Tuesday, March 11, 2014

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


Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. New York: Harper, 2003.

Bernard Lewis is a famous and controversial Middle East historian. In this essay, I will critically examine one of his post 9/11 books, “What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East”.  In this relatively short book, which is a collection of a lecture series in Vienna, Lewis searches for and summarizes the main reasons for the Islamic world’s gradual decline. Indeed, Lewis asks a very provocative question of Muslims: what are the historical root causes that have held you back?

         Lewis centers his main arguments around the “millennial rivalry” [1] between Christendom and Islam by examining crucial topics such as modernism, secularism, religion, and cultural change.The subject Lewis handles in this book - the reasons for the dramatic decline of the Islamic world - is of growing academic interest among western scholars. David Landes, in his bestselling book “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations”[2] seeks to answers the same question, as well.  Landes’s main thesis is quite similar to Lewis’s: that eastern civilization fell behind because they failed to compete with the west’s exceptionally advanced ‘culture’. As both scholars argue, the early modernizers of the Middle East concentrated their efforts in three areas: military, economic, and political, ignoring the most important variable: culture itself, as a way of living and looking at the world. Therefore, the outcomes of these other modernizing efforts were disappointing. Lewis insists that the real problem in the east was the change-resistant culture, rather than the military, economy, and political policies.[3] .

           Lewis divides his work into seven chapters with a brief introduction and conclusion. In the introduction, he outlines several historical events that were behind the Islamic world’s military supremacy over the west up until the 16th century, and then he recounts important military defeats of the Islamic world in later centuries.  Indeed, within a short time, Islamic armies conquered most of the Christian lands from Syria, to Egypt, North Africa, Spain, and Portugal. In the 15th century, Muslims represented the military might of the world. This mentality created a superiority complex in the Middle East, especially in the Ottoman Empire of the 15th century. On the other hand, the glorious victories of the east, such as the conquest of Constantinople and the siege of Vienna, were perceived as resounding defeats by the western world.

         Lewis views the military successes of the Islamic world mostly through the lens of the history the Ottoman Empire, which he believes represented the eastern world in the Middle Ages. He asserts that a superiority complex prevented the Ottomans from recognizing western progress at the time. , Lewis gives special importance to the treaty of Carlowitz , in 1699, which was the first significant military setback for the Ottomans in the west. He argues that this event was very important, not just for the Turks, but for the whole Muslim world, because with this treatyt the Muslim expansion in Europe was halted, and the gradual military decline of the Islamic World continued. This defeat rang warning bells across the eastern world.

             In the middle ages, the general perception of the west was not positive in the Islamic world. As Lewis indicates, the Ottomans did not have any interest the ‘infidel’ west. They saw in the remote lands of Europe the same things they saw in the remote lands of Africa; barbarity, nothing to be learned from, and nothing of importance. [4] They believed that Europeans lived in dark ages while they lived in the golden ages. Put simply, there was nothing they could learn from “the despised infidels”[5], therefore, very critical technological achievements and advancements in the infidels’ lands were largely ignored by Muslims. Since the infidel westerners were not seen even as interlocutors, Muslim scholars (ulema) discussed whether it was even religiously legitimate to use western inventions. All bad things were dubbed “Frankish” and illness was “Frankish disease”[6].

            There is no doubt that Islam was in the forefront of human civilizations and advancements for many centuries.[7] Despite Islam’s encouragement of science, there was significant stagnation in the Muslim world starting in the 16th century.  Lewis gives a step by step illustration showing that the largest failures the Muslim realms faced were inevitable missteps. At the same time, and contrary to common belief, Lewis argues that Ottoman administrators were long aware of the decline, but they could not respond immediately. Several scholars and statesmen (Lutfi Pasha, Koci Bey, Koprululer) wrote urgent reports and advised the state to take necessary military and economic measures against such obvious decline.  Proper actions, however, and the transformation of the empire was a lengthy task, and all the while, several western revolutions and developments had transpired, and Europe was prospering. These scholars and statesmen’s calls for  “constructive engagements” [8] with the west were not immediately taken into account.  Obviously, the Ottomans eventually took time “to learn from previously despised infidel” [9] In the later centuries,  scholars kept advising the state that necessary steps should be taken to catch up to  western developments, especially the industrial revolution; and they underlined the  importance of finding new ways to deal with the west , diplomatically and militarily. [10] However, becoming fully aware of western achievements, acting accordingly to these reports, and transforming the Muslim world, was a slow process.  In later centuries, despite many attempts at finding solutions to aid their recovery cultural differences bolstered the decline. Lewis also underlines the regional conflicts and rivalry between two strong Islamic states, the Ottoman and the Safavis, which weakened the Islamic world’s focus on the western developments.

