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Subject: Cole on Lewis, _What Went Wrong?_

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Bernard Lewis. What Went Wrong: Western Impact and

Middle Eastern Response. New York: Oxford University

Press, 2002. 172 pp. Index to 180. Hard covers, $23.

Reviewed by Juan R. I. Cole, Department of History,

University of Michigan

Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong? is a very bad book

from a usually very good author. How a profoundly

learned and highly respected historian, whose career

spans some sixty years, could produce such a hodgepodge

of muddled thinking, inaccurate assertions and

one-sided punditry is a profound mystery. While I

cannot hope to resolve the puzzle, I can explain why I

come to this conclusion.

Lewis never defines his terms, and he paints with a

brush so broad that he may as well have brought a broom

to the easel. He begins by speaking of the “Islamic

world,” and of “what went wrong” with it. He contrasts

this culture region to “the West,” and implies that

things went right with the latter. But what does he

mean by the “Islamic world?” He seldom speaks of the

Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, who form a very

substantial proportion of the whole. Malaysia and

Indonesia are never instanced. He seems to mean “the

Muslim Middle East,” but if so he would have been

better advised to say so. With regard to the Middle

East, what does he mean by the question “what went

wrong?” Does he mean to ask about economic

underdevelopment? About lack of democracy? About a

failure to contribute to scientific and technological

advances? About ethnocentrism? All of these themes

are mentioned in passing, but none is formulated as a

research design. If “what went wrong” was mainly

economic, political and scientific, then why pose the

question with regard to a religious category? Lewis

straightforwardly says that Islam in and of itself

cannot be blamed for what went wrong (whatever that

was). Since Islam is not the independent variable in

his explanation, why make “the Islamic world” the unit

of analysis? Discerning exactly what Lewis is

attempting to explain, and what he thinks the variables

are that might explain it, is like trying to nail jelly

to the wall.

Lewis has a tendency to lump things under a broad

rubric together that are actually diverse and perhaps

not much related to one another. Speaking of classical

“Islam,” presumably about 632-1258, Lewis says that the

“armies” of “Islam” “at the very same time, were

invading Europe and Africa, India and China” (p. 6).

Here he makes it sound as though “Islam” was a single

unit with a unified military. Later, (p. 12) he

actually speaks of the Crusaders’ successes impressing

“Muslim war departments,” as if medieval institutions

were so reified. In fact, Moroccan Berbers fighting in

Spain are highly unlikely even to have known about the

Turkic raids down into India. Nor is it clear that

those Turks were motivated primarily by Islam

(pastoralists have been invading India from Central

Asia for millennia). Moreover, tribal alliances

across religious boundaries bring into question the

firmness of the military boundaries suggested by

speaking of “Islam.” Even the early Ottoman conquests

in Anatolia were accomplished in part through alliances

with Christian tribes. Finally, much of the advance of

Islam occurred quite peacefully, through Sufi

missionary work for example.

When discussing some European fears of the Ottomans

(p. 9), Lewis lets it slip that the Iranian Safavids

sought alliances with the Europeans against their

Ottoman enemies. Lewis does not tell us that the

Ottomans also made Protestant alliances in the Balkans

against Catholic powers. Since Europeans were fighting

amongst themselves, and Muslim powers were fighting

amongst themselves, and each was willing to make

tactical alliances across religious boundaries, it is

not clear what is gained by setting up a dichotomy in

the early modern period between the “West” and “Islam.”

When speaking of Ottoman military weakness, Lewis

generally skips over the brilliant fifteenth and

sixteenth centuries, when the Ottomans won wars in

Europe handily in part because they quickly took up

field artillery and their Janissary infantry was an

early adopter of the matchlock. Military historians do

not think central and western European armies began

having a technological and organizational advantage

over the Ottomans until after 1680. From Lewis’s

account here one would have thought that the Ottomans

were all along somehow backward.

When Lewis does speak of the military advances of

the Europeans in the 18th century, he does not specify

what they were, and he does not say why the Ottomans

failed to adapt, merely noting the failure.

