The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Bernie and his pets

Noted Middle East historiographer Dick Cheney on you-know-who:
You simply cannot find a greater authority on Middle Eastern history -- from classical Islamic civilization, to the Ottoman Empire, to the modern period -- than this man and his works.

One admirer has said this of Bernard Lewis: "If you ask him for his thoughts in his areas of expertise, he will always be encyclopedic, original and as near to irrefutable as a man can get in a field that is so combustible."
There's a lot more there in a very warm toast that Cheney gave a couple of days ago.

Incidentally, I haven't been writing about Lewis because I don't like him. The books of his I have read, even when I didn't like them, were very well written. (Note to Po-Mo historians: you can learn a thing or two in style from Lewis' generation -- although I prefer the equally controversial Eric Hobsbawm myself. You don't have to be a populist to write for ordinary people.) I'm no expert on the matter and understand he has done some very important scholarship on the Ottoman Empire. What I don't like is a) some of his more recent polemics on current affairs and b) the fact that his admirers ignore when they write about him the vast body of scholarship, probably starting with Edward Said, that has leveled what seems to me pretty cogent critiques of his work. He's an important historian. Celebrating his career is normal. But those who celebrate it only seem to do so because he's provided intellectual cover for rather dubious policies, and done so against the majority opinion of academics in his field.

[Thanks to a kind reader for the link.]

Just as I was about to post this, I got news that Fouad Ajami has written his own tribute to Lewis in (where else?) the Wall Street Journal:

In the normal course of things, America is not a country given to excessive deference to historians and to the claims of history, for the past is truly a foreign country here. But the past quarter century was no normal time, and Mr. Lewis no typical historian. He knew and worked the archives, it is true; and he mastered the languages of "the East," standing at the peak of his academic guild. But there is more to him than that: He is, through and through, a man of public affairs. He saw the coming of a war, a great civilizational struggle, and was to show no timidity about the facts of this war. "I'll teach you differences," Kent says to Lear. And Mr. Lewis has been teaching us differences. He knew Islam's splendor and its periods of enlightenment; he had celebrated the "dignity and meaning" it gave to "drab impoverished lives." He would not hesitate, then, to look into--and to name--the darkness and the rage that have overcome so many of its adherents in recent times.
Update: Angry Arab, are you reading this?