An Insightful Book on the Middle East

Bernard Lewis is a well known scholar of the Middle East who has written numerous books about that region. His latest is What Went Wrong? (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002, 180 pages). While it had already been written by the time of the 9/11 attacks, it is insightful account of the mindset in the Middle East that led to the attacks.

Lewis points out that there was one time when the Moslem states of the Middle East were far more advanced than Europe. This situation started to change with the Renaissance in Europe and by the 1600's Europe was clearly ahead. The Moslems (and in particular the Ottoman Empire) continued to be militarily stronger for awhile (the last siege of Vienna took place in 1683) but by 1700 they "had suffered serious territorial losses." The thesis proposed by Lewis is that the Moslems never understood why they lost their earlier prominence and for the last three centuries have been driven by resentment of the West.

They did not understand that in order to compete with the West they had to change their institutions and they attempted only superficial changes. He writes (referring to the Moslem rulers): "They began with the visible sources of power and prosperity - military, economic, political. It was in these areas that they concentrated their main effort - with limited and sometimes indeed negative results." They missed completely the importance of social changes (particularly the status of women) and of science.

Efforts of reform from the top met severe resistance by the privileged groups of society (including the clergy). Lewis described the severe reaction caused by an edict abolishing slavery, so that eventually the Ottoman province of Hijaz (today's Saudi Arabia) had to be exempted.

The Ottoman world was slow in adopting Western technologies. For example, it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the first public clocks (in towers) made their appearance. Lewis devotes a chapter on "Time, Space, and Modernity" discussing the reluctant acceptance of timetables in that part of the World. I can attest to that from personal experience: even in 20th century Greece promptness was not considered important. Appointed times were often expressed in terms such as "early afternoon" or "late afternoon." The first Turkish printing press in the Ottoman Empire was established only in 1729 and then closed in 1742. It was several years later that printing resumed. In contrast, Jewish printing presses had been established in the early 1500s (by the refugees from Spain), an Armenian Press in 1567, and a Greek press in 1627. All these presses were allowed to operate under the condition that they did not print in Turkish or in Arabic characters (the details about the non-Turkish printers are from another of Lewis' books).

The economies of the region are now in serious trouble. There is a reference to a World Bank estimate "that the total exports of the Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, a country of five million inhabitants." Another relevant fact is that "wealthy Middle Easterners prefer to invest their capital abroad, in the developed world."

In the last chapter of this book Lewis describes the Moslem reaction to their failure to catch up; especially after the 20th century brought to them the realization that they were behind not only Europe but Japan and other Asian countries as well. Their main reaction has always been and continues to be "Who did this to us?" Early on, "the Mongols were the favorite villains" because of their 13th century invasions. Later on Arabs would blame the Turks for oppressing them and the Turks would blame "the dead weight of the Arab past." Next were the "Anglo- French rule and American influence." Lewis notes that such foreign intrusions "were a consequence, not a cause, of the inner weakness of Middle-Eastern states and societies." He points to the difference in "postimperial development of former British possessions" in the Middle East (e.g. Aden) and elsewhere (e.g. Singapore or Hong Kong).

Next to blame were the Jews. Lewis points out that Islamic anti-Semitism tended to be "contemptuous and dismissive rather than suspicious and obsessive" which made the events of 1948 more of a shock. "... it was bad enough to be defeated by the great imperial powers of the West; to suffer the same fate at the hands of a contemptible gang of Jews was an intolerable humiliation. Anti-Semitism and its demonized picture of the Jew as a scheming, evil monster provided a soothing answer."

Lewis goes on to look at some of the more plausible excuses. One is that the change in the balance of power is due not to "Middle-Easter decline but to a Western upsurge." He observes that "these comparisons do not answer the question; they merely restate it - Why did the discoverers of America sail from Spain and not a Muslim Atlantic port ... ?" He concludes with that " it is precisely the lack of freedom - freedom of the mind from constraint and indoctrination to question and inquire and speak; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive mismanagement; freedom of women from male oppression; freedom of citizens from tyranny - that underlies so many of the troubles of the Muslim world."

It is probably worth buying the book (or checking it out of your public library) to read the last paragraph. I give here only the start: "If the people 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, ..."

T. P. June 30, 2002