by Andrew G. Bostom
I spent an hour with my colleague, the prolific author Robert Spencer, discussing Bernard Lewis, nonagenarian doyen of Islamic Studies. The entire interview, conducted as a segment for Robert's outstanding weekly series of Jihad Watch programs on the Aramaic Broadcasting Network, is embedded at the bottom of this posting. Please read the summary assessment of my concerns before watching the interview. A more detailed analysis of Lewis's analytic pitfalls can be read here.
Accrued over a distinguished career of more than six decades of serious scholarship, Bernard Lewis clearly possesses an enormous fund of knowledge regarding certain aspects of classical Islamic civilization, as well as valuable insights on the early evolution of modern Turkey from the dismantled Ottoman Empire. A gifted linguist, non-fiction prose writer, and teacher, Lewis shares his understanding of Muslim societies in both written and oral presentations, with singular economy, eloquence, and wit. Now 96 years old and still active, these are extraordinary attributes for which Lewis richly deserves the accolades lavished upon him.
I began expressing my concerns with the less salutary aspects of Lewis' scholarship in a lengthy review-essay (for Frontpage) on Bat Ye'or's seminal book Eurabia -- The Euro-Arab Axis, published December 31, 2004. Over the intervening years -- in the wake of profound U.S. policy failures vis a vis Islamdom at that time, and subsequently, till now -- this disquietude has increased considerably. As I demonstrate in my recent book, Sharia Versus Freedom, Lewis's legacy of intellectual and moral confusion has greatly hindered the ability of sincere American policymakers to think clearly about Islam's living imperial legacy, driven by unreformed and unrepentant mainstream Islamic doctrine. Ongoing highly selective and celebratory presentations of Lewis's understandings -- (see this for example) -- are pathognomonic of the dangerous influence Lewis continues to wield over his uncritical acolytes and supporters.
In Sharia Versus Freedom, I review Lewis's troubling intellectual legacy regarding four critical subject areas: the institution of jihad, the chronic impact of the Sharia on non-Muslims vanquished by jihad, sacralized Islamic Jew-hatred, and perhaps most importantly, his inexplicable 180-degree reversal on the notion of "Islamic democracy." Lewis' rather bowdlerized analyses are compared to the actual doctrinal formulations of Muslim legists, triumphal Muslim chroniclers celebrating the implementation of these doctrines, and independent Western assessments by Islamologists (several of whom worked with Lewis, directly, as academic colleagues; discussed at length here) which refute his sanitized claims.
Journalist David Warren, writing in March 2006, questioned the advice given President George W. Bush "on the nature of Islam" at that crucial time by not only "the paid operatives of Washington's Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the happyface pseudo-scholar Karen Armstrong," but most significantly, one eminence grise, in particular: "the profoundly learned" Bernard Lewis. All these advisers, despite their otherwise divergent viewpoints, as Warren noted, "assured him (President Bush) that Islam and modernity were potentially compatible." None more vehemently -- or with such authority -- than the so-called "Last Orientalist," nonagenarian professor Bernard Lewis. Arguably the most striking example of Lewis's fervor was a lecture he delivered July 16, 2006 (on board the ship Crystal Serenity during a Hillsdale College cruise in the British Isles) about the transferability of Western democracy to despotic Muslim societies, such as Iraq. He concluded with the statement, "Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us." This stunning claim was published with that concluding remark as the title, "Bring Them Freedom Or They Destroy Us," and disseminated widely.
While Lewis put forth rather non sequitur, apologetic examples in support of his concluding formulation, he never elucidated the yawning gap between Western and Islamic conceptions of freedom -- hurriyya in Arabic. This latter omission was particularly striking given Professor Lewis's contribution to the official (Brill) Encyclopedia of Islam entry on hurriyya. Lewis egregiously omitted not only his earlier writings on hurriyya but what he had also termed the "authoritarian or even totalitarian" essence of Islamic societies.
Hurriyya, "freedom," is -- as Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) the lionized "Greatest Sufi Master," expressed it -- "perfect slavery." And this conception is not merely confined to the Sufis' perhaps metaphorical understanding of the relationship between Allah the "master" and his human "slaves." Following Islamic law slavishly throughout one's life was paramount to hurriyya, "freedom." This earlier more concrete characterization of hurriyya's metaphysical meaning, whose essence Ibn Arabi reiterated, was pronounced by the Sufi scholar al-Qushayri (d. 1072/74).
