Commentary Magazine

Race and Slavery in the Middle East, by Bernard Lewis

Islamic Racism

Race and Slavery in the Middle East.
by Bernard Lewis.
Oxford University Press. 184 pp. $24.95.

Several features combine to make Bernard Lewis an exceptionally distinguished historian of the Middle Eastern world. First of all, he writes a poised and indeed classical prose which is accessible to the general reader. Not too deep below the surface is that fully imagined sense of the human comedy with its ironies and paradoxes, without which history must remain a matter for specialists or cause-mongers. Secondly, familiar with all the major languages and literatures of the Middle East, he knows most of those of Europe too, his references extending into Russian, Polish, and Hungarian. Finally, his sympathies for Turks, Persians, Arabs, and Jews encourage him to tell the truth about them, the bad with the good. In this field, those who prefer reality to myth are few.

In The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961), Lewis depicted in rich detail the complex process whereby the pre-1914 Ottoman state became Turkey as it is today, without an empire, but the first Muslim country in the Middle East to have held a free election. Modernization, Lewis showed, might be compatible with the preservation of Turkish identity and much else that was valuable in its heritage. But the end results of this modernization would depend on the kind of accommodation that Turkish society could reach with the West.

Two shorter books, The Arabs in History (1950) and The Middle East and the West (1963), brought into focus the comparable accommodations which faced the Arabs. In Muslim, and especially Arab, eyes, Westerners had traditionally been regarded with disdain, as inferior in religion and culture, offering nothing. All of a sudden, so it seemed, these same Westerners thrust into their midst with strange institutions and creativities which were a challenge to customary life, to Arab and Muslim lands, to historic identity itself. By the time Muslims took the measure of this unfolding drama, it was already too late for reforms which might have allowed them to meet the West on equal terms.

Lewis has the empathy to communicate what a shock the West delivered to the foundations of Islamic and Arab civilization. Thoughtful Muslims have analyzed the Western performance in order to establish whether it can be emulated, and if so, how. Others have sought to repudiate it altogether. To many, the departed glory of Islam has furnished a counter-illusion of a pre-Western Golden Age. Caught in a highly volatile welter of painful and contradictory emotions, many Middle Eastern Muslims appear to fluctuate between self-pity and nostalgia, envy, and resentment. Contrasting themselves to Westerners, Arabs and Iranians in particular display little confidence in their identity. Today it remains as unclear as ever what has to be done if the Muslim Middle East and the West are to meet on terms of parity. The difficulty of how to be modern and Arab or Iranian, as an individual or as a society, has yet to be resolved.



The years after 1950, when Lewis was beginning to document these perceptions, were marked by the triumph of Arab nationalism. According to its advocates, that was a doctrine destined to restore the pride in identity which Arabs ought legitimately to feel. No sort of historical process had brought the West into the Arab midst, the nationalists declared, but simple greed. Western efforts to build modern political and social structures and institutions in the Arab world, and to develop resources including the oil fields which were the basis of unprecedented wealth, were to be seen as cunning deceptions to mask exploitation. Two abstract nouns, imperialism and colonialism, reduced everything Western to a personification of evil which had turned the Arabs into innocent victims in all respects. Nationalist leaders like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella promised that the moment Arabs were free from imperialism and colonialism they would meet the West on equal terms. Innocence would reign, the pre-Western Golden Age would return again, this time in the form of democracy with guaranteed rights, and even Arab socialism.

Equal terms, to these leaders, meant no accommodation to the West in general, or to the Jews of Israel in particular. To the departing colonial powers, none of this seemed to make much difference. Handing over power to the nationalists without much resistance (except in Algeria), British and French ruling circles supposed that they would be popular everywhere for it. More importantly, they did not care a fig what would actually happen to Arab populations: if Arabs professed to be victims of the West, they might as well learn what victimization really looked like. In one country after another, Arab nationalist leaders were to cause oppression and death on a scale never experienced in the darkest chapters of colonialism.

From Nasser and Ben Bella down to Saddam Hussein, these men were concerned with what their countries could do for them and their careers, rather than what they could do for their countries. On the one hand, they took from the West arms, aid, styles of social mobilization, the model of the police state. On the other hand, they rejected everything the West actually stood for. In either case, they had no concept of how to reconcile past and present, the religious with the secular, in order to discover how to be both Arab and modern.

Academics and experts in the West who were supposed to know best about the peoples of the Middle East might have been expected to come to the defense of these peoples by exposing the sinister and absolutist pretensions of those who had levered themselves into power by means of nationalism of this type. Instead, the experts presented Arab nationalism as a cause worthy of the support of decent-minded persons everywhere. This was a trahison des clercs comparable to that committed in the previous generation by Communist intellectuals and fellow-travelers.

Nobody could have predicted from the writings of Arnold Toynbee, Sir Hamilton Gibb, Jacques Berque, Elizabeth Monroe, Philip Hitti, Albert Hourani, and innumerable others that independence for the Arabs would prove a protracted nightmare of war and civil war, tyranny and massacre, corruption and waste of resources. Yet the pupils and heirs of those who justified Arab nationalism and sought to establish its myths now dominate universities throughout the English-speaking world, and they publish specialist works and field studies which continue to do Arabs the disservice of distorting reality beyond recognition. From this body of work or special pleading, Arabs appear to be people who are not to be trusted to hear the truth about the violence that their leaders do to them. Arab achievements must be inflated, and their mistakes or misjudgments blamed on others. Condescending in themselves, such apologetics also hold Arabs back from meeting the West on truly equal terms.



