Am I out of line in my criticisms of Bernard Lewis?

A reader writes:

I am usually mildly annoyed with your putting down of other commentators from Daniel Pipes and Mark Steyn to Victor Davis Hanson. But implying that Bernard Lewis does not know what he is talking about is going a bit too far. I myself am no expert on Islam. Having lived in Israel during the greatest onslaught of Muslim (and only Muslim) Palestinian suicide bombers in history ( 147 suicide bombers since 2000), I have been forced to read up on Islam and have read some 18 books on the subject, seven of which have been by Bernard Lewis. In addition, professor Bernard Lewis comes to Israel once a year and I have been attending his lectures annually at Tel Aviv University.

Of course, you do not have to agree with what Bernard Lewis says. I would say that Andrew Bostom is right in stating that Bernard Lewis underestimated Bat Ye’or’s contribution. But both Andrew Bostom and you should take a little bit more care with the words you use since you are dealing with someone whose knowledge on the subject exceeds yours by a few orders of magnitude. Maybe that is the reason why I never heard any criticism of Bernard Lewis voiced by Bat Ye’or. She may disagree with him but she would not say that Bernard Lewis does not know what he is talking about.

LA replies:

Lewis’s knowledge of Islam exceeds mine by several orders of magnitude, this is true.

But consider:

He supported the Oslo Peace Accords. I said to people on the day of the handshake in 1993 that this was “insane, period,” and I maintained that position ever since. Who was right?

He said that the Muslim world was eager to adopt Western style democracy. I never believed this. Who was right?

He says that Islam only became problematic and dangerous in the last three hundred years as a result of being left behind by the West. I say Islam by its very nature is problematic and dangerous. Who is right?

Shall I continue?

It is not a new insight that a person can have vast scholarly knowledge of a subject, yet miss the essentials. This is plainly the case with Lewis.

Another reader adds:

One of the more interesting aspects of Lewis is what he does not say.

For example, have you ever heard him talk or write about the barbarity of Muslim rule in India?

Andrew Bostom writes:

I know more about the jihad than Bernard Lewis does. Bat Ye’or knows more about dhimmitude than Bernard Lewis does. The reasons for this are simple:

I ACTUALLY studied the jihad; Bat Ye’or ACTUALLY studied the dhimmi condition; Bernard Lewis has not formally studied EITHER in anywhere near the depth Bat Ye’or and I have. Neither Bat Ye’or nor I claims to have studied other ritualistic or linguistic aspects of Islam, or the “Emergence of Modern Turkey” as Lewis has. His knowledge in those areas far exceeds ours.

Gerald writes:

I’ve been following the discussion on Bernard Lewis at VFR. I’ve read most of his books and consider him a great scholar. But not, necessarily, of all Islam. His focus is overwhelmingly on the Ottomans and Turkey, not the rest of the Muslim world, including the Arabs.

Time after time in his books, he makes hopeful or positive comments about Islam, or some remark designed to make us feel that Muslims can be like Westerners, but cites only Turkish (or, occasionally, Tunisian or Moroccan) examples as evidence. Then he generalizes the observation to all Muslims. This seems to me a fundamental weakness in Lewis’s pronouncements about Islam in general, especially his contention that the Muslim world can be reformed into something approaching the values of the West. The evidence is far too selective and limited to make such a claim.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 02, 2006 03:41 PM | Send

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