Let it be known to you that the real meaning of freedom lies in the perfection of slavery. If the slavery of a human being in relation to God is a true one, his freedom is relieved from the yoke of changes. Anyone who imagines that it may be granted to a human being to give up his slavery for a moment and disregard the commands and prohibitions of the religious law while possessing discre¬tion and responsibility, has divested himself of Islam. God said to his Prophet: "Worship until certainty comes to you." (Koran 15:99).As agreed upon by the [Koranic] commentators, "certainty" here means the end (of life).
Bernard Lewis, in his Encyclopedia of Islam analysis of hurriyya, discusses this concept in the latter phases of the Ottoman Empire, through the contemporary era. After highlighting a few "cautious" or "conservative" (Lewis's characterization) reformers and their writings, Lewis maintains,
there is still no idea that the subjects have any right to share in the formation or conduct of government-to political freedom, or citizenship, in the sense which underlies the development of political thought in the West. While conservative reformers talked of freedom under law, and some Muslim rulers even experimented with councils and assemblies government was in fact becoming more and not less arbitrary.Lewis also makes the important point that Western colonialism ameliorated this chronic situation:
During the period of British and French domination, individual freedom was never much of an issue. Though often limited and sometimes suspended, it was on the whole more extensive and better protected than either before or after. [emphasis added]And Lewis concludes his entry by observing that Islamic societies forsook even their inchoate democratic experiments,
In the final revulsion against the West, Western democracy too was rejected as a fraud and a delusion, of no value to Muslims.Writing contemporaneously elsewhere, Lewis concedes that (with the possible exception of Turkey), following the era of the French Revolution, 150 years of prior experimentation with Western secular sovereignty and laws in many Islamic countries, notably Egypt, had not fared well.
[T]he imported political machinery failed to work, and in its breakdown led to the violent death or sudden displacement by other means of ministers and monarchs, all of whom had failed to replace even the vanished Sultanate in the respect and loyalties of the people. In Egypt a republic was proclaimed which in some respects seems to be a return to one of the older political traditions of Islam-paternal, authoritarian Government, resting on military force, with the support of some of the religious leaders and teachers, and apparently, general acceptance. Perhaps that is an Islamic Republic of a sort.Moreover, Lewis viewed the immediate post-World War II era of democratic experimentation by Muslim societies as an objective failure (again, with the possible exception of developments, at that time, in Turkey), rooted in Islamic totalitarianism, which he compared directly (and unabashedly) to Communist totalitarianism, noting their "uncomfortable resemblances" with some apprehension.
I turn now from the accidental to the essential factors, to those deriving from the very nature of Islamic society, tradition, and thought. The first of these is the authoritarianism, perhaps we may even say the totalitarianism, of the Islamic political tradition [emphasis added]. . . . Many attempts have been made to show that Islam and democracy are identical-attempts usually based on a misunder¬standing of Islam or democracy or both. This sort of argument expresses a need of the up- rooted Muslim intellectual who is no longer satisfied with or capable of understanding traditional Islamic values, and who tries to justify, or rather, re-state, his inherited faith in terms of the fashionable ideology of the day. It is an example of the romantic and apologetic presentation of Islam that is a recognized phase in the reaction of Muslim thought to the impact of the West... [T]he political history of Islam is one of almost unrelieved autocracy [emphasis added]. . . [I]t was authoritarian, often arbitrary, sometimes tyrannical. There are no parliaments or representative assemblies of any kind, no councils or communes, no chambers of nobility or estates, no municipalities in the history of Islam; nothing but the sover¬eign power, to which the subject owed complete and unwavering obedience as a religious duty imposed by the Holy Law... Quite obviously, the Ulama [religious leaders] of Islam are very dif-ferent from the Communist Party. Nevertheless, on closer examination, we find certain uncomfortable resemblances. Both groups profess a totalitarian doctrine, with complete and final answers to all questions on heaven and earth; the answers are different in every respect, alike only in their finality and completeness, and in the contrast they offer with the eternal ques¬tioning of Western man. Both groups offer to their members and followers the agreeable sensation of belonging to a community of believers, who are always right, as against an outer world of unbelievers, who are always wrong. Both offer an exhilarating feeling of mission, of purpose, of being engaged in a collective adventure to accelerate the historically inevitable victory of the true faith over the infidel evil-doers. The traditional Islamic division of the world into the House of Islam and the House of War, two necessarily opposed groups, of which-the first has the collective obligation of perpetual struggle against the second, also has obvious parallels in the Communist view of world affairs. There again, the content of belief is utterly different, but the aggressive fanaticism of the believer is the same. The humorist who summed up the Communist creed as "There is no God and Karl Marx is his Prophet" was laying his finger on a real affinity. The call to a Communist Jihad, a Holy War for the faith-a new faith, but against the self-same Western Christian enemy -- might well strike a responsive note.[emphases added]Six decades after Lewis made these candid observations, there is a historical record to judge -- a clear, irrefragable legacy of failed secularization efforts, accompanied by steady grassroots and institutional re-Islamization across the Muslim world, epitomized, at present, by the Orwellian-named, "Arab Spring." The late P. J. Vatikiotis (d. 1997), Emeritus Professor of Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), was a respected scholar of the Middle East, who, contemporaneous with Lewis (a SOAS colleague), wrote extensively about Islamic reformism throughout the twentieth century, particularly in Egypt. Focusing outside Turkey and Pakistan on the Arab Middle East (i.e., Egypt, the Sudan, Syria, and Iraq), Vatikiotis wrote candidly in 1981 of how authoritarian Islam doomed inchoate efforts at creating political systems which upheld individual freedom in the region:
What is significant is that after a tolerably less autocratic/authoritarian political experience during their apprenticeship for independent statehood under foreign power tutelage, during the inter-war period, most of these states once completely free or independent of foreign control, very quickly moved towards highly autocratic-authoritarian patterns of rule. . . . One could suggest a hiatus of roughly three years between the departure or removal of European influence and power and overthrow of the rickety plural political systems they left behind in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and the Sudan by military coups d'etat.
