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Review of What Went Wrong?

By Shawn Nelsen

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Lewis, Bernard.  What Went Wrong?. New York: Oxford, 2002.


            In such turbulent times as these today, it is important to understand the world in which questionable events take place.  The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, was one of these questionable events that brought to light many questions about the relationship between the Middle East and the West.  Bernard Lewis tries to answer some of the questions regarding this peculiar relationship in his book What Went Wrong? Although, as Lewis makes clear in the preface of his book, the book was written before the September Eleventh attacks took place, the information that Lewis provides is more than relevant to the subject.  Lewis basically tries to explain why the one time dominant Middle Eastern Muslim culture became domineered by the one time less civilized European Christian culture.      

            The point that the Islamic culture was dominate, and in many way superior, to the Western culture for hundreds of years seems to be one of the most important ideas that Lewis pushes.  He writes, for example, that for many years refugees would flock from the West to the East.  Furthermore, many of the scientific developments would occur in the East and trickle their way Westward.  In other words, The Middle East was to the West what the West is now to the Middle East.  In light of this switch of roles, Lewis poses the question ‘what went wrong for the Middle East?’ then spends the remainder of the book attempting to answer the question.

            There are many possible answers that Lewis focuses on in order to figure out why the Muslim world lost its superiority, although none of them seem to be any bit more important then the others.  This in mind, one prominent answer seems to be the decline of the Islamic military strength which was not so much of a decline as it was a lack of keeping up. (20)  This new reality of military lack seems to have made its self most apparent during the sighing of the Treaty of Carlowitz.  As Lewis writes it, this was the “first peace signed by a defeated Ottoman Empire with victorious Christian adversaries.” (18) 

            Being the proverbial slap in the face, the Treaty of Carlowitz eventually lead to many changes within Islamic cultural doctrine.  First thing first, the Ottomans had to concede to let Western teachers come in and help modernize the Ottoman military.  This in its self was a big deal because before this whole fiasco the Muslims wanted nothing to do with the Western, Christian barbarians.   Islam, as the Muslims viewed it, was an extension, or an upgraded version of Christianity.  Everything Christian worth having, the Muslims believed, the Muslims already had.  So anything else, while in this mind set, was reverting back to old, out dated, barbaristic Christian ways of doing things.   The military help from the West, though, ended up being, at least, a little help to the Ottomans so it was continued and eventually accepted.  Given the wealth of knowledge that the Westerners were able to bring in to the Ottoman Empire, some Ottomans began to think it was appropriate to start sending young Ottoman students to go extract some of the valuable modern ideas from the West and therefore study in Western universities.  The problem with this, though, was that it was hard for the Ottoman students to go study in Western universities to learn Western ideas without themselves becoming Westernized, so Westernization occurred.  For example when the Ottomans wanted to modernize their military, Western music came along with modern reform. (135)

            It was this problem of good Muslims becoming too Westernized that really seemed to frustrate the Islamic leaders.  They began to wonder way the Western way of life was becoming the dominant way of life when the Muslims used to be so much more advanced the Westerners.  This thought in mind, there were two questions that the Muslims began to ask.  One question was “What did we do wrong,” (25), while the other question was “Who did this to us?”(153)  Lewis spend most of the book presenting possible answers to these two questions, but points out that there were two major ways for the Muslims to approach a solution.  One way was to take the stance that the Middle East was too traditional and the other was to take the stance that the Middle East was not traditional enough.  Both of these solutions were pursued and caused an almost schizophrenic split as its society that was trying to move in two directions at once.  They were both impressed and disgusted with European society and culture, but no matter what their view, they still had to admit that the West was much better off then they were.

            If one had to find one major thesis to What Went Wrong? it would have to be that the Treaty of Carlowitz marked a turning point in which Islam, who used to be more fair to its poor and minorities, more technologically advanced, and more innovative than the West, found its self suddenly in a decline that it has yet to recover from.  With out this Idea being absolutely accepted by the reader, the rest of the book would have no significance.  Lewis, upon the readers’ acceptance of this main idea, is able then to use the rest of the book trying to explain why this decline took place, as opposed to trying to convince the reader that a decline actually did take place.  When trying to solve the question of why the decline took place, though, it is interesting to note that Lewis never actually answers the question.   Although this most likely has to do with the fact that there is no simple solution to the question, one might still be disappointed that Lewis does not sum it up in one simple answer.  Instead the reader is offered many answers and what appear to be many theses.

