The Bernard Lewis Syndrome: How Orientalists Fanned Flames of Islamophobia


'Experts' like Bernard Lewis played a crucial role in fanning Islamophobia and misinformation about Arabs and Muslims in the West.
‘Experts’ like Bernard Lewis played a crucial role in fanning Islamophobia and misinformation about Arabs and Muslims in the West.

Wagih Makky examines the responsibility of Western orientalists in shaping Islamophobic attitudes


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he latest US presidential elections campaign did not all of a sudden initiate bigoted perceptions of Islam. The phenomenon has been deeply entrenched in the Western mindset for centuries, though it took on a somewhat sophisticated façade in the 20th century under the guise of scholarship.

The field is crowded with academic opportunists and religious fanatics. Bernard Lewis of Princeton University in the US is the high priest of this group. He eventually became not so much a person as a phenomenon espoused by many so-called “experts on Islam” who were brought together by their blind support of Israel and were characterised by their hatred of Arabs, Islam and Muslims. Lewis’s followers have an innate hatred of Islam and the Arabs. Their works are meant to discredit and denigrate rather than to study Islam, Arabs and Muslims.

Lewis’s life was spent in the service of British imperialism until it was committed to the dustbin of history. He then switched his allegiance and moved to the US in order to serve the neo-imperialists when their time came. He succeeded in establishing firm connections with defence and intelligence services in the US and regularly provided the necessary pretexts they sought in their adventures against Arab countries, dedicating his allegedly scholarly work in academia for that purpose.

His most egregious and lamentable success was to transform the brazen attacks of 9/11 by a few individuals into an international Islamic conspiracy that demanded a swift response in the minds of American decision-makers. The latter embraced Lewis’s theses wholeheartedly in order to divert attention from their dereliction of duty in protecting American airspace on that fateful September day. The entire world is now paying, and will keep on paying, the price for that unconscionable approach for the foreseeable future.

The glaring lack of intellectual and historical knowledge on the part of the new Western power enhanced the prestige of these pseudo-scholars and cemented their hold over the attitudes of decision-makers. The events of 9/11 and the ill-conceived invasions that followed allowed the perspectives of this group to metastasise, creating the intellectual cancer currently engulfing the globe under the name of fighting “Islamic terrorism”. Lewis was the fountain-head of most of the ill-advised steps that were taken. Thus his work created what can be aptly described as the “Bernard Lewis Syndrome.”

Lewis was instrumental in formulating the American philosophy of counter-terrorism and prepared the political groundwork for the Afghan War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a consequence of the fight against the terrorism of Al-Qaeda. He became a valued intellectual mentor to the architects of these malignant efforts, especially the then US vice-president Dick Cheney and his underlings, who publicly acknowledged their indebtedness to him.

Lewis and his protégés are directly responsible for coining almost all the current meaningless expressions traded by politicians and counter-terrorism “experts” in the “War on Terrorism” around the globe. All American anti-terrorism officials are by and large disciples of Lewis.

Orientalism as a discipline left the hallowed halls of Western academia after the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in order to enter the service of British and the French colonialism. The aim was to turn the peoples of the Arab and Islamic East into the subjects of the West by dividing the shards of the fallen Empire. World War Two ushered in the disappearance of the old European colonialism and the appearance of a neo-colonialism represented by the United States. The rules might have changed, but the game remained the same. The orientalists hurried to align themselves with the new power, providing it with a façade of geopolitical legitimacy.

The messy American presidential elections season of 2016 witnessed much bellicose rhetoric, particularly on the Republican Party side and especially from the leading contenders.  Those who were competing to occupy the Oval Office in the White House were striving to ingratiate themselves with US voters at the expense of logic or long-standing values.

Outrageous bordering on scandalous statements were uttered with no compunction about a host of issues. The standard practice in such campaigns is to attempt to rally support and undermine the opposition. It is generally accepted that in elections the ends justify the means. Almost always things go back to normal after the season is over. This time around is probably no exception.

However, harsh statements about Islam and Muslims were rarely challenged despite being out of sync with American morals. They became normal and entered the American political vocabulary. They certainly represent what is to come. Hostility to Islam is most probably the only issue that is now agreed on by all in the US. The words spoken might have been overtly racist and bigoted for the first time, but their wide-ranging acceptance unveiled the latent popular hostility to Islam.

It seemed as if large segments of US society were simply waiting for someone arrogant enough to openly champion the cause, and they found him in several contenders. The one who won the day for the racists and the bigots was the billionaire Republican Party candidate Donald Trump.

TRUMP’S CAMPAIGN: The contenders were supported by a throng of current and former high-ranking officials from both the executive and the legislative branches of the US government.

