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.