August 20, 2009
Lewistful Thinking Reconsidered: A Conversion Narrative
However valuable Bernard Lewis may have been as a historian, his influence on recent academia/military/political thinking vis a vis MENA, has always been horribly worse than useless, but nevertheless quite significant. This account of a former academic disciple's ditching Lewis when encountering reality is worth reading if only to hear that when he encountered reality on the ground "with Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington as my guides, I ha[d] no way to make sense of such an encounter."
Posted by Matthew Hogan at August 20, 2009 01:29 PM
Filed Under: Foreign Policy & MENA , Iraq War , Islam & Politics , Islamism , Levant , MENA Region General , Op-Ed , Political Development , Religious Minorities , Society & Culture , Terrorism , US Foreign Policy
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I think the utility of this article as to how we can view Bernard Lewis's scholarship or "legacy" is pretty useless. The fact is, as you state, that Lewis's recent works are vastly less useful than his earlier works, which were rather "progressive" (though I have some issues with that phrase and mode of thinking in terms of "progress" that is) relative to some of the other "orientalists" writing at the time, and even today. The notion that there is bigotry or something similar in his writing is idiotic and, as the comments on the student's piece show, the result of foolishness and people learning about his writing second-hand from Edward Said, et al. The biggest problem with Lewis is that his experience is dated. He's old and so is the way he views the world. It is also the problem with some other scholars who provide policy or strategic "insight" in the US: they are schooled in medieval or Ottoman Islam and view Muslim behavior as if that was the most relevant frame of reference, when it clearly is not to anyone who has lived most of their lives in recent times. Then on and afterwards you have their students who take essentially the same view but mix it up with "isms" or ideologies that add nothing but foolishness to scholarship and policy.
The trouble with using "Bernard Lewis and Sam Huntington" as you guides, as at very least a student, is that these are people talking mostly about high politics, diplomacy and the like, not common people. So while you will find very friendly people in Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and so on, that means relatively little in terms of their governments or other political organizations who, as we know, very often do look at the world as Sam Huntington lays out, especially the more violent non-state actors and populist religio-political groups. Arab hospitality is of little importance in geopolitics. Arabs who come to the US are often surprised by how friendly Americans are. And yet American foreign policy remains what it is (even in the time of Obama). The second issue at work with this fellow is that he admits to not be a specialist and to having put little thought into the region before going. So already he had put himself at a handicap by his own doing. Had he bothered to read Lewis's older works in their proper context he would have looked at the man's writings in a different way. And had he, and other students, read other orientalists -- the likes of, say, Philip Hitti to go far back and Albert Hourani to stay current -- they would have a broader and more intimate understanding of the region and its people. That is the problem that Saidian Orientalism presents students and others: it devalues scholarship to advocacy and disdain for good research. Look at the responses to the piece; they're full of folks who have clearly only read blockquotes of Lewis's writing in books or essays by Said and his followers. They haven't even bothered to form their own opinion. The writer obviously did his research, but only after the fact is still somewhat confused, in my view.
Posted by: Kal at August 23, 2009 02:07 PM
I saw that letter but skipped it as annoying to read.
I agree with Kal on this obs: "The biggest problem with Lewis is that his experience is dated. He's old and so is the way he views the world. It is also the problem with some other scholars who provide policy or strategic "insight" in the US: they are schooled in medieval or Ottoman Islam and view Muslim behavior as if that was the most relevant frame of reference, when it clearly is not to anyone who has lived most of their lives in recent times."
He was/is a medievalist and Ottoman expert. In those areas, although somewhat dated and overly... bookish in approach, he was and is useful (for all that he always in my op over-read "Official" Islam as The One Islam - albeit a bias of the Faqihs as well...).
But every bit as much as one would not turn to a specialist in say Medieval European history for insights on Franco-German relations, one should not turn to such a historian for insights on the modern Islamic world. It's inane.
Otherwise, generally entirely agree with Kal on his 2nd paragraph.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at August 24, 2009 07:59 AM
Well, Greg Eow isn't purporting to pass judgment on Lewis' academic legacy, simply on his ideological and political relevance, or rather his ideology's connection with contemporary realities in the ME. And I do not buy that it is a matter of age: Maxime Rodinson or Jacques Berque at roughly the same age managed to have more sense and relevance, not to mention Eric Hobsbawm (of course not a ME specialist).
It is really a matter of ideology: his belief in essentialism, linearity of history, his disdain for contemporary economic and sociological facts, his endorsement of US & Israeli policies in the region are the reasons why he got an audience, and the reasons why his influence is so tarnished. In that sense, Edward Said was right: whatever good came out of his academic work was tarnished by his subservience to wrong-headed Israeli & US policies & ideologies. And he's the one to blame for this, not naughty post-colonial studies professors - read this piece - http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110008768 - to remind yourself why.
Posted by: Ibn Kafka at August 31, 2009 12:26 AM
The entire problem is that the study of the region is reduced to ideological categories and that policy is made through that lens. You reference Marxist historians (save Berque), whose work is easily criticized from a historian's standpoint or a Muslim's (especially in Rodinson's case) for its ahistorical and ideological nature. That is the trouble with "naughty post-colonial studies professors"; they evaluate scholarship by an ideological litmus test and not its actual quality or value. If we take the last twenty years of Lewis's popularized writing it is surely problematic. But if the discussion is about politics, his scholarship should not come into the picture. But Eow and the other "post-colonialists" should say clearly that their interest is not in objectivity or scholarship but advocacy and the production of polemics. In the same way that Lewis's most recent blither pretends to be academic, Said, et al are guilty of doing precisely the same thing from the other end of the spectrum. Furthermore, the Said-ian view of this was pretty much taken down by both Rodinson and Berque who exposed it for the hackery it is.
Posted by: Kal at September 2, 2009 01:03 PM