Happy birthday to Bernard Lewis, the centenarian scholar who explained Islam

By Fiamma Nirenstein and Harold Rhode

It was a very entertaining 90th birthday, exactly ten years ago. We all came to Philadelphia from all over the world. We were welcomed by the lady of the home, the energetic and elegantBouncy Churchill, a woman who has been the love of Professor Bernard Lewis’s life for the past two decades as he celebrates his 100th birthday on May 31st. It will be Bernard Lewis’s birthday, the world’s greatest Middle East historian.

Though having lived in the US since 1974, he still shows strong signs of his British upbringing, most notably his British accent, his tweed jacket, and his general reserve. This undoubtedly contributes to his desire to now have a small birthday celebration in spite of his having lived for a century.

But at his 90th birthday celebtration 10 years ago, we were so many. We got together for two days, and we all even sported T-shirts with aemblazoned with a beautiful picture of Bernard on the front.

People came from the East and from the West – members of the three great monotheistic religions all gathered together to celebrate Bernard and his contribution to the Western understanding of the Islamic world.

Together we represented the complicate universe of the man who was the first and foremost to have the courage both to love Islam and consider it an essential part of Western humanistic studies on the one hand, and to explain how terribly dangerous it is on the other.

As a very young scholar he was already speaking of ‘clashes of civilizations’, and in January of 1976he wrote on Commentary: “Islam from its inception is a religion of power, and in the Muslim world view it is right and proper that power should be wielded by Muslims and Muslims alone. Others may receive the tolerance, even the benevolence, of the Muslim state, provided that they clearly recognize Muslim supremacy. That non-Muslims should rule over Muslims is an offense against the laws of God (…) Islam is not conceived as a religion in the limited Western sense but as a community, a loyalty, and a way of life…”.

So, at thehistorical Bellevue Stratford Hotel, which according to an old Philadelphia legion was famous for hosting Nicholas 2, the last Tzar of Russia. This beautiful hotel is surrounded by wooden boiserie and other decorations from the past. There, we discussed and debated from a whole day Islam, its relationship with the West and with itself. Among us there were people wearingtailored Western suits,hijabs, neck ties, and turbans.There was no approbation nor animosity, just a kind of scientific although affectionate inevitability regarding the combustible situation in the Muslim world.

Neither then – or for that matter now – were we able to find a way to inoculate ourselves from the chaos so rampant in the Muslim world. But Bernard – maybe due to his innate optimism – always tried to find a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how dim that light might be. Maybe that optimism stems from his typical omniscient British pride or his love for the great American democratic society that welcomed him so warmly after living 58 years in the UK.

Dozens of essays, countless readings, airplane trips (including on the American President’s helicopter) and rides on a camelas a young officer in the service of His Majesty the King, knowledge of all Middle Eastern languages spoken with an accurate and even thespian accent: thus he was able to predict the advent of Khomeini’s monstrous regime (of course, he speaks and read Farsi) when everyone fawned over the Iranian revolution, and then to see what was coming on us fromBin Laden’s declaration of war against “the Crusaders (i.e., the Christians) and the Jews”. We always knew that Bernard couldgive us just a bit more insight into Islamic societies – and very often he told us something we weren’t in the least expecting.

Whether debating, speaking of a panel, or just lecturing by himself, Bernard never avoided answering a question. And even more importantly, he never had a problem telling his audience that he simply didn’t know the answer went he didn’t.

As for Fiamma, he has given thousands of gifts –i.e., storiesand insightful understanding sitting by the Tel Aviv seashore, or walking along the beach under the blazen Mediterranean sun. To Harold, in Washington, Philadelphia,and beyond, he constantly emphasized that the key to understanding the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world was Islamic culture.