Comparative historians have long held that Western

Europe was innovative in warfare and technology in this

period because it consisted of many small states

constantly at war with one another. Many small states,

moreover, could not stifle innovation or impose

censorship effectively, since if only one broke ranks

the innovation could be introduced. Large empires such

as those of the Ottomans, the Mughals and the Qing

tended to be more complacent, simply because they faced

fewer powerful challenges. The Mughals never much

improved their casting of cannon over two centuries,

for instance, because it was perfectly serviceable

against the rebellious clans they faced. And the

regulatory power of these great empires was vast.

Lewis, by neglecting to discuss such social and

structural explanations, implicitly displaces the

question onto character or culture. The Ottomans were

hidebound, he implies, because Muslims look askance at

learning from the infidel. How such an explanation

could hold given the innovations adopted by the Ottoman

military in the sixteenth century is not clear.

Lewis repeats his often stated contrast between

curious Europeans who established chairs in Arabic and

tried to learn about the Orient, and remarkably

self-satisfied Muslims who did not interest themselves

in the outside world. In fact, the primary impetus for

the study of Arabic in Europe until the twentieth

century was that it helped in deciphering biblical

Hebrew, a matter of interest to European Christians for

internal reasons. Further, since al-Biruni learned

Sanskrit to write about India, Shahristani created an

encyclopedia of the world religions, and Qadi `Abd

al-Jabbar and many other Muslim theologians engaged at

length with Christian doctrine, Lewis cannot mean to

suggest that such a lack of curiosity was

characteristic of Islam or Muslims all along. He must

surely mean to say that after 1492 there was relatively

little such curiosity.

In fact, after that date the Spanish Inquisition

forcibly converted hundreds of thousands of Muslims in

Andalusia and ruthlessly executed the recalcitrant.

The Andalusians had been key transmitters of knowledge

between civilizations, and now they were gone. The

eminent medieval historian R. I. Moore has called

Europe in this period “the persecuting society.” In

the age of the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions the sort

of access Muslims would have needed to Europe for a

study program in Occidentalism was largely denied them.

(Lewis admits this briefly on p. 42 but elsewhere

keeps blaming Muslims for being unduly insular in this

regard!) They were confined to a few trading enclaves

in places like Venice, and even there a debate raged

about whether they should be allowed. In contrast,

Christian Europeans lived freely in Muslim lands.

Rather than blaming Muslims for knowing so little of

Europe in the age of the Inquisitions and the Wars of

Religion, one might well view that continent as

isolated from the rest of the world in that period by

its own paroxysms of religious intolerance. Lewis

notes abstract juridical reasoning by muftis about

whether a Muslim should live in a state ruled by

non-Muslims (the jurists said “no”), but does not take

into account realities on the ground. Real Muslims in

fact paid no attention to such strictures when living

under Christian rule in southern Spain before 1492.

Muslims also lived under Hindu and later British rule

in India despite what jurists may have said.

Lewis creates a problematic West/Islam dichotomy

virtually everywhere. When he comes to Bonaparte’s

invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the expulsion of the

French in 1801, he says that “the French were forced to

leave-not by the Egyptians nor by their Turkish

Suzerains, but by a squadron of the Royal Navy . . .”

In fact, the Egyptian populace revolted more than once

against French rule, and the British and the Ottomans

allied to expel the French from Egypt. While the role

of the British navy was pivotal, significant Ottoman

land forces at Akka and in Egypt also fought crucial

battles that helped convince the French to surrender.

A joint British-Ottoman military alliance to expel the

French, however, complicates the story he wants to

tell. The Ottomans are reduced to the burghers of

Hamelin, forced to call upon a British pied piper who

would rid them of the French rats. In fact, the

British needed the Ottoman alliance against the French

to protect their Indian routes as much as the Ottomans

needed the British.

In discussing nineteenth-century Muslim responses

to the new superiority of Europe, Lewis says that they

could not consider science and philosophy the secret of

success because they reduced philosophy to the

handmaiden of theology. Yet, it is the hallmark of the

thought of the Egyptian Rifa`ah al-Tahtawi (1801-1873)

