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Bernard Lewis’ Valediction

May 9th, 2012 - 6:01 am

Prof. Bernard Lewis has just published a memoir which is as much a valedictory statement of his views as a reminiscence about a remarkable life; I review it today at the Jewish webzine The Tablet. Lewis has of course been denounced from the left (by the sulfurous Edward Said) as an “orientalist,” which used to mean scholar of Semitic languages but now means “neo-colonialist.” That is an absurd charge by an incompetent and mendacious scholar, but it ruined Middle Eastern studies in the politically correct (and Arab-funded) world of academia. From the right, he has been denounced as an “Arab apologist” by Pamela Geller and as a “Pied Piper of Islamic Confusion” by Andrew Bostom.

One should be cautious about attacking Prof. Lewis, whose analysis of Muslim rage did more to galvanize Western support for the idea of a war on terror than any other single source, and who drew more opprobrium from the academic left than any other personality. His optimism about Islamic democracy ultimately was misplaced, in my view, but should be understood in context. As I wrote in Tablet:

Bernard Lewis’ era was a better one than ours, buoyed by a sense that the victorious West had the power to set a successful example for societies that had lingered in backwardness. His generation went young to World War II and saw the Cold War through at the cusp of middle age. Lewis himself is one of the very last of a race of giants. We have the sorry task of managing the chaotic decline of the Muslim world. If Bernard Lewis speaks to us from a better time, he reminds us all the more poignantly that we had better move on and address the unpleasantness of our own.

He is surely not an Arab apologist, but has been accused of being a Turkish apologist, with some justification: his intellectual love affair with modern Turkey is the source of his stubborn belief that the Muslim world eventually can achieve something like modern democracy. The most glaring omission in his new book is Turkey’s return to Islamism:

Lewis, incidentally, has nothing to say about Turkey’s shift to Islamism under Erdoğan. That is his least pardonable omission. His hopes for the Muslim future were founded on his perception of Turkey’s modernization, the subject of his most lauded academic work. Lewis’ affection for the Turks pervades his new book; he recalls nostalgically a decadelong liaison with “an aristocratic Turkish lady” who presided over his Princeton dinner parties. He took an unpopular Turkophile position in declining to characterize the mass murder of Armenians during World War I as a “genocide.” Now that Turkey appears to have returned to political Islam under a government that routinely jails its critics, Lewis’ silence is disturbing.

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