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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-09-15 00:42
Review of What Went Wrong by Bernard Lewis
What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam & Modernity in the Middle East - Bernard Lewis

Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (New York: Perennial, 2003). Pp. 186. $12.95.

 

It seems that the Middle East is becoming more and more unstable. Along with this, it also seems that the U.S. has no interest in leaving the area, thus making the Middle East an issue within American politics. Therefore, it behooves me to learn a bit more about the situation. In this regards this book was a huge help. Lewis’s main goal was to explain *how* exactly the Middle East became so unstable, and what role the West has played in helping, or hindering, the situation. Though Lewis doesn’t offer any solutions to the current situation, he did help me understand the complexity the situation and all the factors that are at play here.

 

I don’t want to rewrite the book, but I do want to highlight some things that Lewis points out about the Middle East. The first is that one should remember that in the Middle Ages, it was the Middle East that was pinnacle of civilization (other than the Byzantines, which fell in the 15th century, and the Chinese, who kept to themselves for the most part). During this time Europe was in the dark ages, and the Islamic empires saw them as barbarians, and thus ignored them. However, Europe didn’t remain in the dark and grew by means of the Renaissance, and then secular humanism (starting with the French Revolution). What was really struck me was that the Islamic empires had no idea of these developments in the West. Lewis points out that they didn’t have a tradition of sending ambassadors to other nations, they didn’t translate European literature into Arabic, Turkish, or Farsi, and their merchants didn’t travel to the West. So, when the West completely transformed its society – technologically, economically, and socially – the East remained ignorant of the changes.

 

The East’s ‘awakening’ to the developments in the West were encounters - or should I say losses – on the battlefield (starting with the Holy League and the Treaty of Carlowitz), and on the seas (European colonization). For the Ottomans, defeats in these areas were quite a shock. What was interesting was that they quickly adopted Western military technology, but were only interested in adopting it to defeat the West. Any westernization that Muslim rulers adopted – especially in areas of production and administration – ended in disaster.

 

Perhaps Lewis’s discussion of how secularism came into Europe helped explain why the West was successful with modern progress and the East was not. Secularism, he points out, was a solution to a problem that existed in Christian Europe, not the Islamic East. In Europe, the state had often used religion to extend its authority, and, at other times, religion used the state to enforce doctrine. Secularism separated the two – what we now know as the separation of church and state. For Christianity, this was easy to do. Christianity had developed as a minority religion within the Roman Empire, and thus it has set up its own institution, the Church, which had its own leaders, the hierarchy. Thus when church and state get separated, each has its own structure to keep it organized.

Lewis argues that secularism was a solution to a Christian problem. Islam was never a minority within a state, and thus there was no hierarchy, no clergy, and no institution like the “church.” Islamic leadership had always also been political leadership. Thus to divide religion and government was not as simple as it was in Europe, where there already existed a secular government and an ecclesiastical authority.

 

Also, Islam developed as an egalitarian religion that focused on right practice, rather than right belief. Thus, the foundation of the religion was much different than Christianity. In fact, “denominational” separations within Islam were not over doctrinal issues, but rather over political leadership. Thus law, and practice, was seen as something given by God, and the idea of having a secular law in addition to an ecclesiastical law, was a completely foreign idea and seen as separating loyalties. Christianity had always has this tension, and even the Gospels record Jesus preaching about this tension, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” Islam did not have this concept. Thus secularism was hard to grasp.

 

Lewis points out that there are profound differences between East and West in three areas. The first was the role of women in society. While Islam makes everyone equal in regards to highborn/lowborn, rich/poor, Arab/non-Arab, or white/black, there were three areas in which inequality existed: free/slave, believer/nonbeliever, and male/female. Lewis points out that whereas a slave could be freed, and a nonbeliever could convert to Islam, a woman had no choice to remain in her societal position. In some Islamic cultures, this is still true. He says changing the role of women is seen as an incitement to immorality and promiscuity, and a blow to the heart of Islam. This is a very hard cultural aspect to change, though there have been liberation movements within Islamic society.

