Thursday, January 29, 2004

For those who asked: this is from my new review essay on the Islam Industry in the Middle East Journal (footnotes not included):
"...In present-day studies of Islam, one can easily cite as a source for research “a writer on a Muslim bulletin board.” In Islam and the West (1993), none other than Bernard Lewis cited the authority of “a young man in a shop where I went to make a purchase” or a letter to the editor in the New York Times. In post-September 11th America, Bernard Lewis, who has been accustomed to telling jokes about the Middle East, informs his audiences that jokes are permissible as a source of public opinion orientations because they are the “only authentic and uncensored expression of political opinion.” [In fact, public opinion surveys are conducted and published in many countries of the region.]
Lewis deserves special attention. As is well known, Lewis was brought back from retirement to advise the US government. He has visited the White House, though he refuses to confirm having met with President George W. Bush. Lewis’ recent books, What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam, were on the best seller lists simultaneously, and his older books remain in print. But one finds a contrast between his historical books, where he is thorough and where his scholarship is based on extensive research and knowledge (e.g., his learned book on the emergence of modern Turkey), and his popular books on the Modern Middle East, which are woefully devoid of research and can be quite lacking in basic knowledge about the region.
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’ 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.”
In Lewis’ two best-selling books, What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam, the reader reads the same passages and anecdotes twice. Lewis relishes recounting that syphilis was imported into the Middle East from the new world. His discussion about Napoleon in Egypt appears in both books, almost verbatim. The second book contain calls for (mostly military) action. In The Crisis of Islam, Lewis asserts: “the West must defend itself by whatever means.” Lewis was an enthusiastic champion of the war on Iraq. In fact, he was one of those who assured the American government that Iraqis (if not all Arabs) would welcome the war on their country. [Vice-President Cheney relied on the authority of Fouad Ajami to assert that not only Iraqis, but all Arabs, would joyously greet American troops -- welcome them with, in Kanan Makiya’s words, “sweets and flowers.”
The Crisis of Modern Islam reveals much about Lewis and the ideology of hostility that permeates his work, especially when he deals with contemporary events of the Arab world. One is astonished to read some of Lewis’ observations on Muslim and Arab sentiments and opinions. He is deeply convinced that Muslims are “pained” by the absence of the caliphate, as if this constitutes a serious demand or goal even for Muslim fundamentalist organizations. One does not see crowds chanting for the restoration of the caliphate. Furthermore, Lewis treats Bin Laden, not as the fanatic that he is, but as a respected theologian, another Ghazzali. In other words, he takes his Islamic pronouncements too seriously, instead of treating his subject as the criminal that he is. Methodologically, he still insists that terrorism by individual Muslims should be considered Islamic terrorism, while terrorism by individual Jews or Christian is never considered Jewish or Christian terrorism. Lewis has a reply to this criticism. He argues that what is unique about Muslim terrorists is that they are the only ones who appropriate the religious label for their actions. Perhaps he is right if one is to ignore some facts: that Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, that Jewish settlers who operate against Palestinians do so in the name of religious conviction, that Christian fundamentalists who have used violence against abortion clinics do so from a religious perspective, and he may have never heard of David Koresh or of Reverend Jim Jones of the Guyana massacre or of those Jewish terrorist organizations that are on the US State Department list of terrorist groups and states.
Lewis is free in his retirement to not even disguise his hostility to Arabs and Muslims, not that this hostility was not suspected by his readers for years. After all, he argued to Dick Cheney before the war, using that dreaded cliché from Zionist and colonial history, that Arabs only understand the language of force. His disdain for the Palestinians is unmasked. Though he lists acts of violence by PLO groups — only the ones that are not directed against Israeli soldiers — he lists not one act of Israeli violence against Palestinians). To discredit the Palestinian national movement, he finds it necessary to tell yet again the story of Hajj Amin Al-Husayni’s visit to Nazi Germany, apparently seeking to stigmatize all Palestinians with that association. His is so disdainful of the Palestinians that he finds their opposition to Britain during the mandate period inexplicable because he believes Britain was alas opposed to Zionism. Lewis is so insistent in attributing Arab popular antipathy to the United States to Nazi influence and inspiration that he actually maintains that Arabs obtained their hostility to the US from reading the likes of Otto Spengler, Freidrich Georg Junger, and Martin Heidegger. This is rather amusing. There is no evidence that the Egyptian masses have been known to devour Sein und Zeit (which, incidentally, does not contain anti-Americanism). But even the Ba‘th Party, for Lewis, has Nazi components (in fact, the Ba‘th, says Lewis, is a mélange of Nazism and Soviet communism)..."