The Revered and Reviled Bernard Lewis
A Retrospective Of The Scholar Who Provided The Intellectual Ammunition For The Iraq War
Bernard Lewis has just moved to a small apartment in the manicured suburbs on Philadelphia’s Main Line. At 95, it was time for the man the Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing calls the “most influential postwar historian of Islam and the Middle East” to leave Princeton—his home for more than 35 years—for a senior living facility known for attracting retired academics.
“I’m getting old, I’m no longer sure about dates,” he tells me in his polished British accent, though this moment of self-deprecation is hardly convincing: Our conversation reflects his uncanny ability to recollect dates, time lines and facts—both from his lifetime and several centuries before. As we talk, Lewis recalls the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699 as easily as the Turkish elections of 1950. He also regales me with stories, though it is impossible to predict which millennium they will date to. One minute, it’s the Marx Brothers skits he shared with the Shah of Iran in the days before the revolution, the next, an eighth century Arabian joke about a sinful woman praying to Allah for mercy before she dies. And he speaks with eloquence, his ideas organized into complete paragraphs.
In his new home, Lewis is surrounded by bookcases, some filled with collectors editions of his own works. He has published prolifically throughout his seven-decade career: His first scholarly article —on the origins of Ismailism, a branch of Shia Islam—came out in 1937 when he was 21, and his most recent book, The End of Modern History in the Middle East, hit bookstores earlier this year. In between, he wrote more than 20 books, some of them New York Times bestsellers, plus numerous scholarly tomes, racking up countless honors, including the National Humanities Medal, which President George W. Bush presented to him at the White House in 2006.
The Old World gentleman dressed in slacks and a button-down Oxford shirt may be retired, but there is nothing retiring about him. As the scholar who coined the term “the clash of civilizations” to describe the headlong confrontation between Muslim and Christian worlds, Lewis has been extremely outspoken about his belief that the failure of large swaths of the Islamic world to reconcile itself to modernity can be blamed not on Britain or the U.S., but on internal decay. These opinions, coupled with his influence, have made him a lightning rod for the schisms that rock academia and the nation. Both friends and enemies are plentiful: They have strong feelings about him, whether they know him or not, and few, it seems, fall in the middle.
The late Columbia University professor Edward Said, author of the 1978 book Orientalism, accused Lewis of “demagogy and downright ignorance,” and more recent critics have accused him of fanning the flames of Islamophobia. But he is a prophet to his tight circle of admirers, which includes influential policymakers, many of whom served in the administration of President George W. Bush. They include former Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Policy Board Chair Richard Perle, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and National Security Council for Near East and North African Director Elliott Abrams.
“Bernard Lewis is the great Orientalist of our time, and we shan’t see the likes of him again,” says Fouad Ajami, senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute. Ajami, who was born and raised in Lebanon, describes himself as a “self-appointed disciple” of Lewis. The two have been close since Ajami’s days at Princeton some 35 years ago and Ajami gushes freely about his mentor. “His ability to track Islam’s journey over the 70 years of his career and really see the deeper currents of Islam—that is his genius. He is able to bridge the gap between scholarship and modern affairs and make a seamless connection between the past and the present.”
Although Lewis hasn’t particularly revelled in the media spotlight, he hasn’t shied away from injecting his ideas into the political debate. As Ajami, a note of reverence in his voice, tells me: “Bernard Lewis is not a coward.”
Many Jewish boys study Hebrew in preparation for their bar mitzvahs, but few fall passionately in love with the language. That ’s what happened to Lewis. Born in London in 1916 and raised by “twice-a-year Jews,” as he puts it, he accompanied his parents—a businessman who dealt in real estate and a homemaker—to a “nominally Orthodox” synagogue on the High Holy Days and Passover.
“It was a new language and a new history, and it was my supreme good fortune that the Hebrew teacher my parents found for me was a scholar, a real maskil, who responded to my childish enthusiasm,” he recalls. Lewis has recounted this 80-year-old story countless times, but his eyes still light up at the memory. His parents were willing to continue funding his Hebrew studies after his bar mitzvah and so he continued his language instructions, adding Aramaic as well. This, of course, was in addition to the French, Latin and German he studied as part of his regular school curriculum. He was also deeply taken by history. “When we learned about British history and the wars with France, I became interested in French history, and later, when we learned about the Crusades and the eastern question, my interest in Islamic history was first aroused. I was always interested in hearing the other side,” he says of his attraction to the Islamic world.
