Scholar Combatant

Posted by sepoy on November 17, 2004 · 11 mins read

Historians usually study the past. Or the immediate past. They sometimes peek out of their professional masks to say something about current events (or maintain a blog). Rarely, though, do they make history. Of course, let me be a geek historian here and name check Juvaini, Rashid ud Din Ibn Rushd, Abu Fazl, Herodotus, etc. who were active participants in making history. But, lately, we don't have that many examples. Except for Bernard Lewis. An Ottomanist who has written 684 bestselling books on Islam and Arabs, defined a foreign policy framework, and, uh, invaded a country. Though, he did say that the Iraqis would greet us with baklavah.

I saw Bernard Lewis on Charlie Rose a few months ago. Right after the Ahmed Chalabi soupan exploded all over nightly news. Lewis, who was the cheerleader-in-charge of Chalabi since forever, defended Chalabi brilliantly - saying his detractors were ignorant pups and evil masterminds in the State Dept. who were working behind the scenes to sabotage the potential Kamal Ataturk of Iraq. After laughing for a solid minute, I cried for an hour. Ladies and Gentlemen, if you would like one man to blame for Iraq: blame the eminent historian Bernard Lewis.

A few months after 9/11, he lectured a gathering of disciples at the VP residence about the Muslims, Koran and What to Do? What did he tell them? Michael Hirsh's piece in the Washington Monthly lays it all out:

Iraq and its poster villain, Saddam Hussein, offered a unique opportunity for achieving this transformation in one bold stroke (remember "shock and awe"?) while regaining the offensive against the terrorists. So, it was no surprise that in the critical months of 2002 and 2003, while the Bush administration shunned deep thinking and banned State Department Arabists from its councils of power, Bernard Lewis was persona grata, delivering spine-stiffening lectures to Cheney over dinner in undisclosed locations. Abandoning his former scholarly caution, Lewis was among the earliest prominent voices after September 11 to press for a confrontation with Saddam, doing so in a series of op-ed pieces in The Wall Street Journal with titles like A War of Resolve and Time for Toppling. An official who sat in on some of the Lewis-Cheney discussions recalled, 'His view was: 'Get on with it. Don't dither.'

Doug Feith, Richard Perle, Condi Rice, Dick Cheney sitting around a camp fire while Bernard Lewis puts on a shadow-puppet show about the decline and fall of Islamic civilization and the violent response of bearded men to modernity and Britney Spears. And the savior, Ahmed Chalabi.

The role of the academy in the three crucial US-Islam encounters of the long 21st century - Islamic Revolution 1979, Gulf War I 1991, September 11, 2001 - will be the task for future historians. Edward Said called the war-championing academics in 1991 as the Scholar-Combatants. Bernard Lewis, a veteran of WWII, is the prototype (Fouad Ajami being the poor man's version).

Michael Hirsh points that many Arabists are now setting out to debunk Lewis (like Said never did that) and writing about the cooperation of civilizations instead of clash of civilizations. These critics of Lewis claim that his scholarship is medieval and ossified and he has misread most of Islamic history (if, that is, he actually read it). That he generalizes wrongly and injects his own twisted worldviews without looking at the sources; that he is intent to psychoanalyze a diverse world. So, who is this historian who can have such influence on the elite as well as the public?

