Selected journal, newspaper and magazine publications
by Nicholas Nicastro

"Secularism, Science, and the Islamic Citadel"— a review of Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong for The Bookpress, March 2002
—by Nicholas Nicastro

What Went Wrong?
By Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press, 2002
$23.00, 180 pages, cloth

Modernity, it seems, has been unkind to the self-perception of Moslems. To be sure, it is been very kind to their religion: by the only measure that really counts, the multitudes of Islam’s adherents have been growing all over the world, including in the United States. But if the mullahs, the autocrats, the diplomats, think-tankers and academics in and out of the region agree on anything, it is that the Islamic world is now poised at a collective crossroads. The events of September 11 have served as both consequences and complications of the crisis. Beyond this, however, agreement breaks down. If Islam faces a crossroads, what options does it confront? When must a choice be made? And perhaps as importantly, what road has it traveled to reach this point?

Bernard Lewis believes he knows. In What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response the Princeton professor, whom The New York Times has called “the doyen” of Middle Eastern history, writes:

In the course of the twentieth century it became abundantly clear in the Middle East and indeed all over the lands of Islam that things had indeed gone badly wrong. Compared with its millennial rival, Christendom, the world of Islam had become poor, weak, and ignorant. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the primacy and therefore the dominance of the West was clear for all to see, invading the Muslim in every aspect of his public and—more painfully—even his private life.

In the course of this slender book (159 pages, not including notes and index), Lewis outlines the causes and symptoms of this great reversal of fortune. From the very beginning of Islam, it would seem the great powers of the Middle East had all the advantages. Joint heirs (with the Byzantine Greeks) of the cultural legacy of the ancient world, militarily unassailable, unshakeably assured of their own superiority, the Arab, Persian, North African and later Turkish constituent peoples of the Islamic world built a common home that stretched from Spain to the doorstep of China. The great cities of the medieval Middle East—Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo—far outshone their Western counterparts; the philosophies, belles-lettres, and scientific discoveries of the Moslem world had few or no parallels in poor, fractured Europe.

Then something happened. As his book is more about the decline of the East than the rise of the West, Lewis does not account for modern Europe as much as assess its impact. The last standard-bearers of Moslem hegemony, the Ottoman Turks, first noticed something was amiss after a string of humiliating military defeats at the hands of the Venetians, Austrians, and Russians. By the end of the eighteenth century the territorial losses were becoming truly alarming. The ease with which Napoleon’s relatively small expeditionary force brushed aside Ottoman resistance in Egypt in 1798 was galling enough; even worse was that it took British power to expel the French. “This lesson too was clear,” writes Lewis. “[N]ot only could a European power come and act at will, but only another European power could get them out.” The new balance of military power was only the beginning. The vectors of innovation and influence in science, engineering, medicine, the visual arts and architecture likewise reversed with complete and brutal rapidity. By early in the twentieth century all that was left of Islam’s empire of faith, it seemed, was the faith.

This Western triumphalist story is a familiar one by now. But is it true that the Middle Eastern peoples, their leaders, or perhaps Islam itself are somehow to blame for their relative backwardness? As Lewis recounts, there have been a raft of explanations, ranging from ecological dislocation to the invasion of the Mongols in the thirteenth century to that perennial twosome, European imperialism and Zionist conspiracy. But the fact that the West had empires in Moslem lands is less an explanation than a consequence—how did the great powers of Islam get so weak that the Western powers were able to conquer them in the first place? Indeed, other Asian societies suffered analogously from foreign conquest and domination, yet have by now raced far ahead of the Middle Eastern competition.

