Notes on a Century: Reflections of Middle East Historian by Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill. Published by Viking Adult, New York. 2012, 400 pages.
Being involved in thinking about the Middle East for the Department of Defense, I always make time for any of Bernard Lewis’s books on the region. It is entirely natural for readers, myself included, to disagree with aspects of his analysis, but that should not preclude us from availing ourselves on his long-time observations of the Arab and Islamic world. His latest book takes readers into several decades of his work and is an autobiography of the famous Princeton scholar. Among the more interesting aspects of his recollections was the Nazi Middle East expert Dr. Fritz Grobba contacting the Saudi embassy in Vichy France as a venue to explore intelligence sources against the British, whose colonial legacy was a source of mistrust among Arabs. British military intelligence, with Lewis playing his part as an analytic translator, provided the allies intercepted conversations between King Abdul-Aziz and his ambassador Fuad Hamza. Another was a totally concocted false plan the British provided Egypt’s King Farouk, which was found in captured Italian headquarters in North Africa. Lewis does not really provide the necessary empathy of why these Arab leaders collaborated with the Axis, but he does mention the effective anti-colonial propaganda campaign the Axis mounted before World War II. One item discussed in Lewis’s new book is the use of Senegalese troops to police Vichy France, the Allies used posters utilizing racism and slogans like “the slaves of the servants of imperialism are here to civilize (you Arabs).” Perhaps one of Lewis’s most valuable lessons learned in World War II, as an intelligence officer, was that individual documents do not signify much, only if these documents are taken globally are they useful.
After World War II, Lewis pursued his education, and got his big break in 1949, when he was granted access to the Ottoman archives. He combined an immersion into Ottoman history with witnessing the first Turkish election in 1950, leading to his 1961 book, “Emergence of Modern Turkey.” When asked why Arabs study their own history in the west, he reflects on the question, and concludes the free society in the United States allows for a more academic exploration on aspects of the region that would be forbidden in the Middle East itself.
His book discusses the corrosive role of the late Edward Said’s “Orientalism” that stifled debate on the Middle East with such labels as neo-colonialist, or imperialist analysis. I find that reading Said and Lewis together offers the true student of the Middle East a greater appreciation for the region. Lewis, towards the end of the book, discusses his role in advising the Bush Administration on invading Iraq. Wanting to dispel the hype surrounding his advice, he criticizes America’s leaders leading up to the 2003 Iraq War, by saying that intelligence and policy must be separate, a lesson he learned in World War II. He is also critical of those who say Arabs are incapable of democracy. The book ends with a list of his over 30 books on Islam, the Middle East, and Turkey. My only criticism is his view that the real problem is Saudi Arabia, and not Iran, and his views of Wahhabism as a militant version of Islam. Did Wahhabism, a subsection of Salafism (return to the pious founders), have a violent phase since its founding in 1744? Yes! But it has evolved into more of an Islamist and aggressively proselytizing faith that seeks to convert Muslims and non-Muslims to their view. This is more of a recent and accurate description. Nonetheless, Lewis is always worth your time if you have a passion about the Middle East.