Author : Kabir Taneja

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 16, 2018
Bernard Lewis and his century on the Middle East

Source Image: Levan Ramishvili

Bernard Lewis’s passing last month brought to an end decades worth of celebrated and derided scholarship on the Middle East. However, it is impossible to miss Lewis’s work and thoughts on the region in most Western educational institutions today, with his theories, historical narratives and interjections in the American public discourse shaping views from undergraduate students to the White House.

Born in 1916 London, Lewis did his graduation in history from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London in 1936 (at that time SOAS was known as School of Oriental Studies) and went on to complete his PhD in Islamic history from the same institution. He would later study with orientalist Louis Massignon in Paris, who did extensive work on Catholic – Muslim understandings. Massignon’s world views on the said topic would come to be heavily visible in Lewis’s work, theologically and narratively as he began to grow to great prominence in the academic field.

Some of Lewis’s most important works as a historian were on the Ottoman Empire and the Ismaili Shiite sects prevalent in the 11th and 12th centuries. With his growing prominence as a top researcher on Islamic history, like many of his peers from various other disciplines who shared the same academic gusto and peer praise, Lewis had started to transfer his persona from just a scholar to a public intellectual. He started to question the pushbacks on the conceptual history of orientalism, attempted to bring the bridging arguments between Islam and Christianity, the faults of the various, contentious discourses around the friction between the two major faiths. Lewis brought the term “clash of civilizations” back into discourse notoriety for the first time since 1946 when French philosopher Albert Camus used it in his works. He subscribed to the argument that, unlike Western culture, the Muslim world had never attempted to develop a secular structure, and that even their attempts at a pluralistic society fell short of what the Romans had nurtured.

"Lewis’s crossover into becoming someone who was now prominent in the opinion pages of the top dailies was also giving him access to the top ears in Washington D.C., access that he enjoyed, and perhaps even strived for."


The development of his public stature continued to expand with his open questioning, mostly directed towards the Muslim community, on what he saw as irrational reasons to single out the US as their premier enemy. Despite his writing going to great lengths to highlight his neutrality, often into long-winded sentences knotting his own argument into unnecessary complexities, Lewis remained steadfast to the fact that the main concern of the Middle East’s dislike for America was its support for Israel. Over these debates, the Palestinian – American scholar Edward Wadie Said became one of his staunchest critics, so much so that arguments between Said and Lewis over orientalism and East – West relations became an academic sub-class in itself.

Lewis, in one of his many seminal essays titled ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’ published in The Atlantic magazine in its September 1990 issue attempted to point out some of the issues that he thought could be subconsciously relevant, current, historical, or traditional that the Islamic world may have with the West. He looked at sexism, racism, slavery, imperialism, tyranny and exploitation as the main reference points for the said ‘clash of civilizations’. Lewis derived comparatives, specifically with the Soviet Union, and attempted to blame double-standards of the West’s detractors in the Middle East highlighting examples where as per his readings the Soviets got away with the same discrepancies with much lenient reactions. For example Lewis has argued that the issue of “imperialism” in many areas of Islamic fundamentalism is often interpreted as “missionary”, or for conversions. “One also sometimes gets the impression that the offense of imperialism is not – as for Western critics – the domination by one people over the other but rather the allocation of roles in this relationship”, he wrote. Lewis attributed this thinking to understanding diverse conflicts around the world, the conceptual framework of the misbelievers to rule over the true believers, including that of Jammu & Kashmir (or “Indian Kashmir”)

"Lewis’s public profile started to attract criticism, with many labelling him an “Islamophobe”. “It is unseemly to recall the horrors of a horrible man upon his passing."


But Bernard Lewis was not a regular rogue, he was a notorious Islamophobe who spent a long life studying Islam in order to demonize Muslims,” scoffed Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University after Lewis’s passing.

In the post 9/11 era, his legendary scholarly repertoire was overshadowed by his inelegant support of the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. Lewis backed the calls of the ‘they hate us for our freedom’, underlining years of his ideations that such a war is a clash of civilizations. While later on he would partially denounce his own views, much of the damage was already done, with further dents to his world view, specifically as the flimsy reasoning behind the invasion unraveled over the following years.

Despite everything, Lewis, like many others, through his controversies remains one of the foremost Western names to study the Middle East. His extensive scholarly work will forever remain a pivotal part of studying the region, not ignorable even by his detractors. Segregating his academia output from his forays into practical policy and political designs offers two entirely different stories of the man. Lewis envisioned himself as much more than an academic, however, it is his scholarly work that remains the force majeure of his legacy.

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Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...

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Jonathan Phillips

Jonathan Phillips

Jonathan Phillips James E. Rogers Energy Access Project Duke University

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