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Bernard Lewis, Writer Who Foresaw ‘Militant Islam,’ Dies at 101

  • Historian warned of ‘no less than a clash of civilizations’
  • After 9/11, his work influenced Vice President Dick Cheney

Bernard Lewis, the Princeton University emeritus professor whose warnings about rising Islamic fundamentalism and a looming “clash of civilizations” made him a leading scholar of the terrorism age, has died. He was 101.

He died May 19 at an assisted-living facility in Voorhees, New Jersey, according to the Washington Post, citing Lewis’s partner and co-author Buntzie Churchill. No cause was given.

Bernard Lewis

Photographer: Tim Boxer/Getty Images

From “The Arabs in History,” published in 1950, to “Faith and Power,” a collection of his work in 2010, Lewis was at the forefront of scholarship on the Near and Middle East well into his 90s. His 30 books were translated into more than two dozen languages including Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Indonesian. He was a professor at the University of London for 25 years and at Princeton for 12 years.

In a 1990 article for Atlantic Monthly, written less than three months before Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, Lewis said the world was entering a period of “hard struggle, in which we of the West can do little or nothing.” The struggle pitted tolerant, pro-modernization Muslims against fundamentalist Muslims driven by “rage and hatred,” mostly toward the U.S., he wrote.

“Suddenly, America has become the archenemy, the incarnation of evil, the diabolical opponent of all that is good, and specifically, for Muslims, of Islam,” Lewis said.

He described the struggle as “no less than a clash of civilizations” -- a phrase that Samuel Huntington, a Harvard University political scientist, fleshed out in a 1993 article in Foreign Affairs and a 1996 book, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.” Huntington said that in the post-Cold War era, cultural and religious differences would drive world conflict.

Contrary View

Other scholars took issue with this view. Francis Fukuyama argued that the end of the Cold War marked “the end of history,” with Western liberal democracy having prevailed. To Edward Said, Lewis’s view was an example of Orientalism, or the West’s historically prejudiced view of Eastern civilizations.

Said, in a 2001 article, “The Clash of Ignorance,” complained that in works by both Lewis and Huntington, “the personification of enormous entities called ‘the West’ and ‘Islam’ is recklessly affirmed, as if hugely complicated matters like identity and culture existed in a cartoonlike world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly, with one always-more-virtuous pugilist getting the upper hand over his adversary.”

Almost three years before the terror attack of Sept. 11, 2001, Lewis took note of the “Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders” that had been released months earlier by Osama bin Laden and leaders of other militant Islamic groups.

Terrorism Warning

Some Muslims “are ready to approve, and a few of them to apply, the declaration’s extreme interpretation of their religion,” Lewis wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs that, in hindsight, proved prescient. “Terrorism requires only a few. Obviously, the West must defend itself by whatever means will be effective.”

After the 9/11 attack on the U.S., Lewis’s work influenced U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and other so-called neoconservatives. Lewis told U.S. News & World Report that bin Laden understood only resolve and force: “If you concede points, if you show a willingness to compromise, that shows you are weak and frightened.”

Eight days after the attack, Lewis spoke to the U.S. Defense Policy Board, an advisory panel to the Pentagon, and argued for a military takeover of Iraq to prevent more acts of terrorism, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Cheney’s Endorsement

Cheney, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” shortly before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, said: “I firmly believe along with men like Bernard Lewis, who is one of the great, I think, students of that part of the world, that strong, firm U.S. response to terror and to threats to the United States will go a long way frankly toward calming things in that part of the world.”

Lewis watched the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere with cautious optimism. “I think that the tyrannies are doomed,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “The real question is what will come instead.”

After U.S. special forces killed bin Laden in May 2011, Lewis told an audience at Princeton: “To celebrate a death is indecent, but to celebrate a victory is very legitimate. I’m just not sure that we’ve yet achieved a victory.”

Lewis was born May 31, 1916, in London. His interest in the Middle East was stirred by his Hebrew studies in preparation for his bar mitzvah, his longtime companion and collaborator, Buntzie Ellis Churchill, former president of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, told the New York Sun in 2006.

Islamic History

At the University of London, Lewis earned a bachelor’s degree in history, with a specialty in the Near and Middle East, and his Ph.D. in the history of Islam.

He became an assistant lecturer at the university’s School of Oriental and African Studies in 1938. After serving as a British intelligence officer during World War II, specializing in Mideast issues, he returned to the university and was appointed in 1949 to a chair of the history of the Near and Middle East.

He moved to Princeton in 1974, where he was the Cleveland E. Dodge professor of Near Eastern studies. He retired in 1986.

By the time of the 1979 Iranian revolution, Lewis already had a trail of writing on the subject, starting with an article, “The Return of Islam,” for Commentary magazine in 1976.
A book Lewis was working on before the 9/11 attacks came out soon after with the title, “What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response.”

His other books included “The Arabs in History” (1993), “Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish & Hebrew Poems” (2001), “The Emergence of Modern Turkey” (2001) and “Islam: The Religion and the People” (2009), co-written with Churchill.

Lewis had two children with his wife, Ruth. The marriage ended in divorce.

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