Jihad Watch Board Vice President Hugh Fitzgerald, who wrote this superb critical essay on Bernard Lewis some time ago, adds some new observations here:
Bernard Lewis is busy chipping away at his own monument, so that posterity will be left with far less than if he had been silent these past few years, or at least had owned up to a few mistakes — including his scandalous refusal to admit not only to the mistake of supporting the Oslo Accords, but to own up to the fact that his enthusiasm for those “Accords” made no sense if he took seriously the principles of Islamic law and the model of Al-Hudaibiyya. Years ago he wrote about the incompatibility of Islam and Democracy.
But lately, in his initial enthusiasm (no doubt by now much diminished) for the fantasy-land plan of Iraq the Light Unto the Muslim Nations, he assured us (and no doubt others took heart from this assurance) that a kind of democracy (oh, not the “Western” kind, perhaps, with all those universal-declaration-of-human-rights notions, or at least with some theoretical possiblity of locating a state’s legitimacy in “the people,” which is not possible in Islam, but something) was always to be found in the Islamic tradition. He assured us that in the Islamic world there has even been great “social mobility” (meaning that the rulers could come from the lowest classes, even from the slaves — and so they could, because anyone who had risen through the ranks even as a slave-soldier might seize power), greater than anywhere, in Lewis’ formulation, other than possibly late nineteenth-century America. He has, with James Woolsey, promoted the idea of putting his (unnamed but clearly meant) friend, Prince Hassan, on the throne of Iraq as a Hashemite monarch supposedly acceptable to all sides, as if there were ever a chance that the Shi’a would have accepted a Sunni monarch after all that happened to them in the history of Sunni-ruled, modern Iraq.
As with the great enthusiasm for the transparently-awful Oslo Accords, Lewis apparently does not feel, at a time of great and growing peril, that anything should nothing extenuate about Islam. Why? Perhaps out of a desire to keep old friends or patrons, or out of jealousies of others and what they went off and managed to study on their own, or out of an unwillingness to declare a mea-culpa or two. How about an article on the folly from the get-go of the idea of Iraq the Model, and the series of assumptions, all proven to be false, from which that idea, like Topsy, just grew?
Lewis has never yet acknowledged his behind-the-scenes belittling of Bat Ye’or and his own refusal to recognize that the history of dhimmitude — a word he likes to mock as “dhimmi-tude,” as if it is a preposterous, rather than useful, addition to the lexicon — matters, is relevant, is center-stage. Instead we are supposed to believe the word itself is illegitimate. No one, apparently, can add to the wordhoard’s store, even when the word turns out to be most apt and most useful. He has never engaged sympathetically with what is presented in The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam. He has never reviewed the book, never written about it. Instead he just goes around, ignoring or denigrating in various sly ways (that “dhimmi-tude”) the work of Bat Ye’or.
This blind spot has led him to focus almost entirely on what happened to Jews under Islam. He cannot get out of his head the matter of comparative mistreatment (i.e. the greater mistreatment of Jews in Western Christendom than in the world of Islam) and exhibits an unwillingness to treat deeply, or treat at all, the mistreatment of others — including Christians and Zoroastrians in the Middle East. And since he carefully circumscribes his work geographically and stays within that Middle East, never wishing to find out just what happened to all those Hindus over 250 years of Muslim rule, he has never written about the remarkable similarities in the mistreatment of those Hindus under Muslim rule to that treatment meted out by Muslims to Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians in the Middle East itself. And he doesn’t stop, despite so many failures (Oslo, Iraq), so many self-contradictions (about “democracy and Islam,” about so much else) that his devoted friends, as well as his enemies, could have a field day. For one more example, see the latest “American Scholar.”
Yet even as Lewis foresees (in a German newspaper) the “Islamization of Europe” by the end of the century, he does not tell us what he thinks should, could, or ought to be done about it. Instead, he contents himself with simply and calmly predicting it, as if it were something merely to be noted, not to be horrified by. This guarded, careful, solicitous-at-every-point-of-Muslim sensibilities public figure (as he now is), with those-home-truths-always-confided-sotto-voce manner, should do a bit more to warn about what lies ahead for Europe, and a bit less ignoring of Bat Ye’or and others who have, in some ways, shown the lacunae in his own scholarship.
