Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong?

Though it was only published in January of 2002, Bernard Lewis’ attempt to explain the historic and ongoing conflict between the Muslim world and the West was completed shortly before September 11, 2001, meaning he did not need the evidence of the fallen towers to see a dire problem between two of the world’s oldest civilizations. And as one of the foremost scholars of the Middle East, Lewis is ideally situated to analyze the problem and its history. But to begin with, you must grant him a proposition: that the salient distinction between the Middle East and the West is cultural or civilizational. Certainly the religious divide is an obvious and abiding difference, but as both regions were, for most of their histories, divided into warring nation states, many have argued that the civilizational comparison is unwarranted, even unfair. The “Muslim world” today, for example, encompasses both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and – at least until very recently – there were stark differences between these two countries. But, Lewis argues, you need only look at some of the broad historical trends that began in the late 18th century – the gradual erosion of monarchy and rise of democracy; the industrialization of nations; the rising status of women; the increasing separation between church and state – and have transformed most of the world, with the conspicuous exception of the Middle East. So what went wrong?

Lewis begins by arguing that the initial disposition of the Muslim world towards the Christian one was one of justifiable arrogance: “For most medieval Muslims, Christendom meant, primarily, the Byzantine Empire, which gradually became smaller and weaker until its final disappearance with the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The remoter lands of Europe were seen in much the same lights at the remoter lands of Africa – as an out darkness of barbarism and unbelief from which there was nothing to learn and little even to be imported, except slaves and raw materials.” In science, trading and warfare, the Muslim states had distinct advantages, and no reason to suppose that their primacy would ever be challenged. Adding to their troubles was their religious worldview: Islam was said to be the final revelation of God, and Judaism and Christianity were therefore backward faiths, their practitioners blind to the truth of the Prophet. “Christianity and Judaism were precursors of Islam, with holy books deriving from authentic revelations, but incomplete and corrupted by their unworthy custodians, and therefore superseded by the final and perfect revelation of Islam. What was true in Christianity was incorporated in Islam. What was not so incorporated was false.” Lewis points to two stark differences between the West and the Middle East at the time as embodying this attitude of arrogance: as early as the 1500s, Arabic and Persian language classes were offered in Western universities, when no comparable formal instruction in the European languages was available in the Muslim world. When trade negotiations or peace settlements had to be brokered, non-Muslim citizens of the Ottoman Empire – who were more likely to speak a European language – were the preferred translators. The second has to do with foreign ambassadors: while the Christian nations kept ambassadors, dignitaries and other foreign representatives in almost permanent residence within the Middle East, Ottoman sultans preferred to send their ambassadors on brief and rare trips, and only when absolutely necessary.

The growing military might of Europe – and its ever-greater encroachment into Muslim lands, culminating with Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt in 1798, with a mere expeditionary force – broke the spell and alerted Muslim leaders to their weakened position, but the religious blinders were still in place, and the Muslim reformers split into two camps: those who advocated for an adoption of some of the cultural and governmental practices of the West, under a greater Muslim authority, and those more conservative-minded individuals who faulted the Muslim world for debasing its own faith, for turning its back on “the true Islam.” To this day, it is this latter camp who have been more vocal and more successful, and it should be noted that this desire to return to an idealized past unites not only ISIS and al-Qaeda but the religious fundamentalists of Iran and Saudi Arabia as well. It is at this point that Lewis makes a distinction between “modernization” and “Westernization.” The Muslim world, he points out, adopted both the radio and the automobile with little difficulty and even much enthusiasm – but democracy and secularism and the scientific spirit of doubt and debate that gave rise to these inventions has been largely rejected. And perhaps most conspicuously, to Western observers, the emancipation of women from the home and from the reproductive role has been entirely and unequivocally rejected. In Lewis’ cheeky phrasing, it is “modernization when Muslim men adopt Western clothing, but Westernization when Muslim women do.”

Even secularism, Lewis argues, is “in a profound sense, Christian.” Lewis contends that the early experiences of Christianity, as a persecuted religion within the Roman Empire, and the foundational myth of the crucifixion of Christ contrast in important ways with the Islamic equivalents, and that it is in these distinctions that so much of the future outcomes of Christian and Muslim societies was determined.

Throughout Christian history, and in almost all Christian lands, church and state continued to exist side by side as different institutions, each with its own laws and jurisdictions, its own hierarchy and chain of authority. The two may be joined, or, in modern times, separated. Their relationship may be one of cooperation, of confrontation, or of conflict. Sometimes they may be coequal, more often one or the other may prevail in a struggle for the domination of the polity. In the course of the centuries, Christian jurists and theologians devised or adapted pairs of terms to denote this dichotomy of jurisdiction: sacred and profane, spiritual and temporal, religious and secular, ecclesiastical and lay.

This is in stark contrast with Islam:

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, the sharī’a, 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.

In other words, there is a great deal less flexibility, less room for interpretation, under an Islamic system than a Christian one.

In the book’s conclusion, Lewis looks at the two distinct modern approaches to the backward state of the modern Middle East – its dictatorships; the low status of women; the total lack of economic development, even relative to countries in Asia and India that began in greater poverty and have since experienced stunning growth. One response, Lewis contends, has been “Who did this to us?” and it has spawned a host of answers, some plausible – Western and Soviet interventions – and some downright conspiratorial – the Jews. This question has not, however, led to any meaningful introspection. The second question – “What went wrong?” – naturally gives way to a further line of questioning: “How do we put it right?” Fifteen years after the publication of What Went Wrong?, that note of introspection seems to me perilously faint.