Book Review: Why This Decline – May 10, 2002

WHAT went wrong in the decline of the Islamic world from its pre-eminent position in the Middle Ages to its current status of virtual political and economic servitude to the West, is the theme of the book under review. Lewis’ insights can be read with profit by the specialist as well as the general reader. For example, he notes that the European renaissance, the reformation and the industrial revolution virtually passed unnoticed in the Islamic domains. The conception of the Europeans as an inferior and barbarian race continued to persist among the Ottomans as a “dangerously out of date” notion.


Even the increasing competence displayed by the West from the sixteenth century onward in weaponry and warfare failed to impress the Muslims, as long as Muslim armies continued to be victorious in the heartland. By the seventeenth century, the Portuguese, Dutch and other Europeans were establishing colonies in Asia; the Russians were expanding southward. The Ottomans refrained from confronting them, concentrating instead on Europe which they perceived as the principal battleground.


Western successes on the battlefield and the high seas were accompanied by “more dangerous victories” in the marketplace. The discovery and exploitation of the New World by Christian Europe coupled by its growing presence in South and Southeast Asia gave an edge to the Christians in their struggle against the Ottomans. The two unsuccessful attempts in 1529 and 1683 by the Ottomans to conquer Vienna constituted a grave setback with political and military repercussions.


Lewis points to the Treaty of Carlowitz (1689) between the Ottomans and the “Holy League” consisting of Austria, Venice, Poland, Tuscany and Malta as the first peace document signed by a defeated Ottoman Empire with its victorious Christian adversaries.


A major event catalogued by Lewis was the growing asymmetry in military power between the two foes as a result of “European invention and experiment”. The Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca (1774) between the Russians and Ottomans and the annexation of the Crimea by the former dealt another severe territorial blow to the Ottomans. Realizing that their power and prestige was slipping the Ottomans asked themselves, “what did we do wrong?”


In a sense according to Lewis the Muslim world considering the parlous political and economic situation it finds itself in today, is still asking itself that question. By the end of the eighteenth century, Turks, Iranians and other Middle Easterners had very little opportunity to observe the West as compared to the Westerners who had penetrated the Muslim territories through consulates and embassies and through their merchants. There was no knowledge of Western languages. Lewis avers that Ottoman attempts in the nineteenth century to modernize and reform its institutions to better cope with the European onslaught did not, paradoxically, increase freedom but reinforced autocracy.


Lewis singles out the status of women as the most profound single difference between the Christian and Islamic civilizations. According to him under Islamic law and tradition, three groups of people did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious equality — unbelievers, slaves and women. The struggle for the emancipation of women continues in the Islamic world. While some progress has been registered in the socially and economically more advanced parts of the region, this subject has become a major target of different schools of militant Islamic revival.


The emancipation of women is the “touchstone of difference” between modernization and Westernization. Even extreme anti-West fundamentalists have no difficulty in embracing modernization, specially the technologies of warfare and propaganda. But according to their lights, the emancipation of women is Westernization.


Lewis comments that the Islamic Middle East was reluctant to accept European science. This is remarkable if one considers the immense contribution of Islam in the Middle Ages to the rise of modern science. From the end of the Middle Ages there was a dramatic scientific advance in Europe. In the Muslim world independent enquiry virtually came to an end and science was “reduced to the veneration of a corpus of approved knowledge”.


In his chapter on secularism and society, Lewis highlights the opposite approaches to secularism in Islam: God and Caesar do not exist in Islam. The endemic doctrinal conflicts in early Christianity persuaded a growing number of Christians to separate the functions and powers of Church and State. Christians were compelled to secularize. Muslims did not face such intense religious divides. Muslim thinkers in recent times have regarded secularism — the Turkish “ladini” (we have the same word in Urdu) — as a threat to the highest values of religion and responded with a decisive rejection.


Muslim radicals define their primary enemies as the native secularizers with Kemal Attaturk heading a list which includes King Faruq, Nasser, Sadat, Hafez Al Assad, Saddam Hussein, Shah of Iran and the “kings and princes of Arabia”. Elaborating, Lewis refers to the definition of the enemy in radical and militant Muslim literature as sometimes the Jew and Zionist, sometimes the Christian and missionary, sometimes the Western imperialist, sometimes less frequently the Russian or other communist.


But primary enemies are those among them who have tried to weaken and modify the Islamic basis of the state by introducing secular schools and universities, secular laws and courts and thus excluding Islam and its professional exponents from the two major areas of education and justice.


The twentieth century has seen the Islamic world degenerate into a poor, weak and ignorant entity. It is easy according to Lewis, to blame others for one’s misfortunes, the Mongols, the British and French colonialists, Jews and Zionists and others. Lewis thinks that the success or failure of secularists and feminists will be a major factor in shaping the Middle East’s future.


The Muslim world has the option of adopting two paths: if the present pathway is adopted the suicide bomber may become a “metaphor for the whole region”, leading to a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage, self-pity, poverty and oppression culminating in yet another alien domination. Or if they abandon their grievances and victimhood and join their energies and talents they can make the Middle East a major centre of civilization. The choice is theirs.


Bernard Lewis is a formidable scholar whose erudition and insights are displayed in abundance in the book. It is surprising that he has not discussed at some length the creation of Israel as a source of conflict and destabilization in the Middle East. Lewis’ prodigious intellectual output on the Middle East commands attention and respect in the West and elsewhere. One may disagree at times with his blunt assessments or may not like them, but one cannot dismiss his learning and grasp of the subject.


“What went wrong” is likely to have an influential audience in the West and Islamic World, particularly in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.




What went wrong: Western impact and Middle Eastern response


By Bernard Lewis


Oxford University Press


ISBN 0-19-514420-1



— From: Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan

— Published: March 10, 2002


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