A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Bernard Lewis is 100 Today

The scholar and academic (and sometimes polemicist) Bernard Lewis is 100 years old today. That is a notable birthday for anyone. The remarkable size of his output, scholarly and popular, is also remarkable. Especially in the past 20 years, he has become a political lightning rod in Middle East policy studies.

I won't criticize a man on his birthday, especially such a landmark one. In person he has always seemed an eloquent English gentleman. I will note that if Lewis' academic output had ended at, say age 70 or 75, his legacy would be less controversial. Works like The Emergence of Modern Turkey stand as major contributions. (Though that book was not without controversy when later editions softened the language on the Armenian massacres.) Lewis always had his opponents: Jewish and a lifelong Zionist, he was an outspoken supporter of Israel when that was rare in a field dominated by Arabists, though he had a full command of that language.

When Edward Said, in Orientalism, painted Lewis as a prime example of Orientalist discourse, Lewis welcomed the title and debated Said in print and in person. More recently, some of his works on Islam have been increasingly controversial, and he was often seen as the favorite public intellectual of the neocon movement, and seen as a supporter of invading Iraq (though he has denied he supported the war).

There will be time to assess the man and his legacy. Meanwhile, Happy Birthday.


David Mack said...

Glad you have resumed blogging. Assume this means your health is back to normal,for which you have my best wishes.

Lewis was the keynote speaker at the MEI annual conference at some point in the late 1990s, if I recall correctly. I had pushed for us to invite him. In the end, his speech was disappointing. His best work was well in the past. Ironically, it was a short time later that the Bush White House and neo-con establishment embraced him as a prophetic voice.

Martin Kramer said...

Well, if Edward Said's academic output had ended at, say, age 40, his legacy would be less controversial too. To make breakthroughs in any branch of creative human endeavor is to generate controversy. Since when did this word become an indictment? In any event, it is doubtful that the field of Middle Eastern studies could attract and sustain a genius of Lewis's caliber today, even limiting the scope to his output before the age of 70. The interesting question is: why?