March 23, 2007

Bernard Lewis at the AEI

Bernard Lewis has been a Professor of History at Princeton since before your blogger was alive. He is a respected historian and researcher within the field particularly of Ottoman history. Lewis is also a political pundit and it is in respect of this activity that I want to analyse something that he recently wrote. Recently he delivered the Irving Kristol Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, to an audience which included members of the institute and politicians including the current American Vice President. The lecture's basic thesis is that traditional Islam and Christianity have always been clashing, that the recent events in the Middle East and recent immigration to Europe are only read through the meme of this kind of clash and that the only way out of this situation is an appeal to western notions of freedom and knowledge.

Professor Lewis is a wise and learned man, but I feel compelled having read this lecture to reiterate the judgement of another expert on the Middle East, Professor Juan Cole about a recent piece that Professor Lewis published. Cole argued that

Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong? is a very bad book from a usually very good author. How a profoundly learned and highly respected historian, whose career spans some sixty years, could produce such a hodgepodge of muddled thinking, inaccurate assertions and one-sided punditry is a profound mystery.

To me Professor Cole's judgement stands of that book but also of the lecture that Professor Lewis delivered earlier this month. Professor Lewis's lecture is shoddy and doesn't work either in relation to the evidence that he uses or in relation to the way that he deals conceptually with the world of Islam.

Lets start with the evidence. Professor Lewis at one point discusses the way that assimilation of Islamic cultures into the West will not work. He discusses what he defines as constructive engagment and uses an example from the 12th Century to suggest that you can never trust a Muslim and that constructive engagment is useless:

A term sometimes used is constructive engagement. Let's talk to them, let's get together and see what we can do. Constructive engagement has a long tradition. When Saladin re-conquered Jerusalem and other places in the holy land, he allowed the Christian merchants from Europe to stay in the seaports. He apparently felt the need to justify this, and he wrote a letter to the caliph in Baghdad explaining his action. I would like to quote it to you. The merchants were useful since "there is not one among them that does not bring and sell us weapons of war, to their detriment and to our advantage." This continued during the Crusades. It continued after. It continued during the Ottoman advance into Europe, when they could always find European merchants willing to sell them weapons they needed and European bankers willing to finance their purchases. Constructive engagement has a long history.

There are two obvious problems with this- the first is very simple quite what relevance does the fact that someone lied in the 12th Century have to the way we live now. I could if I was being an Iraqi insurgent argue that the British have always unjustly occupied places, they did in America in 1770- I'm not sure that anyone would take that argument seriously. Neither should we take Professor Lewis's argument seriously- Saladin's behaviour has no more relevance than Lord North's behaviour in working out how people are acting now. Furthermore on the simple facts of Saladin's behaviour- the fact that someone writes a letter saying something does not transalate into the fact that they beleive what they wrote. Take Saladin writing this letter, its perfectly conceivable to me that this was a political gesture, an explanation of why he was trading with the infidel rather than part of a grand strategy. But even if Professor Lewis is right about the intentions of Saladin, what it says about the modern day is not obvious to me.

The conceptual problem that Professor Lewis has within his talk is that he uses a couple of examples from now or from the Middle Ages and labels those examples Islam. His talk is full of expressions about what 'they' or 'them' will do. Sometimes that 'they' seems just to be fundamentalists who are led by Osama Bin Laden, sometimes its the whole immigrant population within Europe, sometimes its the entire Middle East. There is a further issue here: he talks about Islam a lot but mentions not a single example from east of Iran, not a single example from such vast Islamic communities as those in India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh and so on. Islam in the world of this lecture is an abstraction which is timeless, geographically changeless and threatening. Professor Alam in another review of Lewis's work put this perspective quite well when he suggested that

His objective is to whittle down world history, to reduce it to a primordial contest between two historical adversaries, the West and Islam.

