Thursday, May 04, 2006

A Tribute to Bernard Lewis

I was thrilled to come across "A Sage in Christendom: A Personal Tribute to Bernard Lewis" by Fouad Ajami in the Wall Street Journal's opinion page. Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton, is a historian par excellence. It was wonderful to see him rightfully praised, especially since historians don't usually acquire much of a following or receive many accolades.

Bernard Lewis is author of many books dealing with the Middle East and Islam, two of his more recent books being, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East and Crisis in Islam. In reading both these books, I was especially impressed by Lewis's fairness and wisdom. Also noteworthy, he had demonstrated great prescience in claiming in the early 1990s that there would be a coming clash of civilizations, a phrase picked up by Samuel P. Huntington.

Below is a paragraph and a half from Ajami's tribute. Notice in particular Lewis's concerns for the West and the respect different Arab groups, recognizing his even-handedness, give him.
For an immensely gregarious man of unfailing wit and personal optimism, a darkness runs through his view of the future of the Western democracies. "In 1940, we knew who we were, we knew who the enemy was, we knew the dangers and the issues," he told me when I pressed him for a reading of the struggle against Islamic radicalism. "In our island, we knew we would prevail, that the Americans would be drawn into the fight. It is different today. We don't know who we are, we don't know the issues, and we still do not understand the nature of the enemy."

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which once translated one of Mr.
Lewis's books into Arabic, said that his book was "the work of a candid friend or an honest enemy." Either way, the Brotherhood said, it was the work of "someone who disdains falsification." And this, to me and to his countless readers, runs to the core of this historian's craft--the aversion to falsification. He has been, always, a man of his own civilization and convictions--a fact that accounts for the deep reservoirs of reverence felt for him in many Muslim and Arab lands. In the American academy, he may be swimming against the currents of postmodernism and postcolonial history; he has given up his membership in the Middle East Studies Association, of which he had been a founding member. But countless Arab and Iranian and Turkish readers recognize their tormented civilization in what he has written. They know that he has not come to the material of their history driven by bad faith, or by a desire for dominion. They take him at his word, a man of the Anglo-Saxon world, convinced that the ways of the West today carry with them the hopes of other civilizations. In one of his many splendid books, "Cultures in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery," he gave voice to both his fears and to his faith. "It may be that Western culture will indeed go: The lack of conviction of many of those who should be its defenders and the passionate intensity of its accusers may well join to complete its destruction. But if it does go, the men and women of all the continents will thereby be impoverished and endangered."


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