that he views European advances in “practical

philosophy” to be the major reason for their

flourishing civilization. Similar views were held by

Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. It is unaccountable

that Lewis does not know this. Lewis goes on to

discuss attempts to found factories in the Middle East,

and simply says “the effort failed, and most of the

early factories became derelict” (p. 47). He maintains

that these efforts were largely aimed at equipping

armies. While it is true that the Egyptian textile

industries ultimately failed, at their height they

employed some 40,000 workers and were involved in

rather more than making uniforms. Later silk factories

in Lebanon were also highly successful for a period of

thirty or forty years. Debate rages as to why early

attempts at industrialization failed in the Middle East

in the long run. Some blame the restrictions European

powers placed on tariffs in the treaties of 1838 and

1840, while others point to Egypt’s lack of coal for

energy, and of trained mechanics who could perform

maintenance on the imported machines. Middle Eastern

silk industries fell behind Europe in part because

Pasteur invented a way of quarantining healthy

silkworms against diseased ones, while Lebanese and

Iranian worms suffered from such outbreaks. Lewis here

as elsewhere attempts no explanation, simply noting the

failure of industrialization in the region.

He then adds that “later attempts to catch up with

the Industrial Revolution fared little better” (p. 47),

linking the present-day with the 1840s without any

segue. In fact, the 1960s and after witnessed

extensive industrialization in the Middle East. The

decade of the 1960s saw a substantial rise in living

standards for Egyptians, after a wage stagnation

1910-1950. Everywhere in the region industry now makes

up a significant part of local economies, which are no

longer primarily agricultural. Light textiles have

been a relative success story in Turkey and even in

Pakistan. There are real problems with the economies

of the Middle East, but to say that the development

efforts of the past fifty years have been no more

successful than those of the nineteenth century is

frankly bizarre. That the rise of Israel put pressure

on Arab budgets, when a different sort of neighbor

might have allowed them to invest the money in more

fruitful areas than the military, is never considered.

Among the biggest problems for Middle Eastern economies

have been high rates of population growth, which Lewis

does not even mention. That is, Pakistan’s economy has

grown a respectable 5 percent per annum or so in the

past twenty years, rather better than Hindu India’s 3

percent, but the population growth rate is so great

that the per capita increase remains small in both

countries. Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country,

has done even better than Pakistan economically, and

does not have a similar population problem. Lewis does

not mention Muslim countries like Malaysia. He is not

writing analytical history here, with a view to

explaining particular problems by isolating independent

variables. He is writing moral history, which is

tautological. He seems to insist on erasing any

successes they have had, and to imply that the Muslims

have failed because they are failures.

The supercilious air of the bemused put-down

suffuses this book. Lewis tells us that it is “sadly

appropriate” that the first telegraph sent from the

Middle East to the outside world concerned a military

event, the fall of Sebastopol. He adds, with drop-dead

timing, that “it is also sadly appropriate in that it

was inaccurate; it hadn’t yet fallen” (p. 51). What

sort of history writing is this? The clear implication

is that the important news about the Middle East has

for some time been military. The other clear

implication is that the military news coming out of the

region is full of falsehoods. The use of clever asides

to create such a latticework of calumny has more in

common with the techniques of propaganda than with

academic history. Has Europe witnessed fewer wars

than the Middle East in the past two centuries? Surely

the comparative death toll from wars is about 100 to

one in that period in Europe’s favor. Even the Crimean

War, the butt of the joke, was primarily a European

conflict in which France and Britain objected to

Russia’s aggressive invasion of the Principalities

(Romania) and riposted with Ottoman help in Russia’s

Crimea. As for the inaccuracy, it was more premature

than false. It is not clear that Middle Eastern wars

generate more lies and propaganda than other wars, in

any case. Truth is the first casualty of war, the

saying goes. It does not specify “Middle Eastern war.”

Lewis virtually ignores European colonization of

the modern Middle East. He alleges (p. 153) that it

was “comparatively brief and ended half a century ago.”

The French ruled Algeria 1830 to 1962. The British

were in what is now Bangladesh from 1757 to 1947.

While the British only formally ruled Egypt 1882 to

1922, it was already making and breaking its rulers in

the 1870s, and continued to play a heavy-handed role in

Egyptian politics and in the Suez Canal until 1956.

Radical Islamism was first provoked to terrorism in

Egypt precisely by the arrogance of British power

there, beginning a genealogy of violence that leads

through Ayman al-Zawahiri directly to September 11,

2001. In a marvelous bit of misdirection, Lewis

praises the “Chamber of Deputies” that British colonial

administrators allowed to the Egyptians, which was

merely an ineffectual debating society. He neglects to

inform the reader that in 1880-1881 a popular Egyptian

movement arose that imposed on the dictatorial Ottoman

governor a real parliament with the purview of

budgetary oversight, and that in 1882 the British

invaded to overthrow this democratic experiment and put

the autocratic Khedive back on his throne as their

puppet. In any case, Franco-British involvement in

the Middle East was not “brief.” If we include

various forms of economic imperialism with actual

colonization, the period would be even longer.