            Lewis’s analyses of the situation between the West and the Middle East seem to make perfect sense.  Threw out history, one must admit, there never appears to be one simple answer to explain why things change and the Middle East should be no acceptation.   This is most likely why Lewis takes his multi-thesis approach when writing What Went Wrong?. He seems to have a different thesis just about for every chapter. For example, chapter one focuses on lessons learned on the battlefield, where as chapter five focuses on the Islamic problems with secularism.  Although these two ideas are completely different when studying them individually, Lewis successfully ties them together so that in the big picture they appear completely the intertwined and tie together nicely to reinforce the idea that there is no one reason why Middle Eastern culture fell behind that of the West.

                        To help more clearly define the issue of cultural differences, Lewis uses plenty of primary sources in the form of letters written by travelers from the East to the West or vise versa.  One such letter by Evliya Çelebi is a great example of cultural misunderstanding.  Çelebi was a Turk visiting Vienna who witnessed the Viennese king stopping as a lady crossed his path so that the King could show his respect the lady.  Çelebi mistook the outward sign of gentlemanly respect as some sort of inward and cultural respect for Western woman. (65)  Although Westerners seemed to respect there woman a bit more than did Middle Easterners, the level of respect that Çelebi thought he saw did not actually exist.  Either way, misunderstandings like this still caused many Muslims to question the way that they treated their women.

            Most of the letters and other primary sources that he uses, though, seem to be either from the West or Western in origin.  This is probably explainable in the fact that Bernard Lewis is himself a Westerner and therefore would most likely value Western sources.  Although Lewis asks the question of What Went Wrong? from an Eastern point of view,  the book its self seems to be written with a strong Western bias.  Lewis is obviously still an outsider to the Muslim world with out side ideas and outside biases.  Even Lewis’s idea about modernization being accelerated by the development of important communication tools in the form of writing is still a Western idea.  Westerners, it seems, love communication threw the written word, but cultures with a strong oral traditions might feel quite differently about the use of he written word.

            Western Biases aside, Lewis does pose two very interesting questions that the Muslims might ask them selves.  The question “What did we do wrong?” (25) is undoubtedly the more constructive questions.  It is this question that should drive any civilization to strive for inward betterment and, as Lewis points out, the Muslims were no exception.  It was this question that drove the Ottomans down the road of Western reform in the attempt to modernize their declining civilization.  Unfortunately, though, the other question of “Who did this to us?” (153) was much less productive.  It is this question that can cause a civilization to have resentment and want revenge and, once again, the Muslims were no exception.  It is hard to dismiss the fact that the Europeans did intrude on, and eventually try to dominate, the Muslim world.  This intrusion came in many forms from militarily to politically and even industrially.   It is easy to imagine that the Muslims would ask “Who did this to us?” (153) when they sit down and drink a European cup of coffee sweetened with European sugar and made with hot water that came from the European owned utility providers, knowing full well that all of these things used to be imported from, not imported to, the Muslim world. (50)  As they dwell upon their cup of coffee, it is not then hard to imagine that the answer to their question would undoubtedly be the West.   It is, with this in mind, almost easy to see why radical, Islamic fundamentalists might want to take revenge on the Western world that has so radically changed their way of life. 

            As today is full of questionable hardships such as the September Eleventh attacks, perhaps some questions should be asked by the Western world as well.  One such questionable thought could be for the West to try and figure out a way to help alleviate some of the animosity that the Middle East holds toward the West.  There are probably many solutions to this straightforward problem, but they will not present them selves until there is an attempt to solve the problem.  One solution might be as uncomplicated as a simple apology, but this solution will never be acceptable unless the Western world can figure out whom to apologize to and for what they are apologizing for.  One thing is for cretin, though, these turbulent times will continue until some solution presents it’s self.  Although it is interesting to understand some of the questions that the Middle Easterners might be asking themselves, perhaps the West could also try and figure out what went wrong.  It is not only the East that needs the answer to this question, but the West as well.  Perhaps it is the combined answer to this question that will finally bring an end to these tumultuous times.




© All words and music written and owned by Shawn Nelsen.