Posts Tagged Bernard Lewis
Opinions are divided over the future of the printed book. Many believe it is destined to disappear. Already anyone with an iPad in a coffee shop has instant access to several million volumes—a massive library at one’s fingertips. It isn’t hard to imagine the printed book going the way of the cuneiform tablet.
But a book-filled library is fundamental to a college. To be surrounded by books is to feel part of the scholarly chain of transmission that links us to generations past. And it’s not just a matter of nostalgic ambience. There are vast numbers of books that aren’t yet freely available electronically, and that aren’t yet out of copyright. Between the older books in the Internet Archive, and the more recent offerings available through Amazon and other digital publishers, there are decades worth of books that just can’t be had without going to a library. Google Books will change that too, but it hasn’t yet. And when it comes to books in non-European languages, print still reigns.
So from the outset, my colleagues and I resolved that the new Shalem College in Jerusalem would have a respectable library on opening day, October 6, 2013. The core of that library has been provided to us thanks to the generosity of the great historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis.
Bernard Lewis needs no introduction to my readers. In addition to his own prodigious output of authored books on Islamic and Middle Eastern history, Bernard was an avid collector. His personal library, at the time he moved out of his Princeton home two years ago, came to 18,000 volumes. It was then that he sent his library to Tel Aviv University, to which he had promised it many years ago.
But he did so with a proviso: any book in his collection already possessed by Tel Aviv University’s library was to be passed on to the library of the fledgling Shalem College. And so the new college library has come into possession of many thousands of volumes, most dealing with the history of Islam and the Middle East, but also with many other aspects of medieval and modern history. It’s a splendid start for the library, especially as one of the first accredited degree programs in the new college is in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies.
For me, the arrival in Jerusalem of so large a part of Bernard’s library closes a circle. I was his student in Princeton in the late 1970s, when he held a dual appointment at the university and the Institute for Advanced Study. He had one of the largest offices at the Institute, and it was packed tight with his books. A few months after we met, Bernard invited me to the Institute, and proposed that I catalogue incoming offprints for a per-hour wage. (In the pre-internet age, scholars would send printed copies of their articles to one another, a method of dissemination that now seems as remote from us as the carrier pigeon.) He gave me the key to his office, and on evenings and weekends I would enter Aladdin’s cave, seat myself at his desk, and ponder what it must be like to be the most renowned historian of Islam in the world.
I also came to know his library quite well. I much preferred his office to the deepest basement floor of Firestone Library, where the university’s own Middle East collection resided, so I would bring my own work to his desk. And once every week or so, we would have lunch or tea, followed by a stroll in the Institute’s woods. We would then repair to his office, where he would select a shelf and begin a running commentary on the books it held—their relative place in the field, a bit of lore about the authors, and his take on the dedications. In those days, everyone sent everything to Bernard, and practically all of the books carried handwritten dedications. I recall some of his comments to this day. He once took in hand a book by his contemporary, the French Marxist (and rabidly anti-Israel) scholar Maxime Rodinson (who also happened to be Jewish). The dedication was quite admiring, which surprised me, given his politics. Bernard smiled with satisfaction: “He’s a scoundrel,” he said of Rodinson, “but I like him.”
When Bernard retired in 1986, he transformed the master bedroom of his home into a magnificent, light-filled library. His desk faced a wall of glass overlooking the grounds, and massive wooden bookshelves stood perpendicular to the walls. Even this addition didn’t suffice to contain the entire library, and the basement of the house was outfitted with shelves to handle the overflow. In a few of the bedrooms, every flat surface was likewise occupied by still more books. (Some sense of the library at his Princeton home is preserved by BookTV, which interviewed him there ten years ago.)
I feel privileged to have known Bernard’s library in both of its Princeton settings, but its two Israeli settings also do it justice. In January, Bernard visited Shalem College at my invitation, so that he could see the campus and especially the library: a two-tiered structure, featuring a large atrium-like gallery that provides ample room for books and for study. He selected the design of an ex libris plate to be placed in each volume, and I said some grateful words about his remarkable gift.
