Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, Facts, Ideology, and the Middle East

I recently came across an excellent interview conducted by Evan Goldstein, who is the editor of Arts & Letters Daily and the Chronicle of Higher Education, with Bernard Lewis, who is an eminent historian of the Middle East from Princeton. There were three things that stood out to me in the interview: 1) the potential for ideological rigidity in academia, 2) the importance of history for analysis of recent events, and 3) the astonishing, obstinate ignorance of foreign policy ideologues when it comes to understanding enemies. Three excerpts from Goldstein’s interview with Lewis can best illustrate my points.

On the potential for ideological rigidity, Lewis – who I first came across from reading Edward Said’s infamous postmodern polemic Orientalism – has much to tell us:

Age has not mellowed Lewis, especially on the topic of the late Edward Said, whose 1978 polemic, Orientalism, upended Middle East studies and placed Lewis in the position of having to defend his scholarship against charges of racism and imperialism. Lewis vividly remembers reading Orientalism for the first time. “Apart from Said’s ill will,” he says, “I was appalled by his ignorance.” […] Lewis and Said met only once, in 1986, for a debate at the annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association. Dubbed the “shoot-out at the MESA corral,” the event drew 3,000 spectators. Whether or not Lewis thinks he won that day’s battle, however, he seems to be under no illusion that he lost the war.

“Middle Eastern studies in this country is dominated by the Saidians,” he says, his voice rising in indignation. “The situation is very bad. Saidianism has become an orthodoxy that is enforced with a rigor unknown in the Western world since the Middle Ages.” This groupthink, he says, taints everything: jobs, promotions, book reviews. “If you buck the Saidian orthodoxy, you’re making life very difficult for yourself.”

In 2007, Lewis and some like-minded scholars, including Fouad Ajami, of the Johns Hopkins University, founded the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. The idea, Lewis says, was to create space for opinions that deviate from the MESA mainstream, “to maintain an independent academic integrity in Middle Eastern studies.”

This is an important argument. I minored in MENAS at UCLA, which has one of the most prestigious MENAS programs in the world, and was never required to read the work of Bernard Lewis. How can this be, especially given Lewis’ towering influence on MENAS in the scholarly world? The answer is, of course, orthodoxy. Dogma. What is most disturbing about orthodoxies that gain a monopoly in a field of study is that truth becomes a political agenda rather than an aim for scholarly research. Those who, as Lewis notes, dedicate their lives to answering questions as best they can are necessarily at odds with the dogmas of the field. Postmodern Saidians have imposed the worst sort of orthodoxy, too: If you are not from the Middle East, or if you are not Muslim, then you are by default an agent – willing or otherwise – of imperial aggression and Western chauvinism. Those who question, or dismiss, Saidian insights into the Middle East and North Africa are “being political” while those who do not question Saidian insights are performing scholarly research. Can anybody else see the fallacy here?

This orthodoxy dominates MENAS scholarship. While interacting with my professors at UCLA I was given plenty of opportunities to subtly acknowledge my adherence to Saidism. I did not. I did not question Saidianism, either. I only expressed an innocent desire to gain insights into the work of the guy called out so often in Orientalism, Bernard Lewis. I was told, on numerous occasions, that Lewis had not been read, though of course it never hurts to gain the other side’s perspective. Could the orthodoxy Lewis identifies and assails be any clearer? (Here is the website to Lewis’ Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, by the way.)

Aside from vehemently disagreeing with the patron saint of MENAS, Lewis has also gained notoriety for his connection to the second Bush administration’s illegal invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. I don’t want to get into the details of his participation here (Goldstein does a good job of that in the interview itself, and I actually lost a little bit of respect for Lewis because of his evasive answers to Goldstein’s questions about his relationship with the Bush administration), but his insights into how the Middle East actually works should be of particular interest to libertarians and especially libertarians who sometimes read me for my quirky (even by libertarian standards) take on American foreign policy. Careful readers can hopefully recognize my overall argument in Lewis’ intricate understanding of the Middle East:

His disagreement with the Bush administration, he explains with a sigh, was not over the goal (regime change), but the tactic (full-scale invasion). Lewis says he argued for recognizing the leadership in northern Iraq as the country’s legitimate government and arming those forces if necessary. In the decade since the first Persian Gulf war, he says, Kurds and Arabs had managed to build a nascent democracy under the protection of the no-fly zone.

