Reading Lewis, Remembering Said


The current vogue of Bernard Lewis is somewhat difficult to fathom. Consider the recent book What Went Wrong?; the book has some very definite conclusions stated with urbane authority. If one asks how these conclusions are grounded in the previous chapters, one finds them to be virtually independent of each other. It is as though the early chapters are there to persuade us that here is someone who really does know something about Islam—and this suffices to lull us into accepting his conclusions as the product of accumulated wisdom rather than the political propaganda of an interested party. Normally one expects the intelligentia to ferret out such sloppy thinking. But the accolades received by the book show that the competence of academia is either limited in its critical capabilities or willfully silent when doctrines promise such comfortable political action. Even those who pretend to understand the connections between economic and political power keep quiet about the mediocrity of Lewis on this score. As one goes through his writings one keeps asking oneself " what does he know that is so worthwhile?". Since the answer is not obvious, one looks at the roster of people who praise Lewis and this contains not only journalists and politicians but also historians like Paul Kennedy. And he writes well. The prose is fluid, the literary allusions create an atmosphere of genteel elegance and the smoothness of the composition disguises all difficulties.

What is Bernard Lewis right about? The importance of Islam to Muslims. At a time when social scientists had matured into the post-modern somnolence of secular condescension, Lewis was acutely perceptive about the real forces that move everyday people in the Muslim world. He recognized, and insisted that others do so too, that religion was not a spent force. It had not yet gone the way of witchcraft.

But this means that he understands current events—that he is a shrewd political observer and perceptive commentator. Why is he considered a scholar? How can a scholar publish at the rate he has? Two books on Islam within a year by someone in his eighties! Is he exceptionally brilliant, exceptionally hard-working or is he just an acute political hack?

There is no necessary opposition in these characterisations—Bernard Lewis may be a scholar who has turned politician. Having once valued scholarship he may have lately turned into a political agent. The way to test out this hypothesis is by going back to a time, perhaps arbitrarily chosen, when there was some feeling that Bernard Lewis was a scholar. We can then examine the evolution of Bernard Lewis over time and find out just how assiduous he has been—how many new facts he has uncovered? How many manuscripts has he deciphered? What new connections he has been able to discern? Or are his new publications just a rehash of other people’s hard work, selectively arranged to suit the hack’s purpose?

One would have thought that the Muslim world, the object of Lewis’s affection, would have provided the calm and dispassionate evaluations of Lewis’s abilities that is called for. Perhaps this is available in other languages, but not so in English. So it has remained for someone who is neither Muslim, nor religious—Edward Said—to have fired a shot across the bow. But to little avail. Muslims seem to prefer the surly, sullen and sour approach. Let us see if this can be changed. Will Muslims begin to analyse, essay by essay, and become engage in the process of creating knowledge? Is Bernard Lewis a dispassionate scholar who transmits the results of painstaking research or is he a onetime scholar turned political hack— who has maintained a dilettante relationship with the world of learning in order to cash in on his earlier reputation and propagate his own politics for the last thirty years.

We need to have some guidelines for each hypothesis. It is well to establish criteria before one actually gets to a text, as one should always try to be fair. A scholar will constantly emphasise the use of primary sources, the uncertainties inherent in scholarship and the open questions. Thus the heterogeneity of the Muslims and the multitude of their cultures will receive prominence. The political hack will emphasise that which is fashionable, most likely to inflame his readers and grab their sympathy; His writings will repeat, and repeat, earlier writings—books will pour out which are basically “cut and paste” jobs. To arouse antagonistic feelings in a modern American audience, it will be most effective to write about Christianity and about Women. And when other material runs dry, there is always the appeal to ‘freedom’.

