August 11, 2002

Lunch with Arabist Bernard Lewis

Chris Bertram directs us to Michael Steinberger's account of his lunch with Princeton Arabist Bernard Lewis. Truly interesting...


Chris Bertram: Some things are just classic blog-fodder, and this - from the Financial Times - is one of them: Michael Steinberger's account of lunch with Princeton Arabist Bernard Lewis. Lunch is interrupted by NYTimes columnist Tom Friedman ...

Lunch with the FT: Bernard Lewis
By Michael Steinberger
Published: August 9 2002 16:49 | Last Updated: August 9 2002 16:49

Nothing begets punditry quite like tragedy. Since September 11, the airwaves and cyberlanes have been awash with commentary, much of it poorly informed, most of it badly overheated.

However, amid all the blather, an unlikely star has been born. Bernard Lewis is not your typical talking head. For one thing, he is 86 and a professor emeritus of history at Princeton University. For another, he speaks not in soundbites but in dauntingly erudite paragraphs - made all the more authoritative, to American ears anyway, by his gravelly British accent. Ordinarily, Lewis would be a television producer's worst nightmare, but these are no ordinary times: Islam and the Middle East are hot topics, and it is widely agreed that there is no more sage guide to the Arab world and its discontents than Lewis.

His latest book, published in the UK as What Went Wrong? The clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, was completed just before the attacks on New York and Washington, but because it addresses root causes, it has become an international bestseller.

We meet for lunch at Princeton's faculty dining room - a surprisingly unattractive facility, more appropriate to a discount country club than an Ivy League university. Today is a dress-down day for Lewis. Rather than the sober suit and tie he wears on television, he is decked out in a blue blazer, slightly frayed white Oxford shirt and maroon ascot. Lewis has been globe-trotting non-stop since September 11 (during which time he has contributed a lengthy cover story to The New Yorker and written numerous pieces for other publications) and fatigue is etched on his face.

But the brutal pace has done nothing to dull his mind. Many people his age can hardly look after themselves; Lewis, by contrast, habitually serves up the most obscure quotes, dates, and references with nary a pause between thoughts. Clearly, he comes from good stock.

We decide to order. He urges the crab cakes on me while choosing for himself, "in the spirit of inquiry", grilled mahi-mahi - a kind of dolphin - in a coconut, lime and lychee sauce. Adventurous indeed.

The waiter dashes off and returns almost immediately with Lewis's starter, a tomato bisque. I ask Lewis if he was surprised by September 11. "I was surprised that they were able to do something on such a scale, and with such meaningless ferocity," he says. "I was also enormously impressed with the civilised response of the American public in general, the concern not to condemn Islam as a whole."

He is less impressed by the quality of the discourse among the television gasbags: "As a specialist on Islam, I find myself disturbed by all the nonsense being talked, by both Muslims and non-Muslims. 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 Islam is a religion of love and peace - rather like the Quakers, but less aggressive. The truth is in its usual place."

Lewis is chasing the last drops of soup around his bowl when the main courses arrive; it appears that lunches at Princeton are not leisurely affairs. I remark that it must be gratifying for a retired professor suddenly to find himself in such demand. "There is a certain melancholy pleasure in having been right when so many people were wrong. I obviously didn't predict an atrocity like this, but I had been saying for a long time that something had gone radically wrong in the Arab world and that there was a growing hostility to the west that was likely to express itself violently."

This provides a neat segue to his book, which concerns itself with the most vexing question of all: why is the Arab world, which once represented the pinnacle of achievement in virtually every sphere of human activity, in the miserable state it is in?

Lewis presents a number of plausible explanations - including the lack of a secular politics and the cultural chauvinism (the conviction there was nothing to learn from the infidels) - but does not rank them in order of importance or offer a definitive conclusion.

I am about to ask Lewis - who has ploughed through his fish with impressive gusto - about this omission when we are interrupted.

"Professor Lewis." Standing before us is Tom Friedman, the influential foreign affairs columnist of The New York Times. Friedman explains that he is at Princeton because one of his daughters is considering applying. The small talk lasts less than a minute, whereupon Lewis says, rather tartly, "Latterly, I find myself agreeing with you more than I disagree."

Ouch. Friedman ignores the backhanded compliment and turns to me. "Would you mind if I ask Professor Lewis a few questions?"

As if I would say no? He immediately pulls up a seat and I am living a Washington talk show host's dream - sharing a table with two of the world's most in-demand pundits.

