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Bernard Lewis is a celebrated writer and he is a world-renown professional when it comes to Islamic studies. He is described as one of most distinguished scholar with regards to Middle East studies. Nevertheless, he is criticized for being an orientalist. He defended his writings as byproducts of objectivity, fairness, and impartiality.
Nevertheless, the negative criticisms continue to hound him. His detractors point to his groundbreaking work entitled: What went wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East as an example of blatant orientalism. A deeper analysis of the book will reveal that Bernard Lewis is not an orientalist.
Possible Source of the Claim
In order to find out if Lewis is an orientalist or not, the analyst must read his book from the point of view of Arabs. A careful analysis of his book revealed possible reasons why some members of the Arab world consider him an orientalist. A good example is the way he described the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war that erupted in 1948. Lewis said that the coalition of Arab forces were defeated by an Israeli army that had their backs to the sea (Lewis 363).
This may seem an exaggeration and an attempt to make the Arabs look incompetent and foolish. There are only a few armies or military coalitions in history that bungled their golden opportunity to rout their enemy in a situation where the opponent is terribly outnumbered. However, this is not the motivation of Lewis when described the said events.
Lewis was merely stating historical fact when he described the incredible circumstances that the Israeli found themselves in during the war in 1948. Their backs were indeed against the sea, and the world expected them to be massacred by a rampaging Arab military coalition. The Arabs failed, but this does not mean that they were incompetent or fools. They failed because of a number of reasons. A good explanation would be the hastily assembled coalition that has never been tested in a real military conflict.
Another possible explanation for the harsh criticism leveled against Lewis can be found in his description of the armistice that the Arab coalition was forced to sign after the humiliating defeat from the hands of the outgunned and outmanned Israeli army. Nevertheless, Lewis was not gloating when he wrote about the armistice agreement in 1948 (364).
He was writing a historical fact. More importantly, the author acknowledge the fact that the “acceptance of the armistice agreement in no sense constituted a recognition or acceptance of the state of Israel or of its frontiers” (Lewis 364). Therefore, Lewis did not say that the Israeli were able to get what they deserved.
Another possible reason for the unfortunate description regarding the author’s perception of the Arab people is the sad description of the refugees after the 1948 war. He said that the position of the refugees was unique: “unlike all these others, they were neither repatriated nor resettled but were left or kept in camps where they and their descendants remained for generations as stateless refugees” (Lewis 364).
Due to his reference to other refugees in Europe, a biased view of this statement may provoke the claim that Lewis was comparing how European governments handled the situation in Europe, and how Arab leaders handled the same problem within their sphere of influence.
A biased reviewer will assume that Lewis blamed the inefficient and incompetent Arab governments for the failure to resolve the refugee issue. However, he was merely reporting what he had seen. In fact, he reported on the generous acts of certain Arab leaders. For example, Lewis cited the fact that the Hashimite government of Jordan offered citizenship to all Arab Palestinian refugees that sought shelter in their backyard.
It is Lewis’ description of the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization that seems to provide a significant credibility to the claim that he is an orientalist. Lewis said that after the defeat of the Arab coalition in 1967, he saw the retreating army replaced by the aggressive campaign of the members of the PLO (365).
Lewis described the PLO using three words: resistance; guerrilla warfare; and terrorism (365). It was probably the use of the terrorist label that drew the ire of Arab observers. Lewis is not an orientalist, however, he found himself in a delicate situation when he labeled the PLO as a terrorist group, because the Arab world sees them as freedom fighters.
Only a biased view of the historical facts can justify the claim that Bernard Lewis is an orientalist. He was merely reporting historical facts when he made those assertions regarding the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli War. There was no evidence to prove that he supported the Israeli government. There was no evidence to prove that he maligned members of the Arab world. The only possible exception was when he used the terrorist label to describe the Palestine Liberation Organization.
However, this is not enough to persuade level-minded people to accord the orientalist label to Bernard Lewis. The people who commandeered airplanes to blow up the World Trade Center are aptly labeled terrorists, even if there are a million people on the other side of the world who hailed them as freedom fighters.
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Lewis, B. What Went Wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003. Print.