A broad cross-section of the American intelligentsia participated in the mêlée as well.  But with the emergence of Trump as the Republican Party nominee and his later ascendancy to the United States presidency, shockwaves of concern travelled around the globe. Trump’s unusual pronouncements sounded a bit out of sync with decades of both national and international traditions. Almost all his rhetoric was meaninglessly vague unless it concerned Islam and Muslims, when it was specific, unambiguous and precisely detailed.

It has now become clearer by the day that Trump is backtracking on most of his promises. Even his political opponents now seem to accept his grandstanding as campaign rhetoric pandering to the disenfranchised masses, thus giving him the benefit of the doubt.

But this is true with the exception of when it comes to Islam and Muslims, since here Trump has been reinforcing his virulently bigoted proclamations. His choices for the cabinet and appointments to top White House positions have made it more than obvious where he stands on issues relating to his pronouncements on Islam and Muslims. While worldwide opposition to his opinions on most issues is loud and clear, denouncing his Islamophobic approach has been muted except among American Arab and Muslim communities.

What is really alarming is that it is no accident that these same expressions are coming into vogue with the incoming Trump administration. The words that the US president-elect and his minions use are taken wholesale from the Lewis lexicon. It is hard to escape the impression that the worldwide disasters brought about by the George W Bush administration will now be reworked on a much grander scale by the national security group assembled by the new president-elect.

It is enlightening to quote a few of his associates and aides. It is also curious that while Western politicians, intellectuals and leaders berate Muslims for being “religious fanatics” and urge them to adopt Western secular values for their own good, Western officials use religious fanaticism to describe themselves and to denigrate Islam and Muslims.

The four-star US general William Boykin advised Trump during his campaign. In what an editorial in the New York Times on 26 August 2004 published under the headline “For Religious Bigotry,” the then US deputy secretary of defence for intelligence described his encounter with a Muslim Somali warlord in jail in 1993, saying that “I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and that his was an idol.”

When he was later given the task of finding Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, the general addressed a number of churches in the US state of Oregon in full military uniform, telling them that Islamic terrorists would only be defeated “if we come at them in the name of Jesus” adding that the terrorists were spearheaded by Satan as “he wants to destroy us as a Christian army.”

The Trump administration’s new national security adviser is four-star general Michael T Flynn who is very precise about describing Islam as the “enemy of the US,” saying that it is not wrong to fear it. He was dismissed from heading the US Defence Intelligence Agency by US President Barack Obama because of his fanaticism. In a similar approach to Cheney, who disregarded the facts in implicating Iraq in the 9/11 events, Flynn has tried to connect Iran to the bombing of the US Benghazi Consulate in Libya and the death of the ambassador some years ago.

For him and for those like him, once the enemy has been identified, all that is needed is to implicate that enemy in any and all hostile acts regardless of the facts. That was a publicly stated position by Cheney in preparation for the invasion of Iraq.

Representative Mike Pompeo of the state of Kansas, who has been picked to lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the Trump administration, has depicted the fight against terrorism as a war between radical Muslims, on the one side, and the Christian faith on the other. He told a church group in Kansas in 2014 that “this threat to America… is from Muslims who deeply believe that Islam is the way and the light and the only answer…They abhor Christians… and will continue to press against us until we make sure that we pray and stand and fight and make sure that we know that Jesus Christ is our saviour and is truly the only solution for our world.”

At an evangelical church in his district that specialises in addressing “Satanism and paranormal activity” and standing in front of a Christian flag, Pompeo in 2015 spoke of the “struggle against radical Islam, the kind of struggle this country has not faced since its great wars”. He warned that “evil is all around us,” citing reports of terror plots, and cautioned the congregation not to be deterred by those who might call them “Islamophobes or bigots.”

The roster of the incoming administration is replete with such personalities. Although the numbers are staggering, the trend is not new by any means. Former US attorney general John Ashcroft told a conservative radio interviewer in 2002 that “Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you… [Islam is] a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him,” for example.

Prominent Christian religious leaders in the United States have also joined the circus. In 2002, the Christian preacher Jerry Falwell called the Prophet Mohamed “a terrorist… a violent man, a man of war” and Christian preacher Pat Robertson called him “an absolute wild-eyed fanatic… a killer.” The former president of the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant denomination in America) described the Prophet Mohamed as a “demon-possessed paedophile.”

This attitude is not reserved for individuals. Institutionally, the US state of Oklahoma in 2010 barred the use of Sharia, or Islamic Law, in state courts merely to show vindictiveness. Sharia Law has never been practised in the state.

BUFFOONERY: It is acknowledged that most Western thinkers, even pseudo-scholars, would hasten to distance themselves from such statements and dismiss them as buffoonery and bigotry.

