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Book Review
Western impact and Middle Eastern response 
By Mohammed Ayub Khan 

Book: What Went Wrong?
Author: Bernard Lewis
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: Illustrated 180 pp
ISBN: 0-19-514420-1 

The name Bernard Lewis, Cleveland E. Dodge professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, evokes different responses in different places. In the West he is celebrated as “the doyen of Middle Eastern studies”. In the Middle East, he is viewed with a mixture of admiration and skepticism. His new book What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, much praised in the Western press, attracted some pretty bad reviews from Middle Eastern newspapers.

Lewis is accused of trumpeting Western superiority over other civilizations and of “either accidentally or deliberately overlooking or ignoring well-known facts about the Middle Eastern culture”. But despite all his flaws and biases it must be acknowledged that Lewis is not one of your run of the mill Orientalist. He has spent decades studying and analyzing the Muslim world and provides unique insights into the Muslim world through the eyes of a Westerner.

In What Went Wrong? Lewis attempts to understand what led to the decline of Islamic civilization after a remarkable period of unparalleled dominance. For many centuries, the Islamic world was at the forefront of all human achievement in fields as varied as militarism, economics, arts and sciences. At the same time, Christian Europe was considered a land of the barbarians from which there was nothing to learn or fear.

All this began changing, however, when the Muslims, intoxicated by their achievements, slipped into lethargy. This was in marked contrast to the West, which woke up in the late Middle Ages and started acquiring and building on the sciences developed by the Muslims.

At first, the Muslim world was in a mode of denial concerning its decline; but later on realized that the “barbarians” had indeed overtaken them. In the last three centuries they tried to catch up by concentrating in three fields – namely: militarism, economics, and politics. The results of these attempts were rather disappointing.

“The quest for victory by updated armies brought a series of humiliating defeats,” writes Lewis. “The quest for prosperity through development brought, in some countries, impoverishment and corrupt economies in recurring need of external and, in others an unhealthy dependence on a single source- fossil fuels… Worst of all is the political result: The long quest for freedom has left a string of shabby tyrannies, ranging from traditional autocracies to new-style dictatorships, modern only in their apparatus of repression and indoctrination” (p.151).

Apart from the above mentioned three fields, Muslims lagged behind in others as well. They lost the importance of time, which eventually led to laziness and lack of productivity. The civilization that only a few centuries ago was on the cutting edge of time measurement devices now had to borrow them from the West. Even then it was not able to keep pace with the latest technology.

Writes Lewis: “By the late eighteenth century, watchmakers in Istanbul were able to produce clocks and watches of the type made in Europe in early seventeenth century” (p.125).

By the twentieth century Muslims realized that they had not only lost the leadership position but were falling far behind emerging East Asian countries as well. As a human response, Lewis writes that Muslims began asking “Who did this to us?”

For a long time the Mongol hordes were blamed for their misfortune. But according to Lewis this argument is flawed “because some of the greatest cultural achievements of the Muslim peoples, notably in Iran, came after, not before, the Mongol invasions.”

Here under the guise of “cultural achievements”, Lewis conveniently ignores the impact of the Mongol, Crusader and other imperialist invasions on scientific development in the Muslim world. During their forty-day pillage of Baghdad, the Mongols destroyed arguably the most advanced collection of human knowledge of all times. Millions of books were burned and thrown into the river Tigris which turned black for many days because of the ink and the blood.

Similarly, Lewis also overlooks the systematic destruction of books and knowledge by other invaders of the Islamic lands. The Crusaders destroyed approximately three million books in Syria. During the fall of Granada zealots burned more than a million books in just one day. And Cardinal Zimones of Sicily burned more than 80,000 Arabic volumes in the city of Franda.

While these invasions were not the only reasons for Muslim decline, they cannot be simply wished away. The destruction of so many books and the indiscriminate massacre of thousands of scholars was a gigantic setback for the Muslim world.

The second “plausible scapegoat” for the decline was Western Imperialism. While admitting that there have been good reasons for such blame, Lewis contends that “the Anglo-French interlude was comparatively brief and ended half a century ago; the change for the worse began long before their arrival and continued unabated after their departure” (p.153).

Turning to contemporary times he makes this striking observation: “The attempt to transfer the guilt to America has won considerable support, but for similar reasons remains unconvincing. Anglo-French rule and American influence, like the Mongol invasions, were a consequence, not a cause, of the inner weakness of Middle-Eastern states and societies” (p.153).

Lewis writes that at present two solutions have gained widespread support in the Muslim world. “The one, attributing all evil to the abandonment of the divine heritage of Islam, advocates a return to a real imagined past. That is the way of the Iranian Revolution and of the so-called fundamentalist movements and regimes in other Muslim countries. The other way is that of secular democracy, best embodied in the Turkish Republic founded by Kemal Ataturk” (p.159).

It can be argued here that advocating a return to divine heritage of Islam doesn’t mean abandoning the path of modernity. As a matter of fact the dynamism that Islam inculcates among its followers recommends innovation and advancement in all spheres of life. On the other hand, blind aping of the West as embodied in Ataturk’s model is structurally flawed and counterproductive as can be seen in ongoing crises that continue to plague the Turkish Republic.

In the prevailing despair in the Middle East Lewis finds a flicker a hope as more and more Middle Easterners acquire a more self-critical approach. Writes Lewis: “The question ‘Who did this to us?’ has led only to neurotic fantasies and conspiracy theories. The other question – ‘What did we do wrong?’ – has led naturally to a second question: ‘How do we put it right?’ In that question and in the various answers that are being found, lie the best hopes of the future” (p.159).

Muslims themselves have to find an answer to this question, Lewis concludes. “If they can abandon grievance and “victimhood”,” he writes, “settle their differences, and join their talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavor, then they can once again make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in antiquity and in the Middle ages, a major center of civilization. For the time being, the choice is their own (p.160).

In What Went Wrong? Lewis provides a gripping account of the decline of the Islamic civilization. While we do not agree with everything he has to say, his book is worthy of being read by every Muslim intellectual who is concerned about the state of the Ummah. (IslamOnline)

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