July 29, 2002

The Uses and Abuses of a Reasonable Man
What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis

This agreeably short book received much uncritical praise from varieties of conservatives when first it was published in the United States. Its principal merit lay in the fact that it was taken to be another weapon with which the perpetrators of the 11th of September terrorism could be assailed. One might have thought that the case against them – once they were identified – was pretty straightforward and really didn't need anxious buttressing by recourse to 'the doyen of Middle Eastern studies' (Princeton's British octogenarian, Bernard Lewis), but there you are. If, however, one believes that the business with Mr Bin Laden has rather more to do with the exception he's taken to the drift of American foreign policy under Bill Clinton (think on him as an especially disgruntled subscriber to The National Interest), than any nonsense that here was a war of civilisations being waged, or still more ludicrously,  war between Islamic barbarism and civilisation itself, then the end to which What Went Wrong? has been put by self-proclaimed rightists requires careful examination.

This is not a good book on which to end a distinguished career. Frequently repetitive, with phrases occurring over and over again within chapters, let alone, across them, it betrays all the weaknesses one would expect a collection of lectures originally delivered in German might. Yet, in the aftermath of the three successful [sic] hijackings, it became a much anticipated text. Setting out, as it surely must, the cultural, moral, political, economic and military failings of the culture from which the terrorists emerged. It doesn't quite do any of this, but then it doesn't do much full stop. Indeed, its very vagueness as to intent, and disorganisation of material, whilst providing a genuinely authoritative run-through of a subject suddenly very important to pronounce upon, was, as I say, well timed. As to what it appears to promise to deliver: something having gone wrong – and here's what, well Prof. Lewis is too good an historian to live up to exactly this fruitless billing. Sadly though, there is enough unfocused disquiet collected here for those who turned to this book to justify depressingly sincere hatred of both Arabs and Islam to find quotes to misappropriate.

The first problem is one of definition: where, before we even come to the nature and extent of the 'problem' (or error even), does Bernard Lewis think that we come upon this fact? Clearly the Middle East, but for him, and far, far more those who have fed off this work, this presents the dilemma that too often it is Islam per se which elides into being the problem, which is the thing that 'went wrong'. This we have to query for looking forward and back we see the Mogul Empire, and today those non-Arab Muslim states, in Asia and Africa, and they all appear to lack the peculiar hatred so keenly found in the Middle East. Surely a better way to render the problem, such as there is, is that between 'Europe' or 'the West' (rather than Modernity), and, the Middle East (rather than Islam)?

It's hard to see why, if we follow this script that 'once great, now pathetic' Islam is convulsed with a hatred for the West, or modernity, why, when many of those same evidential traits can be found easily elsewhere (and, when we were mean to be worried about her, frequently were adduced in the case of, for example, China), do these areas or cultures escape the charge, and military consequences, of being Occiphobic. It does suggest that, unsurprisingly enough, this concentration on the Islamic Middle East is more the projection of our contemporary preoccupations, rather than the academic elucidation of any higher truth.

What the idea that 'they hate us' rests upon is an assertion of a collective identity which is difficult to substantiate in historical fact. How self-conscious were or are members of the 'Muslim world' of being just so? What sense of collegiality was there amongst those who did feel it – was it comparable to even the vague and rhetorical spirit supposedly abroad in Christendom? Resolving this negatively reveals the useful truth about the present that pan-Arab sentiment is, and always has been, a fiction. What marks out this region of the globe is what marks out all the others – division, whether within Islam, between Islam and other religions, and most of all, beyond the nations, then ever more the states, that surmounted these peoples. The Middle East is still better understood through the prism of Egypt, or Ottoman Turkey, or Persia, than through believing in the existence of an united religious mono-culture as an interpretative tool.

Our focus on this problem betrays, of course, our problem with them, not their problem with us. Few with historical imagination can seriously believe that Islam now presents a greater danger to the West than when armies under its banners were (successfully) conquering much of Europe. Leaving behind the exploitation of Bernard Lewis by some neo-conservative bigots, we should instead read only what he has to say about the fate of the Middle East in the modern age.

* * *

Part of the difficulty we have is using the occasion of the publication of What Went Wrong? as a simple opportunity to celebrate the life and work of Bernard Lewis is that a little bit too much of the present is read into the past. It's hard to know, as one example, but repeated through all his thematic chapters, exactly how the economic failures of the present account for those of the past. I've tried, out of decency, but more fundamentally, respect for the superior talent, not to push the point, but the next, near fatal problem we have in taking the book on just its own terms is that 'what their problem is' never does quite get the unambiguous outing it ought to. We're almost given an account of how things went wrong, without actually being told what it is that has gone wrong. That may be self-evident, but it wouldn't have hurt to gently tell us it one more time.

