Alas, poor Bernard Lewis, a fellow of infinite jest
On Bernard Lewis and 'his extraordinary capacity for getting everything wrong'.
By: Hamid Dabashi
“Here’s a skull now; this skull has lain in the earth three-and-twenty years,” the gravedigger tells Hamlet. It turns out the skull is Yorick’s, the king’s jester.
It is here that Hamlet says his famous lines: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”
I was instantly reminded of Yorick’s skull and Hamlet when I heard Bernard Lewis had died. Then the lines of an Omar Khayyam poem and his unceasing awareness of the mortality of human presence ran through my mind:
“For I remember stopping by the way
To watch a Potter thumping his wet Clay:
And with its all-obliterated Tongue
It murmur’d -“Gently, Brother, gently, pray!”
It is unseemly to recall the horrors of a horrible man upon his passing. But Bernard Lewis was not a regular rogue. He was instrumental in causing enormous suffering and much bloodshed in this world. He was a notorious Islamophobe who spent a long life studying Islam in order to demonise Muslims and mobilise the mighty military of what he called “the West” against them.
Just imagine: What sort of a person would spend a lifetime studying people he loathes? It is quite a bizarre proposition. But there you have it: the late Bernard Lewis did precisely that.
He was the chief ideologue of post-9/11 politics of hate towards Islam and Muslims.
“Dr. Lewis’s friendship – and ideological kinship – with the Cold War hawk and Israel supporting Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.),” we are told, “opened prominent doors in the capital, eventually giving Dr. Lewis favoured status among top White House and Pentagon planners before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.”
That is the most recent legacy of Bernard Lewis. The invasion, occupation, and destruction of Iraq.
But Lewis’ affiliation with powers of death and destruction went much deeper than that. Afghanistan and Iraq are in ruins today, millions of Arabs and Muslims have been murdered, scarred for life, subjected to the indignity of military occupation and refugee camps, in no small measure because of the systemic maligning of Muslims Lewis advanced in his books and articles, and with them informed generations of imperial officers.
For them, Lewis was the source for what Islam is and who the Muslims are. When US President Donald Trump said “Islam hates us,” it was Bernard Lewis speaking. When Trump’s first National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said “Islam is… like cancer,” it was Bernard Lewis speaking.
I was still a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania when I first encountered Lewis in person at a Princeton University conference. There was always a distance, a manufactured aloofness between him and the rest of the scholarly community.
He was more at home with heads of state, spy chiefs, military officers, intelligence communities, settler colonialists in Palestine, imperial viceroys in conquered Muslim lands.
He had power and basked in it. We detested power.
He is now showered with praise by the most powerful Zionist Islamophobes in the US and Israel. We are on the opposite side of the fence – with Palestinians, facing Israeli sharpshooters whom he favoured, enabled, encouraged, weaponized with a potent ideology of Muslim and Arab hatred.
‘How abhorred in my imagination it is’
With the death of Bernard Lewis, the long saga of exchanges between him and Edward Said finally comes to an end. I was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard and present at their now legendary debate in Boston on 22 November 1986, during the Middle East Studies Association convention.
Long before that, like thousands of other young scholars, I followed their debates on the pages of the New York Review of Books. I was, and I remain, squarely on Said’s side. But that was not, nor is it now, a merely political position; rather, it was and is a potently moral and intellectual disposition.
The difference between the two men was the difference between the politics of lucrative power and the intellectual courage to revolt.
Lewis was a historian of power and in power and for the power that ruled us all and he served happily and rewardingly. The more powerful the imperial audacity of a mode of knowledge production, the more Lewis pursued and served it.
Said was precisely on the other side of the fence, in the tradition of anticolonial struggles of Asia, Africa, and Latin America – which he theorised into our reading of Palestine.
You looked at Lewis, and you saw Lawrence of Arabia incarnate – a British colonial officer with a clumsy command over the natives’ language and culture, out in the field to serve the most vicious colonial enterprise of the century. You looked at Said, and you saw him in a direct line from the most revolutionary critical thinkers of all time – alongside Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, V Y Mudimbe, Enrique Dussel, and of course Antonio Gramsci and Theodore Adorno.
Said attracted an entire generation of critical thinkers from every continent on planet earth. Lewis attracted career opportunists who, like him, wanted to be near and dear to power.
In January 2003, just a few months before Said passed away, he and I were invited to Rabat, Morocco for a conference on “Dialogue of Civilization”. He could not go. He called me from Spain insisting I go.
I went to Rabat, only to learn upon my arrival that Lewis was there too. For the entire duration of the conference, while I was sitting with the late Egyptian philosopher Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and literary theorist Ferial Ghazoul discussing hermeneutics, Lewis was chaperoned by the young Noah Feldman, the legal adviser to Paul Bremer, who was the “provisional coalition administrator” of Iraq after the US invasion.
In one shot you could see how Lewis was passing the baton of service to empire to the next generation.
‘The evil that men do lives after them’
The current state of opinion about Bernard Lewis, now appearing in various post-mortem reflections and obituaries, has him hated by the global left, adored by the right-wing Zionists, and in between, you have these goody-two-shoes who try to sound wise and impartial and speak “in nuances”. Yes, he was a great scholar early in his career, they now say, but later his scholarship diminished, and he became too political. Such branding of Lewis, loved by some and hated by others, deeply distorts a much more serious issue.
Beyond the political and moral abhorrence for Lewis is the legacy of his mode of thinking and writing, his colonially and racially infested manner of knowledge production that was as much subservient to powers that read and enriched him as it was profoundly at odds with the critical turning point in postcolonial knowledge production.