Authoritarianism and autocracy in the Middle East may be unstable in the sense that autocracies follow one another in frequent succession. Yet the ethos of authoritarianism may be lasting, even permanent. . . . One could venture into a more ambitious philosophical etiology by pointing out the absence of a concept of 'natural law' or 'law of reason' in the intellectual-cultural heri¬tage of Middle Eastern societies. After all, everything before Islam, before God revealed his message to Muhammad, constitutes jahiliyya, or the dark age of ignorance. Similarly, anything that deviates from the eternal truth or verities of Islamic teaching is equally degenerative, and therefore unacceptable. That is why, by definition, any Islamic movement which seeks to make Islam the basic principle of the polity does not aim at innovation but at the restoration of the ideal that has been abandoned or lost. The missing of an experience similar, or parallel, to the Renaissance, freeing the Muslim individual from external constraints of, say, religious authority in order to engage in a creative course measured and judged by rational and existential human standards, may also be a relevant consideration. The individual in the Middle East has yet to attain his independence from the wider collectivity, or to accept the proposition that he can create a political order.Unlike Vatikiotis, Bernard Lewis has ignored these obvious setbacks. Remarkably, Lewis, as evidenced by his current volte-face on the merits of experiments in "Islamic democracy" has become a far more dogmatic evangelist for so-called Islamic democratization, despite such failures!
Consistent with Lewis' admonition, "Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us," the U.S. military, at an enormous cost of blood and treasure, liberated Afghanistan and Iraq from despotic regimes. However, as facilitated by the Sharia-based Afghan and Iraqi constitutions the U.S. military occupation helped midwife -- which have negated freedom of conscience and promoted the persecution of non-Muslim religious minorities -- "they," that is, the Muslim denizens of Afghanistan and Iraq, have chosen to reject the opportunity for Western freedom "we" provided them, and transmogrified it into "hurriyya." Far more important than mere hypocrisy -- a widely prevalent human trait -- is the deleterious legacy of his own Islamic confusion Bernard Lewis has bequeathed to Western policymaking elites, both academic and nonacademic.
Blithely ignoring the deleterious effects of the advice he has proffered, Lewis plods on, without seeming acknowledgment of that failing. When asked by interviewer Peter Robinson during a question and answer session filmed at the November, 2012 National Review cruise, "What can we [i.e., the U.S.] do to nurture those elements?," [i.e., referring to a Lewis quote which introduced the segment that claimed there were indigenous "elements" in the Middle East which promote consensual government], Lewis replied "We can refrain from supporting tyrants." Lewis added that the U.S. erred in applying the simple standard, "Are they with us or against us."
Let me conclude by noting that Lewis's apologetic tendencies must have been attractive to the Muslim Brotherhood/Saudi Wahhabi front the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs, and its pseudo-academic Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (JMMA), which has been an Abedin family enterprise since 1979. Regardless of whether Lewis was a willing dupe, or not, he served on the editorial board of the JMMA for some 14 years, from 1996 to 2010, despite the fact this "academic" journal was, and remains, a thinly veiled mouthpiece for Sharia supremacism. These critical limitations of his scholarship and judgment have implications which must also be recognized by all those for whom Lewis remains an iconic source of information, and advice, especially policy advice.