What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle-Eastern Response
© 2003 Bernard Lewis
180 pages (adopted from lectures)
In essence, this collection of modified lectures is a brief history of modernization in the Islamic world and its aftermath. The fist three chapters focus on the Ottoman Empire’s attempts to modernize in the light of its military defeats at the hands of presumed barbarians, but Lewis moves to the Islamic world as a whole in the latter half of the book. Initial attempts to modernize were limited to military arms and techniques, though later the Ottomans and other powers attempted to build western-style economies with little real success; exports remain limited to chiefly oil outside of Turkey, and according to Lewis, Iranian and Arab businessmen prefer to invest their money in the west or in Asia.
Beyond the historical aspect, Lewis’ work is at its most useful when explaining the disconnects between the ways the western world and Islam have approached ideas of tolerance, freedom, and human rights. It’s not as if these things don’t exist in Islam, Lewis explains, but they’re approached from different ways. Freedom means freedom from incompetent or abusive rulers; human rights is what is ‘divinely-sanctioned’. Lewis also explains that Islam historically has lacked both an organized church and thus a distinction between matters of religion and matters of state.
Despite nearly a century of attempting to catch up, Lewis believes the Islamic world continues to fall behind: now it is no longer following behind the west, but being lapped by it and post-colonial or rebuilding powers in Asia. He describes this as a lack of answering the right questions: for too long, Muslims concerned about their regress have asked ‘who did this to us’ and not ‘how can we set ourselves right’. Lewis doesn’t go into any amount of detail explaining what leads to terrorism, only why the Islamic world has so far failed to utilize and benefit from modernity in the same way as Japan and similar cultures. He is not optimistic about the future of Iran and similar nations, believing them to be locked into a negative cycle of self-pity and lashing out at threatening foreigners.
Not as thorough as I would’ve liked, but I was expecting more emphasis on modernization and its influence on terrorism. What Went Wrong is suitable for brief history of Turkish modernization and an explanation of intercultural tensions between the West and Islam.