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Sunday, 9 March 2008
Bernard Lewis: Feminist? Bookmark and Share

Ruthie Blum interviews Bernard Lewis for the Jerusalem Post:

You became a feminist before it was fashionable, certainly for men. How did you come to "get an idea of what's going on" in the realm of women's issues?

That arose from a specific incident that occurred when I was teaching at the University of London, soon after World War II. One of my honors students, a young woman who must have been around 19 or 20, asked for an appointment to talk to me. Prior to our meeting, I looked up her record and saw she was one of our best students. When she arrived at the meeting, she said she had come to inform me that she would be leaving the university, and didn't think it appropriate to disappear without letting me know. Thinking that perhaps this was due to financial concerns, I delicately indicated that if this were the case, there were ways in which we could help her.

"No, no, it's nothing like that," she said, explaining that she was engaged to be married. The man whom she was going to marry had a very poor high-school record, and therefore wasn't able to get a place in any university. So, at 18 or so, he went straight out to get a job. And this young lady said very primly - I remember it vividly, as though it were yesterday - "I don't think it would make for a happy marriage if the wife is educated to a higher degree than the husband."

I was appalled! The question that came into my mind was, "If you happened to fall in love with a man with one eye, would you feel obliged to poke out one of your own?"

I didn't say this, of course. I said what I could, but it had no effect. She disappeared, and I've not heard of her since.

Why were you appalled? Wasn't that common wisdom at the time?

Well, it wasn't as far as I was concerned. Don't forget that at that time, women had already made fairly good progress in Britain. We had women professors holding major chairs in illustrious universities. In fact, my own first published article was thanks to a woman, the famous Eileen Power, a professor of medieval history at Cambridge - and that was in the 1930s.

Women in Britain were far better off than women in the United States in those days. So I hadn't confronted the question in that form until I met that young student who, I thought, was committing intellectual suicide - and for such a reason. That encounter made me much more conscious of the issue than I otherwise would have been.

Then, when I went from England to America [in 1974], I became still more aware of this phenomenon, because the position of women in the American academic community was much worse than that of women in Britain. I found that women students had to confront all kinds of problems in terms of academic advancement. They had to be better than their male counterparts. It gave me a feeling of unease. The effect this had was that I was able to listen more sympathetically to women students - which is probably why I had a vast number of them [he laughs]. The word got around. And I had some really excellent ones, whom I was able afterwards to help get fellowships and jobs and so on.

What is the place of women in the Muslim-Arab world?

Another aspect of the same question is the place of women in society. Still today, the place of women in the Western world is very far from one of equality, and in the past it was even worse. But even at its worst, it was incomparably better than the position of women in the Muslim world.

As far as I know, Christianity is the only religion which totally prohibits polygamy and concubinage. Even Jewish law has been somewhat equivocal on both these subjects at different times and in different places. This has an effect. In Christendom, you have women playing a major role - like Queen Elizabeth of England, Queen Isabella of Spain, Queen Catherine of Russia, Maria Theresa of Austria - something which would have been inconceivable in other societies. It also makes a difference to what we know about rulers. For example, if you look at the history of the Western world, you see we have biographies of major figures. If you look at the Islamic world, on the other hand, although there are many major figures, you will see that there are very few book-length biographies.

Why is that?

Because women can't appear in them. And a biography without mothers or wives or mistresses lacks all context. I mean, if you write the history of Louis XIV of France, the ladies in his life, starting with his mother, are very important. You have this to some extent in the very early Islamic period. We know, for example, something about the wives and mothers of the very earliest caliphs; they were free Arab ladies. But the later ones were slaves in the harem.

The first moral of the tale seems to be that women have been terribly mistreated in the West until recent times. Apparently the tide began to turn roughly thirty four years ago, when Bernard Lewis brought the advancing attitudes of England to the benighted American intellectual landscape, so obviously, if the Muslims are a little behind now, well, they can soon catch up and we shouldn't worry nor should we be judgmental toward them.