In the latter part of his career, Bernard Lewis has been publishing books and monographs which explode one aspect or another of nationalist-inspired myth-making. The necessary task of the historian, he writes in his latest book, is the correction of error, “even of emotionally satisfying and politically useful error.” It is a lonely business, though, and requires courage and perseverance. Without scholarship and humanity like Lewis’s, it might not have been possible. In fact, Lewis has had no trouble disposing of Arab nationalist critics, because he argues from texts while they exhibit emotions satisfactory to them, and politically useful too.

In common with everybody else, Muslims and Arabs never had a Golden Age; they prospered in certain periods and places, though not in others. Lewis’s The Muslim Discovery of Europe (1982) describes how the undoubted greatness of classical Islam also contained complacency as well as the failure of imagination which was to seal the unequal encounter to come. He quotes a valuable and fascinating range of chronicles, letters, diplomatic dispatches, and literary sources to reveal how Arabs, and later Ottomans and Persians, almost unanimously refused to acknowledge whatever did not fit their preconceptions.

Notions of democratic rights, or pluralism, or Arab socialism as a constituent of the Islamic heritage are anachronistic, invented by contemporary nationalists in pursuit of current political ends. If Arabs do not grant full rights even to Muslim minorities living among them, like the Kurds, then they are even less likely to do so for non-Muslims on their borders. In today’s Middle East, Israel is in the position of a minority asking for equal rights under guarantee from Arabs who have no such privileges for themselves. Arabs—more exactly, elements of the PLO—like to assert that this is not the issue. Their Palestine will be a democratic and secular state, and those Israelis who are permitted to live within it will only have to revert to the benign former status of Jews under Islamic rule.

Two of Lewis’s most succinct books, The Jews of Islam (1984) and Semites and Anti-Semites (1986), show this allegedly benign status to be another example of Golden Age mythologizing. Traditionally, relations between believers and nonbelievers were regulated according to Islamic law. Jews, like Christians, were “people of the book,” and as such were spared the choice between conversion and death. Because they did not submit to the Muslim revelation, however, they could be accepted only as second-class citizens, the so-called dhimmi, with penalties in a number of spheres. That, in Muslim eyes, was the right ordering of the world.

Practices varied greatly, depending on period and place. Lewis distinguishes between discrimination, which he is resigned to calling “the normal hostility” one people feels for another, and persecution. In the Islamic world, there was nothing comparable to anti-Semitism in the vicious European mode. One of the ironies which Lewis brings out is that Jews themselves spread the myth that they enjoyed rights in Islam, not because they actually did, but as a reproach to the Christians who were increasingly persecuting them in Europe.

For Arabs, the existence of Israel now represents the disordering of the Muslim world, and Lewis provides much evidence of the depth of resentment that this has provoked. Following the Christian example, Arabs in recent years have been converting discrimination into outright anti-Semitism, with all that this implies for Israel. Lewis fears that it may exclude compromise between the peoples concerned. The absence of compromise means surrendering to myths of exclusivity and supremacy on the part of the Arabs, in which case there can be no modernization worth the name, and anxieties about identity will increase. It may not be too much to say that accommodation with Israel has become the immediate test determining how to be Arab and modern.



The myth of total racial harmony in Islam is on a par with the myth of dhimmi happiness, and likewise aimed at casting a false nostalgic glow to attract those who today rightly abhor racism. Race and Slavery in the Middle East, as its title indicates, covers this ground. As everywhere else in the ancient world, slavery existed in pre-Islamic Arabia. The Prophet himself owned slaves. When the Qu’ran laid down the law regulating the obviously unequal relationship between master and slave, no racial or color prejudice was involved. Slaves were either prisoners of war, or offspring of slave parents. Women became household slaves or concubines, the men usually laborers. Muslims, of course, could not be legally enslaved.

Following the Arab campaigns of conquest, new categories arose of non-Arab Muslims and the children of Arab fathers and non-Arab mothers. Many of these were black. In the early centuries of Islam, a pattern developed of prejudice and racial hostility toward these people and their descendants. Some slaves were of European origin, mostly Slav, but the majority were African. Stereotypes emerged, as they did in other societies, more often than not in very similar language and imagery. Lewis quotes many of them, as well as clear and moving refutations and protests against such intolerance on the part of black Muslims as well as white. Anti-defamation literature would not exist, he points out, unless there had been a strong reason for it.

By whichever route, the journey into slavery was horrific, but Lewis thinks that slaves taken into Muslim countries may have received better treatment than elsewhere, and could more readily advance to positions of influence and power. This was particularly so in the special cases of military slaves and eunuchs, who might be either white or black. Muslim piety, moreover, outweighed considerations of color. In due course the supply of white slaves dried up. Profits from trading were so high that Muslim traders lost their scruples and sold fellow-Muslims within their reach in Africa—Christians in the trade were similarly disregarding religious prohibitions. The diehard argument was that since slavery was not forbidden by Islam, it was lawful, and what was lawful was beyond amending. The elimination of slavery from Muslim countries was one aspect of accommodation to Western demands and values. By way of conclusion, Lewis offers another irony: the myth of total racial harmony in the Islamic world was put about in the last century by Christians, as a reproach to the practices of white men in the Americas and in Southern Africa.

A Westerner can only describe the difficulties of reconciling the inherited Islamic identity with the world at large, so very differently shaped by the West. To judge from Lewis, there are no prescriptions. But historians are not in the business of providing hope; authoritative addresses to reality like his will serve excellently instead, and they make him a matchless guide to the background of Middle East conflict today.

About the Author

David Pryce-Jones, the British novelist and political analyst, is the author of, among other books, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter).

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