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Bernard Lewis on what went wrong in the Middle East

What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response
Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press, 2001

The Multiple Identities of the Middle East
Bernard Lewis
Schocken Books, 2001

In Goodbye to All That (pub. 1929), Robert Graves reports witnessing an encounter between Lawrence of Arabia and an American oil financier who had come over from the United States to ask him a single question: Did Middle-Eastern conditions justify him putting any money in South Arabian oil? Lawrence, without rising, simply answered: No. That was all the man wanted to know, and he left. At that time, the US produced almost three-quarters of the world’s oil, Iran less than three percent, while its presence in the Arabian pensinsula, if suspected, was unknown.

This exchange, some time in the nineteen twenties, though not alluded to by Bernard Lewis, is a reminder that in the absence of oil the whole region, from the Mediterranean to Iran, now detached from the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, might have been expected to slumber on as it had already done for centuries. Britain was burdened with the administration of Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq and the Gulf States, but its only real interest was in safeguarding the route to India via the Suez Canal. It might feel responsible to do rather more for the region than merely keep the peace, a valuable enough favour to the inhabitants, but, in the way of active development, there would be little it could do. One of Lewis’s more surprising statements quotes 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 (p. 52).” Admittedly there is perhaps little need to export anything else, indicative of the lack of any incentive to do so which has stimulated countries without much in the way of natural resources, but this merely leads us by another route to the question posed by the author: why has the Arab world remained stagnant for something like a thousand years? To recapitulate its history: the Arabs, inspired by the new religion Islam, erupted out of the Arabian peninsula after the death of their prophet Mohammed in 632 and within a century had conquered an enormous stretch of territory from the Atlantic to the borders of India. Strictly Arab rule, centred in Baghdad, lasted for more than two centuries over the heart of this area, making Islam the dominant religion and Arabic the dominant language. This was when Islam assimilated classical culture, almost entirely medical, mathematical, astronomical, and philosophical. It would be just as interesting to check what was not assimilated – Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Arrian (and possibly still extant contemporary accounts of Alexander, such as Ptolemy’s), or any other historian, and the great dramatists. However, after three centuries had passed, Arab dominance was in decline, to be replaced by that of the Seljuk Turks. Fortunately for Islam, these and all subsequent invaders, ending with the Ottoman Turks, either were or became Muslims, with the exception of the Crusaders, who were
successfully ejected – though not by the Arabs.

Bernard Lewis is the author of more than two dozen books, less than half of which, dealing with the Muslim Near and Middle East, are listed in either of the titles here. In What Went Wrong? his remit is the problem of its inadequate response to the challenge of the modern world, i.e., all the advances in technology and the attitude of mind that goes with it, from, say 1500 AD if not before. By that time the dominant Muslim power was the Ottoman Empire, which was approaching its zenith. It was still growing, conquering Syria, Mesopotamia and Egypt in 1517, overrunning Hungary by 1541 and expanding its rule to the Persian Gulf, the Arabian and much of the North Africa coastline by 1566, when the great Sultan, Suleyman the Magificent, died. What, he and his subjects might well have asked, was there to learn from his Christian enemies, who spent more time fighting each other than resisting him – and unsuccessfully at that? In fact, they had learnt some things, particularly about firearms, while some were aware that Europeans were making advances in shipbuilding.

Any intellectual exchange was minimal and undoubtedly to the disadvantage of the Muslims. They were reluctant travellers to the West, nor were they welcome there; far more Christians (and Jews) went East, some to become Muslims. Any innovation from an infidel source met clerical resistance for religious reasons. Printing was not introduced until 1729, and was discontinued 13 years later after only 17 books had been printed; it was was only at the end of the century that it got going again. Mechanical clocks and watches were another rarity; in the mid sixteenth century the ambassador of the Emperor Charles V was so irritated by the inability of the leaders of the caravan in which he was travelling to judge the time for it to start the day’s journey, that he persuaded them to leave the matter to him, “for I had clocks which never failed me.” This situation was not much improved a century later, while even in the early nineteenth century, standard weights and measures did not seem to exist. Wheeled traffic,
present in antiquity, had died out, to be reintroduced from the West in the nineteenth century.

Lewis concentrates his historical examination on the last three centuries, when the Turks, in decline, first became aware of their lagging position and finally made attempts to catch up. Although he does not mention it, an almost exactly parallel state of affairs was taking place in Mughal India, which went into rapid decline after the death of Aurungzeb in 1706. The corresponding turning point for the Ottomans was 1699, when by the Treaty of Carlowitz they lost Hungary to Austria.

Since the Ottomans perceived the French Revolution as anti-Christian, it was at first regarded with some favour, but soon understood to be equally anti-Islamic, particularly after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. The Sultan issued a strong condemnation: “The French nation (may God devastate their dwellings and abase their banners) are rebellious infidels and dissident evil-doers,” continuing with a list of theological reasons why (p. 146). Another negative, from the Sultan’s point of view, was that the Revolutionary notions of freedom and equality awoke or provoked national feelings amongst some of the Empire’s minorities.

The situation of minorities – in this context religious minorities – provides a contrast in their treatment in the Islamic and the Christian worlds. In the enormous territories conquered in the first Arab headlong onset, imposition of Islam by the comparatively small army of invaders must have seemed impossible, and the believers in other organized religions were consigned to the position of second class citizens (dhimmi), burdened with a number of disabilities, such as paying higher taxes, described and discussed in The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, Ch. 8, “Aliens and Infidels”. This became the accepted policy wherever Islam advanced by conquest. Such toleration is often contrasted unfavourably with the religious uniformity imposed by Church and State in Christian Europe, which was largely successful until the Reformation. However, it must be remembered that religious toleration was regarded as an expedient, not a virtue, for some hundred years following this event. In view of the fact that both Islam and Christianity held that unbelievers were destined for hell, it can be argued that Christians have taken their responsibilities more seriously, responding to the Biblical injunction “Compel them to come in (Luke 14, 23)”. Also Islamic toleration does not extend to allowing a Muslim to change his faith; for that the penalty is death. Lewis points out that Christian toleration, secured the hard way by more than a century of persecutions and wars, has actually brought about the division between politics and religion, church and state, that Islam so badly needs. It probably also has encouraged a reluctance to consign people to hell purely on a basis of their beliefs.

