Bernard Lewis: All That Glitters Is Not Gold

by Hugh Fitzgerald (April 2007)

Two weeks ago the American Enterprise Institute, with all kinds of its associated panjandrums -- members, friends, supporters, admirers -- present, gave the "Irving Kristol Prize" to Bernard Lewis.

In the audience was Vice President Cheney, who is reputed to be, if not an acolyte of Lewis, at least someone who thinks of him as the last word on Islam and how to deal with Islam. He apparently reveres Lewis' acuity, and accepts that "greatest-living-scholar-of-Islam" stuff (of a piece with the development-office exaggeration of "world-class" universities).

Lewis crept up on, but never quite got to, the very things one most wanted him to speak forthrightly about. He alluded quickly, in his scattered, à bâtons rompus discussion, to this or that topic, then skittered away, on to something else. Nothing was concluded, nothing told you where Lewis stood about matters today. He didn't praise the "war on terror" and he didn't attack the "war on terror." He never said that the phrase "the war on terror" is a misleading thing.

Instead, he pretended to be an historian deliberately au-dessus de la melée, who would provide an historian's perspective. He mentioned how, centuries ago, Muslim jurists in Morocco were asked if it was licit for Muslims to continue to live in the Iberian peninsula, but under non-Muslim rule, and they were told that they were not. And then, the audience waited to hear what he might say about Muslims living in Europe today, and how they manage to reconcile the idea of refusing to live under rule by non-Muslims with, for example, their new strength in numbers and money and easy links, through technology (telephone, Internet, airplanes) to Dar al-Islam, that make them able to remain in Europe, but not be of Europe, not have their Islam weakened by distance but, instead, often strengthened as a reaction to the new and puzzling environment, where Infidels, against nature and reason and Allah, are calling the shots. He said nothing about this.

And then he did something that was truly astonishing. He had earlier mentioned the two Muslim assaults on Europe: the Arab one that ended in the West, near Poitiers with the victory of Charles Martel in 732. And the one that started in the East, with the Turks, which was marked by the two assaults on Vienna, the second one in 1683, the high-water mark of Ottoman power in Europe.

And so, just toward the end, was this unremarked but remarkable sentence:

"Third time lucky?"

And that was how Bernard Lewis, sage of the age, the man whom so many in the Pentagon took as the last word on Islam because compared to what is dished out by Esposito and MESA Mostra he may appear to be that last word, dealt with the most terrifying danger to the survival of the West, offered a flippant phrase. Muslims by the millions, having  settled within Western Europe,  are now playing on the two pre-existing mental pathologies of antisemitism and anti-Americanism, as well as on the sentimental levelling (some call it "multiculturalism") of the entire Western world, that world that appears to have forgotten its own past achievements, and the legacy that deserves to be preserved, and fails to recognize the West's clear superiority to Islam, to everything about Islam. Such words as "superiority" and "primitivism" are regarded as smacking of "race superiority" or assumptions about those living in what is called "the Third World." But that  is not how William James or Jacques Barzun used that word. It means something. Not merely different. Better. More admirable. Superior. Such words need to be brought back into unembarrassed circulation,  if the Western peoples are to visit their museums and libraries, and law courts, and newspapers, and the deliberations of their parliaments (however unseemly their current leaders or those "taking a leadership role") and realize that yes, the civilization they inherited is indeed not only different from, but could never for a minute have been produced by, the world of Islam. And they need to realize also that the whole thing can go under, not through "terrorism" (though that has its place) but through Da'wa and demographic conquest, if not now opposed, halted, and reversed.