In 1936, Lewis completed a bachelor’s degree in history with a concentration in the Middle East, graduating first in his class from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He started graduate studies and when, a year later, a professor asked if he’d like to travel to the Middle East, Lewis jumped at the opportunity. With no funds to speak of—“I could no more go to the Middle East than I could go to the moon”—but with a stipend provided by the Royal Asiatic Society, he explored Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Turkey for six months. “I felt like a Muslim bridegroom meeting the bride with whom he is to spend the rest of his life, and seeing her for the first time after the wedding,” he wrote of the trip in his 2004 From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, one of many passages that critics cite to accuse him of eroticizing the “exotic” east.
On his return to London, Lewis was offered an appointment as an assistant lecturer in the School of Oriental Studies at the University of London. But World War II intervened, and in 1939, Lewis was drafted into the army and placed in a tank regiment. “I didn’t stay there long, either because of my aptitude for languages or my ineptitude for tanks,” he says. Transferred to intelligence, he was stationed in London for the most part, but also toured the Middle East, with stops in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. (That was his last visit to Iraq, he tells me.) “It gave me direct insight, which I previously lacked,” he says of his wartime experience, “and I got a feeling for what people think and what they say—and the difference between the two.” When the war was over, Lewis was appointed chair of the University of London’s Near and Middle Eastern History Department. He was in his early 30s and it was clearly a feat, but Lewis credits the dearth of academics in the post-war years—rather than his own merit—for his promotion.
Though his original interest was the Arab world, out of necessity Lewis quickly branched out. As a Jew in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he would have been denied a visa to most Arab countries in the wake of Israel’s independence.“Some people lied [and didn’t disclose their Jewishness], which I was not prepared to do—and which was not very effective,” he says. The result was that he shifted his research to include Turkey and Iran, focusing on the Ottoman period. As luck would have it, he was in Istanbul when the Turkish government opened its archives in 1950. As an up-and-coming scholar, he was the first westerner granted access to these storied treasures, which helped cement his prominence in the field.
He wrote extensively about the Ottoman Empire and Arab history as seen through the lens of the newly opened archives. “He’s the first true historian of the Middle East,” says Martin Kramer, a former student, now a senior fellow at the Shalem Institute in Jerusalem. “Before him, there were linguists and philologists who dabbled in history, but he was the first to bring historical methodology to the study of the Middle East.” Lewis, he says, pioneered fields from Jews in Islamic history to issues of slavery and race in the Ottoman Empire: “These were sensitive areas that required a deft hand, and Lewis had it.”
While in Turkey, Lewis also witnessed that country’s first free election, in which the Democratic Party officially ended the country’s one-party era—something, he says, “that had never happened before in the Middle East and hasn’t happened very often since.” Being present for the “dawn of Turkish democracy” left a deep impression. “It helped me understand the political process in the Middle East,” he says. His 1961 book, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, is still considered by many to be a landmark analysis of that country. Lewis also wrote The Arabs in History, now in its sixth edition, as well as other works, quickly gaining an international reputation in a field he readily admitted was becoming “an obsession.”
In 1974, his 27-year marriage to Ruth Hélène Oppenhejm, a Danish Jew, (they had two children —Michael, now 57, who works for AIPAC in Washington, DC, and Melanie, 60, an art educator, who lives in Pittsburgh) fell apart, and he left England for a prestigious position at Princeton University. He was appointed the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, a joint position between the Institute for Advanced Study and Princeton, where his chair was endowed by the family that founded the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). His new job required him to teach only one semester a year, leaving him with more time to research and write. Settled in America, Lewis published at an increasingly dizzying speed. Becoming an American citizen in 1982, he was poised to take on the role of a public intellectual.
Lewis’ friendship with Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the Democratic senator from Washington, catapulted him into his new country’s corridors of power, where he became a powerful intellectual influence on the burgeoning neoconservative movement. Jackson was a fierce anti-communist and opponent of détente, with close ties to the Jewish community. In 1974 he co-sponsored the Jackson–Vanik amendment, which restricted trade relations with the Soviet Union in response to taxes it levied on Jews seeking to emigrate. As the leading defender of Israel in the U.S. Senate, Jackson was also critical of Soviet support for Arab regimes in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Lewis’ scholarship, which in its criticism of Islamic culture flew in the face of the so-called Arabists at the State Department, fit well with Jackson’s worldview. “Each of them brought something to the table: Jackson had tremendous political skill, while Lewis provided the view of a preeminent historian, which helped inoculate Jackson to the claim that he was running against all expert opinion,” says Robert Kaufman, author of Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics. “Senator Jackson believed the main problem in the Middle East was not Israel, but a broader culture of tyranny. Lewis deepened those instincts.”
