Bernard Lewis, Influential Scholar of Islam, Is Dead at 101 By Douglas Martin

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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 American 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 American policymakers.

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 Mr. 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, Mr. Cheney mentioned Mr. Lewis on the NBC News program “Meet the Press” as someone who shared his belief that “a strong, firm U.S. 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.

‘Clash of Civilizations’
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. (The political scientist Samuel P. Huntington borrowed the phrase in an influential article of his own in 1993, crediting Mr. Lewis.)
The book cover of “What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response,” by Bernard 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.”

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