Posts Tagged Bernard Lewis

Six greatest stories ever told about the Middle East

On Facebook, I ran a series listing the most influential modern books on the Middle East (in the English language). I selected each not on the basis of quality, but my rough assessment of a book’s impact on readers and politics, short-term and long. It’s rather rare for a book on the Middle East to have much of an influence in America and Britain; at most times, it’s a marginal region. But events have propelled a few books into the limelight, and these six, for better or worse, had an impact, influenced perceptions, and may have changed history.

Arabia of Lawrence

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence
Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence (1926). I rather like Charles Hill’s depiction of Lawrence as someone “who wrote himself into history as a fictional character leading Arab tribes in revolt against the Ottoman Turks.” (Hill calls the book ” a novel traveling under the cover of autobiography.”) But the book lives, and is even said to have inspired U.S. counter-insurgency theorists in Iraq.

Arise, ye Arabs!

The Arab Awakening by George Antonius
The Arab Awakening by George Antonius (1938). This purported exposé of British double-dealing provided all the pretext that Britain needed to retreat from its support for the Jewish National Home in Palestine, culminating in the 1939 White Paper. The British commander of forces in Palestine in 1946 said he kept the book “on my bedside table.” It also became the bible of American sympathizers of Arab nationalism. “We had our revered texts,” wrote the American Arabist Malcolm Kerr, “such as The Arab Awakening.” It has been refuted on many grounds, but while its influence doesn’t endure, it lingers.

God Gave This Land…

Exodus by Leon Uris
Exodus by Leon Uris (1958). Recently I asked a class of grad students in Mideast studies whether they’d heard of it, and I didn’t get a single nod. But this fictionalized account of Israel’s founding was said to have been the biggest seller since Gone with the Wind, propelled by a blockbuster motion picture starring Paul Newman. The novel, confessed journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, “set me, and many others, on a course for aliyah, and it made American Jews proud of Israel’s achievements. On the other hand, it created the impression that all Arabs are savages.” Arabs have been searching for their equivalent of Exodus ever since.

Snake Charmer

Orientalism by Edward Said
Orientalism by Edward Said (1978). Sigh… I suppose “baneful” is the best adjective. No book has done more to obscure the Middle East, and impart a sense of guilt to anyone who has had the audacity to represent it. The French scholar Jacques Berque (praised by Said) put it succinctly: Said had done “a disservice to his countrymen in allowing them to believe in a Western intelligence coalition against them.” But the book gave rise to a cottage industry in Western academe, and helped tilt the scales in academic appointments. Its influence may be waning, but it’s still on syllabi everywhere.

Fit to Print and Reprint

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman
From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman (1989). It spent nearly twelve months on the New York Times bestseller list and won the 1989 National Book Award for nonfiction. Coming in the wake of the 1982 Lebanon war and the 1987 intifada, it captured the “falling-out-of-love-with-Israel” mood, although it cut no slack for the Arabs either. Friedman has said he keeps threatening to bring out a new edition with this one-line introduction: “Nothing has changed.”

How the East Was Lost

What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis
What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis (2002). The book appeared in the aftermath of 9/11, and it rocketed to the New York Times bestseller list, where it spent 18 weeks. Lewis used his broad historical repertoire to explain “why they hate us.” (In a word: resentment, at failed modernization and an absence of freedom.) Lewis later summarized his view thus: “Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us.” Some in Washington took him literally.

This doesn’t exhaust the list of books about the Middle East that made the New York Times bestseller list or won the admiration of scholars. That bibliography would be much longer (and some years ago, I myself put together a different list, of choice scholarly works). But for sheer influence in the longer term, I don’t see another book that deserves inclusion in this club. If you have other ideas, share them at this link on Facebook.

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    A scholar’s library at Shalem College

    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.

    Martin Kramer accepts books from Bernard Lewis,
    Shalem College, January 14, 2013.


      Bernard Lewis

      Martin Kramer, “Bernard Lewis,” Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999), vol. 1, pp. 719-20.

      Lewis, Bernard 1916-
      US (British-born) historian of Islam, the Ottoman Empire, and the modern Middle East

      Over a 60-year career, Bernard Lewis emerged as the most influential postwar historian of Islam and the Middle East. His elegant syntheses made Islamic history accessible to a broad public in Europe and America. In his more specialized studies, he pioneered social and economic history and the use of the vast Ottoman archives. His work on the premodern Muslim world conveyed both its splendid richness and its smug self-satisfaction. His studies in modern history rendered intelligible the inner dialogues of Muslim peoples in their encounter with the values and power of the West. While Lewis’ work demonstrated a remarkable capacity for empathy across time and place, he stood firm against the Third Worldism that came to exercise a broad influence over the historiography of the Middle East. In Lewis’ work, the liberal tradition in Islamic historical studies reached its apex.

      Lewis drew upon the reservoir of Orientalism, with its emphasis on philology, culture, and religion. But while Lewis possessed all the tools of Orientalist scholarship—his work displayed an astonishing mastery of languages—he was a historian by training and discipline, intimately familiar with new trends in historical writing. He was one of the very first historians (along with the Frenchman Claude Cahen) to apply new approaches in economic and social history to the Islamic world. While a student in Paris, Lewis had a brief encounter with the Annales school, which inspired an early and influential article on guilds in Islamic history. A youthful Marxism colored his first book, The Origins of Ismailism (1940; his doctorate for the University of London, where he taught for thirty years). He subsequently jettisoned this approach, refusing the straightjacket of any overarching theory. But his studies of dissident Muslim sects, slaves, and Jews in Muslim societies broke new ground by expanding the scope of history beyond the palace and the mosque.