It clearly does not take Friedman long to achieve familiarity, for he is now referring to Lewis as "Bernard". He asks if Lewis thinks Arafat can really change his stripes. "Asking Arafat to give up terrorism is like asking Tiger Woods to give up golf," Lewis replies, prompting a roar of laughter from Friedman.

But Lewis is just warming up. Talk next turns to the Saudis. "Imagine," says Lewis, "if the Ku Klux Klan or Aryan Nation obtained total control of Texas and had at its disposal all the oil revenues, and used this money to establish a network of well-endowed schools and colleges all over Christendom peddling their particular brand of Christianity. This is what the Saudis have done with Wahhabism. The oil money has enabled them to spread this fanatical, destructive form of Islam all over the Muslim world and among Muslims in the west. Without oil and the creation of the Saudi kingdom, Wahhabism would have remained a lunatic fringe in a marginal country."

Shifting gears, Friedman says: "Bernard, I'd like to test out a theory of mine on you." He then unveils a classic Friedman formulation, this one involving the September 11 hijackers, the west, Christians, Jews, and Muslims and something he has dubbed "God 3.0 and God 2.0." No doubt, it will make a compellingly logical argument in print, but the concept is still inchoate and Lewis, his eyes glazing over, is clearly not following; when Friedman is done, he offers a wan smile and says, "Yes."

The tepid response does nothing to dampen Friedman's good cheer. He gets up from the table, wishes us both an effusive goodbye and heads off to rejoin his family. Lewis and I look at each other as if to acknowledge that we have just shared an interesting encounter.

By now, his dessert, a fruit tart with mascarpone, has arrived, along with my coffee. We return to the conversation and I ask Lewis why the book fails to offer a precise diagnosis. "The responsibility for deciding which causes matter and what to do about them rests with the Muslims, not with me," he says. "I don't make history; I just write it."

Pressed, he allows that it is the subjugation of women that is probably the single biggest cause of the problems besetting the Arabs. Lewis refers to a comment the Turkish writer Namik Kemal made in 1867, in which he likened the oppression of women to "a human body that is paralysed on one side". Lewis says: "It is a very striking and appropriate image. You suppress one half of the population and you bring up the other half in this autocratic, hierarchical household. It is a culture of command and obedience."

By now, the dining room has emptied and Lewis is clearly running out of steam. I ask him about the prospect of an American attack on Iraq, which he supports, and whether he thinks that a change of regime would lead to democracy and thereby set an example for the rest of the Middle East.

"Obviously, if Saddam is toppled tomorrow, he's not going to be replaced by a Scandinavian-style democracy," he says. "But of all the oil-producing countries, pre-Saddam Iraq made the best use of its oil revenues. It built a fine infrastructure, an excellent educational system. And I do believe that among the other Iraqi people there are those who are willing and able to initiate the development of democratic institutions."

Lewis's ardently pro-American, pro-Israeli views have made him an object of derision in some circles and he perks up a bit when I mention his old bête noire, Edward Said. Lewis is, of course, the quintessential Orientalist, and Said has spent the past three decades lobbing barbs at him.

The two have met only once, debating with each other years ago at an academic conference. "It was pretty nasty," Lewis recalls. He finds Said's central argument - that western scholars of Islam and the Arab world are imperialist stooges - preposterous.

In agreeing to an interview, Lewis, who left the University of London to join Princeton's faculty in 1974, had warned me he would be reluctant to discuss the experience of being a Jewish scholar of Islam, and of being a Jew in a field traditionally dominated by ardent Arabists, because he was saving those reflections for a memoir.

Face to face, he is a bit more forthcoming. "I have generally had excellent relations with scholars in Arab countries. There has been some hostility here. I've had Arab friends tell me, with shock and horror, about anti- Semitic sentiments expressed to them by American and European scholars who feel that because they are Arabs, they will be receptive."

And when can we expect the memoir?

"I've got a lot of other things to do first," he says.

What Went Wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East by Bernard Lewis, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99

Posted by DeLong at August 11, 2002 06:35 PM | TrackBack


I know this is piddling, but facts matter, so I'm going to correct something: Mahi-Mahi is not a kind of dolphin. Mahi-Mahi is another name for dolphin fish, which, as the name indicates, is a kind of fish, and therefore not even in the same class (dolphins are mammals, mahi-mahi are fish).

Posted by: Mike on August 12, 2002 07:33 AM
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