And all Bernard Lewis could do was allude to this, archly and quickly, thus trivializing the subject, the islamization of Western Europe,  that should have been the subject of of the entire lecture, a lecture that would have discussed the instruments of that islamization, and the misdirected, now pointless war in Iraq for which, one needs to remember, Lewis, too, bears a share of the responsibility. He has been telling friends that that responsibility does not belong to him, his influence was really quite exaggerated, so much was done wrongly. This is a not-untypical response by Lewis, who still gets angry when forced to declare he was wrong about Oslo and has yet to tell us WHY he was wrong about the Oslo Accords, what he didn't understand. Was it Arafat only, or was it Islam and its deep effect on the minds of men, that Lewis, friend of Prince Hassan and of Ahmed Chalabi, those most unrepresentative men, just has never quite gotten? He has gotten it in books but not grasped it, the way, for example, that St. Clair Tisdall, or Snouck Hurgronje, or Arthur Jeffery, or even that bookish man Joseph Schacht, grasped it? Has Lewis been led astray by his own admirers in the Arab world and among those Turks who revere him?

Whatever it is, he had a chance to talk about the islamization of Europe and how much more important it is than trivial and hopeless Iraq. But he couldn't. He was already compromised, and being Bernard Lewis that means never having to say you're sorry before the adoring crowd at A. E. I.

His discussion of non-Muslims under Muslim rule was a travesty. Here is how he put it:

"So you had a situation in which three men living in the same street could die and their estates would be distributed under three different legal systems if one happened to be Jewish, one Christian, and one Muslim. A Jew could be punished by a rabbinical court and jailed for violating the Sabbath or eating on Yom Kippur. A Christian could be arrested and imprisoned for taking a second wife. Bigamy is a Christian offense; it was not an Islamic or an Ottoman offense."

Lewis carefully sticks only to matters that are entirely within either the Jewish or the Christian legal system: it is the Jew who violates the Jewish Sabbath or a Jewish holiday, to be punished by Jewish law, in a case that does not involve any non-Jews. It is the Christian who takes a second wife who has violated Christian law, and who is dealt with by Christian authorities, in a case that does not involve any non-Christians. In other words, Lewis entirely leaves out what happens to those Jews and those Christians whenever they have any kind of problem, that might require a legal decision, with Muslims. Nor does he give one word to that most important matter: the legal status of non-Muslims under Muslim rule, to which the Lebanese scholar Antoine Fattal devoted a book, and which has been the subject of several books by the pioneering scholar on the treatment of non-Muslims under Muslim rule, Bat Ye’or, with “The Dhimmi” and “Islam and Dhimmitude” and “The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam.” Not a word about this from Lewis to his distinguished guests, including Vice-President Cheney, who perhaps could use a little more learning as he continues to push this “war on terrorism” centered on that Iraq the Light Unto the Muslim Nations policy which, Cheney may think, is the only possible course to follow.

After all, Lewis has done nothing to disabuse him. While behind the back of the Administration Lewis may deplore what he now sees, or describes, as its many mistakes in Iraq, he appears to absolve himself from any part in those mistakes. He appears not to realize that he had an important role to play, both directly, in his talks with Cheney, and indirectly, in his influence over his acolyte Harold Rhode, who was the go-to expert on Islam, at least for Douglas Feith, when Feith was third in rank at the Pentagon and in charge of post-war planning for Iraq. Lewis may think he can utter phrases like “either we give them freedom or they will destroy us” and that this will not be taken to heart by such people as Bush and Cheney and Rice, but when it was obviously taken to heart, and all they could think of was to “give them [the Muslims in Iraq] freedom, rather than in halting Muslim immigration, taxing gasoline and oil to recapture OPEC”s oligopolistic rents, threatening to seize Saudi assets the way German-owned assets were seized World War II unless the Saudis stop funding certain instruments of Jihad, including well-financed campaigns of mosque-and-madrasa building, and propaganda efforts that have involved a small army of Western hirelings, apologists for the Saudis and for Islam, or doing everything to convince the peoples and governments of Western Europe to recognize the threat of Islam to their political, legal, and social institutions, and to overcome their inertia, and to both recognize, and transcend, the pre-existing pathologies of anti-Americanism and antisemitism that have done so much to confuse the peoples of Europe, to blind them to the real threat, and to distance them from their natural allies, such as the United States and Israel.