Again we come back to, of what do we speak? Where everything went wrong – and we will come to what that was – was the Middle East. This interests us today because the Middle East is thus held to have gone and stayed wrong. So what is the Middle East? And how much cultural import does that concept have? Given that, despite seven centuries of occupation, no one considers Spain and Portugal's place(ing) in the West, does, will this work the other way? Will the Byzantine part of Turkey turn out to have been a 'lost' bit of the West if we get it back? If the legacy of Constantinople is put in this context, then it would do away with some of the inconvenient inconsistencies the parasites who feed off Prof. Lewis have with the Islamic charge sheet vis-à-vis Turkey. Inescapably though, we must return to what Arab decline is contrasted with: Western virtue. It ought, obviously, to be merely the rise of the West, but it's hard to filter out the smugness. Yet, in this fabled West, who subscribed to the 'liberal' or 'modern' or whatever you like notions that Middle Eastern Muslims are at fault for passing up on? Only Britain, and, fitfully, France for most of the period he examines – and then very differently so as between just this pair. Here we have attribution of a coherence to the West it simply cannot ever meaningfully be said to have possessed.

Some of the problems to this book come from the thing it's easy for the amateur to root out, but understandable that the expert finds himself so often accused of. Bernard Lewis, in pursuit of the contrast between what made the West rise (not his subject) makes unsustainable claims as to why the metropolitan powers acted as they did in those areas where he is expert. His assertion that European colonialism was incompatible with inherent European 'values' (and thus pre-ordained to pass) has some slight chronological plausibility in a region where Western colonialism was brief. As it's utterly implausible everywhere else. One does have to wonder what gives way, the theory about 'Westernism' being toxic to colonialism, or the idea that the primacy of the West is immanent in its values? And we should pass over quickly his contention, which makes the brush a hair too broad, that, in contrast to the benighted Middle East, religion is not central to national identity in Europe!

Another small thing about this book that might have given, certainly the breed who most avidly reached for it, conservatives pause for thought are chapter headings like, 'Secularism and the Civil Society' and 'Modernisation and Social Equality' – these, in case you are in any doubt, are good things, and Muslims are seriously letting the side down by not signing up to them. Then there's the inevitable political correctness all cultural artefacts too long immersed in North America will display - 'C.E.' for 'A.D.', that sort of cringe-worthy thing. And, inevitably, and unimpressively by Weidenfeld and Nicolson (who if they couldn't edit a single sentence, might at least have earned their pay by attending to this), American spellings intrude into the British edition. If you want as painful a case of complete cultural decline as its possible to experience, take that last example.

What surprised me most about What Went Wrong?, and it is a thankfully quick read, is that short as it is, Elie Kedourie doesn't put in an appearance anywhere. As few of us are going to argue, something is wrong in the Middle East, the failure to have it starkly set out in this work contrasts unfavourably with, for example, Politics in the Middle East. There the point is firmly made that what the peoples of the region suffer from in their regimes is that they are habitually all oriental despotisms: 'a political arrangement in which the state is stronger than society. The political sociology of oriental despotism is extremely simple: only two social groups can be identified, namely those who rule, and those who are ruled.' Kedourie then separates the religion, Islam, from what the doctors of the law were, over the course of several centuries, to do in relation to the states they found themselves in: 'What the Muslim jurists did was to articulate and theorise the conditions of political life in oriental despotism, and to teach that it was compatible with a Muslim way of life'.

His newfound friends of earlier this year, ignorant no doubt as they are to who Kedourie was, would doubtless be amazed by what seems to me to the problem at the heart of Bernard Lewis, avatar of Muslim failure, and that it's that he can't bring himself to believe the black, cold things a Kedourie could. Prof. Lewis knows that many hold there to be something wrong with the Middle East today, but any accurate assessment of what he feels about the way they were, has to reveal that this is never going to be a man who thinks that there is something intrinsically 'wrong' with Islam.

* * *

During his historical survey Prof. Lewis keeps presenting us – admittedly as a means to later demonstrating the subsequent lamentable falling off of Islam from this admirable high point – with the Glories that were the Middle East. The Things That Went Right were legion (and the choice is revealing). Despite all that fuss we're meant to make over the values of the West, it turns out that legal and civic reforms meant that the Ottoman Empire was far more 'religiously neutral' in the nineteenth century than were the confessional states of Europe. Until very recently - and Bernard Lewis is impressively obsessed with equality for the girls – Muslim women had far superior property rights to their Christian sisters. There was even better treatment proscribed for slaves. A canard repeatedly employed by American critics of Middle Eastern Islam is to coat-trailingly ask, 'where have all the [East African in Arabia] slaves gone?' Where are their descendants today? The combination of guilt and ignorance which overlooks the central place manumission held in Arab slave-holding culture is unknown or denied.

