Bernard Lewis, prolific Mideast scholar, dies at 101
Bernard Lewis, a prolific Middle East scholar whose insights on Islam illuminated debates on the region’s conflicts, has died. He was 101.
Lewis died Saturday at an assisted living facility in Vorhees Township, New Jersey. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called him “one of the great scholars of Islam and the Middle East in our time.”
“I will always feel privileged to have witnessed firsthand his extraordinary erudition and I gleaned invaluable insights from our many meetings over the years,” Netanyahu said in a statement Monday. “Professor Lewis’s wisdom will continue to guide us for years to come.”
In hundreds of articles and more than 30 books, Lewis established himself as one of the world’s foremost experts on Islam, bringing a dose of antiquity to discussions of jihadism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the nuclear threat of Iran, and expanding consciousness of the historical roots of those problems.
He was among the leading proponents of the idea of “a clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam as a major source of post-Cold War conflict. Lewis argued the roots of the battle lay in the similarities at the core of the two faiths, distinguishing them from other major religions.
“You had two religions with this shared ideology living side by side,” he told NPR in 2012. “Conflict between them was inevitable.”
Well into his 80s, Lewis rocketed unto best-seller lists and became an in-demand television commentator with an aptly-timed volume completed just before the 9/11 attacks, “What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.”
Former Vice President Dick Cheney said of Lewis in 2006: “You simply cannot find a greater authority on Middle Eastern history.” And in a statement Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Lewis “a true scholar and a great man” who “was a hard-nosed defender of democracies around the world.”
Still, the scholar’s work often sparked controversy, including a long-running feud with the late academic Edward Said of Columbia University, who seethed with disdain for Lewis, whom he called emblematic of a patronizing Western perspective of superiority over the Middle East and beyond.
Decades of discord between Lewis and Said bubbled into an epically highbrow throw-down in The New York Review of Books in 1982, with the Palestinian-American Said citing his nemesis as having an “extraordinary capacity for getting everything wrong” and accusing him of “suppressing or distorting the truth.” Lewis, born in Britain in the midst of World War I, responded calling Said’s comments as “an unsavory mixture of sneer and smear, bluster and innuendo, and guilt by association.”
Lewis drew controversy, too, in his rejection of labeling the Armenian holocaust a genocide, a stance that led to objections over him being awarded the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush. His association with Bush and Cheney led some to label him the intellectual father of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Lewis rejected that view as “nonsense” and claimed he opposed the war, though he authored a 2002 article headlined “Time for Toppling” in The Wall Street Journal that argued: “A regime change may well be dangerous, but sometimes the dangers of inaction are greater than those of action.”
Associated Press writer Aron Heller in Jerusalem contributed to this report.