Bernard Lewis, the great historian and interpreter of the Middle East, died on Saturday, two weeks shy of his 102nd birthday.
He was born in northeast London to middle-class Jewish parents in 1916. He began teaching as an assistant lecturer (which he referred to as "the lowest form of human life in British universities") in Islamic History at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1938. Two years later, Lewis served in the British Army during World War II. After the War he returned to his teaching post, and at 33, became the chair of the History of the Near and Middle East at the University of London. There he taught for several decades. His teaching continued in the United States at Princeton University, where he became a professor in 1974.
Lewis published more than 30 books, both scholarly and popular, about Islam and the Middle East. He was distinguished, too, for his essays, before and after 9/11—the event that, as he thought, made him famous. It certainly armed his critics—and many accumulated over the decades—with a renewed passion.
His essay "The Return of Islam"—written for Commentary in 1976, long before Samuel Huntington's more famous 1993 essay and follow-up book on "the clash of civilizations"—predicted a fractious Middle East dominated by competing Islamic nationalisms infused with Islamist fervor. "As the nationalist movement has become genuinely popular," Lewis wrote, "so it has become less national and more religious—in other words, less Arab and more Islamic. In moments of crisis—and these have been many in recent decades—it is the instinctive communal loyalty which outweighs all others."
Lewis's exegesis of the Middle East and Islam—in The Emergence of Modern Turkey, What Went Wrong? and Islam and the West, among many others—cultivated a fuller and realistic understanding of the region and the religion and generated necessary debates about the role of the West in the Middle East. Of the choices before us in the Middle East, he famously said: "either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us."
In 1990 Lewis was honored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and gave its annual Jefferson Lecture. In it, he reflected on the American founding and the nature of religion and politics within Islam. "Islam, like other religions," he said, "has also known periods when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence. It is our misfortune that we have to confront part— though by no means all or even most—of the Muslim world while it is going through such a period and when much—though again not all—of that hatred is directed against us." In the tumult of the Middle East, he saw what others would not or could not.
Late in his century-long life he was known by those close to him to favor the French aphorism "Tout passé, tout cassé, tout lassé"—everything, pases, everything perishes, everything vanishes. A bracing reminder that our civilization will not last forever and that we had better preserve it while we can. Bernard Lewis aided us in that work. His memory is a blessing.