Bernard Lewis' Valediction

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.

We’re not going to make the world safe for democracy, or bring about the end of history, or get rid of evil. Nor are we summoning the West to a last stand against the encroaching Jihadi hordes. Islam is dying, too (not quite fast enough for our convenience). This isn’t the struggle against Communism. It’s a nasty, dirty, mopping-up operation. Done correctly, it wouldn’t be too expensive (for us, that is). The term “inglorious” comes to mind. Our epoch is a mediocre and nasty one, rather like the second half of the Thirty Years War. That’s the part no-one remembers; the really interesting participants (Richelieu, Olivares, Wallenstein) had all died and their epigonoi kept the war going until butchery became boring. People don’t like to find themselves in the sort of history that no-one will want to read about in the future. But we have to play the hand we are dealt. And it is not the hand that Prof. Lewis thought it was.

I never accepted the idea that Turkey was the model for Muslim modernization. It is questionable whether Turkey’s secular reforms should be thought of as a Muslim phenomenon to begin with: Ataturk’s reforms were physically a Western phenomenon, the result of an enormous migration into Turkey from the West. By the end of the First World War, refugees or children of refugees from the collapsed European outposts of the Ottoman Empire — along with Crimean Muslims driven out of Russia — comprised more than a quarter of the 21 million people living within the frontiers of what is now modern Turkey, in the Anatolian rump of the once vast Ottoman territories. The Turkish economist and politician Asaf Savas Akat compares the secular rule of the European “White Turks” to white rule in apartheid South Africa. Erdoğan and the AKP have taken Anatolia back from the enervated and aging secular elite. Perhaps it was inevitable, but such is the benefit of hindsight. But hindsight calls into question whether the Turkish model was a precedent or a passing anomaly.