Now that we are deep into the digital age, few scholars will ever build so large a personal library. Bernard amassed his collection during the explosion of scholarly publishing that followed the Second World War, and before the advent of the Internet and ebook. Scholars in future won’t leave great collections behind, and in the libraries we do have, shelves will gradually yield to screens.
But scholars and students will always find inspiration in the physical book, for as the word “volume” suggests, the full appreciation of a scholarly achievement is much enhanced by an encounter with its heft. Book design is also evidence for past conventions that provide context for text, and the elegance of a well-designed book will always evoke pleasure. Bernard Lewis has given Shalem College a voluminous gift. When it is combined with the immense contribution represented by his scholarship, it secures his place in the pantheon of those who have nurtured the life of the mind in Jerusalem.
Bernard Lewis gave a speech at the gala of the American Enterprise Institute on March 7. (He received the Irving Kristol Award on the same occasion.) In it, he borrowed almost verbatim from an article he’d published over five years ago in the Wall Street Journal, where he’d written the following:
“Crusade” still touches a raw nerve in the Middle East, where the Crusades are seen and presented as early medieval precursors of European imperialism—aggressive, expansionist and predatory. I have no wish to defend or excuse the often atrocious behavior of the crusaders, both in their countries of origin and in the countries they invaded, but the imperialist parallel is highly misleading. The Crusades could more accurately be described as a limited, belated and, in the last analysis, ineffectual response to the jihad—a failed attempt to recover by a Christian holy war what had been lost to a Muslim holy war.
The day after the AEI speech, Neil King, Jr., in a blog at the Wall Street Journal, wrote an item entitled “Bernard Lewis Applauds the Crusades.” Lewis had done no such thing, and King ending up running a correction: Lewis, wrote King, “made the point that the Crusades, as atrocious as they were, were nonetheless an understandable response to the Islamic onslaught of the preceding centuries, and that it was ridiculous [for Pope John Paul II] to apologize for them.” That should have been the end of the story.
What did surprise me was Lewis’ denunciation of Pope John Paul II’s 2000 apology for the Crusades as political correctness run amok. This drew applause. Lewis’ view is that the Muslims started it by invading Europe in the eighth century. The Crusades were merely a failed imitation of Muslim jihad in an endless see-saw of conquest and re-conquest.
Were you to start counting the ironies here, where would you stop? Here was a Jewish scholar criticizing the pope for apologizing to Muslims for a holy war against Muslims, which was also a massacre of the Jews. Here were the theorists of the invasion of Iraq, many of them also Jewish, applauding the notion that the Crusades were not so terrible and embracing a time horizon that makes it impossible to judge them wrong.
The piece was accompanied by a less-than-flattering photo of Lewis. And in a gossipy audio “interview ” with Slate, Weisberg added this further spin: “What a bizarre turn of events, that the Jewish neoconservatives are now applauding a British Jewish intellectual, sort of minimizing the awfulness of the medieval Crusades.”
I suppose Weisberg hasn’t read any of Lewis’ works. If he had, he’d know exactly how Lewis has interpreted the Crusades. And given the nonsense that Weisberg has spread, it’s definitely the moment to reread Lewis on the subject.
Lewis certainly does understand the Crusades as part of a counter-attack or counter-offensive: a Christian attempt to retake those lands that had been lost to Christendom in the waves of Islamic conquest that began in the seventh (not eighth) century. This isn’t a new theme in his writings, but he articulated it best in his Tanner Lectures on “Europe and Islam” (here), delivered in Oxford in 1990:
In recent years it has become the practice, in both western Europe and the Middle East, to see and present the Crusades as an early exercise in Western imperialism—as a wanton and predatory aggression by the European powers of the time against the Muslim or, as some would now say, against the Arab lands.
They were not seen in that light at the time, either by Christians or by Muslims. For contemporary Christians, the Crusades were religious wars, the purpose of which was to recover the lost lands of Christendom and particularly the holy land where Christ had lived, taught, and died. In this connection, it may be recalled that when the Crusaders arrived in the Levant not much more than four centuries had passed since the Arab Muslim conquerors had wrested these lands from Christendom—less than half the time from the Crusades to the present day—and that a substantial proportion of the population of these lands, perhaps even a majority, was still Christian.
