Bernard Lewis is widely regarded as the major expert in the academic fields of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. Born in 1916 in the United Kingdom, he earned a B.A. in history in 1936 and a Ph.D. in the history of Islam in 1939. His education placed him in the intelligence corps of the British armed forces during World War II. He was appointed head of the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies at University of London's School of Oriental Studies in 1949 at the age of 33. In 1974, he moved to Princeton University, where he reached an agreement to spend most of his time researching and lecturing on a limited basis. Since taking the position, he has been the most prolific with his work. He began his career with a focus on the Arab history of Syria, but after the advent of the State of Israel, he shifted his focus to Ottoman studies in Turkey. He took advantage of the political situation by being one of the first to access newly opened Ottoman archives addressing affairs in the Arab provinces. Lewis has also been unique in his views of Islamic and Middle Eastern history, viewing the decline of the region as a result of internal factors and in direct opposition to the view that colonialism suffocated the area. This made him a visceral target of Edward Said in his book Orientalism, where he used Lewis as an example of Western arrogance in the study of the region and its inhabitants.
Lewis has not held back his opinions that the Islamic world, particularly the Arab and Turkish parts of it, should be held at fault for their ultimate decline. He accuses the Arabs of having maintained an arrogant superiority in the face of dramatic demographic changes, including the rise of Persian and Turkic dynasties beneath them. This coincides with the idea that the Mongol devastation of Baghdad and much of the Middle East did not wipe out the intellectual legacy of the city and its surroundings, but rather centuries of neglect and corruption did so. Prior to the Mongols, the Crusader invasions might also stand as a cause for Islamic decline, but he suggests there too that "cultural arrogance" and political infighting exposed the Levant to Christian conquest. Even as Islamic societies survived in places like Mamluk Egypt and rose in Turkic Anatolia, the empires could not keep pace with the developing capabilities of Europe. Complementary to these ideas are those of David Ayalon, who highlights the negligence toward developing capable armed and naval forces. By the advent of the Ottomans, naval force was neglected in favor of perceptually more illustrious cavalry and infantry. Exploiting European divisions, the coalescing of major European states posed a challenge to the Ottomans, who always outpaced their efforts to match European technological developments. He blames Ottoman weaknesses for their susceptibility to European exploitation and colonization, rather than the other way around.
He has been considered the most effective intellectual to hold positive views of Israel, or at least one resisting what could be considered unfair views. He has been quick to point out that Arabs have ignored more severe dangers and events in their own countries in favor of expressing hostility toward Israel. He has also been a substantial supporter of closer American ties with Israel and Turkey throughout his career. He has been a staunch advocate for Turkey and won praise from Turkish scholars for his commitment to Turkish studies. However, he has encountered major criticism for refusing to define the massacre of Armenians during World War I as genocide. Many have criticized him for withholding the definition for political reasons or to further his own access in Turkey. Lewis has also been accused of racism toward Arabs, during a bout where he stated to Dick Cheney, then vice president of the United States: "I believe that one of the things you've got to do with Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power." He defended his views in The New York Times later, and there are many who view his insight regarding Arab culture as politically relevant. In the criticisms that abound from the incident, the views of Edward Said in his book Orientalism, were given renewed support, and much of Lewis' scholarship dismissed as having an agenda and being unreliable.
Despite the controversy, Lewis has garnered a reputation as the foremost authority in modern Middle Eastern studies, with dozens of books to his credit. Most notable are his early works The Arabs in History and The Emergence of Modern Turkey. He has written several critical histories about Islam and its leadership's attitude toward the rest of the world. Titles include The Muslim Discovery of Europe, Islam and the West, Muslims in Europe and What Went Wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.