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

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  • Posted April 21, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A comparative history

    As many other readers have suggested, this is not Bernard Lewes' best work, and it is a bit of a failure in one important respect: it doesn't answer the rhetorical question from the title. Lewis is much better at describing historic events and finding out insightful and important tidbits of information than he is at deeper analysis. This is quite understandable, since he is a historian of the old school and neither political nor social scientist. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating and interesting book, and anyone who is not familiar with the history of the Middle East, especially compared to the history of Europe, would benefit from reading it. The book was completed shortly before 9/11 attacks on the US, but in its themes it proved extremely prescient and relevant. Lewis is very sympathetic towards his subject matter, the peoples and cultures of the Middle East, and is fair minded and balanced when presenting historical facts. His is not the goal of condemning and denigrating Middle Eastern peoples and the Islamic word, but a genuine concern for explaining that part of the world, and through explaining aiding in its understanding. This is an admirable book that goes a long way towards achieving that goal.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2008

    Unanswered Question

    The book is very basic, and not an indepth look at 'What went wrong?' A good book for beginner but breaks no new ground. All in all -- so - so

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2005

    And the answer is...?

    The most dissappointing thing about this book is that, after reading it, the reader is left still asking him/herself the same question: so what went wrong? The author gives a long list of unconnected facts mostly related not to the Arab world, but to the Turkish empire, without any clear line of argument. The erudition of Lewis is not questioned, but he fails to answer the question that makes the title of his book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2005

    A book to demonize the Arab Muslim World

    I read this book with an open mind to try and understand this kind of perspective. This book honestly (as the title may give it away) is not a book on true history, but mainly to deconstruct the region, and a poor one at that. The basic premise that is understood is that the Arab Muslim will always be a 'thing' to be analyzed and studied for demonization, hence the term Oriental. This man has written and dedicated his entire Orientalist study on the region and yet has never set foot in the Middle East heartland with the exception of Turkey. What is wrong is his historical perspective fits the theory of the 'us versus them'. This has been the position of Orietalist scholars from the West since the 18th century, and today he is the most widely regarded on the subject as outlined in Edward Said's monumental work, Orientalism. He does make few valid points, but overall I felt at odds with the book. The Arabs are a people whom have their own culture, history, language, religion and society irrespective of what anybody in the West may say or feel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2004

    Complacency and Condescendence: Death Knell of Civilization

    Bernard Lewis first clearly explains how Islam was not only a conduit for spreading ideas between the East and Medieval Europe, but perhaps more importantly a knowledge society that preserved and built on the legacy of Antiquity (pg. 6-7). The Islamic world developed several centers of excellence that innovated and took over the leadership in most artistic and scientific disciplines for centuries (pg. 7, 78-79, 119, 139-140). Muslims rightly perceived Medieval Europe as an area that had not much use to them, except in terms of slaves and raw materials (pg. 4). However, this complacent, condescending attitude of Islam towards other barbarian, infidel civilizations and a loss of interest in new learning progressively sapped the leadership of the Islamic world at a time that the Europeans started innovating again on a large scale, even before the Renaissance (pg. 7, 79, 81, 125). This attitude is not so surprising when one knows that Christianity and Judaism have been perceived as imperfect precursors of Islam (pg. 36). By that time, China stopped exploring the world behind its borders and entered a period of stagnation that lasted until the 20th century CE. Although the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries CE slowed down the loss of influence of Islam in arts and sciences, the writing was on the wall (pg. 4-21). Not only was the West progressively recovering more and more territories lost to Islamic rulers in the previous centuries, but more ominously regained its prominence in the marketplace (pg. 8, 15). The Western trading companies and their subsequent colonial offspring des-intermediated the Islamic world and started their conquest of Islamic lands (pg. 31). However, the weak Ottoman Empire was kept alive for centuries behind its useful time span. It was not until the 19th century that the West started slicing and dicing the Empire thoroughly (pg. 33). Western powers previously had no interest in the emergence of a Hapsburgs¿ superpower in Central and Eastern Europe. Furthermore, these Western powers wanted and obtained from the Ottomans that the Western merchants could do business as they saw fit in this part of the Islamic world (pg. 19, 35). The Renaissance, the Reformation and the technological revolution went largely unnoticed in Islamic territories due to a prevalent attitude that nothing good could come from Barbarians and Infidels as Lewis rightly reminds his readers (pg. 7, 145). However, the technological innovation of the West in the military area caught the attention of Muslims (pg. 12, 20, 39, 133-136, 141-143). The Ottomans were the main adopters of European military know how after receiving the blessing of the leaders of the ulema, the Doctors of Holy Law; necessity knows no law (pg. 13, 25, 43). Unlike Europeans who traveled in increasing numbers through the Islamic world, very few Muslims ever visited the West during this to better appreciate the added value of the Western modus operandi to their respective societies (pg. 25, 40). The ulema actively discouraged such travel except for the infidel minorities living in Islamic lands or Western adventurers offering their know how to Islam (pg. 26-29, 36-37, 44, 48-50, 147). Some dissenting voices stressed the need for broader reforms to modernize the Ottoman Empire, but were largely ignored or eliminated until the 19th century CE when it was basically too late (pg. 13, 28, 56-61, 70-71, 76-78, 95). At best, knowledge was perceived as something to be treasured, not as an asset to leverage and expand (pg. 39). This prevailing attitude was in sharp contrast to the modus operandi of medieval Islamic scientists who rose to worldwide prominence due to their openness to both foreign and domestic influences (pg. 79). Others pushed for a return to the past, Islamic and Ottoman, to reverse the ongoing decline of the Islamic civilization (pg. 23, 164-165). This debate is still raging (pg. 23, 63). T

