Book Review: What Went Wrong?

What Went Wrong?:  Western Impact And Middle Eastern Response, by Bernard Lewis

In this short but powerful book, the author manages to explore a question that is likely on the mind of many people in the Near East, and that is, what went wrong?  To those who had been raised with the natural expectation to view their own society and civilization as the most advanced, it was a rude surprise to see the rise of the West.  The accident of timing in this novel was quite stunning as well, in that the book was in proofs on September 11, 2001 when nineteen Arab terrorists sought to strike at the heart of what they viewed as the greatest threat to their own psychological well-being and thus began the thus-far interminable war on terror.  The author is clearly a shrewd student of the Middle East, and one whose insight is worthwhile, and all the more admirable in that he delivers it (so far as I have seen at least) in fairly short and easy-to-digest books rather than weighty tomes that would strain the attention of most readers.  The result is a book that deserves to be read and taken very seriously when it comes to understanding the mindset of the people of the Middle East in the aftermath of disgrace and domination.

This short volume of about 150 pages begins with the usual preface and introduction that explain the author’s perspective and the timing of the work’s release and then the author spends the rest of his material answering the question of what went wrong for the Muslim polities of the Middle East, namely the Ottoman Empire and Persia, in the face of the rise of the West.  The author begins with the lessons of the battlefield (1) that first demonstrated rising Western strength in battles on both land and sea that first convinced the Muslims of the Near East that their age of dominance was coming to a close.  After this comes a discussion of the quest for wealth and power (2) by the autocratic rulers of these polities as a way of trying to keep up with the West without getting too mired down in culture.  After this the author discusses the social and cultural barriers that kept the Muslim realms from grasping the nature of the West’s strength (3) as well as the threat to established social hierarchies that came about as a result of the attempts at modernization that the Ottomans in particular made (4).  The author then moves on to the discussion of secularism and its effects on civil society (5), the views of time and space and modernity that came along with the west’s technology like watches and clocks (6), and the author concludes with some aspects of artistic and musical and architectural cultural change that were unequally distributed throughout the Muslim world (7), ending with a conclusion that makes sense of the picture for Western readers.

The book gives a thoughtful look at how a civilization that could be seen as advanced in its early centuries came to be viewed and to view itself as backwards and lacking in unity or economic power.  The author manages to be knowledgeable about the Middle East without having gone native as is the fashion of some writers who see the world through the blinkered perspective of the Arab street with its casual anti-American and anti-Jewish attitudes.  Indeed, although the author maintains his understanding of the superiority of democracy in terms of its strength, he notes that it is hard to create a democracy and that there are certain asymmetries in how autocrats and democratic regimes are judged for misdeeds to the disadvantage of more egalitarian regimes.  The author also notes the complexities of what the West managed to do in the Middle East and what it was setting out to do and that liberal regimes have a hard time being hard-boiled and thoroughgoing imperialists because their desire to spread education and the benefits of technology ultimately interfere with the ability to coerce subject populations.  Whether or not one agrees with him, and I find much to agree with here, the author manages to be sympathetic to the plight of the common people of the Arab world without being sympathetic to either corrupt autocratic regimes or the viewpoint of militant Islam, and that is an achievement worth celebrating.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, International Relations, Middle East and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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