 

The second profound difference is in science. Whereas Medieval Islam was the world leader in science, at some point Islam began to venerate an approved corpus of knowledge, which stagnated any further development. They believed they had learned all there was to know, and European inquisitiveness never developed. Why this was the case is not quite understood. But what’s important to know is that a drive to continually dig deeper into science never developed. The East was content to use technologically advanced things – such as weapons or clocks – without understanding how they worked.

 

The third profound difference was in music. He notes that Western music – polyphony – has been adopted in most of the world now, including Asia, and South America. However, Western music is still not played in Middle Eastern culture. They have adapted Western clothing (male, that is), they now translate Western literature, and they have adopted other forms of Westernization, but music is one area they have yet to adopt. Why that is, is still not known.

 

Another very interesting clash in cultures is the idea of nationalism. In Europe, nationalism takes the place of religion (instead of a clash between Catholic and Protestant, it’s now a clash of your country vs. mine). However, Islam has a strong sense of unity. One is a brother, not because of ethnicity or political allegiance, but because the other has accepted Islam. When the West colonizes the Middle East, and then sets up the current state system based on national identity, this is a foreign idea. To a Muslim, nationalism is seen as breaking up the greater Islamic unity.

 

The concluding chapter takes a look at the blame game that is being played. Some blame the Mongols; the Arabs blame the Turks; The Turks blame the Arabs; the Iranians blame the Mongols, Arabs, and Turks; some blame Western imperialism; some are anti-Semitic in their blame; some blame Islam itself; while others blame the role of religion within society; Muslim fundamentalists say that they weren’t faithful enough to Islam; and some blame sexism. Lewis says none of these can really be the full cause of the poverty and destructionist currents of the current Middle East. What he can conclude is that if a solution isn’t found soon, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor the whole region.

 

In all, I highly recommend this book. Lewis does an excellent job of explaining the complete surprise the Islamic world had to the newly developments in the Western world. He then goes on to explain the various stumbling blocks the East had to adopting the developments of the West –cultural, social, religious, and economic. Though he explains *how* things didn’t work out in the East, the *why* is left unanswered; though that may be a question that never can be answered exactly.

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review 2014-04-05 12:37
Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The Fault in Our Stars - John Green

Okay? 

Okay.

 

Staying positive in the face of adversity isn't easy. Sometimes life sucks ass. There's a helluva lot of shit that is completely out of our control. We cannot control what other people do, we cannot necessarily control our environment and we cannot always control what our bodies do. This is one of the most difficult things to come to terms with when fighting cancer - the powerlessness that comes with struggling to fight a disease that altogether too easily can run out of control.

 

"My lungs sucked at being lungs" Hazel tells us. Hazel has cancer. And it's fatal. She's marking time until Augustus Waters rocks up at her group therapy session and gives her a reason to be positive, someone to hang on for and a new perspective on life.

 

This book should have been a heartfelt, humorous yet emotional rollercoaster of feels about what it's like to die too soon. Instead it turned into a vomit-inducing pretentious, look-at-me-I'm-so-smart collection of words on a page hidden behind a cute cover and a neat title.

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review 2005-04-01 00:00
What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East
What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam & Modernity in the Middle East - Bernard Lewis This book was prominently displayed in every bookstore when it came out in January 2003, because the public was still hungry for something to help them make sense of 9/11. This book probably disappointed most people on that count. Even though it features the word "Clash" in the title, it is really about the sort of cultural competition that goes on between neighboring cultures the world over. Only in the broadest and vaguest terms can it be applied to September 11, the war in Iraq, Palistine, or any other current issue in the Middle East. What it does address is the eclipse of the Muslim world by Europe over the past 300 years in terms of scientific innovations and the development of music and literature. One thousand years ago, Islam flourished while Europe languished. Lately the roles have been somewhat reversed, although the radicalism and instability currently extant in the Middle East aren't precisely the same thing as a "Dark Ages". I don't agree with the title's premise that "something must have gone wrong" to explain the role reversal. Before the globe was united in a tight telecommunications network and an interlocking global economy, different civilizations experienced their peaks and declines independently. The reasons for these occilations are myriad, and often unique to the culture being examined. In the 1300's, the Mongol Empire was at its peak, while Japan was a backwater. Today Japan is a powerhouse, and Mongolia is a satellite of China. What went wrong? Nothing, really. That's just the ebb and flow of history.Lewis makes some interesting observations comparing secular Turkey to zealous Arabia, and also provides some interesting letters from the few Muslims (mostly ambassadors) living in and observing Europe during the 1800's and early 1900's. I found the author's writing style to be difficult to follow, and overall the book strikes me as a bit directionless. Maybe it should have been called something like "Scattered Musings About the Shifting Power Dynamic Between Europe and the Near East During the Past 300 Years". The marketing department at Harper Perennial would probably object to that.
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review 2004-10-01 00:00
What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam & Modernity in the Middle East - Bernard Lewis This is a scholarly look at the interactions between Islam and other civilizations, primarily European Christianity, and secondarily India and China. It is filled with interesting bits of information and comprises a pocket history (under 200 pages) and analysis of Islam. Although it is a short book it reads much longer. It is a worthwhile read, but I suspect that it’s primary value will be as a reference.