I have never doubted that Lewis knows his history. I am sure he knows more than I do. So, I won't critique his Islamic history (though, I can and, yes, it is quite easy). Instead, let me just talk about his involvement in the imperial project and explain why Edward Said called him the new "Orientalist". Bernard Lewis is a Empirist looking for a King to champion. The end of British Empire after WWII was a greater loss for that generation of British men who served it proudly. Lewis was a wartime British Military Intelligence officer who must have had some cool George Smiley (or T.E. Lawrence) adventures. His posting at Princeton in 1974 timed with the US interests in Iran. During the Carter administration, he devised The Bernard Lewis Plan - implemented under the supervision of Zbigniew Brzezinski. And what did the Bernard Lewis Plan entail? Not frequent flyer miles. The plan was based on his idea of an "Arc of Crisis" created around the southern borders of Soviet Union by empowering Muslim radicals to rebel against the communists to bring about the fall of the Soviet Empire. But why Islamic fundamentalists? Why not empower Islamic satirists and engineers? Because, Bernard Lewis has been fascinated with the dull-eyed muslim killing robot remotely controlled by a long-bearded Master all his academic life. This weird obsession with Islamic militarism (and millinasim) goes back to his publication of The Assassins in 1967. The book is a strange work that seems to praise and condemn the Ismaili fanatics at the same time. In a way, he has been talking about wigged-out, fundamentalists clashing with Crusader knights for the last 40 years. Only now, people are listening.

After the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended, the policy wonks needed a new bogey man. In a massively read and cited piece, The Roots of Muslim Rage, published in September of 1990 in the Atlantic Monthly, Lewis gave them one by unveiling the "hatred directed against us" in the Muslim world. Just Muslim - not Arab, Indian, Chinese, Caucasian, whatever - Muslim Rage. In it, he first declared that "they hate us" [with no corroboration] and then ran through a litany of almost-explanations: Nazism, Marxism, anti-Semitism, Racism, anti-Imperialism. It is an ingeniously constructed argument, where he listed all of the above reason, gave them some credence but moved on to the next one, finally ending with "a clash of civilizations" [Sam Huntington borrowed it]. The reader, by this time, had almost identified Muslims with nazis, marxists and racists. Which would be enough, you'd think. But there is a grand narrative about to unfold:

There is something in the religious culture of Islam which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and a courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equalled in other civilizations. And yet, in moments of upheavel and disruptions, when the deeper passions are stirred, this dignity and courtesy toward others can give way to an explosive mixture of rage and hatred which impels even the government of an ancient and civilized country - even the spokesman of a great spiritual and ethical religion - to espouse kidnapping and assassination, and try to find, in the life of their Prophet, approval and indeed precedent for such actions.

[...]It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations - the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both. [emphasis mine]

A deep, deep passion against those backhanded compliments and essentializations is stirring in the heart of this plebian. Gulf War I was a catalyst for Middle Eastern scholars to come into the limelight and kick those Cold War polisci profs back to their cubicles. NYT published full page pieces on "Books to Read" to understand the region and its people (and their irrational minds). Bernard Lewis got some books out of all that. In 1992, he performed autopsy on the Arab world in the pages of Foreign Affairs called Rethinking the Middle East. In it, he declared that Gulf War I was the end of pan-Arabism. Arabs are finally going to have to wake up and decide that they have unique interests (what about the monolithic civilization?). But what could attract them in the absence of pan-Arabism? Islamic fundamentalism. And that could go hand in hand with, what Lewis called, "Lebanonization" whereby Middle East states will collapse "into a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions and parties." [aside: Ever wonder why The Chosen One says "freedom" all the time? In this piece Lewis tells us that the word "freedom" is a good word in Arab history synonymous with independence but the word "democracy" is a bad word synonymous with sham parliamentary regimes]. The only way out, Lewis wrote, is to do as the Turks did (Turks are not Arabs, he wisely pointed out) and embrace democracy. But, the way to spread the democracy is through regional security alliances and staunch support of Israel.

But Saddam Hussein had survived. How can the Arabs have democracy if Saddam is there? The obsession of neo-cons with Iraq and remaking the Middle East is well documented elsewhere (and on CM) and the man who provided them insights into the Arab mind was always Bernard Lewis. In 1998, Lewis was one of the signatories of a letter asking President Clinton to invade Iraq and install a provisional government there. For a sense of dej√° vu, please read the other names. And while dawn must have appeared far in the Clinton night, they toiled on. Which brings us back to the Michael Hirsh piece that started this journey. Go read it because the rest, as they unwittingly say, is history.