Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis says today's conflict between Christendom and Islam is one that goes back more than fourteen centuries. He describes it as a clash between the relativists and the triumphalists. While some religions accept the legitimacy of other faiths (relativists), both Islam and Christianity in their traditionalist forms hold unbending views. "What they say is, 'We are the fortunate recipients of God's message to mankind, which is our duty not to keep selfishly to ourselves but to share with the rest of humanity, removing any obstacles that may be in our way.'
"The Christian world and a large part of the Islam world no longer hold that kind of triumphalist view," says Lewis, the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton. "But what we are dealing with is the triumphalists of the Muslim world and they are setting the terms of the conflict. That's the difficulty. If only the relativists on both sides could get together I'm sure agreement would be possible."
Lewis's career in Middle Eastern studies began with a facility for and a fascination with languages at the age of thirteen. "I started out learning the few lines of Hebrew I needed to know for my bar mitzvah, normally that's what's expected," he says. "To everyone's surprise, especially my parents, I wanted to continue with Hebrew after I completed my bar mitzvah work.
"Fortunately my parents hired a Hebrew teacher who gave me a scholarly understanding of Semitic languages," Lewis says. "Later at university, I took the opportunity to take some Aramaic and then Arabic."
Hebrew and a love of history drew him to Middle Eastern studies at the University of London. His scholarship earned him a prize from the university and soon he was given another opportunity. The university offered him a stipend of 150 pounds to study in the Middle East. "The professor said to me, 'You've been studying the Middle East for years, don't you think you should go there?'" recalls Lewis. He went, and found it fascinating. He returned to London as an assistant lecturer and pursued his PhD.
World War II erupted and he reported for duty. With his facility for languages, Lewis was quickly transferred from a tank unit to one in intelligence and was sent to the Middle East. Lewis still remembers his first trip to Iraq during the war. "It was one hundred and twenty-five degrees in the shade, blistering hot, like stepping into a blast furnace," he recalls.
After the war he returned to the University of London and continued teaching Islamic history until 1974. That same year he moved to the United States to teach at Princeton and at the Institute for Advanced Studies. He officially retired in 1986. At age ninety he still keeps an office at Princeton, works on projects, and advises an occasional student. Lewis has written more than thirty books, the most recent being From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, published in 2004.
Lewis believes today's study of the Middle East has become much more politicized as the field emphasizes contemporary themes. There is also a great need, he says, for more students to learn Arabic. Compared to his years of study in the region, he notes the Middle East today is more open to travel and study. "There are several good centers in the Arab world where they do welcome foreign students to do elementary and advanced work in their language and literature," he says.