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What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response 1st Edition

184 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195144208
ISBN-10: 0195144201
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Editorial Reviews Review

Bernard Lewis is the West's greatest historian and interpreter of the Near East. Books such as The Middle East and The Arabs in History are required reading for anybody who hopes to understand the region and its people. Now Lewis offers What Went Wrong?, a concise and timely survey of how Islamic civilization fell from worldwide leadership in almost every frontier of human knowledge five or six centuries ago to a "poor, weak, and ignorant" backwater that is today dominated by "shabby tyrannies ... modern only in their apparatus of repression and terror." He offers no easy answers, but does provide an engaging chronicle of the Arab encounter with Europe in all its military, economic, and cultural dimensions. The most dramatic reversal, he says, may have occurred in the sciences: "Those who had been disciples now became teachers; those who had been masters became pupils, often reluctant and resentful pupils." Today's Arab governments have blamed their plight on any number of external culprits, from Western imperialism to the Jews. Lewis believes they must instead commit to putting their own houses in order: "If the peoples of Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, [and] poverty and oppression." Anybody who wants to understand the historical backdrop to September 11 would do well to look for it on these pages. --John Miller

From Publishers Weekly

In the fields of Islamic and Middle Eastern history, few people are as prominent and prolific as Lewis, emeritus professor at Princeton. This time around, however, he has written a book with an inconsistent argument and an erratic narrative consisting of recycled themes from his earlier books, a work that sheds no new light on Middle Eastern history or on the events of September 11. His general argument is that Islamic civilization, once flourishing and tolerant, has in modern times become stagnant. This, he contends, has led to considerable soul-searching among Muslims, who ask themselves, "What went wrong?" But while sometimes the author states that there is a critical inquiry into the source of economic weakness in Muslim civilizations, other times he says that, instead of looking into the mirror, Muslims have blamed their problems on Europeans or Jews and thus fed their sense of victimhood. In medieval times, Lewis notes, Muslim civilization transmitted scientific ideas into Europe. But after offering intriguing examples of Muslim physicians and astronomers on the cutting edge in the 13th to 15th centuries, this chapter abruptly ends by stating that in modern times the roles have reversed, leaving the reader baffled over what between the 15th and the 20th centuries may have contributed to this reversal. Thus, the book raises more questions than it answers. Furthermore, Lewis discounts the effects of various decisions made by European and American colonial powers that negatively impacted the development of a democratic political community and a viable economy in the Middle East. Lewis's earlier books, such as The Muslim Discovery of Europe and The Middle East and the West, are much more useful for anyone seeking to understand the historical dynamic between these two parts of the world. First serial to Atlantic Monthly.

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 180 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (December 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195144201
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195144208
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 0.7 x 5.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (184 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #201,198 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

128 of 138 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 3, 2002
Format: Hardcover
As a number of reviewers have noted, this is not Lewis's best book. It could have used an editing to reduce redundancy, and it leaves some important questions unanswered. For example, Lewis raises the fascinating issue of the failure of the Middle Eastern world--alone, it seems--to appreciate Western Classical music. Ergo, what? He doesn't say. One is left wondering what he meant to say by raising this issue.
Having said that, I have been disappointed by the hostility toward Lewis that some reviewers on this site have manifested. Most egregiously, a reviewer on this site, whom I will not name, makes some patently untrue statments about Lewis and his work, in a seeming attempt to prejudice possible readers. To set the record straight: Lewis in fact DOES distinguish between "wesernization" and "modernization," doing so several times in the course of this book, and indicating exactly what is meant by both terms. Also, Lewis has NEVER denied the genocide of Armenians by the Turks at the beginning of the last century. Quite the opposite: in his history of modern Turkey, he gives the number of slaughtered Armenians as about 1.5 million--hardly a denial. What he said in his controversial "Le Monde" interview was that there was no evidence that the massacres represented an OFFICIAL POLICY of the Turkish government. Quite a big difference. This was his assessment as an historian who has mined the documentary record; I have no reason to doubt that he is correct. Let's drop the hysteria, shall we? The interview is available, and one is free to read it for oneself. And to say that Lewis was "convicted" in a French court without mentioning that his "punishment" was a fine of two Francs rather overstates the severity with which the quirky French legal system treated his analysis.
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76 of 84 people found the following review helpful By John G. Gleeson Sr. on August 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book after the horrific events of September 11 caused me to wonder how any faith, no matter how militant, could justify the murder of innocents. I am a retired lawyer and, when I had the time, pursued the study of history as a hobby. I do that a lot now. I understand this country's strengths and weaknesses, and found it beyond belief that we could be hated with such intensity, and that any religion or political philosophy could endorse such obscene behavior. Professor Lewis answers this question with his recognized expert understanding of a failed civilization. While Europe foundered into the dark ages following the fall of Rome, education, much of it from the far east, flourished in the Muslim world. But Western Civilization, largely as a result of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, secularized government. The Muslim world has not done so to this very day, nor has it pursued scientific inquiry, music or literature, as was the case in the West. Lewis points out that other than seeking to learn about the West's military techniques after suffering a chain of defeats, science,technology, music and the arts were not important to a people who centered their lives on a medieval, militant religion. One of the first collisions between Islamic thought and that of the West arose from the latter's elimination of the slave trade. Slavery, to Islamic ways, was approved by Allah, and thus was not an evil practice.It was a troubling collision of ideas to the East, which has not been fully resolved to date. Lewis helps us to understand that this same antiquated thinking collides with Western enlightenment with respect to the status of women. It is in the area of personal rights and status that brings this failed belief system into profound conflict with Westernism.Read more ›
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53 of 61 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 24, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Here's a clue to the current situation: anybody who uses the word "Orientalist" to condemn Bernard Lewis is an example of what he's talking about, since they are 1) using the term as a slur to halt debate, and 2) looking to put the blame somewhere else than on Islam. These are in fact the two theses he explores, eruditely and with considerable sympathy: how theocracy made Islam rigid and resistant to progress at exactly the moment that rigid and theocratic Europe was opening up; and two, why the Islamic world still can't accept that this has happened and that it has anything to gain from the by-definition-inferior Christian world. That Lewis is no mere Fox News Channel Arab-basher is evident from the considerable space he devotes to subjects such as the rights of women (in which Islam in many ways was more advanced than the West until quite recently), or official toleration toward non-Muslims which often shaded over into actual favoritism in certain proscribed areas. And even his discussions of topics such as slavery (which, it is worth remembering, survived in Saudi Arabia until the 1960s) or the utter lack of separation of church and state in Islam, which you do not expect any western historian to be terribly sympathetic to, nevertheless present historical circumstances thoughtfully and without judgment.
This is not a completely easy book for someone with a limited knowledge of Arab and Ottoman historical figures, and if you're mainly interested in a viewpoint on the current situation, you might be best starting off with the Conclusion (which also appeared in The Atlantic) and working backward. However, there's no question that Lewis will greatly improve your understanding of why the Islamic world is the way it is-- that is, if you have that trait commonly mistaken as a purely Western one, an open mind.
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