The Demise and Legacy of Genocide Denier Bernard Lewis


Historian Bernard Lewis is dead. His ideas, however, are not. Unlike other traditional and respected scholars, his academic work was often tainted by his involvement in politics. In fact, his scholarly works served as a basis for ideologies which continue to plague the modern world. Throughout his life, especially in his later years, he chose to exchange his mantel as a scholar with that of an ideologue, and some of his disciples are engaged currently in ruling the world.

In the year 2012, he described himself in the following way: “For some, I’m the towering genius. For others, I am the devil incarnate.”

Very few people have enough self-awareness to have an objective view of themselves. And Professor Lewis was no exception. Throughout this essay, we will try to document both dimensions of his personality, a respected scholar and a figurative gun-for-hire.

Scholarship is the pursuit of truth, which guides most historians who are wary of falling into the category of advocacy. Professor Lewis had no such qualms and eagerly used the tremendous power of his academic erudition to bolster his advocacy and worldview, accompanied by the justification of actions propelled by that advocacy.

He knew how to empower ideas; actually, he was a master of formulating ideologies and enlisting the support of power structures to implement those ideologies in political practice.

Words have power, ideas have power, and when placed into the context of ideologies, they become formidable forces to influence the course of history.

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All religions, philosophies and social theories are developed to benefit society, to propel it to the next level of prosperity, good governance and social justice. But history has demonstrated that they all degenerate into dictatorships, war mongering and disaster, especially when philosophies become religions or articles of faith and religions become embedded into politics.

The pious image of Christ was lost during the Hundred Year Wars in Europe, the War of the Roses and competing papacies between Rome and Avignon.

Karl Marx was a philosopher and economist who published The Communist Manifesto in 1848 and his obsession with the rule of the proletariat promised an economic paradise for the masses. He also was prophetic in defining history, which eventually perfectly suited the destiny of his communist ideal. He indeed wrote, “History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce.”

The lives of the working class were primarily a tragedy and he prescribed a remedy to get them out of that situation, which ended up being a farce.

But before that point, Vladimir Illich Lenin took Marx’s idea and ran with it. He founded the Soviet Union, which professed to be the greatest laboratory for social engineering, promising to shape the Soviet citizen, Homo Sovieticus.

After 80 million in casualties in World War II, in concentration camps and pogroms, the Soviet Union eventually collapsed under its own weight.

Bernard Lewis was the prophet of modern times. He had — and continues to have — a host of disciples among the power elite. He especially became the guru and the ideological guide for statesmen who were looking for justifications for their political plans to shape the new world, leaving death and destruction in their wake.

His legacy had a tremendous impact on the history of Islam. He often clashed with Edward Said, the consummate scholar on Orientalism. Lewis’ works comprise The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961), Semites and Anti-Semites (1986), Race and Slavery in the Middle East, The Muslim Discovery of Europe (1982) and The End of Modern History in the Middle East. His most recent book, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and the Middle Eastern Response, became a guidebook for US neocons and war-mongers: Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Pearle, Michael Flynn, John Bolton, et al. Even Mike Pompeo, the current US Secretary of State, gave him credit in eulogizing his death at age 103, stating: “As a true scholar and great man, I owe a great deal of my understanding of the Middle East to his work.”

He had a thorough command of Islamic history and he wrote authoritatively and with erudition. Gradually, through his books, he developed the theory of a clash between Islam and the West, which political scientist Samuel Huntington developed into the theory of clashes of civilization.

Bernard Lewis is better known for putting his ideas and theories into action.

In 2003, he was consulted by the Bush administration about Iraq. His advice was to encourage a revolt in the North rather than invading the country. The journalist Lamis Andoni depicted What Went Wrong as “practically a manifesto for advocates of US military intervention.”

In simple terms, Lewis advocated that people in the Islamic world deserve to be treated as cannon fodder. And viewing the devastation from Libya to Iraq and from Afghanistan to Syria, one can reasonably conclude that the historian’s views and ideology have been put in effective use.

In the book Lewis mentions two failed attempts, in 1529 and 1683, by the Ottoman Turks to capture Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the second attempt, the Ottoman advances to the West lost several battles and petered out, “and my heart was with the Turks,” wrote Lewis.

He was an unapologetic Turcophile. Despite assurance of the Turkish government that the Ottoman archives are open to scholars, they have denied access to any bona fide scholar, with the exception of Taner Akçam, even after sanitizing those archives by eliminating incriminating documents. (Akçam got a lot of documents that were in code, and was able to break them.) Because of his Turcophile credentials, Lewis was perhaps the first foreign scholar to research in those archives in 1950. In two successive editions of his book, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, Lewis admitted the veracity of the Armenian Genocide. Later on, he had a change of heart to say that what actually happened was a brutal massacre which does not merit the definition of a genocide, “because there are no documents about the Turkish government planning to organize those atrocities.”

We can only speculate what caused him to become a denialist, whether it was pressure or bribes from Turkey or an attempt to preserve the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust. His view, at any rate, is not supported by most Jewish scholars.

Lewis’ denialist statements in Le Monde landed him in a Paris Court, which convicted him and levied on him the fine of one franc. He reiterated his denialist position when he was interviewed by a reporter for Haaretz, by stating, “What do the Armenians want? On the one hand, they are bragging about their struggle against Ottoman despotism, and on the other hand, they describe their tragedy as a genocide and they compare it with the Jewish Holocaust. I don’t accept that.”

Turning the tables, one could have rightfully retorted if the credibility of the Holocaust is in any way affected by the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of the Jews in 1942, against the Nazis.

Lewis was an influential scholar whose ideas carried — and still carry — weight. He also fostered a number of denialists like Heath Lowry, Alexander Murinson and Stanford Shaw.

On May 19, 1985, the New York Times and the Washington Post ran an ad in which 69 Armenian scholars called on Congress not to pass a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide.

Later on, it was discovered that the initiative had come from the Turkish embassy and the ad was paid for the Committee of Turkish Association. The scholars were recruited by Bernard Lewis and Heath Lowry and the incident came to be known as the “Lewis Affair.”

And here is a coincidence: The “Lewis Affair” took place on May 19, 1985, and Lewis passed away on May 19, 2018. Was there the hand of providence to link these two dates or just sheer coincidence?

Bernard Lewis is dead but his legacy continues to live and to justify many political adventures in the Middle East. It remains a curse to the Islamic peoples of the Middle East and the victims of the Armenian Genocide.




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