What Went Wrong , by Bernard Lewis -- Book Review

Book Classification : Middle East - Ancient & Modern Middle Eastern History - Islam & Islamic Culture


Please select a book edition to check the price and shipping info ...
Hardcover
What Went Wrong :
Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response
by Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press, December 2001, 192 Pages
Paperback
What Went Wrong :
The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East
by Bernard Lewis
Harperperennial Library, January 2003, 208 pages
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If there is a single book every American should read after September 11th, it is Professor Lewis' What Went Wrong.

Princeton University Professor Bernard Lewis is one of the world's foremost authorities on Middle East and Islamic history. With the events of September 11th, Professor Lewis' book is must reading for all informed Americans and anyone west of Istanbul who is interested some understanding of why many in the Middle East and the Islamic world "hate" the west. It also provides insight for understanding attitudes of those in developing nations towards modernization.



Book review by Paul L. Whalen

Paul L. Whalen is an attorney and professor of Contract Law and ADR at the Defense Acquisition University - Midwest Campus located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
He lives in Fort Thomas, Kentucky.

© 2003 Paul L. Whalen
Reprinted with permission by crimsonbird.com


The primary thesis of the book concerns the fact, that compared to the rest of the world during the present era, which began in the twentieth century "something is seriously wrong in the Middle East" and "all over the lands of Islam". Professor Lewis attempts to explain this phenomenon in seven chapters. It begins with "The Lessons of the Battlefield" which begins with an exploration of the history of the complex relationships between the Ottoman Empire and the nations of the European west. The seventh chapter ends with an exploration of "Aspects of Cultural Change". Aspects of cultural change or "westernization" in the Middle East have been occurring incrementally over the past two hundred years, since Napoleon's invasion of Egypt.

During what many of us in the west call the Middle or Dark Ages, the Muslim World the Muslim world was at the forefront of civilization. It was the Muslim civilization, which gave the world algebra (some say it was invented in Bagdad!!) and other forms of advanced mathematics and contributions to society. During the period of history we in the west, designate as the "Dark Ages" the Middle East and the Islamic world were at the forefront of human civilization and human achievement. This was at time when Europe was in disarray and the church in the Middle East was facing schism. As the author points out, during this time after the decline of Rome, "In the Muslims' own perception, Islam itself was indeed conterminous with civilization, and beyond its borders there were only barbarians and infidels."

Of the many points contained within this book are lessons for the nations of the western world and modern America on how to view other nations and cultures. One of the biggest lessons is the attitude of many in the Middle East and in Islamic world concerns learning about their neighbors' history and culture. Due to the attitude that others were inferior, there was no incentive to learn about the history and developments outside the world of Islam. In this respect, how many Americans know the name of the Prime Minister of Canada or know the difference between the theology of Methodist and a Mormon?

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Tensions between the peoples of the Middle East and the West began with the Crusades. The crusaders were Christian warriors who attempted to wrest the holy land from the Muslims. During the Crusades, the European crusaders were considered barbarians from lands of darkness and unbelief. The Crusades did not succeed and for a few centuries, Western European nations lost interest in recovering the Holy Land for Christendom. However, after a period of almost 500 years of advances in technology for the Christian nations in the form of cannon and muskets would overtake the Ottoman Empire as it did in 1699.

The first chapter "The Lessons of the Battlefield" begins with a discussion of the Treaty of Carlowitz. The Treaty of Carlowitz (1699) for the Islamic world marks the first time a Muslim nation, the Ottoman Empire recognized the supremacy of victorious Christian nations with a peace treaty. It should be note that eviction of Muslim nations from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 did not result in a peace treaty. As the first treaty between a Muslim and non-Muslim nations Lewis says proved two lessons. The first lesson was defeat by a superior force. The second lesson was diplomatic. For the first time in history an Islamic state had to negotiate. In the past, the Ottoman Empire dictated the terms of peace and the vanquished nation accepted them.

For the Muslim world 1699 and the defeat of the Muslim Ottoman armies at Vienna in 1683 marks the beginning of the end of the heights of Islamic civilization which ended with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the World War I. It is the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, which Bin Ladin and his followers are referencing when raging about the humiliation of Islam 80 years ago.

Events of the twentieth century following the First World War shaped the borders and politics of the Middle East we know today. Despite America's position in the world today, it was the British and the French who determined the borders of most of the nations of the Middle East. Both France and Britain occupied much of the Middle East between the World Wars.

The second chapter, "The Quest for Wealth and Power" notes that the contact between the Muslim world and the west was limited to "diplomacy, commerce and war" Initiation of most of this contact was by the west. As Christian Europe was considered inferior, there was little incentive to travel and trade by Islamic citizens of the Middle East. When people from the Middle East traveled to Europe, it was generally members of minority communities such Jews and Christians who traveled to the west on behalf of Muslim leaders. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century, that Muslims in Turkey and Iran in other Islamic lands made "direct observations" of the West. On the other hand, western traders and merchants traveled extensively throughout the world including the lands of the Middle East. European nations often had offices or consulates in many Islamic lands.

