- Paperback: 208 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial (January 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780060516055
- ISBN-13: 978-0060516055
- ASIN: 0060516054
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.5 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 308 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #319,825 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East
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About the Author
Bernard Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University. An eminent authority on Middle Eastern history, he is the author of over two dozen books, most notably The Arabs in History, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, The Political Language of Islam, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, and The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. What Went Wrong? has been translated into more than a dozen languages, including Arabic and Turkish. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
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To a Western observer, schooled in the theory and practice of Western freedom, it is precisely the lack of freedom--freedom of the mind from constraint and indoctrination, to question and inquire and speak; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive mismanagement; freedom of women from male oppression; freedom of citizens from tyranny--that underlies so many of the troubles of the Muslim world. But the road to democracy, as the Western experience amply demonstrates, is long and hard, full of pitfalls and obstacles.
I don't even necessarily disagree with the conclusion, but what is there in the way of argument that this is the correct position to assume? And is this Lewis's position? If so, why not have established it upfront as the thesis and then made the remainder of the book an argument and provided support for this thesis? Probably because this book was originally a series of lectures he had given that begin with some kind of topic, like Islamic warfare, for instance, and then each meander for 20 or so pages without a thesis.
Like Lewis’s other works, including The Crisis of Islam, widely considered his best work in the field, What Went Wrong? presents the reader with a profuse collection of accounts that describe the internal struggle battling for domination in the modern Muslim world: on the one hand, moderate Islam seeking to embrace the liberties of modern democracies and alignment with the West, and on the other, a fundamentalist strain of Islam that condemns any departure from ancient practice as a deviation from and corruption of true Islam. Lewis enters the minds of the disciples of the latter school and describes not only their struggle against outside influence, but also their struggle against the enemy from within (p. 107):
In the literature of the Muslim radicals and militants the enemy has been variously defined. Sometimes he is the Jew or Zionist, sometimes the Christian or missionary, sometimes the Western imperialist, sometimes—less frequently—the Russia or other communist. But their primary enemies, and the most immediate object of their campaigns and attacks, are the native secularizers—those who have tried to weaken or modify the Islamic basis of the state by introducing secular schools and universities, secular laws and courts, and thus excluding Islam and its professional exponents from the two major areas of educations and justice. The arch-enemy from most of them is Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and the first great secularizing reformer in the Muslim world. Characters as diverse as King Faruq and Presidents Nasser and Sadat in Egypt, Hafiz al-Asad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Shah of Persia and the kings and princes of Arabia, were denounced as the most dangerous enemies of Islam, the enemies from within.
For Lewis, the struggle between moderate and fundamentalist Islam has increased in the modern age, in part due to the twentieth century rise of autocratic government. Traditionally, justice within the context of Islamic governance meant not only that the ruler was there by right and not by usurpation, but also that “he governed according to God’s law, or at least according to recognizable moral and legal principles” (p. 54). This requirement “was sometimes discussed in terms of a contrast between arbitrary and consultative government” (p. 55). Yet today, consultative government has largely eroded in the Middle East, where capricious rulers who decide and act on their own have replaced “the wise and just ruler who consulted others” (p. 55). As a result, the region has come to be governed by corrupt rulers who, rather than act in accordance with principles of divine justice, oppress their people and subordinate their nations to foreign interests. This has in turn fueled the zeal of Islamic fundamentalists to purge their governments of all secular influence and restore the Shari‘a as their constitution and Islam as the State’s ordering mechanism.
What went wrong in the Middle East was thus not natural disaster, poverty, foreign invasion or armed conflict, but rather, war of a different kind. What went wrong was the erosion of Islamic institutions that traditionally provided for the ordering of Islamic societies, but that gradually wore away when confronted with modernity, leaving a vacuum that was filled by unscrupulous rulers.
The collage of cables, letters, vignettes, clippings and other texts that Lewis draws on serve as supportive materials to bring the reader to the forefront of Middle Eastern history and richly color the book with depictions of Middle Eastern and Ottoman culture and institutions. These materials are surprisingly dominated by Ottoman and Turkish rather than Arabic texts, perhaps because Islam experienced its civilizational apex during the Ottoman Empire, and they are not essential to explaining the causes of the decline of Islam in the modern age. Rather, without reference to these materials, one can extract the central thesis of the book from its concise ten-page conclusion.