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.

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