Bernard Lewis and the non-existent clash of civilisations

 
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By Khaled Diab

Bernard Lewis was the orientalist scholar of choice for American neo-conservatives. His dangerous ‘clash of civilisations’ theory was not only wrong but caused enormous damage in the Middle East.

Tuesday 29 May 2018

Bernard Lewis, the British-American historian and probably the most influential orientalist thinker of his generation, was born as the Ottoman empire was tottering on its last legs. He died, just shy of his 102nd birthday, as the post-Ottoman Middle Eastern order is nearing complete collapse.

Although some of Lewis’s early academic work was groundbreaking, such as his research into medieval Islamic guilds and the insights he gleaned from the Ottoman archives, his work rapidly descended into politicised polemics, which proved extremely destructive to the Middle East.

“For the past several years Lewis has been engaged in preaching scholarship and practising politics,” Edward Said, the author of the groundbreaking study Orientalism, wrote in one of his regular heated exchanges with Lewis, back in 1982. “It is of course quite natural for scholars to have political views and even to impart those views to their students and colleagues in an honest manner. Lewis is guilty of no such balance or discipline.”

Lewis was the orientalist of choice for America’s neo-conservative establishment and “his wisdom is sought daily by policymakers, diplomats, fellow academics, and the news media,” in the words of former US Vice President Dick Cheney, and Lewis is credited, in parallel with Samuel Huntington, with providing the intellectual framework for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

One of Lewis’s most damaging theories was that of the “clash of civilisations”. Although the term is most commonly associated with Huntington, Bernard Lewis used it earlier, and somewhat differently. While Huntington focused on perceived conflicts along the fault lines between half a dozen or so civilisations, Bernard Lewis’s theory focused on the alleged centuries-old clash between Islam and the West (formerly known as Christendom).

“It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them,” Lewis wrote in 1990, in what has proved to be one of the most influential essays of recent decades. “This is no less than a clash of civilisations – the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judaeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.”

Considering that two influential public intellectuals alleged that we are in the throes of a clash of civilisations, is there any evidence to back up their theory?

Yes, there is… but only if you are ideologically inclined – like neo-cons, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, and modern-day jihadis – to believe in such a clash, and pick and choose the evidence to support your thesis, while ignoring inconvenient facts and realities.

In fact and in reality, though the term is relatively new, the notion that Christendom and Islam are age-old and irreconcilable foes has an ancient pedigree. Examples include the historical notions of jihads and crusades, not to mention the idea of ‘civilisation versus barbarism’ espoused by dominant powers and influential voices on both sides throughout the centuries.

But as I examine in a chapter dedicated to this crucial question in my new bookIslam for the Politically Incorrect, this clash exists mainly in the fevered imagination of the fanatic or the skilled political leader, but does not stand up to sustained political or historical scrutiny.

At this point, I should point out that conflicts are extremely complex issues, which are usually poorly understood even by those involved in them, that cannot be reduced to any single root cause. That said, religious identity and culture, in my analysis, have played a remarkably minor role in the interactions between Islam (the Middle East) and Christendom (the West), both today and historically.

This is underlined, in my view, by what I call the clash within civilisations (not to mention the clashes within individual societies), the conflicts which have plagued both sides and often posed a greater existential threat than the external enemy. This is exemplified by the two world wars and the current wildfire tearing through the Middle East.

It is also exemplified by the oft surreal cross-civilisational alliances that emerge. If civilisations truly clash over values, then the largely decades-old cosy relationship between the regressive Gulf monarchies and Britain then the United States should not exist, yet what I call the oiligarchy shows no sign of losing its potency, even under the stewardship of the Islamophobic Donald Trump.

And these alliances are scarcely new. Protestant England had a long-lasting alliance with the Ottomans against Catholic Spain. Caliph Harun al-Rashid and the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne were involved in a robust, multi-generational coalition against their mutual foes, the Byzantines and Umayyads. Going even further back, the conquest of Iberia by Muslim forces would not have occurred without the encouragement and aid of the very Christian Julian of Septem (Ceuta).

Over and beyond all this, there is what I call the mash of civilisations, through which Islam and Christendom have so influenced one another, and been influenced by the same precursors, including ancient Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian influences, that it is impossible to separate them into two distinct civilisations.

The conflicts we are witnessing today are not so much a clash between civilisations, as a crash of civilisation. By this, I do not mean the collapse of civilisation and the end of technologically advanced human society, but rather the more mundane and periodic crumbling of the dominant political, economic and social orders, as they become unsustainable, imploding and exploding under the weight of their contradictions.

It is far easier to blame monolithic metaphysical forces for our problems than to examine the actual socio-economic and geopolitical faultlines at play, because that would require changes few are willing or courageous enough to make. But continuing to ignore the painful realities in favour of comforting illusions and delusions will lead to serious misdiagnosis of the situation, and the prescribed medication, rather than offering a cure will threaten the very survival of the patient.

This article first appeared in the New Arab on 23 May 2018. 

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