What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, Bernard Lewis (2002)

Lewis’s subtitle says a lot about his argument. The crisis, in his formulation, is not between East and West, Islam and Christianity, or Muslim nations and Christian nations, but between Islam and modernity, or, if you will, between a construction and a condition. That’s a stacked deck–conditions always have the edge on constructions–and I disagree with the presumption that modernity–in the guise of what we’ve come to call the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Age of Exploration, Colonialism, Industrial Revolution, etc. (so many triumphal capital letters!)–is somehow a natural condition, rather than itself a construction. In short, Lewis’s subtitle puts me on high alert for some orientalist bullshit, where the West is portrayed as inexorable and the East as unnatural.

Still, once you get into the book, it’s difficult to argue with Lewis’s basic arguments, because they aren’t really arguments, they’re recitations–repetitive, diffuse, and shamelessly disorganized yet well-researched and occasionally enlightening recitations–of certain historical realities, chief among them the fact that the Arab world was bigger, richer, smarter, and stronger than Europe up until the sixteenth century, whereupon–what went wrong?–it began a long slide into poverty, bigotry, insularity, reactionism, and xenophobia.

Lewis provides a useful historical account of this shift, but his overview of what went wrong, the failure of Muslim nations to keep pace with the economic, social, and political innovations of the west, (and, to Lewis’s mind, their more profound failure to desire to keep pace) leads very quickly to what seems to be a far harder question to answer: Why? We get far fewer answers to this question. But here are the salient few that do stand out:

— Europe was simply more curious about the Middle East than vice-versa. Europeans traveled in the mideast, learned mideastern languages, studied the culture, translated the literature, etc. Little of this happened in the other direction, so mideasterners were not exposed to the West’s innovations.

— In the mideast, nationalism and religion were not just partners, as they were in the Christian West, but absolutely inextricable. It was the opinion of most Muslim clerics up until the end of the 18th century, and continues to be the opinion of many Muslim clerics today, that it is not possible to live a good Muslim life in a non-Muslim nation, broadly construed. Thus few Muslims were interested in extensive travel in the West, and so they were not exposed to the West’s innovations.

— “For traditional Muslims, the converse of tyranny was not liberty but justice.” Muslim culture was less interested in free expression and investigation than in order and equality.

— “In the West, one makes money in the market, and uses it to buy or influence power. In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money. Morally there is no difference between the two, but their impact on the economy and on the polity is very different.” [Interesting point, and also a good example of the terrible writing in this book.]

— Once ideals of liberalism did begin to pervade some circles of mideastern thought, it was difficult to put them into practice, because they were seen as Western imports.

— Lewis has a fascinating but probably somewhat overblown chapter on the perception of time and space in the West and in the East; Western precision of measurement enabled “progress,” while Eastern disregard for exactitude in such measurements inhibited it.

Of course, all these explanations of why what went wrong went wrong themselves require explanation of why they occurred. Lewis’s book is badly written, disorganized, and unsatisfying in that it raises as many questions as it answers. But it is undeniably a fine introduction to, if not the causes of the conflict between East and West (for that is what it really is, not a conflict between Islam and Modernity), at least the history of that conflict.