Lewis isn’t really interested in whether the Crusaders were more or less “awful” or “terrible” or “wrong” than other conquerors, ancient, medieval or modern. Any hack propagandist, movie maker, or Slate journalist can do that, for people who enjoy moralizing across millennia. Lewis instead seeks to instruct us, from the sources, as to how the Crusades were viewed by their contemporaries. Christians at the time saw them as a reconquest of their own lands, not as an imperialist intrusion into Islam’s privileged domain. (And Lewis goes on to note that Muslims didn’t see the Crusaders as much more than a nuisance, until they began to raid closer to their truly privileged domain, Mecca and Medina.)
As for the absurdity of the papal apology for the Crusades, the view arises quite logically from Lewis’ interpretation of the first millennium of Islamic-Christian relations:
For almost a thousand years, from the first Moorish landing in Spain to the second Turkish siege of Vienna, Europe was under constant threat from Islam. In the early centuries it was a double threat—not only of invasion and conquest, but also of conversion and assimilation. All but the easternmost provinces of the Islamic realm had been taken from Christian rulers, and the vast majority of the first Muslims west of Iran and Arabia were converts from Christianity. North Africa, Egypt, Syria, even Persian-ruled Iraq, had been Christian countries, in which Christianity was older and more deeply rooted than in most of Europe. Their loss was sorely felt and heightened the fear that a similar fate was in store for Europe.
The Crusades, Lewis notes, were “no more than an episode…. In the seesaw of attack and counterattack between Christendom and Islam, this venture began with an inconclusive Christian victory and ended with a conclusive Christian defeat.”
Given this context of repeated Muslim expansion, and the futile attempt of the Crusades to reverse it, Pope John Paul II’s apology does indeed appear ridiculous. (By the way, Lewis knew the pope, with whom he’s pictured on right.) If such apologies are in order, the Muslims owe them to Christendom for every Islamic conquest, beginning with the conquest of Christian Jerusalem in 637 and culminating in the conquest of the great Christian capital of Constantinople in 1453. And why shouldn’t Christians also apologize for the religious wars that ended the 700-year Muslim occupation of Spain and the 500-year Muslim occupation of the Balkans? Of course, such apologies would be absurd, but then so is the papal apology for the Crusades.
Lewis says so as the world’s preeminent historian of Islam, not as a “Jewish intellectual” or a “Jewish scholar,” somehow duty-bound to represent a “Jewish” perspective. It’s Weisberg who turns Lewis’ great virtue as a historian—that he views the sweep of history without parochialism—into a moral fault. Lewis, he seems to be arguing, should properly take a Jewish view. This is the sort of thing that people expect in Cairo and Tehran, but it’s a bizarre turn of events to see it echoed in America. If one is going to begin to pillory Jewish scholars for reaching conclusions that contradict some journalistic notion of the Jewish interest, it really would be impossible to count the ironies. Take, for example, Joel Beinin and Norman Finkelstein…
The bottom line here is that apologies for the Crusades are ridiculous, but Jacob Weisberg owes Bernard Lewis an apology. It’s owed not over his criticism of Lewis’ role in the gestation of the Iraq war (which Weisberg exaggerates, I think). All’s fair in politics. But beyond the vapid assumption that the Crusades were “awful,” Weisberg knows zip about their history. Lewis had mastered this subject long before Weisberg was born, and if Weisberg is incapable of acknowledging it, then he’s even more ignorant than he’s made himself appear to be.
And he owes Lewis a second apology for pigeonholing him as a “Jewish scholar” and “Jewish intellectual” in this particular context. I wonder how Weisberg would feel if his critics labeled him a “Jewish journalist” in every discussion of his professional work, and judged him by whether or not he had reached a “Jewish” conclusion. (Any perceived deviation would be marked as “ironic.”) I imagine he wouldn’t like it one bit. Is Weisberg clever enough to see that irony?
And for the record: Lewis is not a “British Jewish intellectual.” He became a naturalized American twenty-five years ago.