Lewis was no scholar objectively committed to historical truth. Quite the contrary: He has left behind not a single book in which he was not cherry-picking facts and figures to demonise Muslims, dismiss and denigrate their civilisation, and subjugate them normatively, morally, and imaginatively to the colonial domination of those who he served.
His most famous recent book, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (2002) is not a work of scholarship. It is a manual of style, an indoctrination pamphlet, for teaching security, military, and intelligence officers in the US and Europe as to why they must seek to control the Muslim world.
Lewis was always on the wrong side of history, blinded by his hatred, animated by the most racist cliches in the trade. His reaction to the rise of Arab revolutions in 2011 is the perfect example of who Bernard Lewis was and how he thought.
“Another thing is the sexual aspect of it,” he opined at the commencement of Arab revolutions, “One has to remember that in the Muslim world, casual sex, Western-style, doesn’t exist. If a young man wants sex, there are only two possibilities – marriage and the brothel. You have these vast numbers of young men growing up without the money, either for the brothel or the bride price, with raging sexual desire. On the one hand, it can lead to the suicide bomber, who is attracted by the virgins of paradise – the only ones available to him. On the other hand, sheer frustration.”
This is obscenity in black and white – moral, political and intellectual bankruptcy on full throttle.
His book on The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (1967), which serious scholars like Farhad Daftary later dismissed as nonsensical gibberish, was definitive to the manner he wanted to portray Muslims – as congenital murderers.
His forte was in manufacturing a cosmic divide between “Islam and the West,” between Muslims and the modern world, a subject that was the staple of his writing, most condescendingly in his two books: The Muslim Discovery of Europe (1982) and Islam and the West (1993).
Bernard Lewis was no scholar of Islam. He was a British colonial officer writing intelligence for his fellow officers on how to rule the Muslim world better. A Handbook of Diplomatic and Political Arabic (1947) – one of his earliest volumes – foretold his career as a colonial scribe at the service of the British and later American empires.
Today, when we think of Bernard Lewis’ legacy, we think of the Islamophobic industry that has US President Donald Trump and his gang of billionaires crowned at the White House.
Today, when we think of Bernard Lewis, we think of his political progenies – John Bolton, the national security adviser of the United States, the most degenerate sabre-rattler sitting right behind the US president. Today, when we think of Bernard Lewis, we think of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a notorious bigot with a pathological hatred of Muslims. Today, when we think of Bernard Lewis, we think of Gina Haspel, the newly appointed director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, a woman who ordered the torture of Muslims.
No one was more instrumental in manufacturing the illusion of a fundamental and irreconcilable difference between “Islam and the West” than Lewis – his singular achievement that later Samuel Huntington picked up to produce The Clash of Civilizations.
This needs no further evidence and proof than looking at who is praising him after his death. “Bernard Lewis was one of the great scholars of Islam and the Middle East in our time. We will be forever grateful for his robust defense of Israel,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, himself, of course, another world-class authority on Islam and the Middle East!
“As a true scholar and a great man,” chimed in newly minted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another topnotch scholar in the field of Islamic studies, “I owe a great deal of my understanding of the Middle East to his work […] He was also a man who believed, as I do, that Americans must be more confident in the greatness of our country, not less. Thank you, Mr. Lewis, for your life of service.”
“You simply cannot find a greater authority on Middle Eastern history,” this according to Dick Cheney, the former vice president who brought us waterboarding and Abu Ghraib torture chambers and who, of course, is also a stellar authority on Islamic history and doctrine himself.
You put Netanyahu, Pompeo, and Cheney together, with their vast love and admiration for Lewis, and you can gather the company he kept, the hatred he flamed, the death and destruction he sought visited upon the people he “studied” to death.
Dead before his death
Bernard Lewis died long before he met his creator. The rich and diversified world of critical thinking – in Asia, Africa, Latin America, as well as in Europe and the US – to which Edward Said was integral and definitive, left Lewis and his books a very long time ago in the dustbin of Orientalist history.
“Lewis’s verbosity,” as Said put it succinctly some 36 years before Lewis died, “scarcely conceals both the ideological underpinnings of his position and his extraordinary capacity for getting everything wrong.”
Lewis is often compared with Said as if the two were equal. They were not. They were the polar opposites in every sense. Said was a towering critical thinker who revolutionised the field of literary and postcolonial studies.
Lewis was an ideological functionary, an intelligence officer, on par with Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington, competing for the ears of powerful people to tell them how to hate Muslims more persuasively.
Said enabled the moral authority of a generation of critical thinkers. Lewis taught military strategists how and why to rule Arabs and Muslims more effectively.
The mode of ideological knowledge Orientalists like Lewis produced was not in the interest of truth and understanding. It was meant to be used in humiliating and denigrating human beings and dominating their worlds and cultures, killing their sense of self-respect, telling them the only worthy thing to be was a white European settler colonialist.
This critique is not solely based on Edward Said’s magisterial book, Orientalism. What Lewis produced, French philosopher Michel Foucault – long before Said – called le savoir-pouvoir or power-knowledge: the knowledge that serves power. And it was works like Lewis’ that Argentinian philosopher Enrique Dussel referred to when he wrote in his book Philosophy of Liberation: “That ontology did not come from nowhere. It arose from a previous experience of domination over other persons, of cultural oppression over other worlds. Before the ego cogito, there is an ego conquiro; ‘I conquer’ is the practical foundation of ‘I think’.”
Both Said and Lewis are now gone. But Lewis left behind a racist legacy of raising a fictitious “West” at the expense of “the Rest”, while Said summoned the best and most noble in each for a better future for all.