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.