As a historian, Bernard Lewis is first and foremost a chemist. No matter the subject, he quickly boils the inquiry down to its pertinent, component parts. In The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, an elegant little book, he provides the reader with a periodic chart for understanding how the peoples of the region have seen themselves and, in so doing, how they have seen outsiders.
Lewis takes the Middle East apart by subdividing it through several fault lines that crisscross time and region from northern Africa to Central Asia. Through broad chapters titled on race and language, aliens and infidels, country, nation, the state, symbols, and, of course, religion, he explains why many Western ideas—preeminently secularism, nationalism, and socialism—have convulsed the Islamic Middle East, leading to profoundly "conflicted identities" and, too often, to nasty despotic regimes.
Many Western scholars are nervous when discussing the pervasive role of religion in the modern Middle East. For Lewis, who always allows primary sources to lead historical discussion, a comparative analysis of religion is obligatory, even if invidious. Scriptural religion is the one common, and easily the most deeply rooted, identity for the exceptionally diverse peoples of the region. Multiple Identities is a treasure trove of juxtapositions that allow the reader quick but profound insights into how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim political and social reflexes agree and differ.
This book is, among other delightful things, a superb intellectual travel guide for anyone who intends to visit the Middle East. Mirror-imaging—seeing others as you see yourself—is perhaps the worst pitfall for a tourist, as it is for a historian, diplomat, or spy. Lewis' work is an effective antidote for this malady, which robs both the observer and the observed of the uniqueness and beauty of their respective civilizations.