While reading this, I found myself questioning beliefs I have held for many years. Not because this book presents novel ideas or is deeply informative about a subject I mistakenly thought I was familiar with (though it did represent what are to me novel ideas, and I am not overly familiar with this subject), but because its author’s views occupy the same space as mine, and he has fallen not only into controversy, but disfavor. Which, of course, makes me question how I see the world.
I’ve long held that conservatism has been a suppressive force on cultures at various times and in various places. The Muslim world, itself, went from being a beacon of progressivism and scholarly achievement in the Middle Ages to being deeply conservative and hostile to progress, today. China was perhaps the most advanced nation on earth a thousand years ago (and for a great deal of time on either side of that period) until rolling back it’s ingenuity towards the end of the Ming dynasty. This obsession with a real or imagined past has caused previously successful and forward-thinking civilizations to halt progress and struggle to remain competitive in a constantly changing world. That, paired with economic exploitation of imperialism and the dictatorial control of Cold War-backed regimes has stymied Muslim nations in the Middle East, to the detriment of they’re inhabitants.
So there is some overlap in my views relative to Bernard Lewis’. It’s a shame, though, that my views – as an amateur largely ignorant of the this region’s long and complex history – are more nuanced than the leading Western academic who’s a widely recognized expert on the topic.
Broadly, this book seeks to explain the author’s view on why the Middle Eastern world has taken such an antagonistic view of the West. And this couldn’t have been more timely, as it was in late draft form on September 11, 2001, and was published the following January. More narrowly, Lewis blames Islam not only for their failure to keep pace with the West, but in the antagonistic relationship in which we’ve found ourselves. Specifically, it is their reliance on Sharia law for both religious and secular needs, and their failure to innovate internally, or incorporate external technologies and progressive cultural trends.
His entire ideology seems built on an expertise of the Ottoman Empire (and Turkey) compared to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Which makes sense given that Arab archives were largely closed to Jews after the founding of Israel in 1948, but Turkey had just opened theirs to outside researchers, prompting Lewis to switch his area of study to the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman Empire collapsed after WWI thanks in large part to the successful revolution of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who would go on to found the Republic of Turkey. Atatürk founded numerous free public schools, gave women political equality, and reduced taxation on peasants. He is a great figure in Turkish history, and created a Muslim republic that, until recently, was one of the more free and open societies in the Middle East.
When you contrast the history of Turkey with that of Iran (which rejected Western influence in 1979 and has fallen behind ever since), okay. The basic premise of this book works. Secularism has been a generally good thing for the Turkish people. The Turkish economy is better than Sweden’s, and the per capita income is on par with Russia, Argentina, and Mexico.
…. and Iran is roughly equivalent to Turkey in those respects. When you add that Iran has “fallen behind” in the last 35 years largely because of it’s relationship to US foreign policy, the waters get a little more muddied.
However, I think there is some validity to his logic. But I also think he ignores a great deal of important details and broader historical trends. Namely, imperialism and Cold War politics had a significant impact on the region. The first is written of as a brief occurrence that “ended 50 years ago”, while the latter is ignored altogether. I can’t even begin to understand how someone can hope to be an expert on a region while ignoring two of the biggest sociopolitical and economic factors impacting that region.
But that’s precisely how Bernard Lewis is perceived. And no just an expert, but the expert among Western scholars. As the Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, Lewis became an even more celebrated public intellectual with the rise of neoconservativism under the Bush administration. According to Lewis’ Wikipedia page, journalist Michael Hirsch, “formed the intellectual basis of the push towards war in Iraq.” That reasoning is the bedrock upon which this book has been laid. According to Lewis, the Muslim world is in dire need of a saviour.
One can’t help but wonder, however, why he thinks this saviour must be the West. Not every Muslim nation in the world is like Iran. Indonesia and Malaysia are Muslim-majority countries that have more or less incorporated themselves into the modern world, but Bernard Lewis acts as though the only two options for the Islamic world to follow are the troubled Republic of Turkey or the backward fundamentalism of Iran. Even if you ignore the effects on the region of European imperialism or the propping up of bad regimes during the Cold War, this book’s author is overly reliant on a false dichotomy and, in my opinion, some fairly narrow thinking.
As if all this wasn’t enough to turn you against the book, Lewis ends it in the most patronizing and condescending way possible. After setting up the false choice of moving forward with the west or reverting back into some misbegotten, Sharia-based culture, Lewis asserts that “the choice is their own.” Tell that to the people of Yemen – who are being crushed between domestic radicals on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other (with each side using the conflict as a theater in the War on Terror). Tell that to the millions who’ve fled the terror of the Syrian Civil War. Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of dead in Afghanistan, victims of a corrupt and oppressive regime starting a war with the world’s greatest superpower (which itself didn’t know how to fight the war, or even if it wanted to). Tell that to the people of Egypt, who overthrow a despot only to find him replaced with a US-backed military junta. Tell that to the people in Saudi Arabia, who are oppressed by a dynasty propped up with weapons made in the USA. Tell that to the people in Iraq, who are still suffering the effects of a war that Bernard Lewis, himself, supported.
I had hoped to learn something from this book. I most assuredly did not.