One should aspire to establish standards independently of individuals. So let us forget names for the moment. Let us take it for granted that our subject knows ‘something scholarly’—but what? If he is to write on Islam as a political hack, then it is imperative that he do the following

a. establish his own scholarly credentials on some topic related to Islam—call it O– quickly

b. then he has to persuade us that knowledge about O is sufficient to understand the Muslim mind

c. this last requires homogenizing the history and beliefs of the Muslims, since any significant variations within the Muslim world will spoil his authority and dilute his propaganda

d. he then has to persuade us that the history and practices of O actually represent “Islam”

e. ex hypothesi, our scholar does not know very much about “Islam”—no more than any well-read dilettante could acquire

f. so ‘Islam’.now has also to be found in a frozen category— call it Classical Islam

g. since inquiry into Classical Islam might reveal dissent and fissure, one has to pass quickly over the formation of “Classical Islam” and never revisit this territory

h. this seems much too cute and convenient a pattern. All scholarship, especially liberal scholarship, becomes dubious if such straight lines are visible.

i. So it will be convenient to introduce complications when one moves away from the central theses. However, these qualifications will not be allowed to intermingle with the main propositions, since that would of course spoil the entire scholarly program.

The rhetorical strategy of the political hack will then be as follows: portray Islam—or ‘classical Islam’— in its harshest possible mode as the ideal; then to claim that its historical features are best seen through the history of O; then to claim those who do not ‘know’ Arabic or other relevant languages are in no position to criticize this hard-won expertise. It is an elegant strategy for defining someone with talent for languages and a scholarly past as the premier authority on Islam in the world today.

Does any of this apply to someone like Bernard Lewis? One will not know unless one peruses the writings of Lewis and collects the points to substantiate this thesis from, say, The Muslim discovery of Europe, Islam in History, Islam and the West, and What went Wrong. It is only by facing up to the delicate but venomous insinuation that one can be prepared to defend oneself. Unfortunately, this will require that Muslims actually do some reading.

But if they can be prevailed upon to do so, there is the further complication that they will need to know how to read. Edward Said has a marvelous account of how clever writing prefers to insinuate rather than state. If a message can be induced through subliminal suggestion, we will not even know how to refute it because we cannot quite pinpoint what it is that is affecting us. Perhaps the best way to go about this process is by engaging in a close reading of some of the essays Bernard Lewis has written—to engage with his rhetorical style and familiarize oneself with the varieties of insinuation. Then to go back and look at the scholarly works for the sins of omission—this is hard because we will need to know what he could have said but did not—as well as his sins of commission—where we see how he has presented those facts he does report.

Nor is it true that one can be misled only by lies. Facts can be arranged so as mislead in worse manner than any lie ever could. It is said that the Somalis once wanted to understand the mentality of the Americans. So they sent their brightest student to the USA and asked him to "understand the American mind". The diligent student set to work and pored over volumes after volumes to see who might be a representative figure. Every individual seemed to have several critics. Eventually, an enormously erudite opinion was reached. The only individual who was universally liked was the circus clown. Having found his subject, the Somali went on to study the clown in seven European languages (in addition to English) and utilized many rare manuscripts in completing his doctoral thesis. Today, whenever the Somalis are at a loss to explain US foreign policy the clown doctor is promptly called for…(I made this up to illustrate a point—with apologies to all!)

One has to remember that it is the issues that are really important and it is these that should be real substance of our discussions. Bernard Lewis is only there to focus our thoughts. If the evidence so indicates, it will no doubt be of interest to ask, Why does Bernard Lewis do what he does? But this is really a secondary question. It is of more importance to ask—how did such an individual get to head the program in Middle Eastern Studies at Princeton? Who supported his credentials? How did he stay in that position for so long? Who did he promote during his stay ? Where are his students, and how have they been using their time? How did he try to ensure the continuance of his mission? If the suspicions be accurate, then why has Princeton been asleep for so long? Why Bernard Lewis has chosen to live as he has is an interesting query, but what is important is to find out why Princeton has chosen to exude a slow poison for so long.

Muslims claim that there are 1.2 billion of them. It is scarcely plausible that so many people would allow such scholarship to pass as knowledge for so long. One’s imagination does strain at the thought. Perhaps Bernard Lewis does not really exist. Perhaps he is just an invention of Muslim rage.