It appears that Professor Lewis has not changed his practices- the AEI lecture contains an account of endless struggle between two concepts Islam and the West. Professor Alam is right to state that there is more to the world than that, there is also more to Islam and more to the West than the monoliths that Professor Lewis invites us to view.

Some will say no doubt that this is unfair- this was not an academic lecture but a lecture to a popular audience. I think though that that is wrong- it is neccessary for people to get it right when talking to a political audience- especially an audience which includes the Vice President of the United States- Professor Lewis attempts to deal with the current problems within Islam and doesn't mention economics, the political structures within the Islamic world or indeed any other factors beyond the fact that 'they' follow a certain religion. His argument is misleading and damaging- his audience would have been better not to hear it.

Its interesting that it is also self defeating- at one point in the lecture Professor Lewis states that

There are many religions in the world, but as far as I know there are only two that have claimed that their truths are not only universal--all religions claim that--but also exclusive; that they--the Christians in the one case, the Muslims in the other--are the fortunate recipients of God's final message to humanity, which it is their duty not to keep selfishly to themselves--like the Jews or the Hindus--but to bring to the rest of humanity, removing whatever obstacles there may be on the way. This self-perception, shared between Christendom and Islam, led to the long struggle that has been going on for more than fourteen centuries and which is now entering a new phase. In the Christian world, now at the beginning of the 21st century of its era, this triumphalist attitude no longer prevails.

Its interesting that he says this. There is an element of truth to the fact that both religions can have this missionary aspect- though whether they have it as part of their essense is another matter. What Professor Lewis and his audience though might well wish to ponder is why Christianity at the moment is not aggressive and why some Muslims are- Professor Lewis seems to think that both religions have the same aggressive potential, so why the difference? Furthermore why are so many Muslims in the world, the vast majority very peaceful? What are the factors that move people to violence? Religion doesn't seem to be a big predictor. According to Professor Lewis two religions have the potential to violence, one though doesn't realise it and one does. And even within the one that does 'do' violence, most of the beleivers aren't violent. Wouldn't it be more interesting to research the other factors- rather than just dismiss Islam as violent. By Professor Lewis's own argument more than a missionary religion creates the potential for horrific violence within a society. Maybe if next time he spoke to political leaders he informed them of those factors his lecture might be a bit of a better model for them to follow.

Professor Lewis's lecture was lazy. It was not thought through and it was given to an audience who are important indeed crucial, they must know the truth and must be told it. For an academic to give a paper to the Vice President of the United States is a high honour and to live up to that honour your duty is not merely to speak well but to speak the truth. Professor Lewis paints with such broad brush strokes, is so confident in using scraps of evidence to back up mountainous assertions and so certain about the essense of Islam that he has lost his ability to provide his audience with a useful template to build policy out of. This talk suffers because of grand problems in the way that evidence is presented to the audience, but furthermore because it treats all Muslims as having an essense which is the same rather than recognising that the Islamic world is complicated, historically contingent and geographically various (just like the Christian (or Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish) world). It is as if Professor Lewis was presenting himself as a caricature of what his old adversary Professor Said used to lambast- this was an orientalist lecture. The sad thing about it is at moments in the lecture, one sees a man of great erudition and someone who can obviously write well, it would just be good to see that erudition and skill harnessed to a less orientalising theme.


james higham said...

Dearest Tiberius

...There are two obvious problems with this- the first is very simple quite what relevance does the fact that someone lied in the 12th Century have to the way we live now...

Great relevance tindeed because in the case of Islam, the Imams continually refer back to precedent in this form and the further back you can quote, the greater the continuity for your glorious purpose.

Bernard Lewis IS learned and his conclusions, though not fashionable, unliked and therefore vilified in today's 'love everybody' mentality, nevertheless hold water. They are no hotchpotch but a bringing together of many strands.

The simple matter is that militant Islam, as distinct from the average non-religious Muslim over here, is just like the planet Krikkit in Douglas Adams books - into peace, love, help for one's fellow man and the obliteration of all other life forms.