“That was the way to do it,” he says. “Simply to invade was the wrong way to do it, and I thought so and said so at the time.” Why didn’t he speak out before the invasion? “I didn’t feel at that crucial moment that it was right to take a public stance against the war.”

Aside from his inability to own up to his mistaken support for the Bush administration (or making his opposition to its policies public), Lewis is spot on. Look at what he is saying, and remember that his analysis is sharpened by a lifetime of prestigious scholarship on the Middle East: the West should have recognized that the illegitimate borders of Iraq had produced differing modes of governance in different regions, and that it would be morally acceptable to recognize the claims of sovereignty then being shouted out by the peoples of northern Iraq.

I am not even in the same ballpark as Lewis when it comes to understanding the Middle East. He is a retired-but-prestigious historian from Princeton; I am a potential graduate student with a B.A. from UCLA; yet he and I have come to the same conclusion, and it’s not hard to see why (it is also worth asking yourself the following question: Is Lewis right?):

  1. The Middle East is a region of the world with lots of different cultures (this is a truth that many foreign policy experts flatly ignore).
  2. The borders drawn up by the victors of World War I do not line up with these cultures anywhere in the Middle East, save perhaps Saudi Arabia.
  3. These artificial borders, and the international governing institutions that sanctify them, make necessary the presence of a strong man to keep these borders from collapsing.
  4. Since strong men are bad, and bottom-up institutions are good, it makes perfect sense – from a realist perspective and from an idealist perspective – for the West to recognize and incorporate the claims of sovereignty made by these bottom-up, nascent states.
  5. Invading and occupying a country, with the goal of molding it into a democracy, is a stupid idea because…
  6. …democracy cannot do for artificial states what strong men can: namely, keep borders in place without affecting the regional balance of power.

Yet the power balancers, and the realists who think that strong men serve Western interests better than democracies do, cannot adequately explain why these same strong men are so hard to control, and indeed often end up as enemies of the West (Saddam Hussein, anyone?). Lewis’ scholarship explains this well. The ideologues – the Western chauvinists and the postmodern Saidians – cannot explain this or, more likely, are unable to explain this because it flatly debunks their dogmas.

Speaking of dogmas, I have given too much attention to the orthodoxy currently strangling MENAS programs around the world, and not enough to those harbored by Western chauvinists. Goldstein reports:

Lewis pulls a Russian book off the shelf and slowly reads his name, in Cyrillic, on the cover. He smiles. His books have been translated into 29 languages. The Middle East and the West, published in 1964, was even translated into Arabic by the Muslim Brotherhood. Lewis is particularly fond of that edition’s preface: “I don’t know who this person is,” the translator wrote, “but one thing is clear. He is, from our point of view, either a candid friend or an honest enemy, and in any case one who disdains to distort the truth.” Lewis chuckles at that.

There is a common trope in many conservative Western circles that Islamists are so beholden to ideology and hatred of all things Western that they are incapable of understanding other modes of thought. Yet it is very clear from this excerpt that Islamists are interested in understanding other ideologies. Islamists, like socialists in the West, are more interested in molding better human beings than in making us freer. Instead of acknowledging this, many experts in foreign policy circles simply pretend that their opponents are savages and incapable of thinking like a true civilized individual. This mindset, too, contributes to the ongoing violence in the Middle East.