Notwithstanding the vast resources of the Ottoman Empire, it may have been a set of crucial attitudes and prejudices that prevented it from meeting the challenge of Europe while there was still time. The empire’s elites showed a striking incuriousness: as Lewis describes, while Europeans have been traveling and learning about “the Orient” since the Crusades, and European diplomats had set up consulates and missions all over the Middle East, the Sultanate in Istanbul had no permanent embassy in any European capital until one was finally established in London in 1793. Momentous events in the West—the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Thirty Years War—went by largely ignored in the Islamic world. Where many European nations, even tiny ones, felt compelled to take part in the exploration and settlement of the Americas, Lewis reports that “a Turkish version of Columbus’ own (now lost) map, prepared in 1513, survives in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, where it remained, unconsulted and unknown, until it was discovered by a German scholar in 1929.” While a European could study classical Arabic and Persian in Western universities by the sixteenth century, a contemporary Egyptian or Turk had no comparable opportunities in Western languages. Indeed, for all the recent talk of “Orientalist” distortions of the East by Europeans, it seems that Europeans at least had the virtue of having some interest in the Orient. It appears that very few Moslems cared enough about their Western neighbors to misunderstand them. “Until a comparatively recent date,” notes Lewis, “there were no Occidentalists in the Orient.”

Disinterest in foreign ways was hardly unique to the Middle East. Lewis might well have recounted similar attitudes on the part of Chinese or South Asians who encountered Westerners. What appears to be unique to the Islamic world is an abiding contempt of the West that was borne of familiarity. For East Asians and Indians, after all, Europeans were exotics. By contrast, Moslems had had a bellyful of Christendom at least since Godfrey of Bouillon led his Crusaders over the walls of Jerusalem in 1099. Even more profoundly, Islam itself was defined as the culmination of a series of divine revelations that began with, and supplanted, Judaism and Christianity. Allah had accordingly placed Christians in North Africa, Spain, and southeastern Europe under Moslem suzerainty. By definition, the Western kaffir was fit only to be ruled. He could have nothing of importance to teach his masters.

As Osama bin Laden’s cave videos attest, these are more than matters academic in the Moslem world. At the very least, the legacy of all this history is a profound unease with Western-style modernization. At the most, it is incandescent rage. “If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path,” warns Lewis, “the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from the downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression, culminating sooner or later with another foreign domination . . .”

Though Lewis is unsparing in his diagnosis of the current disorder, his prescription is less than novel. He argues that Moslems must learn the lesson the West did after centuries of religiously-inspired civil conflict. As in Europe and America, the Middle East must find a way to reserve secular from religious power, and vice versa, and at long last construct a “civil society.” Insofar as the penetration of Western culture presents a problem for Moslems, they must implement Western remedies: secularism, emancipation of women, and dynamic, diverse economies. “If they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talents, energies and resources in a common creative endeavor, then they can once again make the Middle East . . . a major center of civilization,” Lewis declares.

It comes as some disappointment that all the author’s erudition comes down to such a stale admonition—for Moslems to shut up, roll up their sleeves, and get down to emulating the West. To be sure, it is difficult to imagine any other practical alternative. But it’s hard to escape the suspicion that the poverty of options has more to do with our lack of imagination, particularly to envision a kind of modernization that doesn’t somehow resemble Westernization.

In truth, Lewis’s thin book (which was built up from a series of three lectures given three years ago in Vienna) does not seem adequate to the complexities of the issue. To take a single example, Lewis hardly considers the detrimental effect of the oil industry on the Middle East’s long-term economic development. Though petroleum exports have brought in untold wealth for some, the industry has arguably promoted a kind of contented codependency with the West. As a result, most Middle Eastern economies are still relatively one-dimensional—as Lewis aptly notes, the combined non-petroleum exports of the entire Arab world are still less than that of Finland alone.