Update, March 21: The American Enterprise Institute has published Lewis’ full remarks. Here’s what he said about the Crusades—exactly in line with what he’s always said:
We have seen in our own day the extraordinary spectacle of a pope apologizing to the Muslims for the Crusades. I would not wish to defend the behavior of the Crusaders, which was in many respects atrocious. But let us have a little sense of proportion. We are now expected to believe that the Crusades were an unwarranted act of aggression against a peaceful Muslim world. Hardly. The first papal call for a crusade occurred in 846 C.E., when an Arab expedition from Sicily sailed up the Tiber and sacked St. Peter’s Rome. A synod in France issued an appeal to Christian sovereigns to rally against “the enemies of Christ,” and the Pope, Leo IV, offered a heavenly reward to those who died fighting the Muslims. A century and a half and many battles later, in 1096, the Crusaders actually arrived in the Middle East. The Crusades were a late, limited, and unsuccessful imitation of the jihad—an attempt to recover by holy war what had been lost by holy war. It failed, and it was not followed up.
There’s a great deal of indignation in Europe and America over the possible prosecution of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, for words he spoke in an interview to a Swiss newspaper back in February. “Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and no one dares to speak out on this but me,” he told an interviewer. By speaking of “a million Armenians” killed in 1915-17, Pamuk greatly exceeded the number generally admitted by Turkey, and put the losses on the scale of a genocide. For these remarks, a prosecutor in Istanbul has indicted Pamuk for “public denigration” of Turkish identity, which is a crime under the country’s penal code. Pamuk is expected to go on trial on December 16.
Pamuk is widely admired as a Nobel-class author, and the decision to indict him is almost beyond explanation. It’s played straight into the hands of the legions of Turkey-bashers, especially in Europe, who’ve mounted their pedestals to declare that Turkey is still the heart of darkness. But the outrage goes beyond the usual suspects. That someone can be prosecuted for interpreting history as he or she sees fit is offensive to all people who value freedom of speech. The New York Times has just run an editorial criticizing the way Turkey “chooses to patrol its own history.” This time, the Times is right.
Unfortunately, Europe’s own record on this score is still tarnished by a disgraceful precedent set in Paris. I refer to the criminal and civil cases brought against Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, for words he spoke in an interview with Le Monde in 1993. Lewis had his own take on the Armenian massacres (he thought they weren’t genocide), and found himself hauled before a court for expressing it—the victim of benighted legislation similar to Turkey’s. Lewis lost one of the civil cases brought against him, and had to pay a symbolic fine and court costs. (The chilling verdict, right out of Orwell, is here.)
Where were the European intellectuals, authors, and parliamentarians back then, when a French court trampled on free speech? The historian Maxime Rodinson sided with Lewis’s right to speak freely, but I can’t recall any other overt expressions of solidarity. Fortunately, the great and free newspapers of America saw the issue with perfect clarity. The Washington Post, for one, ran an editorial on the case (September 9, 1995), reaching this conclusion:
When a court is willing to punish a scholar for expressing an ‘insulting’ opinion on a historical matter, even when debate on the point in question has been raging worldwide for years, the absurdity and the perniciousness of such laws is on full display. Once a court or a disciplinary body can be enlisted in lieu of argument to silence an unpopular viewpoint, all manner of trouble can and will result.
Indeed. If prosecuting Pamuk is wrong—and it is—then the finding against Lewis was just as wrong. Europe is right to hold Turkey to Europe’s standards, if Turkey wishes to join the EU. What Europe isn’t entitled to do is play by double standards. If you’re a Turk, you risk Turkish prosecution if you say the wrong things about history. If you’re anyone, you risk a French lawsuit if you say the wrong things about history. These crude laws look identical to me, and if the EU is serious about bringing Europe up to America’s gold standard of free speech, it can start by getting oppressive anti-speech laws off European books. Do that, and then preach to Ankara—in good faith.
The president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has just published a letter to members of the association. So I have exercised my prerogative as the anti-MESA, to write my own letter to the members. Check back soon: letters to MESA could become a habit.