There are many who continue to soothe Muslim sensibilities by constant reference to this exaggerated “convivencia” and supposed cultural greatness — yet the more you study it, the less there seems to be of it. Lewis’s comparisons between Europe in the Middle Ages with a supposedly superior “Islamic” civilization are simply insensate. Lewis does not let readers know that high Islamic civilization existed for a few hundred years, at most, on what remained, or had been left, materially and spiritually, by the conquered Jews and Christians. It was those conquered peoples who continued to fructify what is now misleadingly called “Islamic” civilization, after the name of the conquerors. Many of the outstanding figures of that “high Islamic civilization” were either non-Muslims (as the translators) or recent converts, or the children of converts, and still still just a generation away from non-Islamic influences and other, freer ways of thought.
Does anyone think that if Europeans lose control of their own civilization, and through Da’wa and demographic conquest become subject to Muslim rule, that all non-Islamic influences will suddenly end? They will live on, for a while, just as they must have in the Middle East and North Africa, ever-dwindling, but still twitching, still alive, for a while. Lewis doesn’t mention any of that. He doesn’t see it.
Lewis, in fact, gave all this matter of the treatment of non-Muslims under Muslim rule just three short paragraphs, two of them exculpatory, out of 400 pages in his popular survey, “The Middle East.” He continues to ignore the subject of what happened to all those non-Muslims — all those Jews, those Christians, those Zoroastrians, conquered by Islam. Under what conditions did they live? What led some to convert, slowly, over time? What were the effects, for example, of the jizyah? How onerous was it? See, on this, the remarkable admission of S. D. Goitein, in his late-in-life introduction to “A Mediterranean Society,” that he had completely re-thought his view of the jizya, and had come to understand its full effect as he never had before, after a lifetime of work, some of it devoted to “Arab-and-Jew-convivencia” studies.
Lewis never forgets to pay formulaic treatment to the greatness of Islamic civilization, particularly in his lectures. He compares that civilization to that which existed at the time in Europe, and has the Europeans suffer by his comparison. But his “Middle Ages” are always the Dark Ages, and a caricature to boot. Lewis appears not to have kept up with Western scholarship on that period, and all the things that have led to a reevaluation upward of those formerly deprecated times. For the last half-century at least, there have been many important studies of the Middle Ages, yet the popular imagination continues to believe in those “myths that will not die.” Yet those myths have been vivaciously dissected for the mass audience in Regine Pernoud’s Those Terrible Middle Ages! Bernard Lewis appears to be one of those in whom what he learned in the 1930s as a schoolboy about those European Middle Ages remains fixed forever in amber. But “Forever Amber” should be no historian’s motto.
In a world of espositos and armstrongs, Lewis stands out. But that should not be the point of comparison. Snouck Hurgronje, Joseph Schacht (on Schacht’s death Lewis wrote an elegant tribute), and many other scholars of Islam have done superior, more courageous work. And above all there is Bat Ye’or, who has had the means to work as an independent scholar outside the university system, and thus has never felt the need, as Lewis so obviously has, to placate or soothe the ruffled feelings (very easily ruffled feelings) of Muslim colleagues. She is free to follow the evidence and be critical, while Lewis has always carefully left his colleagues the out of a glorious past, and to stay away from subjects — the treatment of non-Muslims — that would perhaps have required from him a different conclusion.
Lewis may think he has been sufficiently judicious. He is wrong. He has been wrong before. He has admitted privately that he has been wrong before. What he cannot seem to do is to write something, publicly, showing his own remarkable twists and turns, and perhaps even, at this late date, paying tribute, by name, to Bat Ye’or. He just can’t do it. He won’t do it. And posterity will judge him by what, at this point, he has to tell us of value that will help to prevent, rather than merely to predict, the Islamization of Europe. His great learning, his linguistic gifts and training, his fluent style, could help that shared, imperilled posterity — his own, and ours.