Bernard Lewis constantly contradicts himself. At Harvard’s Kennedy School, a few years ago, he noted that “reform” in the Islamic world — not to be confused with “reform” of Islam — took place because of what enlightened despots had achieved. And then, once the Iraq venture was underway, he co-signed (but claims he did not write) with James Woolsey an article in The Wall Street Journal about the usefulness of having such an enlightened despot in Iraq, and their suggestion was for an (unnamed) Hashemite Sunni monarch. This was merely a transparent piece of special pleading for plummy-voiced Prince Hassan of Jordan, a host and possibly friend of Lewis.
Later, he began to write about how those who denied a democratic strain in Islam were being unfair. This was not as vulgar as Bush’s charge that it was “racist” to argue that Islam and democracy, as we understand that term in the advanced West, are incompatible, but unacceptable nonetheless. When Lewis confuses “democracy” with mere “consultation,” and when he further ignores the question of how much “consultation” was done by the Ottoman Sultan with the heads of non-Muslim communities, or rayas — just how much was there? — he misuses his prestige, a prestige that in any case he, more than anyone else, has been chipping away at. Posterity will not be as kind to him as it might once have been.
He is reputed to have met, frequently, with Cheney. What did he tell Cheney about Islam? What did he tell him, and when, about the Light-Unto-the-Muslim-Nations project?
And then there is Natan Sharansky, who spoke at Harvard a few weeks ago. According to reports I received, Sharansky, known for promoting to Bush, who seized on with his characteristic unquestioning enthusiasm the notion that a lack of “democracy” is what ails the Islamic world (and not Islam itself), the naive (and wrong) idea that “democracies do not make war on each other.” Sharansky now insists that all along he, Sharansky, had in mind “democracy” that would not be imposed but would begin from the bottom up, beginning with the creation of a “democratic culture.” There is still no hint in Sharansky’s insufficiently chastened presentation that a “democratic culture” and Islam are incompatible. When he was queried about this, he did not answer the question, but simply referred to the fact that he had met, on several occasions, with Bernard Lewis, and learned what he knew about Islam, and “democracy” as a cure for the ills of Muslim polities, from Lewis.
Lewis has a lot to explain. But the podhoretzes of this world think they can continue, formulaically and without challenge, to blandly refer to Lewis as “unquestionably the world’s leading (foremost, number one) historian (scholar, student) of Islam.” Others allow this formula to stand unchallenged. Yet Lewis is neither a scholar of the Qur’an, or of the Shari’a, or of the doctrine of Jihad (compare what Lewis writes about Jihad, at pp.77-78 of “The Political Language of Islam,” with what Armand Abel writes, as quoted in “The Legacy of Jihad”). Nor has he bothered to study the dhimmi. In his 400-page “The Middle East” he devotes exactly three paragraphs, two of them exculpatory, to the treatment of non-Muslims under Muslim rule.
Will he explain himself now? Or is he unable at this point to do so? Will he ever explain, in detail, why he was such an enthusiast for the Oslo Accords, rather than simply say, laconically, “I was mistaken”? Will he locate his mistake in the nature of Islam? Or will he say that it was Arafat’s fault, or the “time was not right,” or locate the problem in something other than the doctrines of Islam about Infidel nation-states on land once part of Dar al-Islam? Will he ever concede that the dreams for Iraq were both naive and sentimental? Will he ever concede that the demographic conquest of Western Europe can best be prevented by those who are not inclined to be thinking always of how to appeal to Muslim “reformers” and the Muslim-for-identification-purposes Muslims, or those who at least are worldly Western men who do not take their Islam too seriously — the very people, in Turkey, or in Amman, or elsewhere, whom Lewis meets with, and who pay him flattering visits, and are able, as others are not, to appreciate his objets d’art, his books, his linguistic gifts, his everything?
Is it just possible that Lewis has missed something important about Islam, beginning with the need, in the formulating of Western policy to preserve and protect the West, to consider how Islam holds in thrall not the people Lewis knows, not the Ahmad Chalabis and Prince Hassans and appreciative secular thoroughly westernized Turks among Ottomanist colleagues in Istanbul, but all the hundreds of millions of Believers Bernard Lewis has never met, and chooses to overlook: the primitive masses? What moves them, and will continue to move them, and who moves them, in the end, are what count.