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2003

    Explaining occidentalism

    Occidentalism, a recent New York Review of Books article, is destined to become the landmark counterpoint to Orientalism, Edward Said's dishonest 1976 theory. Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma define a cluster of anti-Western and anti-American ideas that played a large role in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The haters see 'arrogance, feebleness, greed, depravity, and decadence' as peculiarly Western or American traits, which they believe must be stamped out. Islamist anti-Western ideas, rooted in fascism, mirror those of Hirohito's Japan, and of course, Hitler's Germany. Jorge Semprun's 1997 Literature or Life also notes the similarity between the two ideologies. He doesn't develop that point, but I was reaching the same conclusion when articles by Benjamin Netanyahu, Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes, among others confirmed my thinking. In exploring Islamism's ideological predecessors, Occidentalism serves as a brilliant companion to Bernard Lewis' equally brilliant book. Readers familiar with Efraim and Inari Karsh's superb Empires of the Sand or David Fromkin's Peace to End All Peace may have an easier time absorbing myriad historical events in Lewis' thin but substantive volume. One need not know the history to understand what he says, however. Lewis explains not the Islamists' anti-Western ideas, but the background for them. I would have liked to have seen a good deal more about Islamic theology and dogma in this book. On what basis do classical Islamic jurists call for jihad and the subjugation of non-Mulsims? Still, the history is interesting. Islam's defeats at the hands of the West--in trade, technology, printing, science, philosophy, political development, modernization, diplomacy, war--stretch back 600 years. In 1502 Venice warned the Ottoman Sultans of the threat posed to the spice trade by the sea route Vasco de Gama had opened up between Europe and Asia. The Ottomans ignored the warning, just as they ignored many other problems, and the Muslim East eventually felt the results. To a Westerner this might seem odd. As Lewis has previously pointed out, Muslim peoples are both shaped by their history and keenly aware of it. The Muslim pulpit, schools, and media nourish the people's sense of history. While often slanted and inaccurate, teachings frequently reference events and personalities of the 7th century. But where in the West, historians consider the past partly to avoid repeating it, the Muslim East historically took different lessons from historical study. In Medieval times, Muslims wrote 'vast, rich and varied historical literature,' none of it on non-Muslims or even on pre-Muslim regional history. Lewis reviews both events centuries before the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the cultural incompatibility which colonial powers carried into the region. The British and French constitutional and parliamentary systems for example collapsed in places unable to understand or support them. The fascist ideological and political systems of 1930s Germany and Italy, on the other hand, gained wide support and rooted, even after those countries were defeated in World War II. Lewis covers myriad other cultural gaps as well. These include widely divergent attitudes on everything from women and science to music. Namik Kemal, a leader of the Young Ottomans, in 1867 expounded on the need to liberate and educate women and an Egyptian named Qasim Amin expanded the views in 1899. Concubinage fell by the wayside; Polygomy is now rare except in Arabia. (Slavery is still practiced in several Arab countries.) But Lewis notes that women's rights have become, for traditionalists, a noxious symbol of Westernization which must be barred from Islam, 'and where it has already entered, must be ruthlessly excised.' Profound differences also occur over separation of faith and state. In Islam, the two are inseparable. In the Christian West, they can and must be separated. Even the sense of time and space is differe

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2003

    Excellent for nonspecialists

    An evenhanded treatment of a complex problem. The author is a scholar who writes clearly and succinctly. Extensive footnotes.

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    Posted June 9, 2010

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    Posted December 23, 2008

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    Posted December 3, 2008

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