Nor is this a screed, in best auto-idiotism, demanding modernisation, the cure-all most haters of Islam urge (though, as he himself might admit, Prof. Lewis probably is an advocate of 'Westernization'. In taking us through where things have gone wrong, Bernard Lewis sees what heedless modernisation has done in the past: 'the cumulative effect of reform and modernisation was, paradoxically, not to increase freedom, but to reinforce autocracy'. New techniques shielded the old regime: they made the centre stronger, whilst at the same time they made such autonomous, subordinate institutions as there were weaker. This gift from the West did nothing for anyone.

A very good point that repays long consideration is that the European intellectual export most avidly consumed by the official Ottoman mind was the French Revolution, and that because of its explicitly anti-Christian basis, yet seeming inextricable association with those things desirably modern (in the fields of economic production and military achievement). There is even the sorry truth that the West, in the form of anti-Semitism as we understand it today, is responsible for that too in the Middle East. For there can be little doubt that antagonism towards Jews in the Middle East is now the kind perfected in Christian Europe, rather than anything connected to the harmonious enough relations which prevailed between Jew and Muslim in the Middle East for a thousand years.

Yet the examination of how the anti-Semitic virus went from Europe to the Middle East, and within living memory too, is, I feel, seriously mishandled. The historian rightly lays down that:

Within certain limits and subject to certain restrictions, Islamic governments were willing to tolerate the practice, though not the dissemination, of other revealed, monotheistic religions. They were able to pass an even severer test, by tolerating divergent forms of their own.

Jarring as it must sound, Arabs were Dreyfusards. Then, those demons of modern life, the Nazis arrived and were 'remarkably successful' in disseminating their poison. I'd argue that this brief propaganda call was irrelevant, other than that, during the war, Germany (and not Hitler-land) was rightly seen for nationalist reasons as being the agency by which Anglo-French colonialism could be thrown off. The well of Arab tolerance was poisoned, European-style anti-Semitism took off for entirely local reasons, and not because Muslims were duped by Dr Goebbels. These, patently, chiefly being connected to the planting of Zionist settlers in Palestine and their displacement of the aboriginal population.

Perhaps the most useful to remember about the misfortune of the Middle East is that the vast majority of Arab states are not Islamic ones. Algeria isn't (yet), Libya isn't, nor is Egypt or Jordan, nor Syria or Iraq, and of course, Turkey hasn't been since she came into being. Islam in the Middle East is an obscure problem if she truly is one.

* * *

Those who have the courage – and in the modern America for one, of CE rather than AD, this still takes some doing even in semi-polite society – to say what they think about Islam should. It is clear that a substantial body of neo-conservative thought in the United States holds that Islam is a failed, or at least, deficient religion. This is rather something else from that limited number of believing Christians who would be unpolished enough to observe that Islam is a false revealed religion, and that's an end to it; the neo-con thinkers who loath Islam do so in a more strictly sociological sense, seeing its contemporary manifestations as a direct, personal threat to them. Yet the idea that we can say of a religion like Islam, 'it has failed' is too absurd for words. By any criteria by which we could say this of Islam, we would, for instance, have to say the same thing of Judaism. A religion, for much of its time on earth mired in primitivism, and decidedly injurious to those who subscribed to it.

When it comes to the comparison between the Christian West and the Muslim Middle East, even then, if one engages in unwise sweep, what is there to say of history thus far? Whose impact on whom was greater? We ruled more of them, but they ruled us for longer; they have their religion, but we have one of theirs too. What both Bernard Lewis, a man steeped in knowledge and learning about the Arab world, and the abominable neo-cons share is a certain blindness to the moment they live. Pure bigotry occludes the vision of the latter, but Prof. Lewis has to be forgiven for only having sight to see so much. For what is happening to Islam, quickly and unsteadily, is that she, and her host culture in the Middle East, is modernising. Appreciating this will only happen widely once it is done, but that it's happening is the source of the confusion, and why even Bernard Lewis, who knows there's a problem, can't bring himself to say what it is. What it is is that they're becoming like us.

Text-only printable version of this article

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis, and is publisher of ERO. He recently took some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration.

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