Friday, July 06, 2007

Bernard Lewis

It was only recently that I learned how influential Bernard Lewis has been in shaping western perceptions (and misperceptions) of Islam and the Middle East. Lewis has been lauded by many as a great historian and until recently I assumed this was the truth - I have read only excerpts of his work. During the flight to London (yes I'm in London) I started reading Ali Allawi's book The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace, which I got for my father. It has been a great read so far. In the prologue Allawi writes:

Bernard Lewis studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, specialising in Islamic history. Lewis developed a particular slant on Islam's encounter with modernity that ran counter to the then prevailing wisdom. The conventional view was that the political oppressiveness, social inequalities and economic backwardness in the Middle East were mainly because of the legacy of western imperialism and the west's incessant interferance in the area's affairs. Lewis, however, postulated that the Islamic world's problems were mainly of its own making, driven by a congenital inability of Islamic civilisation to accomodate to its diminished status in the world. 'The Roots of Muslim Rage', the title of Bernard Lewis's now classic essay, was ultimately linked to the failure of Islamic civilisation to accept that it had been relegated to a secondary status by the manifest political and technological superiority of the west. This was even more galling, for this new world was dominated by Islam's historic rival, Christendom. Without this acknowledgement, Muslim societies were unable to rejuvenate themselves and adjust to modernity. Lewis wrote that 'This is no less than a clash of civilisations - the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.'

Lewis's band of admirers grew perceptibly in the 1980s and 1990s and, with the advent of the Bush administration, joined up with the other strands of the 'Alternative Discourse' to dominate Middle East policymaking. Lewis himself put on the mantle of the 'public intellectual', appearing on numerous TV shows, and mentoring and advising all manner of officials in the post 9/11 Bush administration. The 'Lewis doctrine' became official policy all the more so as Lewis was an enthusiastic advocate of using force to efffect change. The invasion of Iraq could now be given a scholarly sheen, carrying the imprimatur of the 'most influential post-war historian of Islam and the Middle East', as Lewis was called by one of his academic followers. The grand scheme of dragging the Middle East, kicking and screaming, into the democratic and secular future designed for it by the 'best and brightest' of the new Washington, would now begin in earnest. Iraq was in the right place and it was the right time to start the make-over of the region. Lewis and Strauss were profound influences, in deep and subtle ways, on the nexus of advisers, policymakers and war-planners that pushed the USA into invading Iraq.

Allawi goes on to say that the Bush team should have read 'other, more cautionary narratives', including the works of Ali al Wardi and The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action by sociologist Robert Merton. Allawi asserts that Washington ignored what was happening inside Iraq before the war and that war planners knew very little about Iraq before the invasion.

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