It was indeed an honor to shake hands with this great historian and astute analyst of all things middle eastern. He was a scholar and a gentleman, something that can be said only of a diminishing number of Middle East academicians.
I have provided the links to a couple of obituaries on Lewis so I will not go into that, I will simply say that his life and scholarship has underlined what is so wrong with Middle East academia today. Basically because he was Jewish and an unabashed supporter of the state of Israel ( but a realistic one), the left-wing know – nothings, who dominate middle east studies, detested him and denigrated his work. They also overlooked his remarkably accurate forecasts of what was to come in the Middle East long before al Qaeda and Islamism became household terms. He forecast the rise of political Islam ( in 1978). Unlike so many of the Middle Eastern academics and “shake and bake ” middle east journalists of today he rightly observed that continual crises and maladroit movements erupting out of the middle east were not the consequence of the usual culprits….colonialism, Zionism, capitalism. These are the evils that are being carefully cultivated in the Middle East studies classrooms and taught as legitimate scholarship. The mostly privileged ill-bred, and ill – educated students, being propagandized mostly on tax payer money, or papa’s largesse, eat this bilge up. It obviates the necessity of thinking. Hanging around universities, waiting for the next – protest march, they are easily identified by their Che Guevara shirts and Palestinian Kaffiyas I use to see so many of those at Middle East Studies Association conferences…….. until I got tired of hearing infantile prattle about the evils of Western imperialism.( Dr Lewis, strangely enough, was one of the originators of that organization before it went off the rails.)
Reading Dr Lewis over the years and my own observations beginning in 1966 , I began to understand that the odious effluence contaminating the Middle East was primarily the result of a culture in which time stood still….. or retrogressed, aided and abetted by Western ideologies of fascism and communism, (with which, not so surprisingly, Islamism shares many characteristics.). The totalitarianism of these movements were perversely much preferred by the Middle Eastern elite over democracy. It has always been part of the “strong horse:”mentality of their culture.These things are, of course, politically incorrect to say in this era, But they are no less true. So many Western, especially American, academicians act in the role of facilitator, always finding some excuse for the barbarity, which largely characterizes most of the Middle East today.
I remember when I was introduced to Dr Lewis, he mentioned he had read an article written by me. I was indeed flattered, I don’t know if he had really read it or not, but it was typical of him, that while he hobnobbed with the powerful in Washington, he also maintained a base and communication with his disciples. He was quick-witted on his feet and most unusual among academics he had a great sense of humor. In his mid nineties he could speak eloquently without notes on a variety of subjects. He was a pleasure to listen to..also a departure from the nasal drone adopted by many academics to indicate erudition.
As a young professor at a British university he recalled how surprised he was to see that most of his classes on the Middle East were attended by Arabs, Why did they come to the U, K. to learn about their own country.? The short answer is that history taught in most Arab universities today bares little resemblance to reality. And it changes with every new regime.
Today even after decades of spiteful vituperation aimed at his work by ideologically oriented left -wingers he commands great prestige among serious Arab scholars. An Iraqi friend of mine who monitors Arab social media mentioned that favorable comments about Dr Lewis were numerous. A similar reception has plagued Raphael Patai’s book, The Arab Mind. He, also, was Jewish and an Israeli, and because of that the best book in any language on Arab culture is often trashed in Arab studies circles. But nevertheless I received a number of requests to buy the book for Arab Muslim students.
Of course Dr Lewis had his blind spots, One being the Turks. Having written the best book on Turkish nationalism in the English language ( The Emergence of Modern Turkey) and an aficionado ( an understatement) of the Ottoman empire, he was soft on the Armenian genocide. Mostly I think people misunderstood his stance. He agreed it was a tragedy but got wrapped around the definition of genocide, opining that because it wasn’t planned it did not fit the genocide as systematically carried out by the Nazis.
He was also great admirer of Islam, particularly as a civilization, ferreting out the intricacies of the early Arab historical texts , something his critics were unable to do. He also understood the frailties of Islam and how it could be used as an ideology. It is not an overstatement to say that Dr Lewis knew far more about Islam than the vast majority of the Muslim clerics who mix ideology with religion. He brought his immense knowledge together in two small books, The Crisis of Islam and What Went Wrong? His clarity in writing, now with Fouad Ajami gone, is a lost art among Middle East academics.
He had great debates with Edward Said, the ersatz Palestinian, which brought out the worst in Academia, as many formed a cult around Said’s well written polemics on Palestinians victimized by the usual culprits. Many in the Western Middle East scholarly community oozed and slobbered all over Edward Said and his book, Orientalism, managing to turn the word into something akin to Nazism, choosing to ignore that it was the European Orientalists who brought Middle East studies to the West. So today the great chasm still exists, the Said school and that of Lewis, the anti-zionists and the pro-zionists. This has created an environment in which the Palestinian issue subsumes the entire Middle East, every conflict or issue is somehow linked, however fatuous, to the Palestinian issue. Even 9/11!!
Put me solidly in the Lewis school. I continue to look for the very few books he has written that I still do not have. They are treasures. I think he has written 21 books and I am missing about five . The one I want particularly is The Political language of Islam.
Dr Lewis you can rest in peace. You ran the race well
Obits. read them