The decades-long feud between Edward Said and Bernard Lewis runs to the heart of dilemmas over Iran, Iraq and the Arab Springby Ali Ansari / July 18, 2012 / Leave a comment
An anti-Assad demonstration in the Syrian town of Tamanaa. How should the west respond to turmoil in the Middle East?
The onset of the “Arab Spring” in 2011, coming swiftly after the “Persian summer” of 2009, has spread over much of the Middle East, destabilising the political fabric of the region and challenging a range of policy assumptions. People across the region have risen against their governments, yearning for the sort of civil rights and human dignity that most in the west take for granted.
For some, this is the region’s democratic moment and the west needs to do more than simply cheer from the sidelines. Others have questioned whether the west should contemplate intervention at all, whether we are facing a moment of revolutionary transition to democracy, and moreover whether such “western” values have any resonance in the Islamic world. Is there a moral imperative to intervene or does experience dictate the necessity of detachment? Above all, does the calamity of Iraq not prove that western intervention, however well intentioned, is doomed to fail through mutual incomprehension?
These questions are at the heart of a decades-old clash of ideas about how the west should approach the Middle East that was given new force by 9/11, and even more by the events of the past year. The intellectual figurehead of one side of the debate has been Bernard Lewis, the historian of the Middle East, who in his work has adopted the role of interpreter of the east for western audiences. Through his work runs the traditional scholarly view that dispassionate academic study can yield a critical understanding of its subject. Yet both Lewis and his approach came to be challenged, in often bitter personal attacks, by Edward Said, the Palestinian-American critic and activist, who rejected the notion that the west can ever truly understand the Middle East.
This clash of ideas, and the more than quarter-century public quarrel between the two men, is illuminated both by the posthumous republication this month of Said’s Reflections on Exile, and Beginnings: Intention and Method, and by the recent publication of Lewis’s memoir Notes on a Century. The debate has not only dominated decades of work in academia, but has shaped how policymakers approach the unsettled questions of a turbulent region. Both men contributed enormously to the debate, but both became polarised by an…