             Many books written in the post 9/11 era about Islam strive to understand the roots of anger and Muslims’ rage toward the West. Lewis believes that the East could have benefited from Western influence, but since the mechanisms had not been in place in the Islamic world to handle that cultural impact, defeats and failures were inevitable.  In the end, these default conservative positions created reactions and resentments in the east toward the west. Lewis claims that “[it] was bad enough for Muslims to feel weak and poor after centuries of being rich and strong , to lose the leadership that they had come to regard as their right, and to be reduced to the role of followers of the west”[11] He implies here that there can be strong,  resentful emotions  behind recent Muslim anger.

           Lewis touches on the very fundamental debates going on between secularists and conservatives in the Islamic world. The secularists traditionally blame religion as an obstacle holding up necessary advancements. On the contrary, Muslim scholars assert that the Islamic world fell behind because of its reluctance to uphold Islamic beliefs, and because “they fell away from the authentic Islam”  [12] Traditionalists reject the western life style, but want  to adopt its science, while secularists propose adopting its culture and lifestyle at the same time. This century-long debate between modernists and traditionalists consumed the social energy of the eastern world and further hindered their response to western prosperity.  

           The relations between non-Muslims and Muslims, and the treatment of non-Muslims in the eastern world, could be analyzed better in the book. Here, Lewis tries to prove his argument of unequal treatment of women, slaves and non-Muslims with cherry-picked evidence. Even he acknowledges that women’s status and slavery conditions were mostly better than in Europe, but the east in later centuries could not continue to improve those conditions  by following the latest social movements that occurred in the west. In the quotations he selected from eastern travelers and ambassadors of the 16th century, he describes the much advanced status of women compared to the east.  Through these examples, he illustrates the arrogance of the Ottomans and the lack of full freedom for women in the east.[13] When Lewis talks about the distinctive and unchangeable cultural characteristics of west, and social and cultural barriers, he reminds us of Huntington’s cultural fault lines[14] , social conditions that will inevitably create clashes.

        The book contains many profound insights and observations, but they must be argued in more detail. For example, it is hard to deny that the east’s lack of diplomacy, its “shabby tyrannies”[15] dictatorships, corruptions, lack of time management[16] , and rejection of modernity are also among the main reasons for its downfall. However he does not talk about how the colonization of the Middle East by western powers stifled development there.  He fails in analyzing the broken western promises and the west’s conflicting territorial ambitions in the Middle East.  But he argues that with rise of nationalism in the east, Muslim intellectuals blame the west and its colonization for their backwardness. He claims that “the rise of nationalism produced new perceptions. Arabs could lay the blame for their troubles on the Turks who had ruled them for many centuries.”[17] Lewis talks about the blame games which are very common in Islamic world when it comes to calculating reasons for the decline. Today, the “overwhelming majority of Muslims now live in independent states”[18] but they still fail to find proper solutions to their problem, yet blaming games continue over the West, the Jews, and the Ottomans.

            Lewis is aware of the differences and definitions of [19]  ‘westernization’ and ‘modernization’; however, he is sometimes tripped up by this confusing nomenclature. And despite his knowledge of eastern languages, Lewis fails to understand religious concepts fully. While he is careful about ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’, he uses these words interchangeably from time to time.  He also defines jihad as ‘classically and traditionally’ fighting with infidels.  On the contrary classical and traditional jihad is by definition ‘moral striving’ (the biggest and most important jihad).

          In the final analysis, Lewis does not offer answers, but provides enough fodder for thought for the Muslim world.  He asserts that since the Muslim world entered the new millennium as “poor, weak, and ignorant” [20] so it is their duty to find new ways to prosper again. He says that he has asked the question and come to his own conclusions, but the next step would be for Muslims to ask  themselves about what holds them back and he says it is up to them to determine how to put things right,  [21]



[1] Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. New York: Harper, 2003. 151
[2]Landes, David. Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why some are so rich and some are so poor. New York:  W.W. Norton& Company, 1999.
[3]Lewis. What Went Wrong. 15.
[4] Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. New York: Harper, 2003. 5.
[5] Ibid., 5.
[6] Ibid.,  7.
[7] Ibid.,  3
[8] Ibid., 13
[9] Ibid., 15
[10] Ibid., 23
[11] Ibid.,  52
[12] Ibid.,  156
[13] Ibid., 65.
[14]Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs, Summer, 1993.
[15] Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. New York: Harper, 2003. 151.
[16] Ibid., 117.
[17] Ibid.,.47.
[18] Ibid., 158.
[19] Ibid., 75.
[20] Ibid., 151.
[21] Ibid., 59.