Tuesday, February 13, 2007

What went wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response by Bernard Lewis

It’s easy to forget that the countries of Europe haven’t always been the dominant military, economic and political world powers. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was the Islamic world that defined ‘modern’ and was at the cutting edge of science and culture. Those travelling from the Maghreb, Turkey or the Levant saw little reason to travel to the backward lands of the Gauls, the Franks, or the Angle-Saxons. In ‘What went wrong?’ the eminent Professor Bernard Lewis takes the Long View. Why did the Ottoman Empire face long term relative decline vis a vis ‘the west’? Why did they fail to successfully respond to the challenge following the Western Renaissance and subsequent military and scientific progress? Why over four hundred years later do we still not see scientific discoveries emerge from the Middle East when the countries of South East Asia have come so far so fast?

Professor Lewis asks some interesting and pertinent questions, but fails to come up with any clear answers. The book is an amalgamation of three lectures and it shows. It meanders through war, music, science and art, repeatedly covering the same ground without coming up with any coherent arguments or exploring his assumptions about the benefits of modernisation. The text is as a watery soup, spiced with a lazy Orientalism, which leaves an uneasy taste in the mouth. Every page I kept expecting looking for the meat of the subject, but it was desperately lacking. There are a small number of exceptions – his discussion of the use of time and clocks and it’s take up in the Islamic world is fascinating and some of his anecdotes from Muslim diplomats residing in the west raise an interested smile.

We need incisive, self-aware scholarship in the debate about modernisation and Westernisation, preferably from Middle Eastern Scholars themselves. Bernard Lewis fails to add much beyond unhelpful generalisations and stereotypes, yet the book is still displayed prominently in major bookstores. My copy of ‘What Went Wrong?’ is waiting to go back to the charity shop from whence it came, although I hestitate, fearing that I would be subjecting someone else to the risk of picking it up to read. Cultural history and its impact on politics is a difficult, but potentially intriguing and revealing genre to investigate. Unfortunately on this evidence and despite his reputation Professor Lewis is not the man for this particular exploration.

What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response by Professor Bernard Lewis was first published in 2002.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The End of the Lion King - or Just the End of the Beginning?

At the end of the Lion King Simba majestically walks onto Pride Rock and is anointed King with the blessing of Rafika, the monkey priest. But the land that Simba inherits has been ravaged by the hyenas. It lies cold, barren and grey. Simba looks like he’s got a major rebuilding job on his newly adult, lion paws. But no – as Simba stands aloof on the rock the countryside below him changes colour and is restored in seconds to its former beauty and fecundity.

Films and novels frequently portray a struggle for power in which the good guys prevail, but at considerable cost in terms of lives, land and social cohesion. The hard difficult, divisive work of reconstructing is yet to come. Yet in most cases what is actually only the end of the chapter is treated as the end of the story. The victory of the ANC in 1994 in South Africa has given way to the reality of the HIV crisis and corruption at high levels. The orange revolution in the Ukraine; the symbolic destruction of the Berlin Wall, the list goes on. The euphoria and cry of ‘things can only get better’ in the early hours of May 2nd 1997 wear off to leave… well you get the picture.

Are there any films or novels that deal with both the titanic struggle and the difficult rebuilding or, in terms of successful narrative are they different, mutually exclusive stories? The Lord of the Rings comes close, especially in the book. Remnants of the enemy rampage through The Shire and as Sam becomes mayor back at home and the hobbits have to clear up the mess. More poignantly Frodo has to deal with the shadows and nightmares that remain in his mind and to face up to his own frailties as ultimately he allowed the ring to control him. This kind of post-adventure trauma is rarely glimpsed in fiction, but it’s significant that it appears in one of the longest popular movies/novels of the twentieth century. Maybe there’s just not normally the time for such coverage. Maybe, it’s just not as interesting to deal with such material. As long as we remember that in reality it’s not as easy as Simba found it in the Lion King.