The Master Historian of the Middle East

Bernard Lewis, the preeminent scholar of Islam and the Middle East, has died two weeks shy of his 102nd birthday. Author of erudite works in the history of Arab and Islamic societies, Lewis was also a man of the world and a versatile writer for general audiences who married a commanding voice with an engaging and graceful style. In the aftermath of 9/11, he won great influence with best-selling works like What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam. Born and educated in England, in the 1970s Lewis moved to the U.S. where he lived (apart from winters in Tel Aviv) until his death. To mark his centenary in 2016, the historian Martin Kramer, a friend and former student, published in Mosaic a retrospective analysis and assessment of Lewis’s career and achievement:

When [Lewis’s article] “The Return of Islam” appeared [in Commentary magazine] in 1976, the notion that Islamists might one day seize the Grand Mosque in Mecca, overthrow the monarchy in Iran, assassinate Anwar Sadat, kill 241 U.S. Marines in Beirut, fly planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and reestablish a caliphate ruling over an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq, would have seemed like pulp-novel scenarios with probabilities of zero. In fact, nothing of what we regard today as the infrastructure of Islamism was visible at all.

So how did [Lewis] discern the “return”? “From the 1970s onward,” he would later write, “to anyone following events in the Muslim world and reading or listening to what Muslims were saying in their own languages, the surge in religious passion was increasingly obvious.” In fact, he was practically the only one to whom this was obvious.

In a reply to published comments on his essay (by Robert Irwin, Itamar Rabinovich, Eric Ormsby, and Amir Taheri), Kramer includes a personal note from his days as Lewis’s student and office assistant:

Every few weeks, Bernard would invite me to lunch at the Institute [for Advanced Study], followed by a vigorous walk in its surrounding woods. Then would come the high point. Choosing a shelf in his massive library, he would go through it one book at a time, estimating each tome’s significance to scholarship, sharing some lore (or was it gossip?) about its author, and parsing the dedication.  . . .  Such gifts of precious time were hardly mine alone. . . . His generosity to students and younger scholars assured him a devoted personal following over the course of several generations. . . .

Kramer sums up:

An entire syllabus on the history of the Middle East since the advent of Islam could be compiled exclusively from the writings of Bernard Lewis. . . . In this respect, he towers above all of his contemporaries and successors and arguably also over his famed Orientalist predecessors, none of whom was trained as a historian. It will be a long time, perhaps generations, before the study of Islam and the Middle East will invite and admit another genius of his caliber.

In the meantime, we have his classic works to guide us through this dark age of obfuscation.

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More about: Bernard Lewis, History & Ideas, Islam, Middle East

Syria’s Downing of a Russian Plane Put Israel in the Crosshairs

Sept. 21 2018

On Monday, Israeli jets fired missiles at an Iranian munitions storehouse in the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia. Shortly thereafter, Syrian personnel shot down a Russian surveillance plane with surface-to-air missiles, in what seems to be a botched and highly incompetent response to the Israeli attack. Moscow first responded by blaming Jerusalem for the incident, but President Putin then offered more conciliatory statements. Yesterday, Russian diplomats again stated that Israel was at fault. Yoav Limor comments:

What was unusual [about the Israeli] strike was the location: Latakia [is] close to Russian forces, in an area where the IDF hasn’t been active for some time. The strike itself was routine; the IDF notified the Russian military about it in advance, the missiles were fired remotely, the Israeli F-16s returned to base unharmed, and as usual, Syrian antiaircraft missiles were fired indiscriminately in every direction, long after the strike itself was over. . . .

Theoretically, this is a matter between Russia and Syria. Russia supplied Syria with the SA-5 [missile] batteries that wound up shooting down its plane, and now it must demand explanations from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. That won’t happen; Russia was quick to blame Israel for knocking over the first domino, and as usual, sent conflicting messages that make it hard to parse its future strategy. . . .

From now on, Russia will [almost certainly] demand a higher level of coordination with Israel and limits on the areas in which Israel can attack, and possibly a commitment to refrain from certain actions. Syria, Iran, and Hizballah will try to drag Russia into “handling” Israel and keeping it from continuing to carry out strikes in the region. Israel . . . will blame Iran, Hizballah, and Syria for the incident, and say they are responsible for the mess.

But Israel needs to take rapid action to minimize damage. It is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep up its offensive actions to the north, mainly in Syria. If that action is curtailed, Israel’s national security will be compromised. . . . No one in Israel, and certainly not in the IDF or the Israel Air Force, wants Russia—which until now hasn’t cared much about Israel’s actions—to turn hostile, and Israel needs to do everything to prevent that from happening. Even if that means limiting its actions for the time being. . . . Still, make no mistake: Russia is angry and has to explain its actions to its people. Israel will need to walk a thin line between protecting its own security interests and avoiding a very unwanted clash with Russia.

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More about: Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Russia, Syrian civil war