Lewis did none of that. He alluded to how Muslims, five hundred years ago, were taught to view living under non-Muslim rule. And though Lewis has declared that Europe will be Islamized before the end of the century – he said this as a fact, as something inevitable, as something which the Europeans were apparently helpless to resist, said nothing about Muslim discussion of the same subject today, now that tens of millions of Muslims are living in non-Muslim nation-states in Western Europe and North America. Lewis gave no guidance, no hint of what might be done. He, who had lived through World War II and the movement, often forced, of peoples after that war, never thought to allude to the Benes Decree. I assume that like all educated Europeans he thinks that the efforts of Masaryk and Benes, by which 7 million Czechs and Slovaks managed to expel 3 million Germans, was justified, but why does he not hint that perhaps the same kind of expulsions like those which were required to reduce what at the time was  merely a theoretical future threat posed to 7 million non-Germans in Czechoslovakia, could certainly justify the need to preserve the civilizational legacy – Plato and Spinoza and Hume, Leonardo and Shakespeare, Dante and Quevedo (from whom Lewis borrowed some affectionate Spanish for a dedication) –of the Western world, lest it be undone by the most inexorable, and entirely unworthy, of subversives – mere demography, mere migration and overbreeding. Nor did Lewis say anything, on what might have been an occasion for salutary truth-telling and not for the usual slightly off, never quite direct or forthright, conversation à batons rompus. 

It was a spectacle. It was something to behold. Lewis, tel qu’en lui-même, and not even having to wait, as Mallarme makes Poe, for eternity to transform him into it.  

Bernard Lewis is not to be compared to Karen Hughes. He's very intelligent, and she's not intelligent at all. But he's not the last word on the subject of Islam, as lazy people like Dinesh D’Souza seem to think or want to think, and his inability to make sense of what he knows, and his behind-the-coulisses feline attacks on Bat Ye'or, his attempt, during the Oslo Accords nonsense, to prevent others from mentioning all of the violations by the "Palestinian" side (what did he hope to achieve, Bernard Lewis, by keeping such information quiet?), his love of having access to power, and working behind-the-scenes (he takes credit for urging the American government, for example, to threaten to cut a mere $30 million from Egypt's aid in order to secure a better judicial outcome for Said Eddin Ibrahim -- but why doesn't Lewis discuss with his powerful friends the entire matter of cutting all Jizyah-aid to Egypt? Why doesn't he discuss Egypt as a world center of anti-Americanism and antisemitism?). Lewis is feted in Istanbul by Ottomanists, and one wonders if the astonishing change in his own description of the mass murder of Armenians, which a few decades ago he had no difficulty calling by its right name and then silently changed his own texts, removed those words -- how much does that have to do with an Osmanli girlfriend, or Turkish friends who finally wore him down? And his recounting of anecdotes about his own bons mots (so well received, by the way) in Amman, where he is feted by Prince Hassan in his version of big-tentism, and likes to allude , to those connections, proof that -- unlike the espositos, who are merely despised hirelings -- he, Bernard Lewis, is truly accepted in the East as in the West, and he is particularly pleased to note the translations of his books into the languages -- Farsi, Arabic, Turkish -- of the Muslim East.

Yet he has never explained about his nearly-invisible treatment of non-Muslims under Muslim rule (a total of three paragraphs, two of them exculpatory, in his 400-page "The Middle East: The Last 2000 Years." No one has asked him why, after 80 years of Kemalism, Islam is back with a vengeance in Turkey, about which he once had such high hopes, and whether the example of Turkey might not hold lessons for non-Muslims about the persistence of Islam. No one has asked him if his friendship with Ahmed Chalabi, or Prince Hassan, or others might not have confused him, led him as others have, because of the personal charms and even munificence of certain semi-potentates, to take unrepresentative men for representative men, and what is dangerous, to base not sober policy but hopes and dreams on those cheats and charmers. And one wonders what Lewis, the celebrated student of modern Turkey (who left so much out -- see Speros Vryonis, see Vahakn Dadrian, see even a few younger and braver Turkish historians in the West) now thinks are the lessons, if any (or would he say that "historians are not in the habit of drawing lessons. Historians are engaged in something quite different." Coming from Lewis, who always resented not being listened to by the Foreign Office, and for the last quarter-century has loved being listened to by the powerful, such a remark must be taken as pure blague) that non-Muslims might have to draw from the example of Turkey. No one, above all, has asked him for some practical advice for the Western world, in attempting to halt the islamization of Western Europe, advice that goes beyond the vague, and disturbing, "either we bring them freedom or they will destroy us.”

