Arabian Nightmares

March 1, 2002 Topics: Society Regions: Central AsiaEurasia Tags: BalkansIslamismToryIslam

Arabian Nightmares

Mini Teaser: Bernard Lewis dissects the travails of the Muslim world and finds that the problem is not what Islam has done to Muslims, but what Muslims have done to Islam.

by Author(s): David Pryce-Jones

Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (New York: Oxford University, 2002), 180 pp., $23.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a scholar who wrote a book of a million words on his subject. Asked why it had to be so long, this scholar replied that he did not have the time to write a shorter book. At rather regular intervals, Bernard Lewis publishes short books on one or another aspect of Islam, its history, and its cultural or political expressions in all periods up to the present. Each the fruit of a lifetime of scholarship, the books in this sequence have a character and a wisdom all their own. The tone is dispassionate though often sprightly, the argument authoritative, the supporting detail fresh, absorbing, and taken from an immense range of original sources. Lewis is master of the major languages of the Middle East and Europe. Now in his mid-eighties, he is the most emeritus of professors, an orientalist in the best sense of that great tradition. They don't come like that anymore.

The long-drawn process in which the Christian West and the world of Islam discovered one another is a favorite theme of his. He has clarified complex interactions arising from war and peace, examining the range of perceptions and misperceptions, prejudices and stereotypes, and of course borrowings and accommodations that have come into play and which govern today's fraught and unequal relationship between the West and Islam. How these two very different civilizations will come to terms that satisfy the demands and values of them both is now one of the world's more urgent questions.

In the historic days of its glory, Islam was the more dominant of the two. Muslim scholars preserved the learning of the classical world, and built on it; Lewis speaks of "their enterprise and their openness." Muslim armies conquered at all points of the compass. Why, Lewis asks, did the discoverers of America sail from Spain and not a Muslim Atlantic port as might have been expected? Machiavelli and Guiccardini both feared that the Ottoman Turks were destined to occupy Italy. Writing in the 1550s, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor to Ottoman Turkey, sounded a modern note of doom. The West displayed public poverty, license and debauchery, while the Ottomans had unity and discipline. Worse, "the enemy is accustomed to victory, and we to defeat." A prototype of the 20th-century Cold War was waged as the West defended itself against the threat of further Muslim encroachments in eastern Europe and the Balkans. In the 17th century, as Lewis records, raiding parties from North Africa were still seizing slaves from England and Ireland, and even from Iceland.

Western nations won this early cold war convincingly. Over two centuries, Russia, Britain and France, and finally Holland, Spain and Italy, pushed the Muslims back and carved empires out for themselves at the expense of the Islamic world, conquering and absorbing Muslim states from northwest Africa to the East Indies. By the end of the 19th century, the two surviving Muslim powers, Ottoman Turkey and pre-Pahlavi Iran, were wrecks in need of re-invention. Only these two countries and such remote, inhospitable parts of the Muslim world as inner Arabia and Afghanistan, remained free from occupation by a foreign and Christian power. Contrary to Busbecq's prediction, it was the Muslims who became accustomed to defeat, and the West to victory.

For Muslims, public acknowledgement that their civilization had failed was inescapable. The world was no longer rightfully ordered, as it had been in so many previous centuries, and the shame of it cut painfully deep. Theirs is what anthropologists call a shame society, in which acquisition of honor and the converse, avoidance of shame, are the keys to motivation. These values serve to distort reality by imposing false heroism and equally false self-denigration. Muslims everywhere duly came to despise their own impotence in the face of unbelievers. The internalization of this emotion remains today the continuing cause of Muslim rage.

In one country after another, nationalist movements formed with the aim of ousting foreign occupiers and recovering self-respect and independence. As a result of the world wars, and the accompanying loss of power and moral authority, the European empires all collapsed. Seemingly, the world of Islam had won a reprieve, a second chance to prosper as a civilization of its own. Instead of freedom, however, independence has brought Muslim countries a series of unrelieved wars against neighbors of all denominations (Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and African animists); and also a series of unrelieved aggressions and civil wars among Muslims. Worst of all, independence has brought the rule of the autocrat and the secret police, injustice, corruption and torture. The barbarity is worse than what went before, and there is no civilization worthy of the name: No high culture, no serious art, no remotely modern medicine, no world-class scientific research, but instead the general frustration of the creative energies of millions of lively and intelligent people. Something has all too evidently gone wrong.

Western observers have often blamed Islam itself for the decline of Muslim civilization. In particular, they like to point out that Islam unites church and state, and makes a dogma of it. This absolutism allows no scope for compromise and power-sharing. For this reason, Ernest Renan, the originator of the study of comparative religion, set the trend when he called Islam "the heaviest chains which have ever shackled humanity." In the West, in contrast, the separation of church and state was a necessary prelude to the replacement of wars of religion with democracy. Lewis concurs, but he does not make much of Islam as a factor in holding Muslims back. Autocracy based on religion, after all, was perfectly compatible with civilization in the past, and not only in Islam. Besides, and more important, he knows that the unity of church and state in Islam has been for most of Islamic history a religious ideal but not an actual practice.

What really went wrong was something more imponderable. From earliest times, Muslim envoys had traveled to the West, and Lewis gives instructive examples of what they found and did there. Handpicked as they were, these men did not stay on after their missions; they neither bothered to learn Western languages nor to study the societies in which they found themselves. Confident of their superiority, or as Kipling in his day was to warn his countrymen, "drunk with sight of power", they missed the major intellectual movements in Europe, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the New Learning and its emerging science and technology. Until the late 18th century, Lewis writes, only a single medical book had been translated into a Middle Eastern language, and that was a long-outdated treatise on syphilis, itself contemptuously known as "the Frankish disease." By the time Muslims realized that they had removed themselves deliberately from the mainstream of intellectual development, it was too late for them to catch up and remedy it. They had condemned themselves to be passive sufferers rather than active agents of events.

Lack of intellectual curiosity is in itself a fatal flaw, and in this case it had been conditioned, and then consummated, by misplaced pride. Continuous defeat in war at the hands of despised unbelievers began "to shake the very structure of Muslim society." This danger imposed the question: What was the secret of European success? As the Japanese were to do when they found themselves in the same predicament, Ottoman and Iranian and Moroccan rulers began in the early part of the 19th century to send envoys to the capitals of the West with the mission of studying what should be done. As Lewis puts it, knowledge was something to be acquired, rather than grown or developed.
Lewis quotes a number of these envoys' reports, which together provide a fascinating measure of the divide between the civilizations. One envoy was astonished at the sight of the Habsburg emperor taking his hat off to women as a sign of respect. Another had witnessed a scientific experiment to do with electricity, so strange to him that he ascribed it to "Frankish trickery." Yet another, visiting London, thought that the absence of divinely revealed law had reduced the British to the pitiable expedient of enacting their own statutes. Such encounters exemplify and explain the inventiveness of the one civilization and the stagnation of the other.

A few Muslim rulers tried to turn their backs on the steadily encroaching West and seek refuge in Islam. By the mid-19th century, however, most rulers-the Ottoman sultans foremost among them-were instead listening to those who advocated fundamental reforms, and they struggled to adapt their societies in order to survive. They founded language schools and sent students to Europe; they commissioned translations and bought printing presses. They utilized the services of European converts to Islam, known at the time as "renegades", and engaged specialists to upgrade their armies and navies. They toyed with constitutional ideas. In real terms, as well as psychological, the costs of these changes to character and identity were immense. And still they lost the wars.

Essay Types: Book Review