Their relationship was mutually beneficial, Kaufman adds. In the 1970s, as a member of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Jackson invited Lewis, then in his late fifties, to Washington to testify before Congress, giving him his first taste of “policy prominence.” Jackson brought Lewis into a circle of ambitious young men who, like him, were convinced that a tough stance with the USSR was vital to American interests. Among them were Jackson’s aides, two of whom—Wolfowitz and Perle—had been students of University of Chicago professor and early neoconservative thinker Albert Wohlstetter. Lewis’ relationships with this group of policymakers ensured that his influence on policy decisions would remain strong long after Senator Jackson passed away in 1983. These up-and-coming “Jackson Democrats,” as they were known, supported Ronald Reagan’s bid for president after Carter defeated Jackson in the Democratic primaries. Their shift to the Republican Party was cemented following the 1980 election, when many of them went to work for Reagan in the White House. In some ways, it was the watershed moment for the neoconservative movement—an ideology that went on to concentrate its foreign policy efforts on promoting liberal democracies in other countries.
“Lewis is the elder statesman of the neoconservative movement,” says Jacob Heilbrunn, author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons. “He provided the intellectual scaffolding for the belief that something was very wrong with Arab societies. His worldview was antithetical to the dominant one and he essentially reversed the terms of the debate.” Neoconservatives, with Lewis’ backing, argued that Israel was not the obstacle to peace; the problem lay in the makeup of Arab societies. Lewis, long a strong defender of Israel, has close ties to the Jewish state: He gives annual lectures at Tel Aviv University and owns an apartment there as well. “He sees Israel as a liberal democracy,” Kramer says, “the kind of democracy we hope for in other parts of the Middle East.”
Lewis’ close ties to Israel may be one of the reasons he changed his opinions about Turkey, the first Muslim nation to recognize the Jewish state and its longtime ally. In the first edition of The Emergence of Modern Turkey in 1961, and in a second that followed seven years later, Lewis had termed the Armenian genocide a “holocaust.” But by the third edition, published in 2002, he had a change of heart, replacing “holocaust” with the word “slaughter” and adding a reference to Turkish deaths as well. In 1985, he urged the U.S. Congress to refrain from passing a resolution that would condemn the event as “genocide,” and after he published a 1993 article on the subject in Le Monde, he was fined a symbolic one franc by French courts under the country’s Holocaust-denial laws. “There is no doubt the Armenians suffered a terrible massacre, but to compare it to what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany is an absurdity,” he tells me.
Lewis’ reversal took the Armenian community by surprise, says Rouben P. Adalian, director of the Armenian National Institute in Washington DC. “For the Armenian community, it’s a huge preoccupation to have this history recognized and so, when Bernard Lewis enters the fray, it provides ammunition to the Turkish government in denying that a genocide took place. And so here we are, 95 years after the genocide, with piles of evidence, still having this conversation.”
Looking back, Lewis says that he felt comfortable in the neoconservative camp, and continues to feel that way. “Yes, I feel that ‘neoconservative’ is not an inaccurate description of me,” he says when I ask. Then he paraphrases the popular, though somewhat apocryphal Winston Churchill quote: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”
In choosing to blame Islam for its own decline, Lewis was bucking the new paradigm through which the region was being seen: post-colonialism, which attributed the Middle East’s current problems to the colonial era. Lewis argues that imperialism—while certainly one of the roots of the problems that now plague the modern Middle East—hardly explains the region’s malaise. Those very problems brought colonialism to the region in the first place, he’s insisted: “Why did colonialism come to the Middle East? Because [the region] was relapsing into total backwardness.”
During Lewis’ seven decades as a scholar, the study of the Middle East changed dramatically. When he was a student and a young professor, Oriental studies—as it was then known—drew on European experiences of the Crusades, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Modern Middle Eastern studies departments didn’t come into existence until after World War II, when the U.S. began to place greater emphasis on studying the region due to its strategic significance. The government began to pour money into the field, and in 1958, as part of the National Defense Education Act, funded Title VI fellowships to support graduate students in what became known as “area studies.”
