Magazine

How the Islamic World Lost Its Edge


By Stanley Reed

WHAT WENT WRONG?

Western Impact & Middle Eastern Response

By Bernard Lewis

Oxford -- 180pp -- $23

Early Islamic civilization greatly benefited from scientific works of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but later Muslim scholars took a more insular approach. "In the prevailing view, the corpus of medical knowledge had reached perfection in the days of Avicenna," a Persian who died in 1037, writes Middle East scholar and Princeton University emeritus professor Bernard Lewis. One exception was syphilis, known as the "Frankish pox," which the Muslim world believed came from Europe. "It was therefore acceptable to translate European writings on the diagnosis and treatment of this disease," Lewis writes. Unfortunately, the volumes given to the Turkish Sultan in 1655 were largely based on work that was already a century old.

This vignette is typical of Lewis, whose What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response argues that Islamic culture has largely itself to blame for a long period of decline. Lewis' take is erudite, amusing, and nasty. He indulges in sweeping generalizations. Yet for all its faults, this volume is a timely and provocative contribution to the current raging debate about the tensions between the West and the Islamic world.

Lewis traces today's "seething anger" among Muslims to the Islamic world's catastrophic loss of influence and power to the West, which began in about the 15th century. He also notes that Muslim leaders perceived the slide and tried various strategies to halt it, to no avail.

Finding themselves at first unable to keep pace with the West and later falling under its domination, Lewis argues, residents of the Islamic lands grew increasingly embittered. Over time, they came to blame foreign villains--the Europeans, the Jews, the Americans--for their shortcomings. Islamic fundamentalists also blame their cultures' supposed "abandonment of the divine heritage of Islam" and demand "a return to the real or imagined past."

At the peak of Islamic power, in the 9th through 13th centuries, Lewis says, Islam "represented the greatest military power on earth--its armies were at the same time invading Europe and Africa, India and China. It was the foremost economic power in the world.... It had achieved the highest level so far in human history in the arts and sciences of civilization." The reversal since then has been quite remarkable. In the 19th century, the Western powers began colonizing the Islamic world, and after World War I, they sliced up the Ottoman Empire. The second half of the 20th century "brought further humiliations." Residents of the Islamic world found themselves surpassed in living standards and technical prowess by Asia. What's more, the Arab countries were unable "to prevent half a million Jews from establishing a state in the debris of the British Mandate for Palestine--all the more of a shock."

Lewis produces some choice vignettes of Islam's encounter with the West. In the late 17th century, a Turkish visitor to Vienna reports "an extraordinary spectacle": the emperor taking off his hat to a woman in the street. "In this country and in general in the lands of the unbelievers, women have the main say," the writer concludes. About 80 years later, another Ottoman diplomat in the same city describes what seems to have been an early experiment with electricity. "The whole thing is merely a plaything, we did not think it worthwhile to seek further information," he says.

Islamic leaders could see that they were losing their edge. As early as the 15th century, an Ottoman Grand Vizier warned that the infidels were gaining naval superiority. The Ottoman Empire tried many remedies. It acquired Western arms. It brought in Western technocrats. In 1830, a British naval officer in the Bosphorus was astounded to hear a military band playing Rossini. The reforming Sultan had gone the last mile in seeking foreign help, even getting an Italian conductor to train his marching band.

But none of the remedies worked, Lewis argues. Despite efforts at emulating Western economies, today the exports of the Arab world aside from oil amount to no more than those of Finland. When imposed in the region, the European nation-state model largely produced impoverished tyrannies.

Lewis attributes the gulf that gradually widened between the Islamic world and the West to "greater, more profound" differences than could be cured by mimicry. Western society allows the individual far more freedom and scope for creativity. Islamic lands place severe restrictions on women, spawn rapacious rulers, and lack a separation between religion and state.

Persuasive as Lewis may be, readers should be wary. His book largely depends on evidence from Turkey, which has had considerable success in building a modern society. Meanwhile, Lewis' main targets are the Arab countries and Iran. The shortcomings he identifies apply to many of these lands, but surely their woes stem from other sources, too. Why not, for instance, blame the Ottoman Empire, which, when it collapsed in 1918, left its people unprepared to cope with modernity. Cold war rivalries also led Middle East states to spend on weaponry rather than development.

Still, one wishes leaders in the Islamic world would pay heed to some of Lewis' themes. He says that "growing numbers of Middle Easterners" are adopting "a more self-critical approach," asking "what did we do wrong?" and "how do we put it right?" He provides discouragingly little evidence of this trend, but one hopes that he is right. London Bureau Chief Reed covers the Middle East.


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