Saturday, January 7, 2017

What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis

The subtitle here is “The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East,” and that’s a far more descriptive title for this book than “What Went Wrong?”, which seems to imply that the author has posed a question he intends to answer.

Which he doesn’t.

Or, to be more precise, at first appears to, but then comes on stage to undercut the argument he has been making and to state unequivocally that the answer he appears to have given is not the answer, and the proceeds to leave the question unanswered at the end.

A frustrating read, easily avoided if they had simply chosen a better title.

The question, maybe not obviously phrased as “What Went Wrong?”, may be better stated as “Why is the Islamic World, once the dominant scientific and cultural force on the planet, now so backward and repressive when compared to the West?” And the answer Lewis appears to offer throughout the analysis and discussion of his first 150 pages seems both tragic and simple.

It’s Islam. The reason the Islamic World is no longer the dominant scientific and cultural force on the planet is because it is Islamic. Islam couldn't keep pace with other frames of thought and culture.

To be honest, it is an answer I didn't expect and wasn't much prepared to believe. Surely, I thought, the question has a more complex answer than that. And Lewis himself seems just as uncomfortable with that answer, stepping up here in his conclusion to refute the conclusion his own preceding text had convinced me of.

For most of the Middle Ages, it was neither the older cultures of the Orient nor the newer cultures of the West that were the major centers of civilization and progress, but the world of Islam in the middle. It was there that old sciences were recovered and developed and new sciences created; there that new industries were born and manufactures and commerce expanded to a level previously without precedent. It was there, too, that governments and societies achieved a degree of freedom of thought and expression that led persecuted Jews and even dissident Christians to flee for refuge from Christendom to Islam. The medieval Islamic world offered only limited freedom in comparison with modern ideals and even with modern practice in the more advanced democracies, but it offered vastly more freedom than any of its predecessors, its contemporaries and most of its successors.

The point has often been made--if Islam is an obstacle to freedom, to science, to economic development, how is it that Muslim society in the past was a pioneer of all three, and this when Muslims were much closer in time to the sources and inspiration of their faith than they are now? Some have indeed posed the question in a different form--not “What has Islam done to the Muslims?” but “What have the Muslims done to Islam?”, and have answered by laying blame on specific teachers and doctrines and groups.

For those nowadays known as Islamists or fundamentalists, the failures and shortcomings of the modern Islamic lands afflicted them because they adopted alien notions and practices. They fell away from authentic Islam, and thus lost their former greatness. Those known as modernists or reformers take the opposite view, and see the cause of this loss not in the abandonment but in the retention of the old ways, and especially in the inflexibility and ubiquity of the Islamic clergy. These, they say, are responsible for the persistence of beliefs and practices that might have been creative and progressive a thousand years ago, but are neither today. Their usual tactic is not to denounce religion as such, still less Islam in particular, but to level their criticism against fanaticism. It is to fanaticism, and more particularly to fanatical religious authorities, that they attribute the stifling of the once great Islamic scientific movement, and, more generally, of freedom of thought and expression.

Lewis then goes on to present several more diagnostic views on the subject, eventually throwing so many cooks in the kitchen that his “conclusion” lacks any concluding thought or thesis at all. What Went Wrong? Who can say? Lewis seems to say. Lots of people certainly have lots of different ideas.

But go back and read these last excerpted paragraphs again. I think the answer we seek is in there, whether or not Lewis wants to claim it as his own. Medieval Islam offered limited freedom in comparison to modern democracies, but more freedom when compared to its contemporaries in the Orient and in the West. Might not that mean that societies based on Islam were able to reach a higher peak of freedom than those based on Christianity, but ultimately a lower one than those based on individual liberty and democracy?

For the sake of the thought experiment, assign each kind of society a “freedom score” between 1 and 10, with 10 being the mark for absolute individual liberty and 1 being the mark for absolute state (and/or religious) control. As societies grow and mature, they have the ability to “improve” their score, but each has an inherent limit, associated with its intrinsic values and ideals. Medieval Christianity, for example, might achieve a maximum score of 3, while Medieval Islam might achieve as high as a 5, consistently able to stay ahead of any Christian-based society in the freedom department.

