Islam scholar Bernard Lewis’ legacy of disdain for Muslims

Bernard Lewis in 1993. Photo by Denise Applewhite/Princeton University

(RNS) — When I was an undergraduate, still in awe of the wealth of knowledge suddenly available to me in the college bookstore, I stumbled on a volume called “The Assassins,” an early work by the Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis.

Bernard Lewis in 1993. Photo by Denise Applewhite/Princeton University

Lewis, who died May 19 at the age of 101, is best known today as an informal adviser to the Bush White House after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and an advocate for the United States’ going to war in the Middle East. Back then he was focused on the Arab world and later he would switch to the Ottoman Empire.

Lewis’ transformation from scholar to neo-imperialist was not sudden, but there is a hint to be found in “The Assassins.” Originally published in 1967, it is an erudite work that sought to correct the record on the Nizari Isma’ilis, a Shiite Muslim community that had long been maligned as consumers of hashish, known in Arabic as “hashashin,” which transformed into the word “assassin.” The book fascinated me because it was a scholarly book at a time when scholarship was rarely applied to such topics.

Yet despite Lewis’ knowledge, he still chose the pejorative name for the Nizari Isma’ilis for the title of his book, suggesting he did not see the humanity of the people he studied; they were still objects to him.

This blindness can be seen in his later academic work, which commonly conflated Muslims with Arabs, and religion with politics. The book that made Lewis’ popular reputation, “What Went Wrong?,” was originally subtitled “Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response.” This was later changed, significantly, to “The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.” Suddenly a book about geopolitics became a book about a religion. Lewis treated the two interchangeably, as if the Middle East were synonymous with Islam, and vice versa.

In a 1990 cover article for The Atlantic, Lewis portrayed “Muslim rage” as inherent to the Muslim mind. That assessment echoed on Newsweek’s cover as recently as 2012. It was in the 1990 piece that many Americans would first read about the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West, decades before Harvard professor Samuel Huntington would popularize Lewis’ understanding of the world. It was here too that readers were given the model of the Muslim world as split into stark good and evil, believers and unbelievers. Lewis presented this information as though no other religion shared a similar worldview. Even a passing awareness of American politics would have demonstrated the falsity of his claims, but reality rarely had an impact on his later argument.

This tendency was exacerbated after 9/11, when Lewis began writing grand understandings of the conflict between “Islam,” as though it was one thing, and the “West.” In fact he was talking about the Middle East or at best the former Ottoman Empire, which had indeed been invaded and ruled by European powers for a century and more. For Lewis, however, the native people in these lands were expected to be stagnant, unaffected by colonialism, invasion or theft of resources. “Muslims” were fixed in time, and they lashed out at the world. There was never any cause for “Muslims” (by which he usually meant Arabs) to feel angry.

Like colonists of a century before, Lewis understood Muslims as violent by nature, irrational, abusive toward women, lacking in culture. He could not conceive of Muslims in the context of modernity. He argued in his Atlantic article that when confronted with a change in the world, the Muslim “give(s) way to an explosive mixture of rage and hatred.”

As a result, Lewis was ideally suited to provide a scholarly veneer to plans to invade Iraq in 2003. A war that could not be waged on the strength of facts or international law was justified with rhetoric and pseudo-intellectualism.

Image courtesy of Saqi Books

Lewis embodied a connection between the academy and the government to achieve particular policy ends. The late Edward Said, a professor at Columbia University and one of Lewis’ greatest critics, once argued that there is a connection among the academy, government and media to craft narratives about Muslims to exert some sort of control over them. The Iraq War was a realization of those connections, and Lewis represented what Said warned us about decades earlier.

Now, as an academic myself, I marvel at the life of Lewis. He was a scholar of some repute. Some of his works remain influential years after they were written. I still have the copy of “The Assassins” I bought over 25 years ago. It sits visible on a shelf, reminding me of the type of scholar I want to be, and the kind I don’t.

(Hussein Rashid is an adjunct faculty member at Barnard College and a Truman National Security Fellow. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

Hussein Rashid