64 of 67 people found the following review helpful
An Excellent Introduction with a Critical Perspective,
This review is from: The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years (Paperback)
Books about the Middle East concerned less with current headlines, prognosticating, or analyzing policies seem in short supply, but Bernard Lewis's The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years is a welcome departure. Because it predates 9/11, it is more of a scholarly introduction than a cultural or political document. Two aspects of Lewis's The Middle East I appreciated were his historical and geographical framing, and his emphasis on Ottoman history.
Although most of the book involves the Ottoman period, because of the volume of original sources, Lewis starts not with Mohammad classical period, but in the pre-classical empires of the Roman Empire and Persia. The perspective illustrates Islam's genius for adapting both indigenous and exogenous alternatives to local problems. Geographically, Lewis stays fixed on Ottoman and Persian territory, with only occasional references to Central Asian, European, African, and Southeast Asian history. This keeps the reader immersed in the region without following Islam's extended borders in other regions.
Another aspect I liked was an emphasis on Ottoman history, and not classical Islam. There is entire section on culture, law, religion, and social classes, which acts as an interlude between the early Ottoman Period and modern times. Here he addresses very succinctly and diplomatically many issues relevant to contemporary discussions. Many readers no doubt will be disappointed by his apparent reticence, but he avoids placing the debate in the classical period.
Lewis makes a controversial argument that is certainly counter-intuitive and offensive to Muslim fundamentalists. The West has not intervened in the Middle East, except for limited economic and political contacts over short periods. As a matter of fact, if Western countries had supported their limited forays with substantial aid and attention, the region might have benefited. Instead, Lewis blames the marginalization of the Middle East both on the demise of the region as a crossroads between east and west, and on the Muslim governments for not realizing the consequences of this change. Lewis points the finger mostly at Muslims, not the West.
The only bad aspect of this book is its length: too short. Although Lewis blames this on the dearth of research on Ottoman official documents, there is certainly more spaces to be filled with information. But Lewis's outline is very fruitful and compelling. It might not satisfy advocates, but it challenges both Muslim and Western proponents to examine their approaches.