But change those Christian-based societies in the direction of liberal democracies--as began to happen after the Renaissance--and they now have a maximum freedom score of 7, and the ability to start climbing the ladder towards that position. Islamic societies, given their values and ideals, can still never go above a 5, so those previously Christian societies (now, importantly, no longer such) can begin to outpace them and take their place as the world’s leaders in freedom, science, and economic development.

This makes some level of sense to me, although I’m sure it has a number of flaws any reasonably-educated sociologist or historian would detect. (It still, admittedly, doesn’t answer the question why Christian societies were able to turn towards classical liberalism and Islamic societies weren’t.) But throughout much of the Golden Age of Islamic society that Lewis documents in this book, we see a subservience to a strict interpretation of Islam and a hostility to thoughts and actions that fall outside that single spectrum that would seem to support my hypothesis.

These societies, it seemed, kept to themselves as much as possible, believing that they had little to learn from “Christian” lands.

To preach a return to authentic, pristine Islam was one thing; to seek the answer in Christian ways or ideas was another--and, according to the notions of the time, self-evidently absurd. Muslims were accustomed to regard Christianity as an earlier, corrupted version of the true faith of which Islam was the final perfection. One does not go forward by going backward. There must therefore be some circumstance other than religion or culture, which is part of religion, to account for the otherwise unaccountable superiority achieved by the Western world. A Westerner at the time--and many Muslims at the present day--might suggest science and the philosophy that sustains it. This view would not have occurred to those from whom philosophy was the handmaiden of theology and science merely a collection of pieces of knowledge and of devices.

It’s a neat little trap, isn’t it? Your culture teaches you that there is no separation between religion, philosophy, and science--one flowing inexorably from the one before, and if one reveals anything contrary to its preceding precepts, it must be in error. The earth can’t go around the sun because God made the sun stand still in the heavens. And yet, while your culture operates on this premise, it is surrounded by cultures that are slowly reversing that ideological order. Science first, then philosophy, and then religion. With your vision clouded by religious revelation, those other cultures begin to surpass you in scientific and sociological achievements. And when they confront you in a way you can’t avoid--on the battlefield, let’s say--you can’t explain their success in any other way than by calling them infidels and barbarians. Indeed, perhaps the Devil helped them defeat you? How does a culture so oriented get out of that trap? The solution isn’t in their holy books.

And indeed, Lewis documents that as these “surrounding” cultures became increasingly less Christian and increasingly more enlightened, benefiting and advancing in the areas of knowledge and science, their expertise did translate to the art of war. And the Islamic societies truly began to confront their own inferiority when they found themselves losing consistently and decisively to these “Christian” neighbors on the battlefield. Some even tried to do something about it. But there was a problem.

Clearly new measures were needed to meet these new threats, and some of them violated accepted Islamic norms. The leaders of the ulema, the doctors of the Holy Law, were therefore asked, and agreed, to authorize two basic changes. The first was to accept infidel teaching and give them Muslim pupils, an innovation of staggering magnitude in a civilization that for more than a millennium had been accustomed to despise the outer infidels and barbarians as having nothing of any value to contribute, except perhaps themselves as raw material for incorporation in the domains of Islam and conversion to the faith of Islam.

The second change was to accept infidel allies in their wars against other infidels.

But even in these dealings, the Muslims would not treat their “infidel” allies as equals, expecting them, as one letter Lewis cites from the Sultan of Turkey to Queen Elizabeth of England describes, to be…

...“loyal and firm-footed in the path of vassalage and obedience … and to manifest loyalty and subservience” to the Ottoman throne.

This clearly would not work and did not work. And just as quickly, it seems, these Islamic societies abandoned the experiment with these new ideas. They were too dangerous and threatening to the basic principles of their faith. By the time Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, bringing the Western attitudes and ideas of the French Revolution to cloistered Muslims, outright rejection seemed the only appropriate course of action.

A proclamation was therefore prepared and distributed both in Turkish and in Arabic throughout the Ottoman lands, refuting the doctrines of revolutionary France. It begins: “...In the name of God, the merciful and the compassionate. O you who believe in the oneness of God, community of Muslims, know that the French nation (may God devastate their dwellings and abase their banners) are rebellious infidels and dissident evildoers. They do not believe in the oneness of the Lord of Heaven and Earth, nor in the mission of the intercessor on the Day of Judgement, but have abandoned all religions and denied the afterworld and its penalties. They do not believe in the Day of Resurrection and pretend that only the passage of time destroys us and that beyond this there is no resurrection and no reckoning, no examination and no retribution, no question and no answer.”

