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.