Whether Bernard Lewis is the greatest scholar of Islam of all time, he is without question the most influential such scholar in our time, particularly when it comes to the American foreign policy establishment's understanding of the Muslim world.
This is why it is so disturbing to hear sweepingly, jarringly inaccurate statements from this pre-eminent historian about Islam on core historical facts.
I wrote about one such misstatement early this year after watching a PBS documentary on Anti-Semitism in the Islamic world. In it, Lewis declared, mind-bogglingly enough, that Anti-Semitism in the Islamic world was a European import.
In a January 12, 2007 column I wrote:
According to the practically oracular authority of Princeton's Bernard Lewis, never in 1,200 years did Muslims even think of Anti-Semitism, let alone act on it -- not until European Christian empire-builders introduced the pathology to the region in the 19th century, what with tales of Christ-killers and, later, the forged "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
It wasn't that those first 1,200 years of Islam and sharia were exactly paradise for Jews, Lewis said, but Jews were "tolerated" so long as they accepted their "inferiority." This was a pretty breezy way to dismiss centuries of violence, oppression, fear and degradation inflicted, according to Islamic law, on "dhimmi" Jews (and on "dhimmi" Christians for that matter), as copiously documented by historian Bat Ye'or. But Lewis stuck to this story: "Anti-Semitism was introduced into the Middle East by Christians."
Even oracles get it wrong sometimes, I guess, because Lewis's explanation doesn't square with a long and vivid historical record, and that includes the Koran. The notion that Christians introduced Muslims to Anti-Semitism may well be the conventional wisdom -- indeed, it may even be that nonagenarian Lewis is the source of that conventional wisdom -- but just as surely as Anti-Semitism historically existed in Christianity, it also historically existed in Islam. And I can actually footnote that statement because, quite by chance, the same week the documentary aired, I happened to read the first chapter of a forthcoming book called "The Legacy of Islamic Anti-Semitism" by Andrew G. Bostom, author of "The Legacy of Jihad."
That was then. Now Bostom's book is about to come out in January. It examines the origins of Islamic Anti-Semitism in the Koran, the canonical commentaries on the Koran, and the historical record--all of which got going about 1000 years before Queen Victoria, say, crowned herself empress .
And why does this matter?
The conventional wisdom, as expressed on PBS--and validated by Bernard Lewis--does two things. It blames Christianity and the West for introducing Anti-Semitism to a practically Edenic Islamic world, and it minimizes Islam's non-original sin of partaking of it. Indeed, this same conventional wisdom suggests that Anti-Semitism is the natural, if unfortunate, response of "unempowered" Muslims to contemporary political events beyond their control -- namely, the essentially Christian/Western-sponsored establishment of the modern state of Israel.
If we bothered -- if we dared -- to examine Anti-Semitism in its historical Islamic context (just as we have examined Anti-Semitism in its historical Christian context), we would better understand Islam's hysterical rejection of Israel, which, in Islamic terms, is a state of "dhimmi" inferiors restored to equality, if not economic and military superiority, its very existence a violation of traditional Islamic code.
Failing to do this, the West overlooks and effectively absolves Islam of its animus against Jews and, by modern extension, Israel. The West also consigns itself and, weirdly enough, Israel also, to the role of guilty parties who must continually try to appease an aggrieved Islam.
Now, Lewis has done it again. Writing at The American Thinker, Andrew Bostom reports on Lewis' latest gaffe--namely that authoritarianism in the Islamic world is a Western import, just like Anti-Semitism. Bostom writes:
Speaking at a December 10-11, 2007 Rome Conference entitled, "Fighting for Democracy in the Islamic World," renowned historian Bernard Lewis intoned,
"The authoritarianism present in the Middle East region is not part of the Arab and Muslim tradition, but it has been imported from Europe...."
Bostom goes on to cite copious chapter and verse--including earlier writings by Lewis himself--that demonstrate that 'the Arab and Muslim tradition" needed no lessons from Europe on authoritarianism.
Why is Lewis making statements contradicted by the historical record? To be sure, if it were true that Europe were the source of Islamic evil-- in this case, Anti-Semitism and authoritarianism--that would let Islam off the hook and put the blame on the West. Whether that is Lewis' point, it is certainly Lewis' effect.