Dear MESA members,
We last met in Chicago in December 1998—the MESA conference that celebrated and canonized Edward Said on the twentieth anniversary of his book Orientalism. Many of you will recall the occasion. A diverse panel—not diverse intellectually, but diverse in the ways that really count in academe (ethnicity and gender)—hailed Said as the conquering hero of the field. MESA’s multitudes celebrated this achievement with repeated standing ovations for Said. The atmosphere was one of feverish triumphalism.
It was also premature. Since then, you have entered a state of disarray. One younger scholar has claimed that you have embraced a “bunker mentality.”
Recently, in order to fend off criticism, your leaders have told the public that yours is a diverse association, hospitable to every view, an arena of real contention. So explain this piece of evidence to the contrary.
Prior to 9/11, MESA had nine honorary fellows, “outstanding internationally recognized scholars who have made major contributions to Middle East studies.” Ten persons may be so honored at any one time; one was Edward Said. Shortly after 9/11, I suggested to one of your influential members that the easiest way for the field to apologize for past error (without admitting it) would be to honor Bernard Lewis by offering him the vacant slot. It would do nothing for Lewis, but it would signal to the American public that MESA wasn’t blind to his monumental scholarly contribution.
I understand that a board member of MESA did propose Lewis, formally—and that the proposal was shot down for a lack of support. Last fall, Said died, and a second slot opened. A short time later, both vacant slots were filled by two scholars whose works, whatever their merits, do not begin to approach Lewis’s contributions to Middle Eastern studies. To refresh your memories, here is your list.
What sentient being would compile a list of the ten major living contributors to Middle Eastern studies, and exclude Bernard Lewis? One of your own past presidents, in an important and fair assessment of Lewis, cited “the extraordinary range of his scholarship, his capacity to command the totality of Islamic and Middle Eastern history from Muhammad down to the present day. This is not merely a matter of erudition; rather, it reflects an almost unparalleled ability to fit things together into a detailed and comprehensive synthesis. In this regard, it is hard to imagine that Lewis will have any true successors.” Since that appraisal, Lewis has raised the bar still higher, writing two international bestsellers.
What possible reason could there be for the exclusion of Lewis from your list, and the inclusion of Edward Said (and lesser figures), except political bias? Your current president tells you this: “There is no desire on the part of [MESA's] board to turn MESA into a political organization.” This claim is easy and convenient to make. The difficulty is that MESA is already a political organization, as the Lewis case demonstrates.
A group within MESA—I cannot say whether it is a majority or a minority—has used the organization consistently as an instrument of political advocacy. It has done so by grading scholars on the basis of their politics. This happens all the time in university appointments and promotions. It is therefore the role of the professional association—if it is professional and not political—to establish a purely professional measure of distinction, for the emulation of its members. Instead, MESA has followed the basest political instincts of its most benighted segments. No denial can conceal this fact.
You now have before you a proposal to change MESA’s mission statement, to include the defense of academic freedom among its functions. MESA is profoundly unsuited to this task. By the choices I have described, MESA has undercut academic freedom. It has excluded on the basis of politics; its very standing as a professional association is open to question. MESA’s honorary fellows are distinguished scholars all. But the list, as a whole, is a badge of MESA’s shame.
I hope you will pardon me if I take the liberty of writing to you again, about other matters of mutual concern.
The war is underway, and most of the rationales for and against it are based on predictions. No one reasonably expects professors of Middle Eastern studies to predict military outcomes. But political outcomes, especially in the long term, are supposed to be their forte. And so here, for the record, are the predictions of four chaired professors of Middle Eastern studies, at leading American universities. At the end of the day, events will prove two of them right, and two of them wrong.
John Esposito is a University Professor (his university’s highest professorial honor) at Georgetown. His prediction, looking five years past a war:
It is likely that the Arab world will be less democratic than more and that anti-Americanism will be stronger rather than weaker. A military attack by the United States and installation of a new government in Iraq will not have fostered democratization in the Arab world but rather reinforced the perception of many…that the United States has moved …to a war against Islam and the Muslim world. To move to a military strike before exhausting nonmilitary avenues, and without significant multilateral support from our European and Arab/Muslim allies, as well as from the United Nations, will have inflamed anti-Americanism, which will have grown exponentially in the region and the non-Muslim world.