I can produce 72 pages to back this up. This is not racism, nationalism or any other -ism. It's the cold hard reality of today.

Gracchi said...


I disagree with you and have been considering how to lay out this comment for a while- as you know I hold you in the highest respect so here's why I think you and Professor Lewis are wrong.

Firstly what you say about Muslim clerics claiming authorities is right, it happens in Islam a lot but lets reflect for a moment. That wasn't Bernard Lewis's claim and to substantiate that claim he would have to prove that there was a cleric or that there were many clerics who used this particular example to make an argument, but he didn't. His point was about inferring a Muslim character from a particular moment in the 12th Century- he didn't make the point about authorities and this being an example that's used now.

Secondly why is that business of a Muslim character so wrong- its wrong because if you look at say a major work of scholarship on Islam like Patricia Crone's book on Islamic Medieval Political Thought you find that Islamic arguments, ie ones based on Koranic sources, can be used to justify a whole range of political opinions and were used in teh past for those purposes. In the present there are many Muslim groups who have totally different ideas about the world and the way it should work- we shouldn't dismiss them as 'Islam' when they are as different from each other as different Christians (say George Bush and Rowan Williams) are.

Thirdly where in your scheme do the different divisions of Islam- Shia and Sunni end up. Shia and Sunni Muslims are as distinct as Catholic and Protestant Christians. They have different ideas and conceptions of authority. There is emmense geographical variation as well- Islam is not the same in India, in Iran and in Morrocco, it just isn't. Muzzafar Allam has done some wonderful work on Indian Islamic traditions in the 17th Century which shows how Indian Islam in India was. There is plenty of other work done by people like Richard Eaton on teh same subject.

Bernard Lewis is being lazy in describing Islam in this way- Juan Cole and others make the same point. This isn't political correctness- my view is that a large proportion of what we hear about Islam is rubbish and I think that Professor Lewis has a duty not to join in producing rubbish. As for your 72 pages, James you know I respect your intellect and your ability to find things out- but I have sitting beside me a book of over 400 pages that covers only the first Islamic centuries- how can 72 pages cope with covering all of Islam.

I'm sorry mate I disagree with you about this. Though I agree with you as a last point about militant Islam- we must be careful thoguh about how we define militant Islam- it isn't Islam!

Gracchi said...

Should just ammend the last comment and blasted blogger won't let me ammend comments- militant Islam is of course part of Islam but its not the whole of Islam- that's what I meant to say but tiredness got the better of me and not being able to edit comments (grumble). Hope that's clear though.

james higham said...

This requires a detailed response from me because I humbly disagree, dear Tiberius.

Firstly, kind sir, surely the length of the text has no relevance to the content therein expressed, be it 72 or 400 pages.

Secondly, I wrote: "The simple matter is that militant Islam, as distinct from the average non-religious Muslim over here..."

I am living in an area right now such as you describe, where militantism is only pursued by a minority and Islam is different here to say, in the Sudan and so we are not in disagreement here.

Nevertheless, in my daily work with Muslims, [I'm working for a Muslim government] the constant references to world issues, though not strongly held, go back to Imam teaching and this goes back into history.

The reason this is dangerous is that the average moderate feels unable to comment, for want of detailed knowledge, so he or she defers, in these matters, to the 'knowledgeable', i.e. the Imams. I'm thinking of one particular lady client here who otherwise is moderate.

Now what the Imams say has to be heard to be believed and though the average Muslim takes most of it with a pinch of salt, nevertheless, on fundamental issues, the viewpoint is quite extreme. This is also the situation in Britain.

I see where you're coming from and your sense of humanity and fairness shines through, not to mention your obvious reading and as for Lewis, I cannot argue with you for want of knowledge myself. You're most probably correct.

But I beg to differ on the 'average moderate Muslim' and this has come out on the occasions people stop chasing money and think about their next President or whatever.