Nor is the length of European rule the only

important factor. How deeply did they affect the local

economy and society? The French powerfully shaped

Algeria in ways that certainly contribute to its

current travails, including substantial expropriation

of land from owners and peasants and the creation of a

comprador bourgeoisie. While one certainly cheers the

British for giving refuge in Palestine to Jews fleeing

Hitler, it would have been nobler yet to admit them to

the British Isles rather than saddling a small, poor

peasant country with 500,000 immigrants hungry to make

the place their own. Nor was it a good idea, having

created such a situation, to simply leave and let the

two populations fight it out. The British exit from

South Asia was similarly botched, leaving us with the

Kashmir dispute as a nuclear flashpoint. Lewis’s

attempt to virtually erase two centuries of European

imperialism and all its long-term consequences with a

wave of the hand is breathtaking. Nor did all

significant decolonization end half a century ago. The

French did not leave Algeria until 1962, and the

British did not leave the Persian Gulf until 1969.

Lewis repeats the tired saw (p. 62) that there was

widespread support in the Middle East for fascism in

the 1930s. That some urban groups admired Mussolini in

particular is true, but they were hardly “widespread,”

and not all of them were Muslim. Young Egypt, a minor

fascist-inspired party, had its analogue in the

Phalange Party of some Maronite Christians in Lebanon,

and later on in the Stern Gang and other Revisionist

Zionist movements. Israel Gershoni has shown that

Egyptian mainstream intellectuals roundly condemned

fascism in the 1930s. Moreover, since the vast

majority of Middle Easterners at the time were

illiterate peasants, and the transistor radio had not

yet been invented, the likelihood is that most of them

had never heard of fascism or Mussolini, much less

leaning toward them. Lewis alleges that “Muslims

developed no secularist movement of their own” (p.

103). It is difficult to understand what this could

possibly mean. Obviously, if he is referring to

believing Muslims, they would not be secularists. If

he means persons of Muslim background, then the

secularist wing of Iran’s National Front in the 1940s

and 1950s was developed by Muslims; the secularist

policies of Muhammad Reza Pahlevi were developed by his

circle of Muslim technocrats; Turkey’s secularist

movement was developed and promoted by Muslims; and

although the Baath Party was initially the brainchild

of Christian Arabs, its secularist ideology was taken

up with alacrity by Syrian and Iraqi Muslims in large

numbers. Nor is it true that a separation of religion

and state never occurred in Islam, in contrast to

Christianity. Ira Lapidus dates such a separation from

the classical period of Islamic civilization.

A final question has to do with Europe, the

explicit contrast for the Muslim Middle East in this

book. Why does he think things “went right” in the

West? I should have thought that the slaughter of

World War I, the rise of fascism and communism, the 61

million butchered in World War II, the savage European

repression of anticolonial movements in places like

Vietnam and Algeria, and the hundreds of millions held

hostage by the Cold War nuclear doctrine of “mutually

assured destruction”-that all this might have raised at

least a few eyebrows among emeriti historians looking

for things that went wrong. It is true that the East

Asian and European economies have flourished in the

past 50 years under a Pax Americana, but this

development hardly seems intrinsic to the West as a

whole. Political and economic instability relentlessly

stalked Europe in the first half of the twentieth

century, and it was divided against itself in a bitter

ideological battle for much of the second half. That

is, even the Western European efflorescence of recent

decades took place against the backdrop of a deadly

Cold War that could have wiped us all out in an

instant. In contrast to the massive death toll racked

up by Europeans in the past century, Muslim powers in

the second half of the twentieth century have probably

killed only a little more than a million persons in war

(mainly in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s). The Middle

East has its problems and Muslims have theirs. Lewis’s

analytical views of what those problems are, why they

have come about, and how to resolve them, would have

been most welcome, given his vast erudition. Instead,

he has chosen to play a different role in this book.

Reprinted with permission from Global Dialogue, vol. 4,

no. 4, Autumn 2002.

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