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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #9 (February 25-March 3, 2003), page 11.

Understanding the Middle East

What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis

Perennial, 2003

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.

Magnificent culture

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 God’s.

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 kindred peoples."

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 problems

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 societies."

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 this moment.


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