I wish I could answer you in more detail but as you know, this requires pulling it all out of the files and collating it and I just can't at this moment, workwise.

But I promise it's coming, dear Tiberius.

Pappusrif said...

When I first read your post – that I find brilliant, I agreed with your criticism that I copied/pasted/saved in my computer. So I did not want to comment on. No need. James Higham came with his rhetoric. I did not really understand what was his point. But from your answer, I could figure it out.
I dont know James Higham for what governement you're working for and what average muslims you're working with, but it looks like we dont know the same muslims. I lived for many years in a country, Morocco to name it. And what you describe about muslims, I did not find it there. No such as well in France where I live (many muslims live here).

Gracchi, You seem surprised that Bernard Lewis holds a speech such as that he has held on Islam and Europe. To me, it is by no means surprising given his theories on Islam even before he works in the US. Indeed, Lewis is an academic who left UK for US in 1974, he is a well-known expert on Turkey. What I do not forget, it is that he is also an intellectual involved in politics, known for his support without a single nuance to Israel and its policy. Also, he was condemned by denying the Armenian genocide in 1915-1917 (true only by French justice). He is very close to the neocons, especially Paul Wolfowitz. He encouraged the invasion of Iraq by the US administration in 2003 saying that Americans would be welcomed as liberators and that Ahmad Chalabi, his friend, an exiles gangster (Ok maybe not but close) could manage and run this country. His audience, here the AEI, Cheney and Co, are flirting with almost extreme rights rhetorics. They support each other through very powerful foundations. Their intellectuals have published works such as “The bell Curve” by Richard Murray who said that blacks commit crimes because of genetic predisposition and he supported mass imprisonment. Dinesh D' Souza, in his book “the end of racism” tried to show to Americans that keeping blacks in slavery was not at all racist but only a social reaction against their pathologies (they are sick because they are black) and he denounced the antiracism and says it is more dangerous than racism (huh).

Back to Lewis. He was the first to use the expression “clash of civilizations” in the 50’s and 60’s. Samuel Huntington only popularized it. This rhetoric which is as old as Bernard Lewis that they (Muslims) do not like us because they reject our love of freedom and democracy and because it is innate. What??? You use the term rubbish. I am not sure it is enough. He deliberately forgets to be interested in concrete facts such as oil, Palestinian exiles and the role of the occident, imperialism (in his speech, he was even critical to the fact of speaking about imperialism and colonization). Lewis could develop over almost 1500 years of history with all the centers of power, alliances and schisms, etc. And he knows now what in the muslim minds and souls?? regardless if they are ordinary people, imams, kings or dictators, shia or sunni. Is this in 10-20 or 30 pages? Im sure he has done better than James Higham with his 72 pages.

With aging, there are some people who turn bad even some great academics. This is definitely not the case of Lewis since his views were the same from the beginning. He is no lazy, he knows what he’s doing and to what audience he’s giving the talk. Soon he may come with the theory that there is an Islamic gene that we should isolate, and which could explain why they are like that. I would not be surprised.

Pappusrif said...

I forgot to mention that most of the informations about Lewis were from 2 papers of Alain Gresh published in Le monde diplomatique 2004

Gracchi said...

Pappusrif thanks indeed for your citations of Lewis, there is a sense in which he definitely is within the political faction that supports the current President but specific instances are useful to prove that- I would have to add that he is a respected scholar of the Turkish archives to my knowledge so that has to be put in the balance too. I like you beleive he is wrong in this instance.

James if it comes to individual Muslims- I have to second Pappusrif. I went to University with many Muslims who disdained the radicals. I suspect that those reactions are very personally various and probably geographically various.

james higham said...

First time round, I never noticed the 3.48 a.m. posting time. Whatever were you doing, man?

Gracchi said...

Working I'm afraid- life as a PhD student writing up- its all 3 ams I often work very late in the evening- its quiet and I can get a lot done then.