What Went Wrong?: Western Impact And Middle Eastern Response

'What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response' by Bernard Lewis

What went wrong?' remains unanswered

Sunday, March 03, 2002

By Christina W. Michelmore


What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response

By Bernard Lewis

Oxford University Press



Bernard Lewis, the eminent Middle Eastern historian, has written a timely addition to the raging debate about the relationship between the Islamic and Western worlds.

His sprightly book is a short survey of the long decline of Islamic civilization, full of scholarly facts, fascinating anecdotes and beguiling insights.

It is also seductive in its use of rich detail to support sweeping generalizations.

Unfortunately, the book doesnt significantly advance the discussion.

The basic framework reprises much of Lewis previous work: For the first 1,000 years after the appearance of Islam, that civilization grew and flourished. Then, in the 16th century, as Western European power grew and Ottoman power declined, Middle Eastern Muslims recognized that something was terribly wrong.

For the next 400 years, Ottoman reformers tried to find the key to modern Western power and prosperity.

Because Ottoman Muslims were used to seeing Western Europeans as inferior, they looked for something other than religion, or culture, which is part of religion, to account for Western superiority, Lewis writes.

What they found were military remedies and economic and administrative reforms. What they missed were the cultural underpinnings of these useful Western practices. And in that lay their mistake, Lewis says.

Lewis is no cultural relativist. To become modern, he says, a society must evolve toward the values and institutions of the liberal West. He offers a wealth of cultural differences between Middle Eastern and Western culture:

The unequal status of women, the union of church and state, the failure to create a secular civil society with a tradition of predatory authority and the lack of interest in the intellectual and practical precision that make modern political, industrial and scientific cooperation possible and productive.

Used sparingly, Lewis explanation provides a window on the cultural turmoil that modernization-cum-Westernization has created in Muslim societies. But it is ultimately unsatisfactory.

Part of the problem is that this book is a conglomeration of previous works. It has a stuck-together quality. There is considerable repetition and an uneasy juxtaposition of the serious and the superficial.

In a work advertised to provide authoritative answers to the mayhem of Sept. 11, it is hard to take seriously the discussion of whether or not the lack of polyphonic music or basketball represents a defect in Islamic culture. But there are other, more substantive problems.

Lewis doesnt answer his own question. He repeatedly points out the immense contribution that medieval Islamic civilization made to the rise of Western science.

From his storehouse of stories, we get wonderful confirming tidbits about medicine and astronomy. We are told that at the end of the Middle Ages, the relationship was reversed. Scientific endeavor exploded in Europe while, in the Muslim world, independent inquiry virtually came to an end.

But here as elsewhere, what went wrong is never explained.

He also moves too glibly from specific regimes and specific times to the Islamic world everywhere and at all times. This not only obliterates the richness and diversity of that world, it also transforms a dynamic culture into a more-or-less static construct.

Lewis is comfortable using an improbable 17th-century description of womens position in Europe to demonstrate that the current status of women is probably the most profound single difference between the two civilizations.

He contends that Muslim texts speak of consultation but that no formal procedures or definition of those to be consulted ever existed.

But it is precisely such a constitutional system that Iranians are currently trying so painfully and patiently to construct.

By concentrating solely on culture, Lewis dismisses all other forces that shape belief and behavior -- language, ethnicity, politics, class, wealth, technological sophistication and outside influence and interference.

Did Ottoman factories fail because of the Muslim belief that knowledge was something to be acquired, stored, if necessary bought, rather than grown or developed or because of an old disdain for the infidels and more particularly for traditional infidel occupations?

Or did they fail because European interference rendered competition hopelessly unequal?

After Sept. 11, any discussion of the relationship between the West and the Islamic worlds seems destined to get mixed up with the war on terrorism.

Lewis is right to point out that something is wrong. Middle Eastern Muslims should recognize the inner weakness of Middle Eastern states and societies and strengthen both against the destructive fanaticism of Osama bin Laden and others.

But looking beyond internal explanations to outside relationships of power and responsibility is not necessarily soothing escapism into victimhood.

Those who suggest that Middle Eastern anger at the United States is the result of internally generated religious, ideological and cultural hostility about which we can do little except protect ourselves are just as guilty of playing the blame game.

Christina W. Michelmore is chairwoman of the history department at Chatham College and teaches Middle Eastern and world history.

Source : http://old.post-gazette.com/books/reviews/20020303review944.asp

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