The Conflicted Legacy of Bernard Lewis

A Clash of Interpretations

Bernard Lewis, 1990.

Bernard Lewis, historian of the Middle East, passed away on May 19, just shy of his 102nd birthday. No other person in our time has done as much to inform and influence the West’s view of the Islamic world and the Middle East. A long career of scholarship in the United Kingdom, followed by decades as a public intellectual in the United States, earned him readers across the globe. After the 9/11 attacks, he became a celebrity: “Osama bin Laden made me famous,” he admitted. The two short books he published after the terror strikes became New York Times bestsellers. Charlie Rose couldn’t get enough of him.

Regard for Lewis extended well beyond (and above) the general public. He was also known to be a valued interlocutor of Turkish and Jordanian statesmen, Iran’s last shah, Israeli prime ministers, and U.S. President George W. Bush and his team. Bush was even spotted carrying a marked-up copy of one of Lewis’ articles. As the “war on terror” and its Iraqi sequel unfolded and unraveled, he became the subject of magazine profiles and cover stories. Bernard Lewis knew the Middle East, and America thought it knew him. 

Or did it? “For some, I’m the towering genius,” Lewis said in 2012. “For others, I’m the devil incarnate.” Despite having written 30-plus books (including a memoir) and hundreds of articles, and undertaken countless interviews, Lewis was widely misunderstood. Many of those misunderstandings, latent since he went silent a few years ago, reappeared in his obituaries, mixed with either admiration or vitriol.

Part of this is due to his sheer longevity. On 9/11, he was already 85 years old; he’d published his first book in 1940, over 60 years earlier. He was hardly obscure when he became “famous,” but his mass audience discovered him only during the last decade of his seven-decade career. For those like me who met him much earlier (I became his student at Princeton University in 1976), the latecomers seemed not to grasp the

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