But this is disingenuous, since the likes of these persons are the ones moulding already receptive popular attitudes, filling them with unwarranted conceptions that lead to hatred and conflict. And it is Islam that is blamed for militancy and violence.

The West, including its leaders and presumed experts on Islam and Islamic terrorism, is also oblivious to the fact that Muslim reactions took a decisive turn for the worse beginning in 2014 and 2015. This coincided with the rise of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) group, which includes thousands of Western individuals in its ranks. These very westerners are the ones who brought about this unheard-of brutality. Their knowledge of Islam, with no exceptions, is rudimentary, but their anger and rage are boundless.

It would be better for Western politicians and decision-makers to ask themselves why their youngsters despise the lands of their birth or their adopted countries, rather than to spew out grandiose pronouncements about their determination to “annihilate” IS. The young people who make up the ranks of IS are part and parcel of Western culture and nothing else. They are people who have been ill-treated by their societies. They want their revenge, but earlier there was no single idea to bind them together. They found this idea in Islam, which, unlike so many other systems, has never historically submitted to the arrogance or intimidation of the West.

It is absurd to describe the bombers of the US Boston Marathon in 2013 as Muslim terrorists. They were “American punks” in every sense of the phrase. They were immersed in American society when very young, and they absorbed all of its shortcomings. They got nowhere close to fulfilling the supposed “American Dream,” and they turned against their own society like countless other Americans who across the country kill their fellow citizens every day of the year.

This description also applies, without any doubt, to the murderers in San Bernardino, California, in 2015. These were the pure products of American society, not of any Muslim one. Practising self-deception and in order to absolve themselves of responsibility, US officials have invented the laughable expressions of “radicalised” and “self-radicalised” to describe individuals who become “terrorists” after reading online messages or exchanges from the so-called Islamic State.

The same thing is true of those young British or French men and women who have turned on their homelands with a vengeance. The fault is not in Islam, but in these Western societies that abuse their young people in the name of freedom and democracy.

It might be wiser for Western politicians to look inside their own societies for remedies rather than to blame Islam. Westerners may berate Islam as a “violent religion” to their hearts’ content, but that will not change the fact that Islam in reality is a very moderate belief system that constrains its adherents and forcefully precludes violent tendencies.

A compelling recent example in support of this fact is the case of the great African-American leader Malcolm X. It is well-known that Malcolm X concocted an absurd theory biologically linking “the white man” to the devil. He called for violently upending the racist American society of the 1960s. Only when he got in intimate touch with real Islam did he renounce these ideas and, on performing the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), speak of the brotherhood of all men, black, white and brown.

This statement was so unusual in the United States that it made national news. It was Islam that moderated the violence of Malcolm X’s views, not the other way around. It testifies to the greatness of the man that once he had come to grips with Islam, he immediately and willingly submitted to its precepts of peaceful coexistence with others.

The seemingly great appeal of fanatical ideologies raising the banner of Islam and the associated infusion of Western youth into the ranks of the groups espousing these ideologies is an ominous game-changer. Despite the clumsy attempts by Trump and his entourage to overlook it and blame Muslim immigrants, the fact remains that most “Muslim terrorists” perpetrating violent acts against America are born and bred in America itself, have rarely been to any Muslim society for prolonged periods, and know next to nothing about Islam.

If Trump follows through with his promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv in Israel to Jerusalem, he will offend all Muslims worldwide. The official reaction will most probably consist only of hollow verbal protestations, but popular outbursts of anger will also take place and eventually either subside or be forcefully suppressed.

However, the seeds of indignant outrage will have been firmly implanted, and these may stay dormant for a long time, waiting to inevitably explode against American interests.  Make no mistake: Islam will be defended against any perceived attack. Unfortunately, currently that task has fallen by default to the least-qualified and the most unsophisticated violence-prone individuals among Muslims, with regrettable consequences all round.

What the West does not recognise is that unlike its own, Islamic history and tradition enjoy uninterrupted continuity regardless of setbacks. The mediaeval European Crusades made an indelible mark on Muslims that will not go away. These bygone affronts are recalled every time the West, as the inheritor of those unholy Crusaders, impinges on Islam verbally or physically.

This dismays westerners who seek psychological shelter by accusing Muslims of being backward and living by 7th-century standards. The invading Mongols in the Middle Ages may have inflicted more harm on Islam than the Crusades. But the Muslims have put this memory to rest, as the Mongols were eventually vanquished and disappeared from history.

The writer is an international consultant and former member of the US Transportation Security Administration. This article is adapted from his book Islam and the West – Why Do They Hate Us So Much?  This originally appeared in Al Ahram Weekly

Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.


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