The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 2

"The Best General Introduction I Have Yet Read" to the Conflict in the Middle East 
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 12 2001 4:58 PM

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 2

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Dear Chris, Chris, Judith, and Geraldine,

It's getting complicated to respond to four voices at the same time, but it wouldn't be a conversation about the Middle East if we didn't generate some discord. The fact that we are by and large reading different books while responding to each other strikes me as an accurate reflection of the situation in the region, where the lack of common ground (literally) has never stopped anyone from loudly articulating their opinion.

Today I'd like to add to the Babel by babbling about Bernard Lewis, the eminent Princeton Arabist and author of some 30 books on the Middle East. I've just read two of his books, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East and The Muslim Discovery of Europe. Neither is new—the first came out in 1998, an eternity ago when measured by news cycles. The second, even more prehistoric, came out in 1982 but at least has a new preface for 2001.

Lewis offers a calming balm, increasingly hard to find at the moment. It is precisely because emotions are high that we need to get our facts right. Even in our innocent little "Book Club," I'm not sure that we did last week. While I agreed with the unanimous put-down of Karen Armstrong, I thought we pushed it too far toward a reductionist position. No one is in a mood for Arab/Muslim self-pity, including me, but too easy denunciations of the Arab/Muslim worldview do little to help the problem. Lewis doesn't fall into that trap, and one of the best things about reading him is that he allows us to see more than one side of an argument. Islam may be monotheistic, but it is far from monochromatic.

The British Lewis is widely considered the Dean of Arabists. He was born in 1916, the year of the Balfour Declaration, and over the course of his long and productive life, he has generated more scholarly work on the Middle East than most university departments. (Click here for a brief autobiography.) Even in his mid-80s, he is still cranking 'em out. Three years ago, he wrote a prescient essay in Foreign Affairs surmising that Osama Bin Laden was angry over the presence of U.S. troops on the Arabian Peninsula. Any second now, The New Yorker will post a major new article on "The Revolt of Islam." And in a few weeks, Oxford University Press will release his new book, What Went Wrong, a study of how Arab and Muslim intellectuals perceived the relative decline of their civilization as the power of the West grew at their expense between the 18th and 20th centuries.

For all his old-school erudition, Lewis has not escaped controversy. The Palestinian intellectual Edward Said has attacked him for distorting history—and Lewis returned the favor by pointing out inaccuracies in Said's Orientalism. I have no interest in wading into that, but for the record I found these books informative and, to my ear anyway, free of national or religious bias.

They complement each other nicely. The slender Multiple Identities (142 pages—even shorter than Armstrong!) is distilled from talks that Lewis gave and offers brief chapter-by-chapter meditations on the ways in which we construct identity in the Middle East. It is deeply informed by Lewis' lifelong study of history, but it is concisely and elegantly written and easy to read. It's the best general introduction I have yet read. Muslim Discovery is deeper and denser, but less serviceable to nonacademics.

Multiple Identities begins at the beginning—with the slaying of Abel by Cain, an early sign that children would be competing for attention in the Middle East and that different ways of life (farming and grazing) would become sources of conflict. He then proceeds to define every way that different groups have interpreted themselves in the region, from the obvious (religion) to the less obvious (language, nationality, statehood, and their many permutations). It is a history book in many ways, but it is just as much an essay on words and the way they shape us as we shape them—beginning with "Middle East," a meaningless European phrase. In the land of shibboleths, inflections are everything, and Lewis parses one term after another, showing that our basic tools for understanding others fail to do justice to the ways in which Middle Easterners understand themselves. This is a real service.

Lewis is also skilled at evoking the heterodox history of a region that seems to grow more orthodox—on all sides—with every passing minute. We hear of Berbers and Bashkirs, Copts and Kurds, Tatars and Tajiks, and everything in between. He is elegiac on the history of Jewish settlements outside of what became Israel—notably in Iraq and Iran—before 1948. And he is convincing when he reminds us that we are really dealing with far more than just one historical crisis—several are happening simultaneously. There is the long decline of Islam vis-à-vis the West, there is the specific collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1920, there is World War II (Nazis did much to wreck the pan-ethnic understanding of the Middle East), and then there is everything that has happened in the last 50 years. That's a big hangover.    

Quite a few passages shed light on the current crisis, even though this book obviously predates it. One, for example, discusses the Arab reverence for Saladin, the legendary anti-Crusader who defended Islam against the infidel and was born in Tikrit, the proud home of Saddam Hussein. It seems to me that Osama Bin Laden has successfully filled the role Saddam aspires to but has not achieved: that of the romantic Arab leader, everywhere and nowhere, from several places at the same time. The leaders of our military campaign should understand that by demonizing Bin Laden as a solitary figure, they play into Bin Laden's strong desire to be seen in this heroic way.   

Lewis is skilled at skewering inconsistencies and perceptive on a crucial point—that Islam has several pasts and futures to choose from. In one arresting passage, he reminds the reader that Muslims will yet again have to decide between two non-Arab models: Turkey and Iran. For centuries, power was divided between the Sunni sultans of the Ottoman Empire and the Shiite shahs of Persia, who refused to acknowledge each other's authority. Today, the choice is starker: between the secular democracy of Turkey and the religious fundamentalism of Iran. They are essentially polar opposites, though Lewis points out that Iran has a surprisingly vigorous tradition of political dissent and resembles a democracy in many ways. Lewis, an old Turkey hand, hopes that the secular model will win out, but he's too crafty to offer any naive solutions for making this happen. Still, his occasional optimism offers dim candlelight for weary travelers. There's a great line from the Quran that Lewis quotes: "If God had wished, He would have made all humankind one community."

Though The Muslim Discoveryof Europe is a longer book, it warrants less attention in this posting because I doubt that readers seeking an introduction will want to bite off this big a morsel. It's also premodern, running from roughly the Middle Ages to the early 19th century. Still, it's intriguing. Lewis disgorges one archival discovery after another, proving that Muslims had almost no interest in Europe until Europe's dominance was so complete that it was too late to compete. Whether you disapprove of Orientalism or not, Europeans clearly felt drawn toward the East, while Easterners themselves dismissed Europeans as crude, light-skinned barbarians. Their bad. In committing this gross oversight, Ottoman potentates and other Muslim leaders condemned their followers to centuries of playing catch-up. Not until 1793 did the Ottomans even deign to send envoys from the Sublime Porte to European capitals—well after the infant United States.

If I have a complaint about either of these books, I feel sheepish making it. It is simply that Lewis doesn't muddy his hands with current politics, or economics, or education, or U.S. policy in the region, or the grimy business of daily life, or, for that matter, terrorism itself. Generally speaking, his province is the past. But that should not stop us from applying his lessons to a world that seems to get reinvented every day—and not for the better.   

Best,
Ted

Ted Widmer recently publishedArk of the Liberties: America and the World. He was a speechwriter for President Clinton.