Happy 90th birthday, Bernard Lewis

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Bernard Lewis, the great scholar of the Islamic Middle East, turns 90 this week. This article by Fouad Ajami in today's Wall Street Journal is a fine appreciation of Lewis and his work. I saw Lewis speaking last week at a lunch sponsored by the Pew Forum. He speaks, extemporaneously, in full sentences and paragraphs, and so any paraphrase fails to do justice to him. Still, let me report on some of his comments.

What struck me most is that Lewis makes the point again and again that contemporary actions of Islamist radicals are out of line with long-standing Islamic tradition. Islam had no clerical hierarchy "until very recently," with the seizure of power by the mullahs in Iran in 1979. The protests against the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, carefully orchestrated as Lewis notes, as well as the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie are out of line with Muslim law, one strand of which punished Muslims in Muslim-ruled countries and another of which punished non-Muslims in Muslim-ruled countries. But what was never discussed was an offense by a non-Muslim in a non-Muslim state. Muslims never thought to protest Dante's denigration of Muhammad in his 28th Canto or the negative depictions of Muhammad in the Cathedral in Bologna (an unfinished building of which only the nave was built; if it were ever completed it would be the largest cathedral in the world).

Lewis twice said that Wahhabism, the 18th-century variant of Islam that is the official faith of Saudi Arabia, has the same relation to traditional Islam as the Ku Klux Klan has to traditional Christianity. It is "peculiarly violent and intolerant." And, of course, with Saudi financial support, it has come to be propagated in Muslim communities in non-Muslim-ruled countries.

The kind of dictatorial regimes that have prevailed in the Arab world since the 1950s were not, in Lewis's view, inspired by traditional Arab or Muslim precedents but are "an importation from Europe"—from the intrusion of Nazi influences into the Middle East in 1940 (through the French mandates that were loyal to the Vichy regime and the pro-Nazi mufti of Jerusalem) and the similar example of Soviet communism after World War II. Traditional Arab regimes did not have a principle of representation, but they did have a lively tradition of consultation: Rulers were restrained by institutions of civil society, bazaar merchants, craft guilds, country gentry, scribes.

Lewis's current outlook on the Middle East seems to combine pessimism and optimism. He is pessimistic about what he sees as signs that we are trying to negotiate the equivalent of Chamberlain's 1938 "peace in our time" in Iraq, Iran, Syria. "We're showing hesitancy and weakness and fear. We should do what we started off doing in Iraq." And he predicted that if Iran's rulers get nuclear weapons, they will use them, but "it won't come with a return address," i.e., they'll be delivered by terrorists.

But he also said, "One has to marvel at what has been accomplished"—free and fair elections in Iraq, with ordinary citizens risking their lives to vote, as well as encouraging the role of women. And he said that there are "many signs of democratic movement" in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt, and North Africa. He says that in his informal discussions with people in the region he has a clear impression that there is a growth of democratic opinion—quite a dramatic change—that cannot be measured by public opinion polls. "I hope it will continue and that we won't betray them."