fb-pixel Skip to main content

Bernard Lewis, 101, influential scholar of Islam

Bernard Lewis’s opinions on Middle Eastern affairs influenced US policy.
Bernard Lewis’s opinions on Middle Eastern affairs influenced US policy.KERIM OKTEN/AFP/Getty Images

NEW YORK — Bernard Lewis, an eminent historian of Islam who traced the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to a declining Islamic civilization, a controversial view that influenced world opinion and helped shape US foreign policy under President George W. Bush, died on Saturday in Voorhees Township, N.J. He was 101.

His longtime partner, Buntzie Churchill, confirmed the death, at a retirement facility.

Few outsiders and no academics had more influence with the Bush administration on Middle Eastern affairs than Mr. Lewis. The president carried a marked-up copy of one of his articles in his briefing papers and met with him before and after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Mr. Lewis gave briefings at the White House, the residence of Vice President Dick Cheney, and the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.


His essential argument about Islam was that Islamic civilization had been decaying for centuries, leaving extremists like Osama bin Laden in a position to exploit Muslims’ long-festering frustration by sponsoring terrorism on an international scale. After Arab terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in a coordinated operation sanctioned by bin Laden, Mr. Lewis was immediately sought out by US policy makers.

He provided critical intellectual linkage between the religious fundamentalism of bin Laden, which he said was a response to oppressive Arab regimes, and the secular despotism of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Democracy, he said, was the solution for both. “Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us,” Mr. Lewis wrote.

Though he later said he would have preferred that the United States had fomented rebellion in northern Iraq rather than invading the country, he was widely perceived to have beaten the drum for war. In an essay in The Wall Street Journal in 2002, he predicted that Iraqis would “rejoice” over an American invasion, a flawed forecast echoed by Cheney and others in the White House.


People spoke of a “Lewis doctrine” of imposing democracy on despotic regimes. His book “What Went Wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East” (2002) became a handbook for understanding what had happened on Sept. 11. (The book was at the printer when the attacks occurred.) Articles he wrote in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal were widely discussed.

On the war’s eve, Cheney mentioned Mr. Lewis on the NBC News program “Meet the Press” as someone who shared his belief that “a strong, firm US response to terror and to threats to the United States would go a long way, frankly, to calming things down in that part of the world.”

In 2004, Mr. Lewis said in a PBS interview with Charlie Rose that pursuing Al Qaeda’s forces in Afghanistan was insufficient. “One had to get to the heart of the matter in the Middle East,” he said.

Mr. Lewis long propounded his diagnosis of a sick Arab society. In a cover article in The Atlantic in 1990, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” he used the phrase “clash of civilizations” to describe what he saw as inevitable friction between the Islamic world and the West. (Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington borrowed the phrase in an influential article of his own in 1993, crediting Mr. Lewis.)

In his article, Mr. Lewis wrote: “Islam has brought comfort and peace of mind to countless millions of men and women. It has given dignity and meaning to drab and impoverished lives. It has taught people of different races to live in brotherhood and people of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable tolerance. It inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievement, enriched the whole world.


“But Islam,” he continued, “like other religions, has also known periods when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence. It is our misfortune that part, though by no means all or even most, of the Muslim world is now going through such a period, and that much, though again not all, of that hatred is directed against us.”

In his view Islamic fundamentalism was at war with both secularism and modernism, as embodied by the West. Fundamentalists, he wrote, had “given an aim and a form to the otherwise aimless and formless resentment and anger of the Muslim masses at the forces that have devalued their traditional values and loyalties and, in the final analysis, robbed them of their beliefs, their aspirations, their dignity, and to an increasing extent even their livelihood.”

Cheney once noted that in the 1970s, before the Iranian revolution, Lewis had “studied the writings of an obscure cleric named Khomeini and saw the seeds of a movement that would deliver theocratic despotism.” Supporters of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ousted Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979.


Critics of Mr. Lewis said he treated Western imperialism, US interventions, and Israeli displacement of Palestinians as consequences of the region’s political failures and social backwardness rather than as contributors to them. Political scientist Alan Wolfe called Mr. Lewis’s positions on Islam “belligerent.” Islamic historian Richard Bulliet suggested that Mr. Lewis looked down on modern Arabs.

“He doesn’t respect them,” Bulliet said in an interview with Washington Monthly. “He considers them to be good and worthy only to the degree they follow a Western path.”

Mr. Lewis’ most prominent opponent, Palestinian American scholar Edward W. Said, called Mr. Lewis a propagandist for Eurocentric views who distorted the truth and hid his politics under the veneer of scholarship. Writing in The Nation, Said said Mr. Lewis, along with Huntington, reasoned “as if hugely complicated matters like identity and culture existed in a cartoonlike world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly.”

Mr. Lewis had an answer for his critics: “If Westerners cannot legitimately study the history of Africa or the Middle East, then only fish can study marine biology.”