Lewis emphasises that Islam as a religion is intertwined with society in a way quite different from how Christianity has developed. Development, in the sense of change, is for Islam an alien and inadmissable concept and a Muslim, contemplating where it has brought Christianity, attenuating its beliefs, undermining its morals and depleting its numbers, would be justified in having misgivings in giving it a try. The political solutions in vogue during the last century, communism, socialism and nationalism, all intellectual imports from outside, have worked as badly in the Islamic world as they have elsewhere. All these ideologies favoured centralised, state-run economies, resulting in dictatorships or, at best, single-party governments with little democratic input and strong tendencies to corruption. Although the successful economies of Eastern Asia plainly signpost the capitalist road, there is little indication that Islamic countries are willing to take it. Most governments fear that any advance, even via the capitalist route, towards democracy will merely result in a disillusioned electorate lapsing into xenophobic Islamic fundamentalism, as was the case with Algeria a decade or so ago. For, with the exception of Iran, Saudi Arabia and the late Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, states with Muslim majorities still have a secular political structure, which their politicians would not want otherwise.

7 comments to Bernard Lewis on what went wrong in the Middle East

  • Verity

    Malaysia is an excellent example of a forward-looking Islamic republic which is thoroughly democratic and embraces progress without sacrificing its Islamic principles. It helps, I’m sure, that 40% of the population is not Muslim, so the governing party has a large constituency of non-Muslims to consider, but nevertheless, Malaysia has calmly incorporated everyone into its national ambition to become a completely first world country by 2020. Christians and other religions are respected and enjoy equal treatment. It can drive you crazy, on Fridays, to squeeze through cars triple parked in front of mosques and down side streets and see the traffic cops turning a blind eye.

    But come Sunday, Christians offend equally with inconsiderate parking and, again, the traffic cops turn a blind eye.

    This attitude of being an Islamic republic, yet being prepared to live and let live in the interest of moving the country forward has given Malaysia a very high standard of living and very little friction between the races.

  • JM

    Really? I thought the bumiputra policy of turning ethnic Chinese and Indians into dhimmis was classically Islamist without the name applied to it. Its inception was, if I recall correctly, preceded by race riots.

    It doesn’t help that the outgoing leader, Mahathir Mohammed, a supposed moderate, offered deranged hypotheses about Jews in front of dozens of heads of states.

  • Lorenzo

    Verity, did you take that from a Malaysian government tourism brochure? Thoroughly, democratic but yet it manages to have one party continuously in power! It is true that for a one party state it is relatively well run but it is anything but democratic or tolerant. Bumiputra is a race/religion based preferential bias that aims to ensure Malay Muslims gain the lions share of business and real estate ownership, government appointment and university placements. This discrimination is actually written into the constitution. The Malaysian constitution defines a Malay as someone who “confesses the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom” everybody else is second class.

    As to Bernard Lewis he is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the middle east but does not have the time to do the research.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Nah, UMNO is okay, especially when you realize that PAS are the fundie morons, and what they say are several shades worse than Dr M. The elections are competitive, and from our viewpoint, UMNO and gang are the least worst option. Trust me when I say less than 0.1% of Asians have even heard of libertarianism.

    While the issue of Malay rights is enshrined in its constitution, it is something that has arguably caused more harm than good to the malay majority. The Malays in Malaysia have became lazy and slow, thus necessitating ever greater written advantages in education and business.

    Meanwhile, the chinese stick to their own chinese schools, which provide arguably better education, then send their children overseas for tertiary education. They go back to Malaysia better trained, smarter, and better prepared than their malay bumi counterparts.

    In the final analysis, LKY was proved right. He argued strongly for the removal of Malay Rights, and this was why my country was kicked out.

    And Verity, do you know why the traffic cops there turn a blind eye? Because they’re that lazy. 😉

  • Susan

    Verity, Malaysia is only “tolerant” in comparison to other Islamic countries. Non-Muslims face a host of legal discriminations there. Ironically it’s the non-Muslims who are most responsible for the country’s wealth — even Mahathir admitted so a while back. Yet the non-Muslims are handicapped and punished for their role in Malaysia’s success.

    Malaysia is also cracking down hard on Malays who wish to leave Islam. Those who convert out of Islam lose all their special housing, university and job privileges. Depending on their location, they also can be incarcerated in a so-called “Faith Re-education Camp” for up to three years for trying to leave Islam.

    This website Murtads from Malaysia helps Malaysian ex-Muslims immigrate to the West so that they can leave Islam freely without persecution.

  • lucklucky

    Malaysia is going in a path that is fast losing Malay traditions and incorporating many of arab islamic.

    That would make easier for racial/cultural diferences to light conflicts.

    Right now the rise in income have prevented many problems but the perspectives are not good.

  • Abdul Rahman

    History tells that Malays run and rule the country for the last 1000 years. I think it is very kind of them to give in to some foreingners considering the fact that chinese and indians were forced unto them by the British colonials. Too kind are the Muslim Malays, they let the 30% chinese owns 70% or more of country’s wealth and cant do anything much about it.