What Went Wrong?
by Bernard Lewis
When it comes to Islamic studies, Bernard Lewis is the father of us all. With brilliance, integrity, and extraordinary mastery of languages and sources, he has led the way for Jewish and Christian investigators seeking to understand the Muslim world. He has, it is true, been brutally attacked — most notably by the charlatan Edward Said. Said's Orientalism, a ridiculous imposture from its first page to its last, is now a standard text in Anglo-American universities, but reads like the product of a rather dense college student who has just discovered Marxism; there can be no more telling condemnation of the present state of the American academy than the ascendancy of Said.
Lewis's What Went Wrong? is receiving a great deal of attention in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, which were a dramatic expression of the "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West. This conflict is seen by many as a product of the gap between Western prosperity and stability and Islamic backwardness. Lewis's book, however, does not concentrate on analyzing why Islamic civilization ended up in a series of 20th-century disasters. Rather, it reviews how Islamic commentators observed and attempted to explain the decline of their global culture as it occurred, and, particularly, whom they chose to blame.
With his outstanding knowledge of the Ottomans — the caliphate that theologically guided the world's Sunni Muslims for half a millennium — Lewis works through the decline of that empire. He shows how the sultans attempted to contend with the progress of the Christian West as the latter went from strength to strength, drawing on the invigorating changes that swept aside the European past: advances in technology, the transformation of public institutions, the rise of individual freedom and responsibility, and the arrival of the slippery concept of modernity. The decay of the caliphate spurred unfortunate flights into narcissism instead of fruitful dialogues with the West. (Although Lewis neglects to address it, I believe the worst such refuge was the "Islamic Reformation" represented by Wahhabism. This puritan, separatist, supremacist, and terrorist cult emerged from the wastelands of central Arabia in the 18th century, and formed the basis of the modern Saudi regime, in all its considerable evil.)
As Lewis shows, many Muslims have chosen to ascribe the historical fate of the Islamic global community to the malign action of foreign powers, above all to European imperialism and, later, Zionism and the U.S. These arguments draw analogies from the Mongol destruction, a millennium ago, of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad.
With the influence of European-style nationalism in the Middle East, Turks, Arabs, and Persians could also start condemning each other: The Turks were assailed for their own imperialism and the Arabs for the "dead weight of their past" (in Lewis's phrase), while the Persians complained about their marginalization by Mongols, Turks, Arabs, and, later, the Western powers.
But Lewis rejects a claim that has become, in the wake of September 11, extremely widespread among Westerners: that Islam itself is the problem. He writes: "If Islam is an obstacle to freedom, to science, to economic development, how is it that Muslim society in the past was a pioneer in all three?" Joined with the theological reproach to the Islamic world is the charge that Islamic civilization has failed because it has rejected secularism; Lewis seems to echo this latter charge when he points to the modern Turkish republic as a model for Muslim renewal. But he misses a cue when he discusses the argument that "the cause of the changed relationship between East and West is not a Middle-Eastern decline but a Western upsurge — the discoveries, the scientific movement, the technological, industrial, and political revolutions that transformed the West and vastly increased its wealth and power." He asks, but does not answer, the following question: "Why did the discoverers of America sail from Spain and not a Muslim Atlantic port, where such voyages were indeed attempted in earlier times?"
To me, at least, the reply seems obvious: With the Turkish seizure of Constantinople in 1453, the Atlantic Christian powers had a considerable incentive to find a direct sea route to the Indies. For the Muslims, who then exercised decisive control over the land routes as well as maritime commerce between North Africa, Arabia, and the Indies, no such stimulus existed.
A fruitful avenue of inquiry, in my view, would compare the history of the Ottoman Empire to that of Spain and its New World possessions. Like Spain, the Ottomans had neither a Reformation, nor an Enlightenment, nor a successful bourgeois revolution; neither Spain nor the Ottomans embraced secularism until extremely late. Both empires ended up choking to death on their excessive riches; having reached a pinnacle of wealth and influence in the 16th century, they both remained there, psychologically as well as socially, and experienced a serious decline in the 18th and 19th centuries.
This brings up the issue of "an Islamic Reformation"; many today are calling for the rise of an Islamic Luther. But I would contend there is another, more realistic option: an Islamic reform similar to the one the Catholic Church has undergone over the past hundred years. What the Muslim world needs today, I would submit, is neither a Luther nor a Voltaire, but scholars who will assume the same role for Muslims that three popes fulfilled for the Catholic Church. I refer to Leo XIII, who created much of the modern Catholic social doctrine; John XXIII, who oversaw the Vatican II reform council; and John Paul II, who seeks reconciliation between the Abrahamic faiths.
Rather than resort to Protestantism, these three reforming popes reinforced their Church through a renovation of their own tradition. Nobody can doubt that all three of these popes were fervent in their devotion to their religion; this kind of reform from within is more likely to prosper in the Islamic community. What is needed is the promotion and recognition within Islam of figures who would parallel, for example, the outstanding philologist and critic Américo Castro (1885-1972). Castro, who taught at Princeton, transformed the historiography of Hispanic civilization by showing its debts to Muslim and Jewish thought, and the disaster that had overcome it when, too wealthy and rigid, it sought to root out these influences. Castro helped cure the Spanish of their neuroses about their former Islamic rulers and Jewish neighbors; the parallel with Islamic separatism and its terrible consequences is, in my view, exact.
As Lewis argues, Islam needs intellectuals who will overcome Muslim neuroses about their former Christian colonial masters and Jewish neighbors. The way I would put it is: The Muslims need a Bernard Lewis or two of their own. It is doubtful they would join him in acclaiming the legacy of Turkish secularism, which remains in great part inseparable from militarist and dictatorial tendencies. But a reexamination of the pluralist Muslim traditions of the past, represented above all by Ottoman Islam — a field in which Lewis has illuminated countless Western readers — could lead to a Catholic-style reform of Islam.
First things first, however: The Wahhabi dictatorship over Mecca and Medina — and the Saudi kleptocracy that maintains it — must be overthrown. The Turkish journalist Semih Idiz recently wrote about one prospect the Wahhabi-Saudi regime finds especially frightening: "Some Turkish Islamists have now started saying Mecca should not be under any country's sovereignty, but should instead be an open city like the Vatican. Open to all believers, that is, regardless of nationality or race. Such an idea could garner quite a lot of attention in the Islamic world. The Saudis are now worried that the Turks, with some other countries, possibly Iran, will push for an international Islamic administration for Mecca." The Saudis are standing athwart Islamic progress, in more ways than one. Henry VIII changed European and world history when he denied the pope the right to decide whom he should marry; by contrast, new Muslim leaders may change their own — and humanity's — future once they tell the pirate kings of Saudi Arabia to remove their deceitful hands from the original Islamic holy places. To borrow the final words of Lewis's latest excellent book, the choice is their own.