      Lewis’ early work centered on medieval Arab-Islamic history, especially in what is now Syria. However, after the creation of Israel, it became impossible for scholars of Jewish origin to conduct archival and field research in most Arab countries. Lewis turned his efforts to the study of Arab lands through Ottoman archives available in Istanbul, and to the study of the Ottoman empire itself. The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961) examined the history of modernizing reform not through the European lens of the “Eastern Question,” but through the eyes of the Ottoman reformers themselves. Lewis relied almost entirely on Turkish sources, and his history from within became a model for many other studies of 19th-century reform in the Middle East. It also signaled his own deepening interest in the history of ideas and attitudes in Islam’s relationship to the West.

      Lewis regarded the “challenge” or “impact” of the West as the watershed between the premodern and modern Middle East. Over the last two decades, some historians have sought to establish that the Ottoman empire remained vital through the 18th century and even began to regenerate—a process nipped in the bud by Europe’s economic and military expansion. Lewis, however, insisted that Ottoman decline was both real and self-inflicted. It resulted not only from the West’s material superiority, but from a Muslim attitude of cultural superiority, which impeded borrowing. The importance of creative borrowing, and the costs of Muslim insularity, were major themes in his Muslim Discovery of Europe (1982).

      Twentieth-century Turkey’s eagerness to belong to the West accorded it a privileged place in Lewis’ vision of the Middle East. From the early 1950s, Lewis became alarmed by the expansion of Soviet influence in the region, and he consistently advocated close Western ties with Turkey. Soviet support for the Arabs from the 1960s likewise led him to emphasize the importance of Western relations with Israel. In 1974, Lewis relocated from London to Princeton, where he became a public intellectual. His long-standing critique of the Soviet Union was reinforced by his revulsion at the combined Soviet and Arab effort to delegitimize Israel as racist. He expressed his views in several articles, and later in a book, Semites and Anti-Semites (1986).

      His engagement in these controversies set the scene for his confrontation with the Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said. In 1978, Said published Orientalism, which argued that the modern study of Islam in the West had evolved as a tool of imperialist domination, and that the West’s pursuit of knowledge had conspired with its pursuit of power. Orientalism, effectively a form of racism, had misrepresented Islam as static, irrational, and in permanent opposition to the West.

      Lewis maintained that the development of Orientalism was a facet of Europe’s humanism, which arose independently of, and sometimes in opposition to, imperial interests. Islamic studies, after neutralizing the medieval religious prejudice against Islam, had been an important arena of discovery and achievement. Lewis rejected the view that only Muslims, Arabs, or their political sympathizers could write the region’s history: he called this “intellectual protectionism.” A combination of curiosity, empathy, competence, and self-awareness was the only prerequisite for the writing of “other people’s history.”

      The Said-Lewis exchange prompted a charged debate about the representation of Islam and the Arabs in Western academe. It created a new awareness among Western historians that their readers included Arabs and Muslims. It also exposed ethnic and political differences among historians in their rawest form.

      Lewis’s influence extended far beyond academe. He wrote three major syntheses for general audiences: The Arabs in History (1950), The Middle East and the West (1964), and The Middle East (1995). These books were translated into over twenty languages, and made his name synonymous with Islamic history for educated publics in the West. The leading newspapers often interviewed him on past and present issues. (One such interview, granted to Le Monde in 1993, resulted in a controversial suit against him by opponents of his interpretation of the Armenian tragedy of 1915-16.) Lewis has had an active retirement and his views carry weight in Western capitals, and were sought by prime ministers, presidents, and monarchs in Israel, Turkey, and Jordan.


      Born London, 31 May 1916. Attended Wilson College and The Polytechnic; received BA, University of London, 1936; Diplôme des Études Sémitiques, University of Paris, 1937; PhD, University of London, 1939. Served in Royal Armoured Corps and Intelligence Corps, 1940-41; attached to Foreign Office, 1941-45. Taught (rising to professor), School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1938-39, 1945-74; Princeton University, 1974-86 (also member, Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton); and Cornell University, 1986-90. Naturalized US citizen, 1982. Married Ruth Hélène Oppenhejm, 1947 (marriage dissolved 1974; 1 daughter, 1 son).

      Principal Writings

      The Origins of Ismailism: A Study of the Historical Background of the Fatimid Caliphate, 1940

      The Arabs in History, 1950, revised 1958; 6th edition, 1993

      The Emergence of Modern Turkey, 1961; revised 1968

      Istanbul and the Civilization of the Ottoman Empire, 1963

      The Middle East and the West, 1964; revised as The Shaping of the Middle East, 1994

      The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam, 1967

      Editor, with Peter Malcolm Holt and Ann K.S. Lambton, The Cambridge History of Islam, 2 vols., 1970; revised in 4 vols., 1978

      Race and Color in Islam, 1971; revised and expanded as Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry, 1990

      Islam in History: Ideas, Men and Events in the Middle East, 1973; revised, 1993

      Editor, Islam: From the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, 2 vols., 1974

      History — Remembered, Recovered, Invented, 1975

      Editor, with Benjamin Braude, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society, 2 vols., 1982

      The Muslim Discovery of Europe, 1982

      The Jews of Islam, 1984

      Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice, 1986

      The Political Language of Islam, 1988

      Islam and the West, 1993

      The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, 1995; in UK as The Middle East: 2,000 Years of History from the Rise of Christianity to the Present Day, 1995

      Further Reading

      Humphreys, R. Stephen, “Bernard Lewis: An Appreciation,” Humanities 11/3 (May/June 1990), 17-20.

        Apologize to Bernard Lewis

        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.

        But it wasn’t. Jacob Weisberg, who attended the gala, did a piece on it for Slate (which he edits), and it also appeared in the Financial Times (where he’s a columnist). There he wrote the following:

        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.


          Orhan Pamuk and Bernard Lewis

          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.

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