From The Asian Reporter, V13, #9 (February 25-March 3, 2003), page
Understanding the Middle East
What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity
in the Middle East
By Bernard Lewis
Paperback, 186 pages, $12.95
By Jeff Wenger
Bernard Lewis is one of the very brightest minds who have made it their
business to do little else with their long lives but to increase knowledge
of the Middle East.
Each page of his slender new book, What Went Wrong?: Western Impact
and Middle Eastern Response, radiates intellect and insight and
authority, though it is not for this reason unappealing.
This work is drawn from a series of lectures that Lewis gave prior to
September 11, 2001. The work analyzes history and so is not dependent upon
the events of 9/11 for relevance.
Nevertheless, the matters Lewis raises are made more urgent by the
events of that day and these subsequent days.
There was a time, before any of us were born, when the bulk of Islam
was relatively tolerant and technologically advanced. Islam, writes Lewis,
"created a world civilization, polyethnic, multiracial,
international, one might even say intercontinental."
He enumerates Islam’s temporal greatness: greatest military power on
earth, foremost economic power in the world, highest level in arts and
sciences (having inherited the knowledge and skills of the ancient Middle
East, Greece, and Persia).
The peoples of this civilization understood their magnificence to be a
result of God’s blessing upon them. Their own will was inseparable from
Lewis writes: "At the peak of Islamic power, there was only one
civilization that was comparable in the level, quality, and variety of
achievement; that was of course China. But the Chinese civilization
remained essentially local, limited to one region, East Asia, and to one
racial group. It was exported to some degree, but only to neighboring and
The other similarity between these two great powers was a reluctance to
interact with the rest of the world. China’s "Middle Kingdom"
was considered higher than other peoples, though lower than heaven. Islam
was representative of heaven itself.
The reluctance to interact is understandable when considered with the
condition of Europe at the time. Sanitation and education were abysmal.
Life expectancy was short, to say nothing of brutish and nasty, though
that phrase wouldn’t be coined for several more centuries.
Long years without a serious rival allowed Islam the luxury of fighting
amongst itself; struggles were waged between the Persians and the Arabs,
the Turks and the Mongols. In due course, the Ottoman Empire came to
dominate, and to represent Islam on history’s stage.
But Europe made improvements and Christendom eventually positioned
itself as a rival to Islam as a world power.
Lewis’s brief paragraphs concerning the Crusades call two things to
mind: the manifestly un-Christian nature of the Crusades and President
Bush’s terrific rhetorical misstep attaching current American operations
to that word.
The answer to what went wrong is multi-layered. It’s not just one
thing but a combination of things. Some will find fault with Lewis’s
analysis because he doesn’t blame America for the current, lamentable
state of affairs. In the conclusion, he writes, "Anglo-French rule
and American influence, like the Mongol invasions, were a consequence, not
a cause, of the inner weaknesses of Middle-Eastern states and
Not the least among these weaknesses is, in fundamentalist societies,
the relegating of women to lives of ignorance and resentment. Other
problems include an economy that relies solely on one unrenewable
resource, and a culture of blaming others; asking not what went wrong, but
rather, who did this to us?
Lewis reminds us of the broad choice between the fundamentalist
movements like that in Iran, and a secular regime like the Turkish
Republic founded by Kemal Ataturk.
He also reminds us that if the "peoples of the Middle East … can
abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their
talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavor, then they
can once again make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in
antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a major center of civilization. For the
time being, the choice is their own."
The work of Lewis’s bright mind, his knowledge and use of obscure
Ottoman archival material, is not to be confused with the final say in
this matter. Nor does it solve anything. However, What Went Wrong?
is a valuable contribution to understanding how the world came to be in