The second thing is his assertion that under Islam, women had it better during the time of Muhammad than they did later. Again this buttresses the notion that reform of Islam is possible if Muslims can get back to the purity of the Koran and the first Muslims; the sola scriptura as Mustafa Akyol likes to say. The problem with this is, it's the same idea as had Qutb, Mawdudi, Al Banna and so forth. The direction of Islam, no matter which way one looks at it, is always toward Islam, Islam and more Islam. And under Islam, the situation for women is little short of hopeless and always has been. Even Muhammad's nine-year old bride, Aisha, said, "I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women."

Andrew Bostom has a good discussion of Lewis' use of the word "jihad" a little later in the interview here.

Posted on 03/09/2008 12:05 PM by Rebecca Bynum
Comments
9 Mar 2008
Hugh Fitzgerald
There are so many disturbing things about Bernard Lewis' interview, but the most disturbing is the possible effect of his ill-considered remark counselling against the use of force with Iran, because Iran, you see, has a venerable history, and the Iranians are proud nationalists, and no doubt an attack that destroyed Iran's nuclear facilities would cause some -- but how much, and for how long -- rallying around the Islamic Republic of Iran by those who are otherwise disaffected. The problem is that Israel, and the United States, can't wait, in order for that "regime change." And Lewis surely must know -- he's keenly aware of it -- that his every word is held up by some as holy writ, and therefore, when he off-handedly counsels against any military attack on Iran, he's making the likely task of the Israelis, and others who know that they cannot wait, much harder. It was a foolish remark, foolishly made, and even though he adds, afterthoughtedly, some modification, the damage has been done. For this is how it will be used: "See, even Bernard Lewis says that Iran's nuclear project should not be attacked for it will only make the regime stronger." Well, maybe yes, and maybe no. The Islamic Republic of Iran could hardly be doing more than it is doing to threaten Israel and, in Lebanon and elsewhere, other Infidels. It is at least conceivable -- but Lewis can't conceive of it -- that the humiliation of having that nuclear project destroyed will lead to a temporary rallying-round, followed by a realization that the regime has failed on every count. Or, to put it otherwise, if the regime does acquire nuclear weapons, is successful in defying the Americans, the Israelis, and everyone else, will it not then have such prestige that those who want regime change will be put on the defensive, will be weakened? This appears not to occur to Lewis, for he doesn't even consider it. Lewis, remember, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Oslo Accords. It annoys him to be reminded of this. And even now, though he calls that support a "mistake," he has done nothing to explain why he made that "mistake." Was it that he had faith in Arafat? Was Arafat the problem? Or was it something deeper than Arafat, something about the tenets of islam, and the example of Muhammad? Lewis should be asked, but was not asked in this or in any other interview, two questions: 1) does he think that the Mulsims and Arabs will ever accept, as permanent presence within borders that are turly defensible and not hopelessly vulnerable, an Infidel nation-state, smack in the middle of Dar al-Islam? If he thinks that, on what basis does he do so? 2) why does he think that Muslims can somehow overcome 1350 years of ideology, and of behavior based on that ideology? What makes him think, for example, that Muhammad is no longer uswa hasana, al-insan al-kamil, and that his dealings with the Meccans in 628 A.D., at Hudaibiyya, does not have continuing vitality as the example for all treaty-making with Infidels? Lewis was not only such a fervent admirer of the Oslo Accords that he privately told a Jewish leader who, early on, was attempting to bring violations by the "Palestinians" of those accords to the attention of others, to "keep quiet," because he, Lewis, didn't want anytying to rock the damn Oslo boat. And he was also, as we know, a famous proponent of the war in Iraq, and of remaking Iraq, for he knew what he had to know about Iraq from the likes of Ahmad Chalabi. This is not a function of age. Lewis is as keen now as he ever was. The question is: was he quite as keen ten years ago, or twenty, as his admirers of the World's-Greatest-Authority School seem to think, no matter what Lewis supports, or how incautiously he may, though seeming to be cautious, express himself. It is Israel that will pay the price for that remark.


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