim world, a subject he argues that is also unmentioned, out of fear of giving offence. He observes that the study of slavery in the Greek and Roman worlds and the Americas amounts to thousands of titles, while in the Muslim world, ‘despite slavery’s importance in virtually every area and period,’ the list might take up a mere couple of pages. The subject is so sensitive that ‘it is difficult, and sometimes professionally hazardous for a young scholar to turn his attention in this direction.’

He recalls a conference where an African-American was asked why so many African-Americans who were not themselves Muslims gave their children Muslim names, such as Ali and Fatima. The man replied that people like him disliked ‘carrying the names of the people who bought us’. A colleague of Lewis’s asked: ‘But what do you gain by adopting the names of the people who sold you?’ Lewis writes: ‘The identity of those [West African] slave merchants is well known but rarely mentioned.’

I am happy here to correct a misapprehension I shared with others. I knew that Lewis had advocated the first invasion of Iraq after its occupation of Kuwait. But I thought that he had urged the second invasion in 2003 as well. But that, he insists,

was another matter. This is sometimes ascribed to my influence with Vice President Cheney [whom he admired]. But the reverse is true. I did not recommend it. On the contrary, I opposed it. It is, to say the least, annoying to be blamed for something I did not do.

He notes that, ‘I am nowhere mentioned in the 530 pages of Cheney’s memoir, In My Time.’

I learned a lot from Lewis’s reflections on the subjects he mastered, ancient and modern, over many cultures and countries. A bruiser but not a bully, he is a throwback, a creature from the deep lagoon of past grand scholarship, where immersion in sources, well-known and long concealed, whatever their languages, broad acquaintance with the authorities and areas one studied, and even war service in the region, counted for something.

He even asserts that retiring at 70, enabling universities to shuck off dead wood, is a good thing. After all, it was after retirement that he found the wonderfully named widow Buntzie Ellis Churchill — and wrote 15 more books.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, History, Middle East, Non-fiction