What a remark. An astounding admission, that second part – “they will destroy us” coupled to a completely unhinged remark – [unless] “we bring them freedom.” That simply will not do.

Here is what Lewis must tell us, rather than simply assume that he, Bernard Lewis, can get away with offering up such a statement, and it is for the rest of us, having heard the oracle, to make sense of it, to fill in the mere details. No, that will not do, and the fact that Lewis is rich in years (90) and the recipient of honors should cut no ice, not in this case. Automatic respect for age is one of those “respects’ – like that which some accord any belief-system called a “religion” or that kind of automatic loyalty too many are too eager to offer this or that object of loyalty, even when it is not, or no longer, deserved.

He has to tell us what he means by “either we bring them freedom or they will destroy us.” How does that phrase adequately meet the case of the islamization of Western Europe? What guide to policy is that? And what does it mean to “bring them freedom”? Bring them freedom with “boots on the ground” that will ensure head-counting elections, or is there some other kind of “freedom” that Lewis has in mind? Is he willing to concede, at all, that the “freedom” or, in this case, the “democracy” which is brought by the West is inimical to the spirit and letter of Islam, or will he -- like Bush muttering darkly that those who would :”deny” that “Arabs” are not capable of democracy are “racists” (a misleading way to characterize those who point out the unremarkable and obvious truth that the belief-system of Islam emphasizes the collective and not the individual, has no place for individual rights and has no place for the rights to free speech, freedom of conscience, and free exercise, and equality for non-Muslims and women. But Lewis wants to have us all play a game of Let’s-Pretend so that somehow, in some way, we will manage to get through – and meanwhile the Muslim population of the Netherlands climbs from 15,000 to one million in little more than thirty years, and the Muslim colonies deep within the Lands of the Infidels expand relentlessly, as do the demands from those colonies for changes in the legal and political and social institutions of the Infidels.

And how do we “bring them freedom”? Apparently Lewis thinks that the way to “bring them freedom” is the same way it was brought in Iraq – by invasion, by boots on the ground. Does he still? Does he still think that Ahmed Chalabi, his friend, is “representative” of much more than…Ahmad Chalabi? How “representative” is Kanan Makiya? Or Rend al-Rahim? What about that good man, Mithal al-Alusi? Could Lewis possibly have confused his admiration and friendship for certain people, westernized, secularized, the members of a very special elite (whether Shi’a or Sunni) with the real Iraq, of the tens of millions? Could he? And could he have confused Prince Hassan (who isn’t all that great) with the real views of the people in Jordan, and the malevolent mischief that Abdullah as before him his father the “plucky little king” Hussein, are able to cause by confusing Western governments into thinking that these seemingly rational or at least semi-sensible people in any way “represent” Jordan, or “represent” the Arabs?

Lewis tells us “either we bring them freedom, or they will destroy us.”

And then he falls silent, briefly, and goes briskly on, to the next big topic given a few bright paragraphs, in his fatally flippant tour d’horizon.

A while back I wrote that Lewis was "chipping away at his own monument." With the rediscovery of the texts by specialists on Jews under Islamic rule, even his treatment of that subject, one which it was assumed Lewis certainly must know all about, must have read and taken intelligently into account everything, will be shown to have been completely insufficient and misguided.

He has been, for some, taken as the final authority, the "greatest living scholar" blah blah blah. Well, if "final authority" at all -- then in brief final authority. His writ no longer runs quite as it once did -- as the only apparent alternative to the espositos and mesanostrans. There are others, to be found in the library, and elsewhere -- such as the largely unheralded but acute Bat Ye'or -- who are there, not to take his place as "world's greatest authority" but to do something even better -- to offer studies, and advice, that is neither flippant, nor unduly influenced by considerations of personal vanity.

And not a moment too soon.


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Hugh Fitzgerald contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.

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