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Book Review

Blaming Muslims for the effects and the failure of the West’s plans for the Middle East

Iqbal Siddiqui

What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response by Bernard Lewis. Pub: Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2002. Pp: 180. US$23.00.

All the best interrogations are performed by teams. On the one hand you have the torturers, applying the thumbscrews and all manner of other physical, psychological and emotional pressures; on the other hand you have the nice guy, pleading and reasoning with the victim, saying that it doesn’t have to be like this, it’s your own fault, if you were just reasonable, do as we went, all this unpleasantness can be stopped at once. At a time when the Muslim world and Muslims who insist on attempting to live by Islamic values and principles in all aspects of their lives — the public and collective as well as the private — are under constant attack, when Islamic movements all over the world are being brutally repressed, when US and other Western troops are in every part of the Muslim world, it is difficult not to think of Bernard Lewis’s latest book What Went Wrong? as the reasonable guy backing up George W. Bush in the role of torturer.

Does that sound overstated? Perhaps. After all, Lewis is known as the doyen of Western scholars on Islam, famed for his knowledge of Muslim history, his supposed sympathy for Muslims, and his insight into Muslim societies. But the last paragraph of the book, on its own, demonstrates the point:

If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression, culminating sooner or later in yet another alien domination; perhaps from a new Europe reverting to old ways, perhaps from a resurgent Russia, perhaps from some new expanding superpower in the East. If they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavour, they can once again make the Middle East, as it was in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a major centre of civilization. For the time being, the choice is their own.

This one paragraph sums up both Lewis’s argument and his attitude. The Muslim world is a mess, he points out, reasonably enough. How come? What went wrong? For him, the answer is that Muslims failed to learn the secrets of modernity from the West when they were offered them, and now refuse to accept responsibility for their own failures. Lewis puts it plainly: "The question asked by Muslims is ‘Who did this to us?’ rather than ‘What did we do wrong?’" All the troubles of the contemporary Muslim world, Lewis argues, can be traced to this sense of "rage and self-pity" that leads us to resist and fight against the model and lead offered by the West, which has overtaken us in everything that matters.

The whole book consists — as its subtitle suggests — of an account and analysis of the Muslim failure to cope with the rise of the West as an alternative and rival civilizational model. Until the fifteenth century, Lewis freely admits, Muslims led the West in every field and much of the West’s advance was based on Muslim learning (this was the subject of his book The Muslim Discovery of Europe, on which his once-positive reputation among Muslims was based). It is in the more recent centuries, as the West developed the elements of modernity, that the Muslim world has slipped behind. Lewis’s account of this process, told in thematic chapters with titles such as ‘The Lesson of the Battlefield’, ‘The Quest for Wealth and Power’, ‘Social and Cultural Barriers’, and ‘Time, Space and Modernity’, provides a version of Muslim history that is based on enough learning and detail to convince those already biased against Islam, yet in reality is little more than a caricature.

All the best caricatures are, of course, based on subtle distortions based on reality, rather than on outright falsehoods. A tall, thin man is caricatured by showing him as even taller and thinner than he really is, rather than as short and plump — indeed, he is made tall and thin to the point of ridicule. Yet the image is instantly recognizable because it draws attention to precisely those features for which the subject is best known. This is precisely Lewis’s method in this book, except that the features he caricatures are the Western stereotypes of Muslim societies, rather than the reality of them. Thus we have rulers concerned only with wealth and sensual pleasures; theologians who reject technology as pointless and forbidden magic; travellers taking back to Muslim countries reports only of decadence and debauchery. We have women yearning for progress only to be oppressed by men; we have non-Muslims yearning to be free from persecution and responsible for most of what little modernization and progress Muslim societies have achieved. For all of which Lewis has more than enough references and examples, simply ignoring all examples that would not serve his purpose.

The outstanding feature of this book, however, is not what is there, but what is not there: virtually any reference whatsoever to the fact that for most of recent history, the entire world of Islam has been under the political domination of the West, a reality that has determined the course of our history and the shape of our world, and that has impacted on every level of Muslim society in innumerable ways, direct and indirect.

From reading this book, however, one could easily get the impression that the histories of the West and Islam have been running on parallel tracks, with only such contacts as Muslims have chosen to have in order to benefit from the generous advice and assistance the West was willing to offer (and which we have been too churlish and ungrateful to accept). Making this point is not to start blaming others for our plight, as Lewis might retort; nor is it to suggest there is nothing we could have done differently ourselves to improve our condition. It is to simply to recognise and point out a historical reality that Lewis and other Westerners would rather we forgot. Discussing the Muslim world without reference to this reality, as Lewis tries to do, is like trying to explain twentieth century European history and society without mentioning either fascism and the Second World War, or communism and the Cold War.

In his conclusion, Lewis refers to the danger of Muslims coming under "yet another alien domination" if we fail to follow his advice. Clearly, therefore, he is aware that we have been subjected to one already, although this is virtually his first, tangential reference to the fact. What he chooses to ignore is the impact of this: the interruption of whatever our societies’ own evolutionary trajectory might have been, the destruction of numerous established institutions through which we might have addressed our problems in our own ways, the imposition of alien, rootless social and political institutions designed to serve the interests of the West, instead of our own. He also ignores the fact that this is not only a matter of history; it is current and ongoing. The tyrannies and dictatorships for which he so roundly condemns us are not of our making; and they do not continue to exist because they are somehow rooted in Muslim history and tradition, but because the West keeps them in place to serve the West’s interests, and helps them to repress all attempts to overthrow them.

Again, this is not a matter of blame; there would be no point in being indignant and expecting the West to behave any differently. It is simply a matter of recognizing reality and pointing out the hypocrisy of those, like Lewis, who provide the West with alternative unrealities to justify their actions. When Lewis calls on Muslims to "abandon grievance and victimhood", he means that we should abandon reality and resistance. When he calls on us to "join [our] talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavour", he means that we should accept our place in the Western hierarchy and the rewards available for doing so. The civilization he would like us to establish in the Middle East is the American-dominated Western one. It is not difficult to imagine Hitler or Stalin saying similar words as they tried to spread Nazism and Communism across the globe.

But the choice, as Lewis says, is ours, and Muslims all over the world have made it. Our best minds are abandoning grievance and victimhood, settling differences, joining talents, energies and resources in a common creative endeavour, and striving to make the Middle East a major centre of civilization – a modern, progressive, Islamic civilization which is bound to resist Western hegemony. Which is why the West is so mad, millions are suffering at the hands of Lewis’s cronies in Washington and of their allies and agents in London, Moscow, Paris, Tel Aviv, New Delhi and most Muslim capitals, and why Western experts on Islam are asked to explain ‘what went wrong’.

What’s gone wrong, Bernie, is that Muslims refuse to be conquered, refuse to accept their place in a world shaped to your taste. Go write a book about that.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 12

Jumada' al-Akhirah 07, 14232002-08-16

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