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What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response by Bernard Lewis


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)


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I went looking for a concise explanation of the evolution of the relationship between the Western World and the Middle East, and chose What Went Wrong by noted historian Bernard Lewis. I was not disappointed with this ponderous book, but for most readers, receiving the explanation with be tedious and plodding. Completed just prior to 9/11, What Went Wrong isn’t influenced by that major event, but the event itself can be better understood by those who read What Went Wrong. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the concluding chapter (pp. 151-155):

In the course of the twentieth century it became abundantly clear in the Middle East and indeed all over the lands of Islam that things had indeed gone badly wrong. Compared with its millennial rival, Christendom, the world of Islam had become poor, weak, and ignorant. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the primacy and therefore the dominance of the West was clear for all to see, invading the Muslim in every aspect of his public and—more painfully—even his private life.

Modemizers—by reform or revolution—concentrated their efforts in three main areas: military, economic, and political. The results achieved were, to say the least, disappointing. The quest for victory by updated armies brought a series of humiliating defeats. The quest for prosperity through development brought, in some countries, impoverished and corrupt economies in recurring need of external aid, in others an unhealthy dependence on a single resource—fossil fuels. And even these were discovered, extracted, and put to use by Western ingenuity and industry, and doomed, sooner or later, to be exhausted or superseded—probably superseded, as the international community grows weary of a fuel that pollutes the land, the sea, and the air wherever it is used or transported, and puts the world economy at the mercy of a clique of capricious autocrats. Worst of all is the political result: The long quest for freedom has left a string of shabby tyrannies, ranging from traditional autocracies to new-style dictatorships, modem only in their apparatus of repression and indoctrination.

Many remedies have been tried—weapons and factories, schools and parliaments—but none achieved the desired result. Here and there they brought some alleviation, and even—to limited elements of the population—some benefit. But they failed to remedy or even to halt the deteriorating imbalance between Islam and the Western world.

There was worse to come. It was bad enough for Muslims to feel weak and poor after centuries of being rich and strong, to lose the leadership that they had come to regard as their right, and to be reduced to the role of followers of the West. The twentieth century, particularly the second half, brought further humiliations—the awareness that they were no longer even the first among the followers, but were falling ever further back in the lengthening line of eager and more successful Westernizers, notably in East Asia. The rise of Japan had been an encouragement, but also a reproach. The later rise of the other new Asian economic powers brought only reproach. The proud heirs of ancient civilizations had got used to hiring Western firms to carry out tasks that their own contractors and technicians were apparently not capable of doing. Now they found themselves inviting contractors and technicians from Korea—only recently emerged from Japanese colonial rule—to perform these same tasks. Following is bad enough; limping in the rear is far worse. By all the standards that matter in the modern world—economic development and job creation, literacy and educational and scientific achievement, political freedom and respect for human rights—what was once a mighty civilization has indeed fallen low.

"Who did this to us?" is of course a common human response when things are going badly, and there have been indeed many in the Middle East, past and present, who have asked this question. They found several different answers. It is usually easier and always more satisfying to blame others for one's misfortunes. For a long time, the Mongols were the favorite villains, and the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century were blamed for the destruction of both Muslim power and Islamic civilization, and for what was seen as the ensuing weakness and stagnation. But after a while historians, Muslims and others, pointed to two flaws in this argument. The first was that some of the greatest cultural achievements of the Muslim peoples, notably in, Iran, came after, not before, the Mongol invasions. The second, more difficult to accept but nevertheless undeniable, was that the Mongols overthrew an empire that was already fatally weakened—indeed, it is difficult to see how the once mighty empire of the caliphs would otherwise have succumbed to a horde of nomadic horsemen riding across the steppes from East Asia.

The rise of nationalism—itself an import from Europe—produced new perceptions. Arabs could lay the blame for their troubles on the Turks who had ruled them for many centuries.' Turks could blame the stagnation of their civilization on the dead weight of the Arab past in which the creative energies of the Turkish people were caught and immobilized. Persians could blame the loss of their ancient glories on Arabs, Turks, and Mongols impartially.

The period of French and British paramountcy in much of the Arab world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries produced a new and more plausible scapegoat—Western imperialism. In the Middle East, there have been good reasons for such blame. Western political domination, economic penetration, and—longest, deepest, and most insidious of all—cultural influence, had changed the face of the region and transformed the lives of its people, turning them in new directions, arousing new hopes and fears, creating new dangers and new expectations equally without precedent in their own cultural past.