Within this chapter Professor Lewis points out the discrepancies not only in the diplomatic overtures between the lands of Islam and the West, but the lack of interest in commerce by the lands of the east. There was interest with the importation of a limited offering of products -- cannon, muskets, telescopes and eyeglasses. In many respects this long-standing lack of interest in commerce has resulted in the lack of economic development found in many of the nations of the Middle East today and the resulting high unemployment.

Chapter three, "Social and Cultural Barriers" reviews the observations of Middle Eastern visitors to Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In looking at the west, these visitors were most concerned with not economic and social advances but with weaponry and warfare. However, these visitors from the Middle East became acutely aware of the differences between the status of women in the west and those in the world of Islam. In fact, Professor Lewis discusses how startled these visitors were to find that women dined and spoke openly with men in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe.

Professor Lewis titles Chapter four, "Modernization and Social Equality". In this chapter he explores the Islamic assertion of equality. He asserts that at the time of its founding, in the eighth century, Islam was an egalitarian religion in comparison with the societies that surrounded it in the eighth century. As an example, he uses the fact that in Muslim nations women were vested with property rights not always found in the west. He then goes on to discuss social inequalities that are sanctioned or sanctified by holy writ. These inequalities include the three basic inequalities of master and slave, man and woman, and finally believer and unbeliever.

Within the fifth chapter, "Secularism and the Civil Society" Professor Lewis makes the point that the idea, that religion and the state can be separate is a uniquely "Christian" concept. Some in the Muslim world say that secularism is a Christian disease. This is a concept found in the teachings of Jesus Christ in the New Testament at Matthew 22:21. In that passage of scripture, Jesus said, "Render therefore unto Caesar things that are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's". Only in Christendom did the church and state co-exists. Christianity in its first three centuries was as a minority non-secular religion. It was only with the Roman embrace of Christianity that any form of Christianity became intertwined as part government institution. Until the reformation, the issues of the church state separation did not become an issue in the west. The separation of religion and the state is but one of the many issues that many in the Islamic world fail to comprehend. Other issues debated in the reformation such as the nature of God, individualism and differences in outlook are foreign to Islam. Until recent history, was the practice of Islam was not separate from the political state of its adherents. This may be the reason that there is no Arabic word for secularism.

The first encounter many from the Muslim world had with the idea of secularism was with the French Revolution. The earliest example of the secularization of Islam came with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after WWI and Attaturk in Turkey in the 1920s. As the advent of separation of "mosque and state" is relatively new, may be the reason that there is no Arabic word for secularism. The new predominately Muslim states of the former Soviet Union have resisted islamization due to the fact their faith and state has been separate for a significant period of time.

Without the "separation of church or mosque" the idea of patriotism is foreign for many Muslims. Religion over shadows the state and therefore the idea of nationalism is a recent idea for many Muslims.

Chapter six does not seem to fit into the point of Professor Lewis' of examining what went wrong? Instead, he provides an interesting discussion of measuring devices used in the Middle East and the fact; clocks were a western invention imported into the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire. However, it points out another fact where Muslim civilization was surpassed with the invention of the clock and the need to import craftsmen to keep them running.

In exploring "Aspects of Cultural Change" in Chapter 7, Lewis explores the adaptation of foreign cultural innovations within the Ottoman Empire. It starts with attempts at modernization of the military with foreign assistance. There is also a discussion of literature and printing. This discussion reveals a great difference between the culture of Islam and the west. Within the vast bibliography of works translated into Arabic from Greek there is no literature of poets, dramatists or historians. Medieval Islamic society was very historically inclined but toward Muslim history. As a rule most, Islamic society was not interested in non-Muslim history or in pre-Muslim history prior to the 19th century.

As to printing, the printing press was introduced in the Muslim world soon after Gutenberg invented it. However, it was the minority communities within the Islamic nations, which were given the authorization of the sultans to run the presses. Initially it was the Jews and later Greeks and Armenians who ran the printing presses. These groups were allowed to print in their own languages but were not allowed to print in Arabic. The argument at that time was Arabic was the language of the Koran and therefore was sacred. Printing of the Koran at one time was considered sacrileges.

While the point is unspoken, it is important for us in the "West" and especially the United States to reach out and educate ourselves about our own history and those of our neighbors throughout the world. Failure to educate ourselves about our own history as well as the history of others could lead us to repeat the failures of the civilizations of the Middle East and to the decline of our own civilization.

In his conclusion, as he has throughout the book the author makes no judgment as to what went wrong. Instead he raises questions. Why have modernizers concentrated in three main areas, military, economic and political and failed?

Please select a book edition to check the price and shipping info ...
Hardcover
What Went Wrong :
Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response
by Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press, December 2001, 192 Pages
Paperback
What Went Wrong :
The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East
by Bernard Lewis
Harperperennial Library, January 2003, 208 pages

Book Description from the Publisher

For centuries, the world of Islam was in the forefront of human achievement -- the foremost military and economic power in the world, the leader in the arts and sciences of civilization. Christian Europe was seen as an outer darkness of barbarism and unbelief from which there was nothing to learn or to fear. And then everything changed. The West won victory after victory, first on the battlefield and then in the marketplace.

