West Is Best, East Is Least

By Paul Sullivan

What Went Wrong?

By Bernard Lewis

Oxford University Press, 2001

This book would be good background for someone who is trying to learn about the history of the Middle East from the 1500s to about 1920. This book could also be a good starting point for those who wish to try to understand why the Middle East has “lost” the race for prosperity and power to the West – with the “losses” starting at around the 16th and 17th centuries. It seems to be written for the general reader in an easy, lucid, and readable fashion. Professor Bernard Lewis is a superb and prolific writer who has shown his mastery of certain parts of the history of the Middle East with his many contributions to the literature. He is also a master of some of the languages of the Middle East, and exhibits this in certain spots in this book where he describes the history of the development of terms in Arabic and Turkish. 

As a scholarly argument to explain what went wrong, this book has its problems. Lewis often starts his arguments for “What Went Wrong?” in the distant past, and then attempts to tie in anecdotes and ideas from the present and recent past. These tie-ins are often not entirely convincing. He tries to make sweeping generalizations across vast time periods, apparently without considering how the world changes over time. There are too many structural and paradigm shifts to set an argument across such vast time and space horizons.

Another problem with Lewis’ generalizing is that he most often lumps the Middle East and Islam into undifferentiated clumps. He makes broad statements about the Middle East and about Islam. He does not take into consideration the wide variety of people who live in the Middle East, and the variety of private and public interpretations of Islam that exist. He also seems to be mixing up Islam with the behaviors of some of the people in the Middle East. One could be easily reminded of Mohammed Abdu’s statement that in Paris he saw Islam without Muslims, and on his return to Egypt he saw Muslims without Islam.

He also stresses the negatives far too much. He presses the issue of slavery in the Middle East without putting this into perspective with a discussion of the brutalities of Western slavery. He looks at the decline of the Middle East relative to a quickly growing West, rather than relating the Middle East’s decline to what was happening in other areas of the world, such as China.

Lewis sees the main reason for the “failure” of the Middle East to be the challenge from the West. This locks him into a paradigm of argument from which he does not extract himself. He also has a triumphalist approach: he gives the reader the unmistakable sense that he thinks that if one does not have Western values, behave in a Western way, listen to Western music, and read Western science, etc. then one is destined to “lose” in today’s world. This cultural bias taints his argument throughout the book, however valid some of his points may be.

So what are his points? He presents various turning points in the history of the Middle East as particularly important: the Battle of Lepanto of 1571 as a boost to Western morale; the Treaty of Sitvatorok (1606); Vasco Da Gama rounding the Cape and cutting off the Middle Eastern middle men; and Russian expansion into north Asia in the 19th century. The siege of Vienna of 1683 takes on specific importance to him, as does the loss of Buda in 1686 and Peter the Great’s capture of Azov. Then we move on to the Treaty of Carlowitz of 1699, the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca of 1774 and the loss of the Crimea. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and his subsequent expulsion by Nelson take on epic proportions, as they do in most books on the modern Middle East. Lewis then connects his argument with the Treaty of Gulistan of 1813, the Greek insurrection of 1821, and the Treaty of Turkemenchai of 1828. All of these are treated as specific important turning points. However, it is often hard, if not impossible, to discern in the book which of these turning points is more important than another beyond his heavy focus on the siege of Vienna. This could also be said for the turning points he describes in the way the Ottoman Empire looked at diplomacy, the translation of Western books, sending Muslims to the West, and learning from the West.

He mentions the introduction of the telegraph, but never specifies the exact importance of this innovation and its diffusion within the region. One is also left at a bit of a loss as to how to weight the importance of the internal legal and political changes in the Ottoman Empire and Persia, particularly those in the 19th century. Not only is he unclear about the relative importance of each turning point, he also intersperses anecdotes and ideas from the recent past with his presentation of his chosen turning points in the distant past.

We see a similar listing – again without weighting – of his chosen factors explaining the decline of the Middle East. Professor Lewis’ list includes: the arrogance of rule of Persia and the Ottoman Empire until it was too late, its post-1600 territorial losses, and its relative slowness in technology change. He also claims that there was a certain lack of curiosity on the part of Middle Easterners about what was happening in the West. He states, correctly, that the mostly cosmetic changes made by the Ottoman and Persian rulers were too little, and too late. He also chooses some more subjective factors: the Muslim reluctance to go to Europe (that is, until they were well behind the West); the “Middle Eastern” idea that knowledge is something to be acquired and stored; their reluctance to learn Western languages and ways; and the disdain that the Muslims were alleged to have had about anyone or anything Western. He also seems to claim that the snobbery Muslims had toward certain occupations added to the speed of relative decline. 

