Bernard Lewis (Historian)

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Populariser of 'Islamism'

One of the earliest articles of note utilising the concept of 'Islamism' was by Bernard Lewis a 'renowned British-American historian of Islam and the Middle East. A former British intelligence officer, Foreign Office staffer, and Princeton University professor.'[1]

In January 1976 he published a piece in the Zionist/Neoconservative magazine Commentary, which at that stage was still published by the American Jewish Committee. Titled 'The return of Islam' it raised the spectre of 'new forms of pan-Islamic activity.'[2] It sets out to insist that the problem with Islam is that it is a religion. Thus he chides the West for not understanding that Muslims are not like us. 'We are prepared' he states 'to allow religiously defined conflicts to accredited eccentrics like the Northern Irish, but to admit that an entire civilization can have religion as its primary loyalty is too much.'[2]

The phrase 'pan-Islamism' was used nine times in the piece in an account that proposed that the problem with Muslims in politics is that they take their religion too seriously. Lewis traces the 'Islamic' connections and rationale of a whole host of organisation's including secular nationalist groups like Fatah:

The imagery and symbolism of the Fatah is strikingly Islamic. Yasir Arafat’s nom de guerre, Abu ‘Ammar, the father of ‘Ammar, is an allusion to the historic figure of ‘Ammar ibn Yasir, the son of Yasir, a companion of the Prophet and a valiant fighter in all his battles. The name Fatah is a technical term meaning a conquest for Islam gained in the Holy War. It is in this sense that Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Constantinople for Islam, is known as Fatih, the Conqueror. The same imagery, incidentally, is carried over into the nomenclature of the Palestine Liberation Army, the brigades of which are named after the great victories won by Muslim arms in the Battles of Qadisiyya, Hattin, and Ayn Jalut. To name military units after victorious battles is by no means unusual. What is remarkable here is that all three battles were won in holy wars for Islam against non-Muslims—Qadisiyya against the Zoroastrian Persians, Hattin against the Crusaders, Ayn Jalut against the Mongols. In the second and third of these, the victorious armies were not even Arab; but they were Muslim, and that is obviously what counts. It is hardly surprising that the military communiqués of the Fatah begin with the Muslim invocation, “In the name of God, the Merciful and the Compassionate.”[2]

Bernard Lewis 'was' writes Hamid Dabashi, 'not a regular rogue. He was instrumental in causing enormous suffering and much bloodshed in this world. He was a notorious Islamophobe who spent a long life studying Islam in order to demonise Muslims and mobilise the mighty military of what he called "the West" against them.'[3]

The Second Conference on International Terrorism - 1984

The Second Conference on International Terrorism was held in Washington DC and the topic of the association of Islam with terrorism was explicitly on the agenda. In his opening address Netanyahu mentioned specifically the threat of ‘Islamic (and Arab) radicalism’.[4] There was a specific session on the ‘Islamic world’ amongst four on the first day. The others dealt with terrorism and democracy, totalitarianism and the international network of terrorism. The session on ‘terrorism and the Islamic world’ was chaired by Bernard Lewis, sometimes referred to as one of the ‘gang of four’ scholars in the field who ‘believed that Western policy towards the Arab world was distorted by sentimental illusions—notably, that it mistook the tyranny imposed by Arab nationalist regimes for progress.’[5] The three panellists in that session were the other three members of the ‘gang’: Professor John Barrett Kelly (then at the Heritage Foundation having left academia a decade earlier to act as a consultant for Gulf State dictators), PJ Vatikiotis (then at SOAS in London) and Elie Kedourie (then at the LSE in London). All four were of course also highly critical of Islam. Lewis is known for his Islamophobia – effectively denounced on many occasions by Edward Said.[6] Kelly, though, thought him ‘much more admiring and much more tolerant of Islamic civilization than I have allowed myself to be’.[7]


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  1. Militarist Monitor, Bernard Lewis, last updated: September 17, 2018.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Lewis, Bernard, “The Return of Islam.” Commentary 61, no. 1 (1976): 39–49.
  3. Hamid Dabashi Alas, poor Bernard Lewis, a fellow of infinite jest, Al Jazeera, 28 May 2018.
  4. Deepa Kumar, Islamophobia and the politics of empire. Chicago: IL, Haymarket Books, 2012, p. 119.
  5. J B Kelly Fighting the Retreat from Arabia and the Gulf: The Collected Essays and Reviews of J.B. Kelly, Vol. 1 2013.
  6. Said, E. W. (2008). Covering Islam: How the media and the experts determine how we see the rest of the world (Fully revised edition). Random House.
  7. Deepak Lal, Wisdom on the Greater Middle East, Quadrant, 11th September 2016.