Not exactly a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, is it? The founding values of this French society--still not perfect in the eyes any modern liberal democracy--are not, to the suzerain of Egypt that issued this proclamation, an alternate construction for society. They are rebelliously infidel and a dissident evil.

But by this time, it was too late to even try to catch up.

Later attempts to catch up with the Industrial Revolution fared little better. Unlike the rising powers of Asia, most of which started from a lower economic base than the Middle East, the countries in the region still lag behind in investment, job creation, productivity, and therefore in exports and incomes. According to a World Bank estimate, the total exports of the Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, a country of five million inhabitants. Nor is much coming into the region by way of capital investment. On the contrary, wealthy Middle Easterners prefer to invest their capital abroad, in the developed world.

Despite myself, as I continued to read this particular excerpt, I found myself surprised by Lewis’s apparent contention that certain elements of progressive, pluralistic societies were now simply beyond the vision of many Islamic societies.

The other immediately visible difference between Islam and the West was in politics and more particularly in administration. Already in the eighteenth century ambassadors to Berlin and Vienna, later to Paris and London, describe--with wonderment and sometimes with admiration--the functioning of an efficient bureaucratic administration in which appointment and promotion are by merit and qualification rather than by patronage and favor, and recommend the adoption of something similar.

The impact of Western example and Western ideas also brought new definitions of identity and consequently new allegiances and aspirations. Two ideas were especially important, both new in a culture where identity was basically religious and allegiance normally dynastic. The first was that of patriotism, coming from Western Europe, particularly from France and England, and favored by the younger Ottoman elites, who saw in an Ottoman patriotism a way of binding together the heterogeneous populations of the empire in a common love of country expressed in a common allegiance to its ruler. The second, from Central and Eastern Europe, was nationalism, a more ethnic and linguistic definition of identity, the effect of which in the Ottoman political community was not to unify but to divide and disrupt.

Efficient bureaucracies based on merit, patriotism, nationalism--these are all concepts evidently foreign to the Islamic world, not because its people are incapable of understanding them and seeing their benefits (the Islamic ambassadors and Ottoman elites evidently did), but as a result, it seems, of that world’s alignment and fealty to the principles of Islam.

Lewis relays anecdote after anecdote, throughout a long history of Muslim domination, of Islamic scholars and ambassadors correctly diagnosing the things that helped the rest of the world rise so far above the achievements of their home countries.

An important figure in the introduction and dissemination of these ideas was Sadik rifat Pasha (1807-1856), who drafted a memorandum on reform while he was Ottoman ambassador in Vienna in 1837 and in close touch with Prince Metternich. Like most other Middle Eastern visitors, Sadik Rifat Pasha was greatly impressed by European progress and prosperity and saw in the adoption and adaptation of these the best means of regenerating his own country. European wealth, industry, and science, he explains, are the result of certain political conditions, ensuring stability and tranquility. These in turn depend on “the attainment of complete security for the life, property, honor and reputation of each nation and people, that is to say, on the proper application of the necessary rights of freedom.

And later, as European colonization began to take over, these lessons began to be understood by more than just the intellectuals and elite travelers.

The West European empires, by the very nature of the culture, the institutions, even the languages that they brought with them and imposed on their colonial subjects, demonstrated the ultimate incompatibility of democracy and empire, and sealed the doom of the own domination. They taught their subjects English, French, and Dutch because they needed clerks in their offices and counting houses. But once these subjects had mastered a Western European language, as did increasing numbers of Muslims in Western-dominated Asia and Africa, they found a new world open to them, full of new and dangerous ideas such as political freedom and national sovereignty and responsible government by the consent of the governed.

After all this analysis, Lewis may not want to draw the conclusion that Islam is to blame, but I would forgive any of his readers who might feel justified in jumping to it. What other force was there at work in these countries that consistently saw things like political freedom, national sovereignty and responsible government by the consent of the governed as dangerous ideas? From where I sit, the leap to the “Islam to blame” conclusion is one across a very narrow chasm.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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