Review of Bernard Lewis’ “What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response”

Bernard Lewis. What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 172 pp. Index to p. 180. Hard covers, $23.

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 Christians. 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 Britain 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.

Professor Juan R. I. Cole is based in the Department of History, University of Michigan. Reprinted with permission from Global Dialogue, vol. 4, no. 4, Autumn 2002.