Magazine article The Spectator

From Babel to Dragomans

Magazine article The Spectator

From Babel to Dragomans

Article excerpt

Different heavens, same hells FROM BABEL TO DRAGOMANS by Bernard Lewis Weidenfeld, £20, pp. 438, ISBN 0297848844

Now in his late eighties, Bernard Lewis is one of the last representatives of a once venerable scholarly type, the Orientalist. Born and brought up in a Jewish family in London, Lewis effortlessly mastered Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish and Persian, wrote his doctoral thesis on the mediaeval Muslim sect known as the Assassins and taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London before being lured over to Princeton as Professor of Near Eastern Studies in 1974.

In 1978, he was one of the chief targets of Edward Said's truculent essay Orientalism. Said proclaimed that Western scholars of Islam such as Lewis were not selfless searchers after truth but volunteers in the old enterprise of colonial exploitation. Under a veneer of scholarly objectivity, Lewis was a propagandist 'against his subject material'.

Lewis responded with pained restraint, but Saidism quickly overran the English-speaking and Continental universities. Orientalist and Orientalism are terms of abuse everywhere except in Russia. Scorned on campus, Lewis yet found a welcome in Washington and in a remarkable coup de jeunesse after 11 September 2001 found time to write two bestsellers, What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam.

As this collection of essays shows, Lewis has always combined an immense scope with a flair for the little detail. He quotes a diploma of Sultan Murad III that authorised English merchants to trade in Ottoman lands after Queen Elizabeth had 'demonstrated her subservience and devotion and declared her servitude and attachment'. Later, a Turkish visitor to 17th-century Vienna notes that the Austrians speak a corrupt form of Persian (which, in a way, they do). Some of the best stories recur several times in this volume.

More startling is the consistency, over the 50 years covered in this collection, of Lewis's vision of the Muslim world. Whether he is writing about Fatimid propaganda, the Assassins, Mughal-Ottoman diplomatic relations, the Shia or Osama bin Laden, he never strays from a sort of master theory which runs like this.

The primary identity of the Muslim Middle East has always been religious, and modern notions of nationality or citizenship have not penetrated deep. From its earliest days, Islam has always seen Christendom as a distinctive civilisation and an authentic rival. For 1,000 years, Islam overbore the West in the arts and sciences and in warfare. But since the failure of the second Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683, Islam has been in retreat.

In his best-known essay, 'The Roots of Muslim Rage' published in the Atlantic Monthly in September 1990 and printed in this collection, Lewis wrote:

The Muslim has suffered successive stages of defeat. …

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