Mr. Lewis did not seem to mind antagonizing Arabs. Several times he defended the Crusades as necessary to limit the power of Islamic civilization. He called Arab nations “a string of shabby tyrannies.” He said asking Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to give up terrorism was like asking Tiger Woods to give up golf. Discussing the power of Saudi fundamentalists, he drew a hypothetical comparison to the Ku Klux Klan’s controlling Texas oil revenues.


“As a specialist on Islam, I find myself disturbed by the nonsense being talked, by both Muslims and non-Muslims,” he said. “On the one hand, you have people who would have you believe that Islam is a bloodthirsty religion bent on world destruction. On the other hand, you have people telling us that Islam is a religion of love and peace — rather like the Quakers, but less aggressive.”

“The truth,” he concluded, “is in its usual place.”

Bernard Lewis was born in London on May 31, 1916, as World War I raged. His father, Harry, was a real estate broker; his mother, Jenny, was a homemaker. At 12, as he prepared for his bar mitzvah, he realized that Hebrew was actually a language with grammar, not an “encipherment of prayers and rituals,” he wrote in “From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East” (2004).

By the time he entered the School of Oriental Studies at the University of London (now the School of Oriental and African Studies), he had read widely and deeply in Hebrew and begun a lifelong study of languages, including Aramaic, classical and modern Arabic, Latin, Greek, Persian, and Turkish.

History was another passion, and it, too, harked back to his bar mitzvah. One gift he received that day was an outline of Jewish history, about which he knew little. It led him to read about Cordoba, Spain, under the Moors; Baghdad under the Caliphs; and Istanbul under Ottoman rule. At the university, he became a star student of Hamilton Gibb, a great scholar of Islam, and graduated with honors in history in 1936 with special reference to the Middle East.

One day, as he recalled, Gibb asked him: “You have now been studying the Middle East for four years. Don’t you think it’s time you saw the place?”

Mr. Lewis embarked on a traveling fellowship to Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey, and attended classes at Cairo University. His encounters with the people of those lands underpinned his later observations about them.

“There is something in the religious culture of Islam,” he wrote in one instance, “which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and a courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equaled in other civilizations.”

In 1938 he was named an assistant lecturer at the University of London, where he earned his Ph.D. the next year. In 1940 he was drafted into the British armed forces and assigned to the Army tank corps. He was soon transferred to intelligence.

After the war, Mr. Lewis wanted to study in Arab countries, but as a Jew in the late 1940s and early ’50s, he would have been denied a visa after Israel’s independence. Refusing to lie about being a Jew, as others did, he switched his focus to Turkey and Iran during the Ottoman period.

He happened to be in Istanbul in 1950 when the Turkish government opened the Imperial Ottoman Archives; he was the first Western scholar granted access to them. He also witnessed Turkey’s first free election, leading to his acclaimed 1961 book, “The Emergence of Modern Turkey.”

Some academics believe that Mr. Lewis mistakenly applied the lessons of secular, democratic modern Turkey to Arab countries with a far different history. Armenians contended that his attachment to Turkey had led him to deny that the Turkish slaughter of Armenians in 1915, which he acknowledged and condemned, was genocide. He defined genocide as government-sponsored premeditated mass murder.

In the 1990s, a French court fined him one franc for neglecting to cite objective evidence that might have refuted his opinion on the Armenian killings in an article for the newspaper Le Monde.

Mr. Lewis married Ruth Helene Oppenhejm, from Denmark, in 1947, and they divorced in 1974.

In addition to Churchill, he leaves a son, Michael; a daughter, Melanie Dunn; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandsons.

In 1974, he accepted joint appointments at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and Princeton University, partly to gain more time for research. He also taught at Cornell from 1984 to 1990, among other teaching jobs. He became a US citizen in 1982.

His influence grew in the 1970s, as he advised Senator Henry M. Jackson, the Washington Democrat, and other foreign policy hard-liners who were later identified as neoconservative. Mr. Lewis accepted the neoconservative label for himself. In the mid-1970s, Prime Minister Golda Meir of Israel required her Cabinet to read his article arguing that Palestinians had no claim to a state.

Mr. Lewis, who wrote or edited more than two dozen books and hundreds of articles, was regarded as perhaps the leading expert on interactions between the Christian and Islamic worlds. He said that Jews had been treated better in Islamic countries than in Christian ones for much of history. He said he often chose to see events from the Muslim side.

“At Vienna, I’m at the Turkish lines, not with the defenders,” he said, referring to the 1683 European victory over the Ottoman attempt to conquer the Habsburg Empire.

In “From Babel to Dragomans,” Mr. Lewis discussed how an earlier work of his had been translated and published in Hebrew by the Israeli Ministry of Defense and in Arabic by the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group.

“The translator of the Arabic version, in his introductory remarks, observed that the author of this book was one of two things: a candid friend or an honorable enemy, and in either case, one who does not distort or evade the truth,” Mr. Lewis wrote.

“I am content to abide by that judgment.”