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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

What Went Wrong The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East

Reviewed: March 9, 2005
By: Bernard Lewis
Publisher: Harper Perennial
186 pages, $19.95

One cannot look at the state of the world today without posing to oneself the very question that forms the title of this impressive little volume. What, indeed, went wrong? How did we get to airplanes crashing into twin towers, an invasion of a nation which was not involved in that event, and a daily body count that threatens to numb the brains of regular news listeners and watchers.

Professor Lewis’s book will not provide all the answers to those questions, but it does provide a number of suggestions about where one should focus one’s attention to learn more.

It is first important to recall that the Islamic world is not a monolith of anti-westernism, and that much of it exists outside of the Middle East, which is the apocalyptic preoccupation of too much American thinking on this subject.

It is those lands whose culture was formed by a long Arab occupation where the problems primarily lie. For centuries these lands were far ahead of Europe in learning and culture. One might almost see the Crusades of the Middle Ages as that era’s equivalent of the first millennium’s barbarians battering at the gates of Rome.

While the average European would have scorned the notion that the Islamic world had anything to offer him, his rulers and wise men knew better, and absorbed what they could from this culture when the two came into contact. While some of the Renaissance may have been the legacy of Irish monks copying texts out of antiquity as an exercise in meditation, a good deal was also seeded by material out of the Middle East, where the Vikings and others had not succeeded in destroying it.

For all its own xenophobia, Europe took to things Arabic like a sponge, adopting what it could use and sampling widely.

The same thing was not true in the other direction. Lewis shows how the Arab societies did not keep pace with the cultural exchange in progress, how elements of literature, concepts of time, a notions of social organization did not penetrate the Arab world. Lewis, a sympathetic observer of the Islam, nevertheless concludes that the region has not yet recovered from the shock it received when its leaders suddenly realized that the infidels of the north had surpassed them militarily, industrially and to some extent, culturally. This is not to say that West had become better that the Middle East, but it had become the touchstone against which other lands measured themselves, and the Arab Islamic world had not kept up.

"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."

Arab modernizers tried to catch up, making use of the dominant political dogmas of the age. Nationalism was tried and it failed to take root in the way it had in Europe. Looking at what we now know to be the illusory success of the Soviet experiment, political movements adapted from the Stalinist communist model took hold in the form of Bathism, which simply gave rise to to dictators like Sadaam Hussein.

More traditional Arabic forms of rule translated into the corrupt royal house of Saudi Arabia , whose thousands of princes know a luxury its average citizen will never know, and from whose borders came most of the terrorists of 9/11 and much of the funding for Afghanistan’s brutal Taliban regime, as well as Usama (or Osama) bin Ladin himself. Lewis seems to agree with Canadian observer Gwynne Dyer in holding that the ultimate solution to these problems is the growth of an indigenous version of the concepts of freedom and democracy. It seems unlikely that Bush II and his circle of advisors will actually be able to make such a thing happen by force of arms. There may have been elections in Iraq in January, but the killing goes on and the violence has not abated.

"One can only hope," Lewis concludes, "that, in time, the cause of freedom will triumph once again as it has already triumphed over the Nazis and the Communists.

"If it does not, the outlook for the Islamic world, and perhaps for the west, will be grim."

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