With the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, these programs became increasingly politicized. Lewis’ Israel sympathies set him apart early on, but were hardly the only thing that separated him from colleagues in the discipline. Many in these newly formed area studies departments focused on methodology and theory, whereas Lewis remained committed to the “objective” study of history—a notion that had come into question in the field.
In 1978 when Edward Said published Orientalism—a work that became a handbook for post-colonial theory—Bernard Lewis’ status in the field came under intense scrutiny for the first time in his career. In the book, Said posited that the study of the Middle East was yet another manifestation of imperialism and implicitly insists that the study of the east belongs to the people of the east. “Orientalists” (the term became a pejorative) like Bernard Lewis, he argues, barely conceal their disdain for their subject matter. At the core of Westerners’ study, Said claims, is a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.” He calls Lewis, his primary target, a “perfect exemplification” of an “Establishment Orientalist” whose work “purports to be objective liberal scholarship but is in reality very close to being propaganda against his subject material.”
Lewis responded in kind, publishing a screed against Orientalism in the New York Review of Books. He famously asserted, “If westerners cannot legitimately study the history of Africa or the Middle East, then only fish can study marine biology.” At the crux, Lewis tells me, is “the difference between scholarship and politics; they insist on seeing everything as politics and they see Orientalists as imperialists, which is absolute nonsense. The Orientalist scholarship in the western world began in the Middle Ages long before there was a question of French or British imperialism.”
Shortly before his death in 2003, Said attended a round table discussion organized by the Arabic weekly Al-Ahram in which he claimed that 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.” Some 25 years had passed since the publication of Orientalism, but the rage—whether academic or otherwise—was still simmering, as raw then as decades before.
Much of the debate took place on the pages of the New York Review of Books, but it also spilled over to conferences sponsored by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the reigning umbrella association of Middle East scholars founded in 1966, and which was eventually, in Lewis’ words, “taken over by Saidians.” Said and Lewis met only once, at a MESA conference, and their meeting was brief and uneventful, Lewis tells me.
Lewis believes he became a target primarily because he was Jewish and British. “We all tend to judge others by ourselves; that’s human nature,” Lewis says. Edward Said, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem and an English professor, was bitterly and viciously anti-British, he says. “He assumed that an Englishman who was a professor of Arabic would have the same attitude to his subject as he had to his.”
With the eighth anniversary of Said’s death approaching, this debate continues to rage across American college campuses, where a new generation of scholars has taken his lead. “Bernard Lewis is an influential scholar, but his writings, particularly over the past years, have become increasingly polemical and ideological,” says Nader Hashemi, a Middle East expert at the University of Denver and an outspoken critic of Lewis. “He assumes there is a fossilized Muslim core that determines the way Muslims will always behave and ignores changing social conditions in the Middle East.”
Indeed, Lewis has become persona non grata in Middle Eastern studies departments on college campuses across the U.S. Hashemi includes one of Lewis’ books in his syllabus, but mostly as an example of the kind of Orientalist scholarship students should learn to avoid. Lewis himself acknowledges the phenomenon: He was a guest lecturer several years ago at a university in the Midwest and says that while students representing various disciplines flocked to his lecture, not a single student from Middle Eastern studies was present. As a graduate student later told him, attending the lecture “would have harmed his career.” Says Hashemi: “Lewis’ reputation within the community of Middle East scholars has really sunk to an all-time low.”
“In most American universities,” says Ajami, “the battle of ideas between Lewis and Said was, alas, won by Said and his disciples. To me, that is a tragic outcome.”
When the Twin Towers came crashing down on September 11, 2001, Lewis’ book What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Eastern Response was at the printer. When it was released in December, its thesis was on everyone’s mind. As Lewis says, “Osama Bin Laden made me famous.” Kramer phrases it this way: “Bernard Lewis became a household name after 9/11, at a time when followers of Said thought they got rid of him.” No longer just relegated to the Ivy League and the pages of high-brow journals, the academic dispute over the Islamic world now became central to explaining Osama bin Laden and his global jihad.
“Clash of civilizations” thundered across the airwaves, three words often associated with the Harvard political science professor Samuel Huntington, who borrowed it for the title of his landmark 1993 Foreign Affairs article, which was later expanded into a book with the same title. Huntington, a titan in his field, died in 2008, and Lewis hesitates to take credit for the phrase, telling me he never called his theory “the clash of civilizations” per se. “It was an idea I came to in stages after studying the long history of jihad and crusade and counter-crusade and so on throughout the centuries,” he explains. Nevertheless, he believes in its fundamental truths: Christians and Muslims both believe they are the recipients of God’s final word, which they are obligated to share with the rest of humanity—a message that is both universal and exclusive. “This inevitably led to conflict, to the real clash of rival civilizations aspiring to the same role, leading to the same hegemony,” Lewis said during a 2006 Washington, DC event hosted by the Pew Forum. It is not their differences that lead to the clash but their similarities, he adds.