Ten years ago for his 90th birthday, when we all converged on Philadelphiaand we forecast the gathering of the storm … and we discussed this problem at lectures, in the corridors outside the meeting hall, and over meals. Among the myriad of attendees were Vice President Dick Cheney, who flew in specifically for this event. Others included Henry Kissinger; the great Sufi leader Sheikh Kabbani,always intent on finding a contact with non-Muslims; Fouad Ajami, the late great Lebanese-American historian who had had the courage to write”The Dream Palace of the Arabs”, a severe critique about his own culture; Zaynab al-Suweij – the president of the American Islamic Congress originally from Basra, Iraq; a brilliant woman of smiles and of warmth; andthe Somali-Dutch Ayaan Hirsi Ali, still very sad, then a recent a refugee in the US, who had suffered terrible persecution but proud and ready to fight.

And then there was us, his passionate god-children, Harold his pupil and Fiamma who had met him in 1991 and had never left him since; as well as Aydan Kodaloglu, an amazing Turkish businesswoman then with links to the highest levels of the Turkish government; Ron Dermer, now ambassador of Israel to the United States; Dan Diker, then a political analyst and later executive director of the World Jewish Congress; Martin Kramer, a first-class historian of the Middle East… and so many others, to all of whom we ask forgiveness for not having sufficient space to name here, and some who were then some of Bernard’s young brilliant accolades.

At the end of the conference, Bernard gave a moving speech without notes, offering insights on the Islamic world by reciting quote after quote off the top of his head. We were left flabbergasted; his was a well-crafted and perfect speech that once again cast its usual spell. He did what today very few are capable of achieving: that of being fair and respectful of Islam while at the same time highlighting its dangerous sparks of rage.

A love shared with the authors of this article that Bernard stokedyear after year,was certainly Israel: Bernard used to spend three months a year in Tel Aviv, his apartment on the beach was full of light emanating from the windows looking out over the waves. He always said that, as soon as he arrived his the beloved apartment, he felta deep sense of contentment and happiness. He then immediately started responding to the many invitations of his friends. Once, at one of the dinners that Fiamma organized in Jerusalem, he brought together, among others, Teddy Kollek, the mythical mayor of Jerusalem, a lion loved/hated by Arabs and Jews, and Nashashibi, he too an ancient Palestinian mayor of Jerusalem, all three sporting lovely English-cut tweed jackets, all three holding a glass of whisky before dinner.

One of the guest at one of Fiamma’s parties for Bernard wasBenny Morris, who at that time still blamed the Jews for the 1948 Arab refugee crisis when Israel was created. At that dinner, Morristurned to Bernard, stating that there was no proof that the Arabs had invited the Palestinians to leave and then return at gunpoint to their abandoned homes. Bernard sent Fiamma to get a book from her study, told her to open it at a given page, and there read out a note that quoted the appeal of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Said that that of the Syrian Prime Minister Khaled al ‘Azmin which they asked the “Palestinian brothers” to temporarily leave their homes. Morris tried to react, but Bernard, always courteous and open to debate, closed the doors. I think that Benny, an intelligent man, probably took into consideration Lewis’ attitude when he later changed his view.

Bernard has changed many people views.It would be useless here to remember his immense bibliography, of which everyone knows at least “The Middle East”, “Islam and the West”, “The Arabs in History”, “Semites and Anti-Semites “… and the list goes on and on.What we prefer to highlight here is that what people find most remarkable today about him is the subtle sense of his work: he is the only historian who has ever based his work entirely on Ottoman and Arabic sources when the Arabs closed their doors to Western studies. His exposition is truly global, contrary to what many think in seeing him as a “occidentalist” against Edward Said’s “orientalism”.

Moreover, Lewis constantly strived to delvedeeper and deeper into the history of the Middle hoping to find more insights to help him and his readers understand both the Muslims and the impact of the West on the Islamic world. This is crystal clear reading his book “What Went Wrong” is in essence a deep exclamation of pain. This is why his quiet but constant and repeated predilection for Israel has always been so paternal and warm in front of the Arab denial.

We congratulate Bernard on his having reached his 100th birthday today. Vice President Cheney ended his speech at Bernard’s 90th by quoting the old Jewish saying: “Bernard… maybe you live to 120!”

About the Author
Fiamma Nirenstein is a journalist, author, former Deputy President of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and member of the Italian delegation at the Council of Europe.