Once upon a time, Western scholars of Middle Eastern culture and history were known as Orientalists. That label is now considered politically incorrect, like so much else, but we can safely say that the last of the great Orientalists was Bernard Lewis, who died Saturday at age 101.
Born in London, Lewis served in the British army in World War II. But he devoted most of his life to the study of Middle Eastern languages, religion and history, with a particular focus on the interaction of Islam and the West. He was arguably the Western world's foremost scholar on the history of the Ottoman Empire.
Lewis taught at the University of London but moved to Princeton University in 1974. His fame grew beyond academia as his deep learning helped him to foresee and explain the turmoil that has dominated the Middle East in recent decades. His books were especially valuable after 9/11 in explaining what animated radical jihadists.
In "What Went Wrong?" in 2001 and other works, he distinguished between Turkey under Kemal Atatürk, who attempted to adopt some Western practices, and Arabs who blamed the West as the cause of their own technological and economic backwardness. Yet by 2010 he was predicting that Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan would turn to Islamic rule while Iranians would tire of political Islam and embrace secular nationalism. So far he's been right about Turkey.
Though Jewish and a friend to Israel, Lewis was also deeply sympathetic to Arabs who had to live under fanatic or dictatorial rule. He liked to note that pro-American regimes that were dictatorial often had anti-American populations, but anti-American regimes like Iran had pro-American populations.
In a weekend interview in these pages in 2011, Lewis said, "We have a much better chance of establishing—I hesitate to use the word democracy—but some sort of open, tolerant society, if it's done within their systems, according to their traditions. Why should we expect them to adopt a Western system? And why should we expect it to work?" He was an Orientalist for all seasons.