John Richard Cookson
There were many views of the man—none alone gets us to the truth.
Bernard Lewis, who died on May 19 at the age of 101, wrote more than thirty books. Yet his favorite review of any of his works, or at least a review he referenced often and with obvious relish, was for The Middle East and the West. First published in the United States in 1964 by Indiana University Press, the book was later translated into Arabic by the Muslim Brotherhood. Lewis’s affection for the review was due to the translator not quite knowing what to make of the author.
“I don’t know who this person is, but one thing is clear,” the translator wrote of Lewis in the preface. “He is, from our point of view, either a candid friend or an honest enemy . . . .” Friend or enemy, the either-or decision here is one of stark opposites. Yet it’s also a decision muddled by both sides being more or less truthful. Oddly enough, looking back at the century-plus his life spanned, the scholar, adviser, teacher, and commentator leaves a legacy that is best understood in exactly these terms—at least for now.
It depends on one’s point of view. Lewis was either a pioneer as the first professional historian to study, teach, and write Arab history in England — or he was the last of the outmoded Orientalists roundly dismissed by the late Edward Said. He was either the avuncular professor known to his students as “Uncle Bernie” — or he was the canny confidant of kings and queens, prime ministers and presidents. Either Lewis was wise to the threat of Islamic terrorism well before 9/11, sounding the alarm about Osama bin Laden as early as 1998 — or he was the first academic scribbler to gin up the idea of a “clash of civilizations,” which has soured debates about the Middle East ever since. Finally, Lewis was either more influential than anyone in shaping the West’s understanding of the Middle East over the last few decades, at a time when such understand was sorely needed — or, as the scholar most admired by neocons and neocon-adjacent hawks in the George W. Bush administration, he did more than anyone to lay the intellectual tarmac that led the United States into the Iraq War.
Each of these views is truthful, more or less. None alone gets us to the truth.