Religion & Politics 02 May 2006 06:51 am

You Got Orientalist Eyes

Dick Cheney has headed up a select list of guests in a ceremony to celebrate the 90th Birthday of Bernard Lewis. The guests includes, amongst others, Henry Kissinger, Sen. Joe Biden, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Prof Fouad Ajami, Prof Akbar Ahmad and Prof Francis Fukuyama.

The praise heaped on Lewis will be extensive and, like his party guests, glittering, illustrious and well received. He is, after all, the man who coined the term “clash of civilisations”, happens to be the Whitehouse’s favourite historian and stood up in support of the Iraqi Invasion. In addition, a book has been published to commemorate the day. So, true to form, Fouad Ajami in the Wall Street Journal gushes breathlessly in praise of his subject (”A sage in Christendom”) as does the Times (”A pillar of wisdom in the great Islamic debate”).

Prof Lewis is not without detractors and his share of controvery. Brian Whitaker CIF posts a very interesting article that Fouad Ajami, despite being an objective historian, has chosen to leave out in his glowing assessment:

Although he has a track record of coming up with interesting - if debatable - ideas, in recent years his ideas have been based less and less on solid research, and directed more and more towards providing a scholarly veneer for the Bush administration’s Middle East policies.

His track record in that area is pretty bad. He was one of the key figures promoting the invasion of Iraq and, presumably drawing on his knowledge of Turkey, he argued that his chum Ahmad Chalabi, the convicted fraudster, could become an Iraqi version of Ataturk.

Brian Whittaker leaves us with two links that brilliantly critiques Lewis’s work. First is this article by Alain Gresh in Le Monde Diplomatique, “Malevolent Fanstasy of Islam”:

As subsequent events shook the region, Lewis reacted with indifference and even contempt. Although it was in fact another author, Samuel Huntington, who popularised his clash of civilisations theory, Lewis revisited his argument in an article published in 1990: “The struggle between [Islam and Christianity] has now lasted for some 14 centuries . . . For the first thousand years Islam was advancing, Christendom in retreat and under threat. The new faith conquered the old Christian lands of the Levant and north Africa, and invaded Europe, ruling for a while in Sicily, Spain, Portugal, and even parts of France. The attempt by the Crusaders to recover the lost lands of Christendom in the east was held and thrown back, and even the Muslims’ loss of southwestern Europe to the Reconquista was amply compensated by the Islamic advance into southeastern Europe, which twice reached as far as Vienna. For the past 300 years, since the failure of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 and the rise of the European colonial empires in Asia and Africa, Islam has been on the defensive, and the Christian and post-Christian civilisation of Europe and her daughters has brought the whole world, including Islam, within its orbit . . . It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilisations - the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judaeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both” (6).

Put simply, they don’t like us, not because of what we do, but because they reject our love of freedom and because they have been on the losing side for 200 years. Why did Nasser nationalise the Suez Canal Company in 1956? Out of Muslim hatred of the West. What caused the fall of the Shah of Iran and the revolution of 1979? Muslim hatred of the West. Why do the Palestinians constantly rise up against the occupation of their lands? Hatred of the West. Iraqi resistance? Hatred of the West. The conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia? Muslims’ refusal to be ruled by infidels. It’s all obvious. And it explains why they hold democracy in such contempt.

And this disarming article by Shahid Alam in Counterpunch (”Scholarship or Sophistry? Bernard Lewis and the New Orientalism”) which is well worth reading. An excerpt:

Clearly, Lewis’s presentation of his narrative of Middle Eastern decline without any context is a ploy. His objective is to whittle down world history, to reduce it to a primordial contest between two historical adversaries, the West and Islam. This is historiography in the crusading mode, one that purports to resume the Crusades-interrupted in the thirteenth century-and carry them to their unfinished conclusion, the triumph of the West or, conversely, the humiliation and defeat of Middle Eastern Islam. Once this framework has been established, with its exclusive focus on a failing Islamic civilization, it is quite easy to cast the narrative of this decay as a uniquely Islamic phenomenon, which must then be explained in terms of specifically Islamic failures. Thus Lewis’s agenda in What Went Wrong? is to discover all that was and is “wrong” with Islamic societies and to explain their decline and present troubles in terms of these “wrongs.”

And this:

Lewis’s scholarly mask slips off rather abruptly when he appears on television, a feat that he accomplishes with predictable regularity. Once he is on the air, his polemical self, the Orientalist crouching tiger, takes over, all his sermons about objectivity forgotten, and then he does not shrink from displaying his sneering contempt for the Arabs and Muslims more generally, his blind partisanship for Israel, or his bristling hostility toward Iran. One recent example will suffice here. In a PBS interview broadcast on 16 April 2002, hosted by Charlie Rose, he offered this gem: “Asking Arafat to give up terrorism would be like asking Tiger to give up golf.” That is a statement whose malicious intent and vindictive meanness might have been excusable if it came from an official Israeli spokesman.

Happy birthday then to the historian, Orientalist and spokesman.

3 Responses to “You Got Orientalist Eyes”

  1. on 04 May 2006 at 8:15 am 1.sonia said …

    yes his work has never acknowledged any researcher bias in terms of methodological issues.

  2. on 07 May 2006 at 12:01 am 2.Shafiur said …

    I am not in the least bit surprised to see the name Akbar Ahmed in that list. That man is a charlatan if ever there was one. An intellectual pygmy of the first order.

  3. on 07 May 2006 at 3:01 pm 3.Sid D H Arthur said …

    Shafiur, you’re right. I’ve seen him on TV a few times and he has the talent of being able to make skin crawl.

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