The Honorary Ottoman

Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East by Bernard Lewis

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Bernard Lewis: Consulted by presidents

May 1916 was a propitious time for the history of the Ottoman Empire — that is, for the historiography of it, not for the historic existence of the empire itself, which was about to come to a decisive end. For, by an extraordinary coincidence, the two greatest modern historians of the Ottoman world were born that month, less than a week apart: Halil Inalcik in Istanbul on May 26 and Bernard Lewis in London five days later. Even more extraordinarily, both are still going strong, in the middle of their tenth decade. It’s almost as if the leading experts on Victorian England today had been born in the reign of Queen Victoria.

Each of these two historians has exerted a huge influence, but in different ways and on mostly different subject matters. Inalcik has concentrated on the Ottoman Empire in Europe, with an emphasis on social and economic history, often grounded on the study of archival sources. Lewis has focused more on the Arab world — though he also wrote a ground-breaking study of the rise of modern Turkey. His classic book, The Muslim Discovery of Europe (Littlehampton, 1982), is concerned mainly with Ottoman contacts with Western Europe.

Over the years, Lewis has done less drudgery in the archives than Inalcik , partly because he found, early in his career, that a Jewish researcher was regarded with suspicion by the permit-issuing authorities in many Arab states. But in any case, Lewis’s interests have taken him beyond economic or administrative history into the realm of ideologies, social attitudes and ideas. He has written on anti-Semitism, Muslim attitudes to race and the “political language of Islam”, as well as the history of political movements and geopolitics. Nor has he shied away from public controversy — whether saying that the mass-murder of Armenians should not be called a genocide because it was not the product of deliberate policy, or responding with withering scorn (and compelling arguments) to the attack on “Orientalism” by Edward Said.

Since 9/11, Lewis has gained special prominence as a commentator on the origins of Muslim ressentiment against the West. He has also been described as the architect of US policy towards Iraq, which seems an exaggerated way of saying that he has been consulted by presidents and policy-makers in Washington. While his views on some things may have changed subtly over the years, he has been consistent on three points: that democracy is generally better than other forms of government; that although Arabs have little experience of democracy, they are not radically disqualified by their history or culture from developing and appreciating democratic rule; and that democracy cannot be imposed by force.

That third point could have made him an opponent, not a supporter, of the invasion of Iraq. Since the invasion, he has insisted, reasonably enough, that the attempts to create a democratic state there should be strengthened, not abandoned. But it is not clear that he ever regarded democracy-making as a sufficient justification for going to war. His writings in the build-up to the invasion suggested that two other motives were at work in his mind: changing the geopolitics of the Middle East, and demonstrating Western resolve and power. “A regime change may well be dangerous,” he wrote in late 2002, “but sometimes the dangers of inaction are greater than those of action.” Readers will have their own views on whether he got that right. 

Bernard Lewis has always combined his scholarly work with addressing the general public, through media appearances, lectures and articles. Two collections of his essays have already appeared: Islam and the West (1993) reprinted 11 substantial items and From Babel to Dragomans (2004) offered more than 50 pieces, including short newspaper articles. His latest collection, Faith and Power, prints 13 essays and lectures, all of them focusing in one way or another on Islam, the nature of Islamic politics and polities and the relationship between Islam and the West.

Lewis is a lucid writer as well as a learned man, and almost everything he writes will contain something illuminating and thought-provoking. But I wonder whether he has been well served by the editor who persuaded him to put this collection together. Many of these pieces repeat points made in previous writings: the essay here on “Europe and Islam”, for example, overlaps repeatedly with the essay of the same title in his Islam and the West, as well as with the one entitled “Islam and the West” in his From Babel to Dragomans. Indeed, it overlaps with another item, also entitled “Europe and Islam”, printed later in this volume. One can have too much of a good thing.

Even within this volume there are multiple repetitions of the same arguments and facts. That the Ba’ath Party had its origins in Vichy Syria and Lebanon, under Nazi influence, is stated not once but four times. That houriyyah (freedom in Arabic) was not a political term, merely a legal one, is stated five times. And there are many other examples, which it would be tedious to give.

While this book does not cover significantly new ground, it may still be of use to those interested in the development of Lewis’s own thinking. One striking tendency is the strengthening of his view that Islamic tradition does contain elements favourable to the development of democracy. In a reprinted essay from 1993, he wrote rather coolly that “the Islamic principle of consultation” had never been of great importance: it rested only on some enigmatic passages in the Koran and had been neither institutionalised nor formulated in Islamic law. But in a lecture of 2006, he argued that Islamic tradition insisted “very strongly” on consultation and that it was “explicitly recommended” in the Koran. For practical reasons, such an interpretation may be more desirable now — whether the historical and scriptural facts have changed is another question.

Yet while Islam is thus gently nudged in the direction of Western democracy, the underlying tendency is to emphasise the things that divide the Islamic world from the West. Here, it sometimes seems that, for the sake of a streamlined argument, much simplifying has taken place, resulting in a notional “Islamic world” more monolithic than the messy historical reality. “In an Islamic state,” Lewis writes, “there is in principle no law other than the sharia.” Perhaps not “in principle”, but that principle was systematically broken by the Ottoman state, which used both custom and the will of the Sultan as sources of its law. Likewise, Lewis’s accounts of Islam here make no mention of the hugely influential “unofficial Islam” of the Sufi orders. His “Islamic world” is geographically streamlined too, paying scant regard to the Indian sub-continent and south-east Asia.

Lewis knows about all of these things. These brief essays and lectures do not give us the intellectual measure of the man. In my mind, therefore, they inspire a wish to spend less time reading minor items fished up out of his filing cabinet, and more time rereading his major historical works, the best of which may have lives almost as long-lasting as the 94-year-old author himself.