He contrasts the Middle East and the West in other ways, comparing the nagging, chronic autocracy and dictatorship of the Middle East to democracy in the West; pointing out the Middle Eastern integration of church and state; alluding to the lack of constitutional government and the few failed attempts at democracy; criticizing the unequal treatment of women, slaves, and non-Muslims; and alleging that Middle Easterners measured things in a poor and inaccurate way. He further considers the tensions between science and fanatics; the allegation that independent inquiry was pretty much dead in the region; and the suspicion that religious authorities would try to stop inventions and innovations at many levels and in many fields. The resistance to, of all things, Western music, takes on a seemingly unwarranted significance in his argument. Lewis continues his complaints: the lack of civil society; the lack of tolerance on the part of some in the region; the lack of clocks and a poor sense of time; the resulting tardiness and lack of a sense of the importance of being on time; and on and on. As with his turning points, he fails to measure the relative importance of each factor. He also fails to look into the possible interconnectedness or recursiveness amongst these factors. This book becomes mostly a listing of factors and turning points with some anecdotes attached as proof.

He neglects the issues of the burdensome taxes that the Ottoman Empire and Persia imposed on their people. He also overlooks the issue of the use of the surplus from agriculture: in the West it went mainly toward invention and investment, while in the Middle East it often went to war and luxuries. He also does not consider how that greater and growing agricultural surplus was produced in the West through technical and administrative inventions and innovation.  He could have gone more into why the Middle East was becoming relatively poorer by looking into the complexities of the long, slow buildup of infrastructure, investment, capital, banking, legal, and governmental institutions, and more that would have been required to “compete” with the West.

He relegates the very important factor of the discovery and exploitation of the New World by the West to just a few paragraphs. The importance of British commercial control of India does not even warrant a mention. The American Civil War and its effect on the agriculture of the Middle East are not even mentioned. The discoveries of gold and silver in the West in the 18th and 19th centuries and their effects on the Middle East get just a few words. He barely touches upon the importance of transportation inventions and innovations in time periods often called the “transportation revolution.” The West produced the changes, while the Middle East and others followed them in a less than effective manner. There is no discussion, except via anecdotes, of the importance of engineers and engineering education in the process of relative development.

Lewis does not sufficiently include a convincing, cogent, and complete argument for why the West was so much more economically competitive than the Middle East. He does not discuss the increasing and crushing debt of the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. The debts of the Ottoman Empire, due to loans from European banks mostly, led the empire into bankruptcy – and a takeover by foreign powers of the empire’s fiscal and monetary policies. In Egypt’s case, bankruptcy under Khedive Ismael led to the eventual take over of the country by the British.   

His arguments regarding the unequal treatment of women are valid. But during the 16th through 19th centuries especially, and even now, women were not treated as equals in the West either. He never fully connects the treatment of women with economic and political development, though the connection is pretty clear. Nor does he fully analyze the importance of education in development. He just gives us more anecdotal evidence. He argues that the separation of church and state is a sine qua non for proper development. What could have been a fascinating cross-cultural analysis comes across as a slightly disparaging argument directed at the importance of religion in the lives of people in the Middle East.

This book is Eurocentric. It also presents the Middle East over many centuries through the eyes of only its elite urban inhabitants. Through the time periods he focuses upon, most of the people in the region lived in the rural areas. On these levels as well, this book fails to present the important demographic, social, economic, and political stratifications of the region.

Bottom line: Lewis really does not explain the economic – or any other – reasons behind what went wrong. He does not answer his own question, “What went wrong?”  but just presents a series of turning points and a series of factors, without much substance to back them up. In the conclusion of the book, instead of wrapping up his argument and weighting his factors and turning points, he gets into an attempt at an explanation of who, according to Middle Easterners, is to blame. It would have been best to more tightly argue his case for “What Went Wrong?”

Moreover, this book is not a good source to understand the question: “Why are they angry at us?” Most of the reasons behind this are based in present-day events and policies that have little to do with the distant past upon which Lewis’ book primarily focuses. He makes no mention of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a source of anger. It is the major source of anger. He makes no mention of the sanctions on Iraq. Little is said about the perceptions of some of the people of the Middle East – that their leaders are corrupt and vicious – and the fact that the United States supports those leaders. His main argument is that the Middle East (read Islam) lost the race for prosperity and power, and that is why they are angry. This is only a very small part of the reason.

The “seething anger” he refers to in his introduction has many reasons, almost none of which he confronts in this book. Many, if not most, Middle Easterners are too busy trying to feed their families and survive to be angry with the West, but this book might give one the impression that all of the people in the Middle East spend most of their time being angry toward the West. This is far from reality. If one wants to know why some of the Arabs are angry, this book is not helpful, unless you want to convince yourself that it is all about envy at the West’s “success.” Ask the Arabs. Go to the primary source, like any good scholar would.

This book review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 8, no. 39 (Spring 2002) 
Copyright (c) 2002 by Al Jadid


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