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Islamophobia's Scholarly Godfather

By Nabil Al-Khowaiter
October 9, 2010

Editor’s Note: After 9/11 – as Americans wondered “why do they hate us?” – they were fed a variety of misleading answers, including President George W. Bush’s claim that “they hate our freedoms.”

Many Americans accepted these rationales because they had been conditioned for decades to view Arabs and Muslims as irrational and vindictive, a bigotry that was given a veneer of scholarship by Bernard Lewis, a key promoter of Islamophobia, notes Nabil Al-Khowaiter in this guest essay:

While it may appear that Islamophobia is a new phenomenon in America – the result of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington – its roots can be traced back to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, followed by the Arab oil embargo and a quadrupling of gas pump prices. 

The oil embargo was the first time ordinary Americans were exposed to Arab and Muslim anger at the U.S. government’s military and political support for Israel's occupation of Arab land and persecution of Palestinians.

The Israeli Lobby had to scramble and explain Arab and Muslim anger at America without mentioning America’s unconditional support of Israel's expansionist policies.  

Mythical reasons were developed and disseminated in the form of scholarly sounding books and essays, claiming that Arab-Muslim anger at America was not due to its enabling of Israeli expansionism but resulted from historical jealousy and rage at America's power and prosperity as contrasted against the Middle East's relative backwardness and weakness.

The chief purveyor of these rationales was the godfather of modern Islamophobia, British-American professor of Middle East studies Bernard Lewis, who stepped forward as the “scholarly” salesman for Israel's apologists.

Lewis actually began his career in the 1930s as a genuine scholar of the Middle East, at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). In the 1950s, he became famous for his extensive research of the Ottoman archives in Istanbul. 

However, his strong Zionist sentiments, which became much more obvious after he moved to Princeton University in 1974, diverted his scholarly endeavors and led him to harness his considerable intellect in the service of the Zionist cause.

On the surface, his essays and books appeared to be neutral or even sympathetic scholarly studies on the Middle East. But he also insisted on explaining Middle East violence and anger toward Israel and the United States as the natural consequence of Islam's centuries-old civilizational decline, rather than a reaction to day-to-day crimes being committed by Israel.

As far back as his “The Return of Islam,” which was published in 1976 by the neoconservative flagship magazine Commentary, Lewis began laying the ideological framework for justifying the use of American military power to pacify the “restless natives” of the Middle East. 

This was followed in the 1980s and 1990s by over 20 pamphleteer-style essays and books on Islamic history, including "The Roots of Muslim Rage" (1990), "The Future of the Middle East" (1997), "What Went Wrong?" (2002), and "The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror" (2003).

While many Western scholars of the Middle East dismissed Lewis’s analysis as a simplistic and selective interpretation of Islamic history, it was that very oversimplification which made his books and essays popular.

For example, Lewis ignored the fact that the majority of the world’s Muslims live in democratic countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Turkey and Malaysia. Instead, he focused his readers' attention on the most arid parts of the Muslim world, which happened to be Arab, and argued that Muslim societies were totalitarian by nature. 

His preferred approach was to mix serious historical study with a psycho-babble analysis that shrank the Islamic world's hundreds of different cultures into a single caricature of anger and hate toward everything Western and Christian.

While spreading negative generalizations about Muslim motivations, Lewis hid his Zionist convictions behind a thin veil of scholarship and feigned sympathy for the Muslim subjects of his study.

American historian Joel Beinin describes Lewis as "perhaps the most articulate and learned Zionist advocate in the North American Middle East academic community.” Yet few of his readers know that he is a Likud supporter and an adviser to several hard-line Israeli politicians who have consistently opposed U.S.-sponsored peace initiatives.

On Sept. 11, 2001, when a fringe group of Muslim zealots murdered about 3,000 Americans, the U.S. public responded in a fit of anger and confusion looking for an explanation for why anybody would hate them so much. 

That was Bernard Lewis’s crowning moment, and his erstwhile neoconservative acolytes wasted no time in presenting him as the "Middle East Scholar" who would reveal the true nature of the new enemy America was facing.

With decades of practice at misinformation behind him, it was not difficult for him to skillfully manipulate the deep anger and hurt Americans of all political stripes felt and thus put the United States on a collision course with the entire Muslim World.

The 9/11 Commission Report determined that the animosity towards the United States felt by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks, stemmed "not from his experiences there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel."

Yet in all his writings and speeches on the 9/11 attacks, Bernard Lewis has made no reference to this very important fact.

As Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh commented, "it was no surprise that in the critical months of 2002 and 2003, while the Bush administration shunned deep thinking and banned State Department Arabists from its councils of power, Bernard Lewis was persona grata, delivering spine-stiffening lectures to Cheney over dinner in undisclosed locations."

An official who sat in on some of the Lewis-Cheney discussions recalled, "His view was: 'Get on with it. Don't dither.'" 

Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who strongly disagreed with the premise of Lewis’s logic, added that Lewis’ message was, "I believe that one of the things you've got to do to Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power."”

Abandoning his scholarly caution, Lewis pressed for a confrontation with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Lewis wrote a series of op-ed articles for The Wall Street Journal with titles such as "A War of Resolve" and "Time for Toppling."

To understand Lewis’s obsession with igniting a global war between America and the Muslim World, one needs to understand the anguish and pain he and other Jews felt as the “civilized West” looked on, before and during World War II, while their European Jews were rounded up and exterminated by the most “civilized” of Western countries.

Former neocon Jacob Heilbrunn’s book, They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, traces the movement’s ideological origins to the unique Jewish experience that flowed from the failure of liberal democracies to prevent the Holocaust.

In the tormented mind of Lewis and his fellow neocons, Palestinians seeking an independent state are equated with Nazis and every attempt at brokering a peace deal between Israel and her Arab neighbors becomes a new Munich.

This observation by Heilbrunn, a repentant neocon, suggests that Lewis’s claim that Muslims harbor a centuries-old hatred for America is actually a projection of his own anger at the West for the Holocaust.

Nabil Al-Khowaiter is the former Managing Director of Dubai-based Middle East News (MBC TV) .

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