It may be taken as evidence of Lewis’s thesis that much of the original thinking about the imminent future of Islam has been done by Moslems living and teaching in the U.S. Much of what they say, however, belies the standard version of history. Georgetown University’s Seyyid Hossein Nasr, for example, recently addressed a group of Moslem students at MIT by saying “The idea [which] is propagated in the West [is] that muslims are very brilliant, that they did science and things like that, [and then] suddenly decided to turn the switch off and went to selling beads and playing with their rosaries in the bazaar for the next 700 years till Mossadegh nationalized the oil and they came back on the scene of human history . . . This, of course, is total nonsense.”1  Nasr, whose specialty is the history of science, argues that Moslems did not just passively transmit Greek science to the West. Instead, they “totally transformed [it] into part and parcel of the Islamic intellectual citadel.” Likewise, we should not expect Moslems to construe modern scientific truth exactly the way Europeans or North Americans might. “To talk of circumventing what the West has learnt is absurd,” he grants. “But then the next step has to be taken on the basis of [an] Islamic world view and view of nature.”

Of course, this sort of thing is easy to say. What it actually means is not so clear. Just how, exactly, would an Islamic understanding of genetics differ from a Westerner’s? Or a Moslem theory of visual perception? People in many non-Western cultures have being doing science for a long time now, and have greatly contributed. But we scarcely hear of “Japanese science” or “Korean science” in any sense but the bureaucratic. Why must Moslems insist on their own proprietary flavor of science—or by extension, of modernity?

The answer may have something to do with the nature of Islam itself. As Lewis recounts, Christians had plenty of experience on the wrong side of civil authority until they converted their first Roman Emperor. Jesus may have delivered the most memorable formulation of the separation of church and state when he declared “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Mohammad, by contrast, was prophet, proselytizer, and sovereign—Moses, Paul and Constantine—all in one. The faith he founded was likewise a complete package, a perfect and total prescription for the conduct of a God-fearing life. As such, it is the sun around which the planets of law, culture, and philosophy must revolve. As Nasr puts it, “The problem of the partition of science from Islam is a problem that exists unless Islam is willing to give up its claim to being a total way of life.”

Of course, one should depart from Nasr on the question of what Islam is “willing” to do or what Islam “wants.” Such talk resembles fatuous debates over whether Islam is fundamentally peaceful or warlike, tolerant or bigoted, evolved or stunted. Neither Islam nor Christianity is any one thing or another. They are systems of thinking that must evolve with how people use them. The enduring strength of all the great religions, in fact, may lie in their capacity to subsume the contradictions—warlike here, peaceful there—that they need to survive under all possible challenges. In this sense, faiths are organisms, and the history they dwell in, ecosystems. As in the history of life, faiths with the capacity to change—to evolve—propagated to the minds of more adherents than faiths that were not. If thought of as an evolutionary biologist might, religions are replicators that need people to transmit themselves. Fundamentally, religions need believers even more than believers need religions.

So what do Moslems themselves want? Syracuse University political scientist Mehrzad Boroujerdi, suggests it is not fundamentalism, nor confrontation, nor revenge. In a word, it is authenticity. “Authenticity,” he writes,

is tantamount to taking hold of one’s existence and traditions in a manner that is genuine, trustworthy, and sincere. To be ‘authentic’ is to embrace one’s time and culture critically, and, yet to keep an eye on the overriding sense of loyalty and belonging. For the prototypical Iranian intellectual this has translated into a rejection of the apish imitation of the West on the grounds that mimicry and submission are fraudulent and counterfeit states of being.

In this, Iranian intellectuals can find common ground with many throughout the West who find little nourishment in what our society has become. As for what went wrong, Boroujerdi might as well have been talking to Lewis when he concludes:

The cause of civilizational understanding and world peace will not be advanced as long as each side evokes deceptive, yet effective, prophecies anchored in abstract prejudices and concrete exaggerations. This perpetual drive-by pseudo-dialogue must be replaced by critical understanding.


1) Nasr, Seyyid Hossein, “Islam and Modern Science,” libstuff/nasr/nasrspeech1.html, downloaded 2/10/02

2) Boroujerdi, Mehrzad, “Iranian Islam and the Faustian Bargain of Western Modernity,”, downloaded 2/10/02


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