The West has a role to play in the Middle East. If it wants to reduce violence and raise standards of living, then policymakers in Washington and Brussels need to accept the fact that their conceptions of the Middle East have largely been shaped by dogma. Muslims are capable of doing bad things. So are Westerners. The West needs to support bottom-up decentralization in the Middle East until it is no longer possible to distinguish a West from a Middle East or, at least, until the West and the Middle East are as similar as Texas and California (or Germany and France). Until policymakers realize that the Middle East’s autocrats are a direct result of central planning efforts made elsewhere, and until MENAS scholars own up to the fact that their dogmas do more harm than good, peace and prosperity will elude the region.


4 thoughts on “Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, Facts, Ideology, and the Middle East

  1. I actually went to Princeton as an undergraduate in 1987 specifically to work with Lewis. During freshman week, I met a Turkish graduate student in the library. We got to talking, and I told her that I had come to study with Lewis. She looked at me, sort of chuckled, and said, “Well you’re about a year too late, because they made him retire last year.” Even as a high school senior, I had known that Lewis was “Emeritus.” The problem is, when I read that, I confused “Emeritus” with “Eminent,” and just thought it’d be totally awesome to work with him. Twenty years later, I asked him a question at a lecture he gave. That was the extent of my working with him.

    Lewis’s scholarship is very good, and very much worth reading, but like you, I find him disingenuous and evasive when it comes to his polemical writings on political controversies. If he was against the Iraq War, what conceivable reason could there have been to hide his dissent until the year 2015 when everyone was under the impression that he had put his reputation behind it? But that one example is the tip of the iceberg.

    Lewis certainly has a point about the Saidian orthodoxy, but his critique of Said is actually very weak (Said’s response to Lewis is even weaker). He picks at problems at the outskirts of Said’s thesis, but doesn’t really deal with what is essential to Said’s claims (which is ironic, since Said is such a militant anti-essentialist). As for the MESA shoot-out, I would say that Said and Hitchens won it on points. (A transcript of the whole debate is reprinted in Said’s “Power, Politics, and Culture.”) So it’s hardly a surprise that Lewis won some battles but lost the war. He never really entered the war in the first place. What Near East Studies badly needs is a new generation of scholars prepared to evaluate and critique Said’s work (or Lewis’s) from a perspective informed by Lewis and Said but politically distinct from both of them.

    Sound like anyone you know, Brandon? Just make sure that the people you want to work with are still at the institutions you apply to.

    • Hahah that sucks about missing Lewis by a year.

      I just picked up two books by Lewis, The Middle East and Islam and the West, and will try to read them in tandem with Power, Politics, and Culture (I’ve already managed to somehow read Orientalism, of course). Those four, I have gathered, seem to be the essential texts of each respective author. I take recommendations, too.

      From what I have read, the Near East and the Americas are the most hotly contested areas of study in academia, politically-wise. As the world grows smaller, I wonder if the other regions of the world will follow suite. On another level, I hesitantly see this ideological and political contestation as a good thing, but am also wary of cliques and reprisals. I am a libertarian and I think collectivists are lying to themselves and to the public, but I wouldn’t want a collectivist to feel as though she is working in a hostile environment.

      • Both Lewis and Said were hugely prolific, so you have to do a lot of reading before you really get the full sense of their work. On Said, I’d add Culture and Imperialism to the list. Re Lewis: he really made his reputation with his work on the Ottomans and on Turkey, so you’d have to add that.

        I suspect that European history is as contested as the others (and of course, it’s related to the others). On cliques and reprisals, I think the rule to follow is to try to rely on explanations of error that don’t make reference to dishonesty, and ascribe dishonesty to others only if you have to. (I don’t mean to deny that some errors are culpable or dishonest). If any one move has made me a better philosopher, it’s the one I made when I stopped getting outraged at arguments I didn’t like, and started asking, “Why would someone believe that?” It was a slow learning curve, believe me, but worth it, and belatedly helped me navigate the “cliques and reprisals” problem. Personally, I’ve found the problem of cliques to be more threatening than that of reprisals, but that’s purely personal experience. David Kelley’s “Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand” is quite good on all of this. Reading it sent me back to Mill’s “On Liberty,” and made me read Mill in a new light.

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