To his admirers, his views of the two civilizations made Lewis nothing less than a modern-day seer. Says Ajami: “Islamic fundamentalism, which became the story of the world—he foresaw it before anyone. He has an ability to see things, buck the trend, differ from his contemporaries and step out of the consensus. The 1990s were an era of globalization, when people talked about the differences in the world being erased by a common marketplace. There were two men—Bernard Lewis and Sam Huntington—who said, ‘it ain’t so.’”
For Lewis, the clash of civilizations had finally made it to America’s doorstep. The situation had reached a dangerous boiling point and could no longer be ignored. The attacks of 9/11, he warns, must be seen as a battle in a larger war of jihad. According to the first stage of jihad, infidel rule in Islamic lands must end. “That has been, in the main, completed. All the states that were formally ruled by Russians and Frenchmen and Englishmen are now ruled by people of their own land.” The second stage, he says, is to recover lost lands of Islam—i.e., countries like Israel and Spain that were once ruled by Muslims but no longer are. The third and final phase is extending Islamic rule to the whole world, where inhabitants can either embrace Islam or become second-class citizens. “There is no doubt” that 9/11 is part of this struggle, he insists. “Osama bin Laden expressed himself quite clearly —this is part of global jihad and initiation of the final phase, bringing the true faith into the lands of unbelievers.”
Israel and the unsettled Palestinian question is not—as so many claim—the root of Arab hatred of the U.S. “Israel serves as a useful stand-in for complaints about the economic privation and political repression under which most Muslim people live, and as a way of deflecting the resulting anger,” Lewis says in a November 2001 issue of The New Yorker.
Since American foreign policy under George W. Bush was conducted by a group of men with whom Lewis was well-acquainted, he had rare access to the White House after September 11th, 2001. He had a “quite friendly relationship with Cheney” at the time, he recalls, and he was a guest speaker at the vice president’s residence only weeks after the attacks. On the eve of the Iraq invasion, Cheney, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, invoked the name and philosophy of the then-octogenarian 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.” President Bush reportedly read a well-worn copy of What Went Wrong, which was given to him by Condoleezza Rice, who also met privately with Lewis, according to reports. And Karl Rove is said to have invited him to address White House staffers, military aides and staff members of the National Security Council in a closed meeting, where Lewis reportedly discussed the failures of contemporary Arab and Muslim societies and shared his opinions about the origins of the Muslim world’s anti-Americanism.
Once again Lewis was instrumental in providing an intellectual foundation for government policy, but this time the men he influenced were in control. Peter Waldman called this framework the “Lewis Doctrine” while describing Lewis’ outsized influence in shaping Middle East policy in the Wall Street Journal in February 2004. “Though never debated in Congress or sanctified by presidential decree, Mr. Lewis’ 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,” Waldman writes. “As mentor and informal adviser to some top U.S. officials, Mr. Lewis has helped coax the White House to shed decades of thinking about Arab regimes and the use of military power. Gone is the notion that U.S. policy in the oil-rich region should promote stability above all, even if it means taking tyrants as friends. Also gone is the corollary notion that fostering democratic values in these lands risks destabilizing them. Instead, the Lewis Doctrine says fostering Mideast democracy is not only wise, but imperative.”
Lewis was not unwilling to combine his academic expertise with policy advice. He published op-eds frequently and in one 2002 Wall Street Journal piece appropriately called “Time for Toppling,” he predicted “scenes of rejoicing” in Iraq should “we succeed in overthrowing the regimes of what President Bush has rightly called the ‘Axis of Evil.’” He did the talk show circuit as well. When Charlie Rose asked him in a 2004 interview why invading Afghanistan would not have been enough to prove that the U.S. was more than a “paper tiger,” as Bin Laden called it, Lewis said plainly, “Afghanistan was not sufficient; one had to get to the heart of the matter in the Middle East.” During that same interview, he also backed his friend Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial Iraqi politician who claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. When pressed by Rose on whether the Iraq invasion was “worth it,” Lewis replied pointedly: “Yes, I think it was necessary to do something. One has to consider what the alternatives were.”
