Controversial British-American Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, whose influence extended beyond academia to Western political circles, has died in an assisted living facility in New Jersey at the age of 101.
Lewis, whose ideas and works on the Middle East helped shape the Western approach and policies in the region, was born on 31 May 1916 during World War I to a middle class Jewish family in London. He showed an early interest in history and languages.
Lewis authored more than 30 books and hundreds of articles, and was known for his strong support of Israel.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Lewis was the man who drew the map of the Middle East and Islam in US power circles.
Lewis graduated from the School of Oriental Studies at the University of London with a BA in history with special reference to the Near and Middle East in 1936. He earned a Phd in the history of Islam three years later. During World War II, he served in the British Army and the Foreign Office.
In 1974 at the age of 57, Lewis moved to New Jersey in the United States, where he was able to devote more time to his research.
Lewis emerged as an authority on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the West in the mid 1960s, and was described as the most articulate advocate of Zionist views in the US academic community on the Middle East.
His books included ‘The Arabs in History’ (1950), ‘The Emergence of Modern Turkey’ (1961), ‘The Crisis of Islam’ (2003), and ‘Islam: The Religion and the People’ (2008), which was co-authored with his romantic partner Buntzie Ellis Churchill.
Lewis was a strong supporter of the US war on Iraq in 2003, arguing that inaction was would be more dangerous than the potential consequences of regime change.
Lewis also debated with Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, who was highly critical of Lewis' works, which Said deemed a prime example of Orientalism.
In Said’s review of Lewis book ‘What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response,’ (2002), Said described the work as a "an intellectual and moral disaster," adding that "the terribly faded rasp of a pretentious academic voice, completely removed from any direct experience of Islam, rehashing and recycling tired Orientalist half (or less than half) truths."
Said criticised the way in which Lewis spoke of Islam as a monolith.
"Remember that Lewis claims to be discussing all of ‘Islam,’ not just the mad militants of Afghanistan or Egypt or Iran. All of Islam.”
“He tries to argue that it all went ‘wrong,’ as if the whole thing — people, languages, cultures — could really be pronounced upon categorically by a godlike creature who seems never to have experienced a single living human Muslim (except for a small handful of Turkish authors), as if history were a simple matter of right as defined by power, or wrong, by not having it.”
“One can almost hear him saying, over a gin and tonic, ‘You know, old chap, those wogs never really got it right, did they?’”
Lewis was also known for advocating harsh policies in the Middle East. His stance was referred to by some as the "Lewis Doctrine," which is encapsulated in Lewis's famous quote “get tough or get out.”
Although he is often referred to as the one who shaped US policy in the Middle East, Lewis said in an interview to the New York Sun on his 90th birthday that his role in shaping war policy has been exaggerated.
"I do meet people and talk to people, I am not a consultant or adviser. I do not have any security clearances," he said.