A puzzle within an enigma.
What Went Wrong With Bernard Lewis?
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.