P 6
For centuries, Islam represented the greatest military power on earth—its armies, at the same time, were invading Europe and Africa, India and China. It was the foremost economic power in the world, trading in a wide range of commodities through a far-flung network of commerce and communications in Asia, Europe, and Africa; importing slaves and gold from Africa, slaves and wool from Europe, and exchanging a variety of foodstuffs, materials, and manufactures with the civilized countries of Asia. It had achieved the highest level so far in human history in the arts and sciences of civilization. Inheriting the knowledge and skills of the ancient Middle East, of Greece and or Persia, it added to them several important innovations from outside, such as the use and manufacture of paper from China and decimal positional numbering from India. It is difficult to imagine modern literature or science without the one or the other. It was in the Islamic Middle East that Indian numbers were for the first time incorporated in the inherited body of mathematical learning. From the Middle East they were transmitted to the West, where they are still known as Arabic numerals, honoring not those who invented them but those who first brought them to Europe. To this rich inheritance scholars and scientists in the Islamic world added an immensely important contribution through their own observations, experiments and ideas. In most of the arts and sciences of civilization, Medieval Europe was a pupil and in a sense a dependant of the Islamic world, relying on Arabic versions even for many otherwise unknown Greek works.

P 53
In an Islamic state, there is, in principle no law other than the sharia, the Holy Law of Islam. The reforms of the 19th century and the needs of commercial and other contacts with Europe led to the enactment of new laws, modeled on those of Europe—commercial, civil, criminal, and finally constitutional. In the traditional order the only lawyers were the ulema, the doctors of the Holy Law, at once jurists and theologians. The secular lawyer, pleading in courts administering secular law, represented a new and influential element in society.

P 54
Westerners have become accustomed to think of good and bad government in terms of tyranny versus liberty. In Middle-Eastern usage, liberty or freedom was a legal not a political term. It meant one who was not a slave, and unlike the West, Muslims did not use slavery and freedom as political metaphors. For traditional Muslims, the converse of tyranny was not liberty but justice. Justice in this context meant essentially two things, that the ruler was there by right and not usurpation, and that he governed according to God’s law, or at least according to recognizable moral and legal principles.

P 100
If one may admit, in a limited professional sense, the existence of a clergy, there is no sense at all in which one can speak of a laity among Muslims. The idea that any group of persons, any kind of activities, any part of human life is in any sense outside the scope of religious law and jurisdiction is alien to Muslim thought. There is, for example, no distinction between canon law and civil law, between the law of the church and the law of the state, crucial in Christian history. There is only a single law, a sharia, accepted by Muslims as of divine origin and regulating all aspects of human life: civil, commercial, criminal, constitutional, as well as matters more specifically concerned with religion in the limited Christian sense of that word,

P 103
The reasons why Muslims developed no secularist movement of their own, and reacted sharply against attempts to introduce one from abroad, will thus be clear from the contrasts between Christian and Muslim history and experience. From the beginning, Christians were taught both by precept and practice to distinguish between God and Caesar and between the different duties owed to each of the two. Muslims received no such instruction.
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