But the Anglo-French interlude was comparatively brief and ended half a century ago; the change for the worse began long before their arrival and continued unabated after their departure. Inevitably, their role as villains was taken over by the United States, along with other aspects of the leadership of the West. The attempt to transfer the guilt to America has won considerable support, but for similar reasons remains unconvincing. Anglo-French rule and American influence, like the Mongol invasions, were a consequence, not a cause, of the inner weakness of Middle-Eastern states and societies. Some observers, both inside and outside the region, have pointed to the differences in the postimperial development of former British possessions—for example, between Aden in the Middle East and such places as Singapore and Hong Kong; or between the various lands that once made up the British Empire in India.

Another European contribution to this debate is anti-Semitism, and blaming "the Jews" for all that goes wrong. Jews in traditional Islamic societies experienced the normal constraints and occasional hazards of minority status. In most significant respects, they were better off under Muslim than under Christian rule, until the rise and spread of Western tolerance in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

With rare exceptions, where hostile stereotypes of the Jew existed in the Islamic tradition, they tended to be contemptuous and dismissive rather than suspicious and obsessive. This made the events of 1948—the failure of five Arab states and armies to prevent half a million Jews from establishing a state in the debris of the British Mandate for Palestine—all the more of a shock. As some writers at the time observed, it was bad enough to be defeated by the great imperial powers of the West; to suffer the same fate at the hands of a contemptible gang of Jews was an intolerable humiliation. Anti-Semitism and its demonized picture of the Jew as a scheming, evil monster provided a soothing answer.

The earliest specifically anti-Semitic statements in the Middle East occurred among the Christian minorities, and can usually be traced back to European originals. They had limited impact, and at the time for example of the Dreyfus trial in France, when a Jewish officer was unjustly accused and condemned by a hostile court, Muslim comments usually favored the persecuted Jew against his Christian persecutors. But the poison continued to spread, and from 1933 Nazi Germany and its various agencies made a concerted and on the whole remarkably successful effort to promote and disseminate European style anti-Semitism in the Arab world. The struggle for Palestine greatly facilitated the acceptance of the anti-Semitic interpretation of history, and led some to blame all evil in the Middle East and indeed in the world on secret Jewish plots. This interpretation has pervaded much of the public discourse in the region, including education, the media, and even entertainment.

Another view of the Jewish component, based in reality rather than fantasy, may be more instructive. The modern Israeli state and society were built by Jews who came from Christendom and Islam; that is, on the one hand from Europe and the Americas, on the other from the Middle East and North Africa. Judaism, or more broadly Jewishness, is a religion in the fullest sense—a system of belief and worship, a morality and a way of life, a complex of social and cultural values and habits. But until comparatively recent times Jews had no political role, and even in recent times that role is limited to a few countries. There is therefore no specifically Jewish political and societal culture or tradition. Ancient memories are too remote, recent experience too brief, to provide them. Between the destruction of the ancient Jewish kingdom and the creation of the modern Jewish republic, Jews were a part—one might say a subculture—of the larger societies in which they live, and even their communal organizations and usages inevitably reflected the structures and usages of those societies. For the last 14 centuries, the overwhelming majority of Jews lived in either the Christian or Islamic world, and were in many respects a component in both civilizations. Inevitably, the Jews who created Israel brought with them many of the political and societal standards and values, the habits and attitudes of the countries from which they came: on the one hand, what we have become accustomed to call the Judaeo-Chrisrian tradition, on the other, what we may with equal justification call the Judaeo-lslamic tradition.

In present-day Israel these two traditions meet and, with increasing frequency, collide. Their collisions are variously expressed, in communal, religious, ethnic, even party-political terms. But in many of their encounters what we see is a clash between Christendom and Islam, oddly represented by their former Jewish minorities, who reflect, as it were in miniature, both the strengths and the weaknesses of the two civilizations of which they had been part. The conflict, coexistence, or combination of these two traditions within a single small state, with a shared religion and a common citizenship and allegiance, should prove illuminating. For Israel, this issue may have an existential significance, since the survival of the state, surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned by neighbors who reject its very right to exist, may depend on its largely Western-derived qualitative edge.


Readers will come away from What Went Wrong with a greater understanding of the past, and more questions and concerns about the future.

Steve Hopkins, January 22, 2004


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the February 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Went Wrong.htm


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