That’s a grim prophecy, although the very first part may already be falsifiable: could Esposito now name an Arab country that might be less democratic in five years—given that not one of them is democratic now?
In the opposite corner is Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton, past member of the Institute for Advanced Study, and best-selling author. He makes the opposite prediction:
I see the possibility of a genuinely enlightened and progressive and—yes, I will say the word—democratic regime arising in a post-Saddam Iraq. They will have been fully inoculated against the Fascist-style governments that otherwise seem to prevail.
Lewis again, with a bit more caution, but a steady optimism:
Clearly, Iraq is not going to turn into a Jeffersonian democracy over-night, any more than did Germany or Japan. Democracy is a strong medicine, to be administered in gradually increasing measures. A large dose at once risks killing the patient. But with care and over time, freedom can be achieved in Iraq, and more generally in the Middle East.
Do you prefer that your experts on “the Arabs” have Arabic names? Then take your choice. In one corner: Rashid Khalidi, who in September will become the Edward Said Professor at Columbia University. His prediction:
Irrespective of its cost or length, this war will mark not the end, but the beginning, of our problems in this region. Because, however much Iraqis loathe their regime, they will soon loathe the American occupation that will follow its demise. No expert on Iraq…believes that the creation of a democracy in Iraq will be a swift or simple matter; some believe it is not possible as a consequence of an American military occupation….So we will not have democracy in Iraq. We will have a long American military occupation that will eventually provoke resistance….Via a lengthy and bloody occupation of Iraq, via the establishment of U.S. bases there, via the direct control of Iraqi oil, we will be creating legions of new enemies throughout the Middle East.
In the other corner: Fouad Ajami, the Majid Khadduri Professor at Johns Hopkins. Ajami argues that the United States should aim high: “The driving motivation of a new American endeavor in Iraq and in neighboring Arab lands should be modernizing the Arab world.” His prediction: an American commitment will be decisive.
In the end, the battle for a secular, modernist order in the Arab world is an endeavor for the Arabs themselves. But power matters, and a great power’s will and prestige can help tip the scales in favor of modernity and change….[U.S. victory] would embolden those who wish for the Arab world’s deliverance from retrogression and political decay….It has often seemed in recent years that the Arab political tradition is immune to democratic stirrings. [But] the sacking of a terrible regime with such a pervasive cult of terror may offer Iraqis and Arabs a break with the false gifts of despotism.
So there you have them: the divided opinions of America’s leading authorities on the Middle East. Needless to say, they can’t all be right, so some of these predictions are going to come up losers. Will anyone remember? Possibly. But here is a safe prediction: it won’t matter, certainly not to the professional standing of the professors. Another professor (Robert Vitalis, head of the Middle East Center of the University of Pennsylvania), has put things in precisely the right perspective. The future, he maintains, “is unknowable.”
Administration figures are in fact gambling but there are real and predictable consequences to their betting wrong. Consequences for them personally I mean. This is not the case for virtually any op-ed writer or trusted ally of the Saudis or scholars who, from their perches in Palo Alto and Morningside Heights (or Center City), tell us what is really going to happen. There are no costs to them to being wrong, which is in part why so many pretend to be able to see the future with such remarkable acuity. Even after getting it wrong time and time again in the past 10 years.
How very, very true.
(Palo Alto and Morningside Heights…. Has Professor Vitalis been reading my Ivory Towers on Sand?)
ASIDE: Edward Said, who disagrees with Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, now claims that neither “has so much as lived in or come near the Arab world in decades.” Anyone with an ear to the ground knows that both of them show up somewhere in the Arab world every year. And I believe it’s been thirty years since Said left Morningside Heights to spend one of his sabbaticals in an Arab country. The amazing thing is that in the very same article, Said makes this admission: “In all my encounters and travels I have yet to meet a person who is for the war.” New York Times/CBS reports: “74% [of polled Americans] now approve of the U.S. taking military action against Iraq, up from 64% among these same respondents two weeks ago.” Perhaps it is Professor Said who ought to get out more.