In this elegantly written volume, Bernard Lewis, a renowned authority an Islamic affairs, examines the anguished reaction of the Islamic world as it tried to make sense of how it had been overtaken, overshadowed, and dominated by the West. In a fascinating portrait of a culture in turmoil, Lewis shows how the Middle East turned its attention to understanding European weaponry, industry, government, education, and culture. He also describes how some Middle Easterners fastened blame on a series of scapegoats, while others asked not "Who did this to us?" but rather "Where did we go wrong?"

With a new Afterword that addresses September 11 and its aftermath, What Went Wrong? is an urgent, accessible book that no one who is concerned with contemporary affairs will want to miss.

Book Reviews - from the Back Cover

"Only a scholar of Bernard Lewis's quality could produce the sweep and depth of this fascinating analysis. He gives meaning to history, and illumination and challenge to the question he poses. He brings a clear and lively style to this beautifully written book."

-- George P. Shultz

"A compelling book. One of our most distinguished historians throws a flood-light on that cruel divide between the West and the societies of Islam. Learned and urgent at the same time."

-- Fouad Ajami , The Johns Hopkins University

"Muslim loss of civilizational leadership and retreat from modernity is at the center of global history over the last five hundred years and remains at this very time a major factor in international conflicts and diplomatic quarrels. What went wrong? Indeed. Muslims often have the feeling that history has somehow betrayed them, and on no comparable issue is the historian's potential contribution more important--the more so because the subject is plagued by ideological commitments, partisan blather, and the constraints of political correctness. People have shunned the topic for all the wrong reasons. All the more reason to be grateful for Bernard Lewis's interventions. No one knows better the languages and motivations of the players, and no one is more reliable in the objectivity of his judgments."

-- David Landes , Harvard University

About the Author

Bernard Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University. An eminent authority on Middle Eastern history, he is the author of over two dozen books, most notably The Arabs in History, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, The Political Language of Islam, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, and The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. What Went Wrong? has been translated into more than a dozen languages, including Arabic and Turkish. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Please select a book edition to check the price and shipping info ...
Hardcover
What Went Wrong :
Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response
by Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press, December 2001, 192 Pages
Paperback
What Went Wrong :
The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East
by Bernard Lewis
Harperperennial Library, January 2003, 208 pages

Book Reviews

"Lewis has done us all -- Muslim and non-Muslim alike -- a remarkable service."

-- The New York Times Book Review, January 27, 2002

"A timely and provocative contribution to the current raging debate about the tensions between the West and the Islamic world."

-- Business Week, January 28, 2002

"An excitingly knowledgeable antidote to today's natural sense of befuddlement."

-- The Baltimore Sun, January 13, 2002

"Replete with the exceptional historical insight that one has come to expect from the world's foremost Islamic scholar."

-- Wall Street Journal, January 11, 2002

"Arguably the West's most distinguished scholar on the Middle East."

-- Newsweek

"In this highly readable book, eminent historian Lewis explains Islam's encounter with the West and the Middle East's varied responses to the West's sociocultural and political hegemony in the Muslim world. Like many of Lewis's previous writings on this subject (e.g., The Arabs in History), this book will undoubtedly generate significant debate and disagreement among scholars regarding the author's analysis of Islamic responses to modernity and Westernization."

-- Library Journal

Please select a book edition to check the price and shipping info ...
Hardcover
What Went Wrong :
Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response
by Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press, December 2001, 192 Pages
Paperback
What Went Wrong :
The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East
by Bernard Lewis
Harperperennial Library, January 2003, 208 pages

Book review by Amazon.com reprinted with permission

Amazon.com links for all books by Bernard Lewis

Bernard Lewis is the West's greatest historian and interpreter of the Near East. Books such as The Middle East and The Arabs in History are required reading for anybody who hopes to understand the region and its people. Now Lewis offers What Went Wrong? [Paperback] / [Hardcover] , a concise and timely survey of how Islamic civilization fell from worldwide leadership in almost every frontier of human knowledge five or six centuries ago to a "poor, weak, and ignorant" backwater that is today dominated by "shabby tyrannies ... modern only in their apparatus of repression and terror." He offers no easy answers, but does provide an engaging chronicle of the Arab encounter with Europe in all its military, economic, and cultural dimensions. The most dramatic reversal, he says, may have occurred in the sciences: "Those who had been disciples now became teachers; those who had been masters became pupils, often reluctant and resentful pupils." Today's Arab governments have blamed their plight on any number of external culprits, from Western imperialism to the Jews. Lewis believes they must instead commit to putting their own houses in order: "If the peoples of Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, [and] poverty and oppression." Anybody who wants to understand the historical backdrop to September 11 would do well to look for it on these pages.

-- John Miller


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Please select a book edition to check the price and shipping info ...
Hardcover
What Went Wrong :
Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response
by Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press, December 2001, 192 Pages
Paperback
What Went Wrong :
The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East
by Bernard Lewis
Harperperennial Library, January 2003, 208 pages