Thursday, February 05, 2004

Bernard Lewis

Angry Arab has a pretty good take-down of Bernard Lewis:

"In writing about contemporary Islam, for years Lewis has been largely recycling his 1976 Commentary article titled The Return of Islam (“return” from where?) In this piece, Lewis exhibits his adherence to the most discredited forms of classical Orientalist dogmas by invoking such terms as 'the modern Western mind.' He thereby resurrects the notion of an epistemological distinction between 'our' mind and 'theirs,' as articulated by Ralph Patai in The Arab Mind (which, incidentally, went into a new printing after September 11th). For Lewis, the Muslim mind never seems to change. Every Muslim, or any Muslim, regardless of geography or time, is representative of any or all Muslims. Thus, a quotation from an obscure medieval source is sufficient to explain present-day behavior. Lewis even traces Abu ‘Ammar’s (Yasir ‘Arafat’s) own name to early Islamic history and to the names of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, though ‘Arafat himself had explained that his name derives from the root ‘amr (a reference to ‘Arafat’s construction activities in Kuwait prior to his ascension within the Palestine Liberation Organization). Because ‘Arafat embraced, literally, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran when he met him, Lewis finds evidence of a universal Islamic bond. When Lewis revised his book years later, he took note in passing of the deep rift that later developed between ‘Arafat and Khomeini by saying simply that 'later they parted company.'

"The Islam of Bernard Lewis is an unchanging Islam. Indeed, according to Lewis, Islam is religion, culture, history, people, geography, law, outlook, paradigm, and, of course, texts (preferably, ancient religious texts). Muslims are dominated exclusively by Islam. He: 'For Muslims, Islam is not merely a system of belief and worship, a compartment of life, so to speak, distinct from other compartments which are the concern of nonreligious authorities administering nonreligious laws. It is rather the whole of life, and its rules include civil, criminal, and even what we would call constitutional law.' The dangers of this view does not lie merely in its impact on college and public education in the United States, where no student of Middle East studies can escape Lewis’s books. Lewis now has access to the highest circles of the US government. None other than Vice-President Richard Cheney once answered a question in public by saying: 'I’ve talked to Bernard Lewis about that very subject.'"

I find Lewis one of the touchiest blogospheric topics to talk about. The man was a very good historian, and a few of his books have been required reading during my graduate career. However, his approach to history has fallen by the wayside, with good reason. This is independent of his political views, which are also of course under attack from many quarters. And, of course, he's been invoking his recent scholarship on behalf of his chosen political causes, coming to be the administration's expert par excellence despite the fact he's so out of step with the field.

Enter Edward Said, of course, who is also a figure of widely known political views who has academic influence. His work Orientalism was an attack on Lewis's way of doing history, and its influence has been that scholars like myself have increasingly turned to social and economic studies rather than just religious explanations for Middle Eastern life. The most direct offspring of Saidian thought is post-colonialism, a school of thought most influential in South Asian Studies that seeks to understand the effect of colonialism on societies and ultimately discover their pre-colonial constructs. Please note that this does not necessarily imply colonial exploitation, merely differences as Western ways of doing things were overlaid on existing native cultures. Some key questions can be found here:

"How did the experience of colonization affect those who were colonized while also influencing the colonizers? How were colonial powers able to gain control over so large a portion of the non-Western world? What traces have been left by colonial education, science and technology in postcolonial societies? How do these traces affect decisions about development and modernization in postcolonies? What were the forms of resistance against colonial control? How did colonial education and language influence the culture and identity of the colonized? How did Western science, technology, and medicine change existing knowledge systems? What are the emergent forms of postcolonial identity after the departure of the colonizers? To what extent has decolonization (a reconstruction free from colonial influence) been possible? Are Western formulations of postcolonialism overemphasizing hybridity at the expense of material realities? Should decolonization proceed through an aggressive return to the pre-colonial past (related topic: Essentialism)? How do gender, race, and class function in colonial and postcolonial discourse? Are new forms of imperialism replacing colonization and how?"

Some of these have political overtones, but most seem good and necessary topics for examination, unless you believe that Africa, Asia, etc. would all look exactly the way they do today with European-style nation-states, education systems, and so on regardless of whether there had been colonization.

Back to Said and Lewis, politics and scholarship are, of course, not completely unrelated. A key element of Said's criticms was based on the idea that traditional orientalism was the handmaiden of racism and the colonial enterprise. This is actually considered the weakest part of his argument. The three most influential orientalists were probably Carl Becker and Ignaz Goldziher (both German and not serving someone's Middle East empire) and Louis Massignon (something of a radical who tried to get himself martyred in the cause of Algerian independence). However, Lewis has to some become the stereotype of the Saidian orientalist. You can also see the political implications for today of this precise dispute: If Arab hostility toward the U.S. is religious in origin that means one thing, whereas if it relates to concrete social and political causes it means something else. This February 3 Angry Arab post shows Lewis's current political influence as refracted through the Wall Street Journal. (I haven't read The Crisis of Islam, but his earlier works did show far more nuanced thinking.)

I don't have a real point in all this, other than to beware taking the words of experts at face value, and always be aware of how the knowledge given to you gets put together. Old habits and concepts die hard. Here at UW, the graduate seminars I take are all called "Problems in Islamic History," yet there is no "Problems in Hindu History," "Problems in Shinto History," "Problems in African Traditional Religious History," and so on for those regions of the world. A key reason is that Europeans have had contact with the Middle East since the Middle Ages when their Muslimness counted for far more than their ethnicity. Albert Hourani has a book of essays called Islam in European Thought that gives some interesting insights into the development of the field from a non-Saidian perspective.