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Thursday, October 3, 2013

“What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East”, by Bernard Lewis



186 pages, Harper Perennial, ISBN-13: 978-0060516055

If you are a cultural relativist, who arrogantly places yourself “above it all” in refusing to judge the values which inform the way people behave collectively, or if you buy into the big lie that “Islam means peace” and that anyone who questions this must be a bigot, then Bernard Lewis is, of course, your nemesis. On the other hand, if you believe it’s not a coincidence that most of the terrorism and barbarity occurring in the world today is committed by radical Muslims, then you will naturally wonder why. Something indeed went wrong; something happened, in the relationship of Muslims, particularly Arab Muslims, with the rest of the world.

In What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, Bernard Lewis attempts to answer that very question. Clearly and with historical rigor, he illuminates the ebbing of Muslim conquest and the subsequent self-imposed isolation of Muslim cultural and intellectual life from the rest of the world. With their aggression turned inward and left to seethe for centuries, the inevitable result is the psychopathic, atavistic mindset, bursting forth in its ugly, murderous manifestations we see almost daily. If you actually read Lewis rather than just react to an unflattering thesis, you will find his conclusions, if you are intellectually honest, to be powerful and compelling. Lewis’ scholarly style doesn't make for a gripping narrative, but the book is short, and the effort to stay with it is rewarded by Lewis’ insights. I notice that those who attack Lewis don’t attack his scholarship, only the conclusions he reaches. Historical obtuseness and intellectual dishonesty are hallmarks of these critics, and they are part of the problem.

This book should be categorized as one of Lewis’ most insightful. When the people of the west try to understand the current situation in the Middle-East they often rely on the sound bites and blame-casters they see on the television or read from in the newspapers. But the root of this hostility goes much deeper. As Lewis explains, the Muslims of today are struggling with the reality of what went wrong with the once great civilization that was Islam of the past. Bernard Lewis points to this struggle and suggests, the problem is not necessarily coming from outside (i.e., the Jews, the West, the apostates, the infidels, the Americans, etc.), but from inside. The question, he suggests, should not be, “who has done this to us”, but rather, “where have we gone wrong?” The point being: it’s so much easier to blame someone else for our problems; it’s often very hard to suggest that the problem may be us.

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