Lewis’ influence on the formulation of the Bush administration’s controversial Middle East policy drew critics en masse. Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent at the National Journal and author of the highly critical 2004 article “Bernard Lewis Revisited,” says that Lewis’ credentials gave the Bush administration’s policies “intellectual credence.” “It was a mistake to say [that 9/11] was an expression of anger that represented the mainstream of the Arab and Muslim world,” Hirsh tells me. “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.” Hirsh goes on: “By his own volition, he left the academic world to become a political figure and that was the beginning of the end of his reputation.”
Hashemi also questions Lewis’ understanding of the situation: “Lewis is a medievalist and he tries to interpret contemporary Islamic politics by going back to an earlier time period where an ‘essential’ Islam allegedly existed. He uses this framework to explain events that happen half a millennium later. He plays into a neoconservative right-wing agenda that wants to control, manipulate and dominate the Middle East. His apocalyptic narrative fits well with a Fox News audience, but it’s not serious political analysis or scholarship.”
When I ask Lewis about his role in the formulation of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy, he minimizes it and calls any reference to a “Lewis Doctrine” misleading and “worse—it’s false.” He tells me that the White House asked him to email his opinions from time to time, which he did, “but I don’t know that they took any notice of it.”
He takes pains to distance himself from the military invasion, and despite some of his earlier writings, says that he advocated for the U.S. to recognize an independent government in the north of Iraq, which would have potentially fomented democratic movements in the rest of the country. As he tells me repeatedly: “It was a profoundly mistaken decision to invade Iraq. What should have been done was to help the people in the north. But to invade the country was a mistake; I said so at the time and I’ve said so ever since.”
“Do you think people misrepresented your opinions?,” I ask. “Definitely,” he says. Ajami, for his part, says he doesn’t remember his mentor’s opinions about the Iraq invasion. But he says the malice coming from both the Ivory Tower and elsewhere about Lewis’ role in the Bush administration is misguided. “For enemies of Lewis, he became the godfather of the Iraq war, which was ridiculous,” Ajami says. “Academics don’t lead governments to war.”
As Lewis knows well, what his legacy will look like depends largely on who writes the history. He is reluctant to predict what contours it will take; most likely, the work will be left to his disciples, much as Said’s worldview continues to live and thrive—both in academe and elsewhere—thanks to his followers. But in 2007, Lewis and his coterie took a step toward reshaping the academic battleground. They founded the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), an academic group meant to counter the influence of MESA. “In the democratic world, universities are free and you don’t have an imposed orthodoxy,” Lewis tells me. “That’s not the case [in Middle Eastern Studies departments] where you have an imposed orthodoxy to a greater degree than any other time since the Middle Ages. It makes free discussion, if not impossible, very difficult.”
With Lewis as its chairman and other big names like Ajami on board, ASMEA hopes to challenge MESA’s hegemony. At 1,100 members, it’s significantly smaller than its competition (MESA has more than 3,000, according to its website), but David Silverstein, the group’s executive director, says its ranks are growing. For the most part, it is funded by member dues, as well as organizations like the Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee-based group that aims to strengthen capitalism and limited government and also supports conservative thinktanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. “ASMEA is restoring competition in the marketplace of ideas in Middle Eastern studies,” Silverstein says. “This is an issue of ongoing concern to [Lewis] because of his love for the discipline and his horror at the way it slid from its former glory to something so politicized.”
Back in his apartment, Lewis tells me he is slowing down, but, again, this is relative. “He is so unlike the stereotypes of aging,” says his partner of 15 years, Buntzie Churchill, who has co-authored two books with Lewis and is former president of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. Lewis attends ASMEA events (“people call just to make sure that he will be there,” says Silverstein. “They just want to be in the presence of a great man”), and he is currently putting the finishing touches on a memoir, What and When, How and Why: Reflections of a Middle East Historian, due out next year. Rather than focus on current political events in the Middle East, which he has been following on television, he has been sorting through old notes and turning his attention to poetry. Right now, he’s at work on a collection of poetry he’s translating from Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew—four of the dozen or so languages he’s mastered.
Lewis remains an ardent student of Islam, which despite his criticism of its present-day manifestations, he admires as one of the world’s great religions. It could be this love, says Ian Buruma, writing in The New Yorker, that has led Lewis to overreach in his belief that the west may be able to save his beloved Muslim civilization. Wrote Buruma, “Perhaps he loves it too much.”