It would appear from the fulsome praise heaped by mainstream reviewers on Bernard Lewis’s most recent and well-timed book that the demand for Orientalism has reached a new peak. America’s search for new enemies that began soon after the end of the Cold War very quickly resurrected the ghost of an old, though now decrepit, enemy, Islam. Slowly but surely, this revived the sagging fortunes of Orientalism, so that it speaks again with the treble voice of authority.
The mainstream reviewers describe Bernard Lewis as "the doyen of Middle Eastern studies," the "father" of Islamic studies, "[a]rguably the West’s most distinguished scholar on the Middle East," and "[a] Sage for the Age." It would appear that Lewis is still the reigning monarch of Orientalism, as he was some twenty-five years back when Edward Said, in his Orientalism, dissected and exposed the intentions, modalities, deceptions, and imperialist connections of this ideological enterprise.
This Orientalist tiger has not changed his stripes over the fifty-odd years that he has been honing his skills. Now at the end of his long career - only coincidentally, also the peak - he presents the summation, the quintessence of his scholarship and wisdom on Islam and the Middle East, gathered, compressed in the pages of this slim book that sets out to explain what went wrong with Islamic history, and that has so mesmerized reviewers on the right.
Who Is Bernard Lewis?
We will return to the book in a moment, but before that, we need to step back some twenty-five years and examine how Edward Said, in Orientalism, has described this Orientalist tiger’s stripes and his cunning ploys at concealment. Edward Said gets to the nub of Lewis’s Orientalist project when he writes that his "work purports to be liberal objective scholarship but is in reality very close to being propaganda against his subject material." Lewis’s work is "aggressively ideological." He has dedicated his entire career, spanning more than five decades, to a "project to debunk, to whittle down, and to discredit the Arabs and Islam." Said writes:
The core of Lewis’s ideology about Islam is that it never changes, and his whole mission is to inform conservative segments of the Jewish reading public, and anyone else who cares to listen, that any political, historical, and scholarly account of Muslims must begin and end with the fact that Muslims are Muslims.
Although Lewis’s objectives are ominous, his methods are quite subtle; he prefers to work "by suggestion and insinuation." In order to disarm his readers and win their trust and admiration, he delivers frequent "sermons on the objectivity, the fairness, the impartiality of a real historian."This is only a cover, a camouflage, for his political propaganda. Once he is seated on his high Orientalist perch, he goes about cleverly insinuating how Islam is deficient in and opposed to universal values, which, of course, always originate in the West.
It is because of this deficiency in values that Arabs have trouble accepting a democratic Israel-it is always "democratic" Israel. Lewis can write "objectively" about the Arab’s "ingrained" opposition to Israel without ever telling his readers that Israel is an imperialist creation, and an expansionist, colonial-settler state that was founded on terror, wars, and ethnic cleansing. Lewis’s work on Islam represents the "culmination of Orientalism as a dogma that not only degrades its subject matter but also blinds its practitioners."
Lewis’s scholarly mask slips off rather abruptly when he appears on television, a feat that he accomplishes with predictable regularity. Once he is on the air, his polemical self, the Orientalist crouching tiger, takes over, all his sermons about objectivity forgotten, and then he does not shrink from displaying his sneering contempt for the Arabs and Muslims more generally, his blind partisanship for Israel, or his bristling hostility toward Iran. One example will suffice here. In a PBS interview broadcast on 16 April 2002, hosted by Charlie Rose, he offered this gem: "Asking Arafat to give up terrorism would be like asking Tiger to give up golf." That is a statement whose malicious intent and vindictive meanness might have been excusable if it came from an official Israeli spokesman.
After this background check, do we really want to hear from this "sage" about "what went wrong" with Islamic societies; why, after nearly a thousand years of expansive power and world leadership in many branches of the arts and sciences, they began to lose their élan, their military advantage, and their creativity and, starting in the nineteenth century, capitulated to their historical adversary, the West? And, though Islamic societies have regained their political independence, why has their economic and cultural decline proved so difficult to reverse? Yet, although our stomachs turn at the prospect, we must sample the gruel Lewis offers, taste it, and analyze it, if only to identify the toxins that it contains and that have poisoned far too many Western minds for more than fifty years.
Where Is the Context?
What went wrong with the Islamic societies? When this question is asked by our "doyen of Middle Eastern studies," especially when it is asked right after the attacks of 11 September, it is hard not to notice that this manner of framing the problem of the eclipse of Islamic societies by the West is loaded with biases, value judgments, and preconceptions, and even contains its own answer. There are two sets of "wrongs" in What Went Wrong? The first consists of "wrongs," deviations from what is just and good, that we confront in contemporary Islamic societies. Lewis undoubtedly has in mind a whole slew of problems, including the political, economic, and cultural failings of the Islamic world. In addition, this question seeks to discover deeper "wrongs," deviations from what is just and good that are prior to and at the root of the present "wrongs." Lewis is concerned primarily with this second set of "wrongs."
The first problem one encounters in Lewis’s narrative of Middle Eastern decline is the absence of any context. He seeks to create the impression that the failure of Islam to catch up with the accelerating pace of changes in Western Europe is a problem specific to this region; there is no attempt to locate this problem in a global context. This exclusive Middle Eastern focus reveals to all but the blinkered the mala fides of What Went Wrong? Lewis cannot hide behind pious claims that a historian’s "loyalties may well influence his choice of subject of research; they should not influence his treatment of it." His exclusive focus on the decline of the Middle East is not legitimate precisely because it is designed to-and it unavoidably must-"influence his treatment of it. "
Once Western Europe began to make the transition from a feudal-agrarian to a capitalist-industrial society, starting in the sixteenth century, the millennial balance of power among the world’s major civilizations shifted inexorably in favor of Western Europe. A society that was shifting to a capitalist-industrial base, capable of cumulative growth, commanded greater social power than slow-growing societies still operating on feudal-agrarian foundations. Under the circumstances, it was unlikely that non-Western societies could simultaneously alter the foundations of their societies while also fending off attacks from Western states whose social power was expanding at an ever-increasing rate. Even as these feudal-agrarian societies sought to reorganize their economies and institutions, Western onslaughts against them deepened, and this made their reorganization increasingly difficult. It is scarcely surprising that the growing asymmetry between the two sides eventually led to the eclipse, decline, or subjugation of nearly all non-Western societies.
While Lewis studiously avoids any reference to this disequalizing dynamic, another Western historian of Islam not driven by a compulsion "to debunk, to whittle down, and to discredit the Arabs and Islam" understood this tendency quite well. I am referring here to Marshall Hodgson, whose The Venture of Islam shows a deep and, for its time, rare understanding of the interconnectedness, across space and time, amongst all societies in the Eastern hemisphere. He understood very clearly that the epochal changes under way in parts of Western Europe between 1600 and 1800 were creating an altogether new order based on markets, capital accumulation, and technological changes, which acted upon each other to produce cumulative growth. Moreover, this endowed the most powerful Western states with a degree of social power that no one could resist. In his Venture of Islam, Marshall Hodgson writes,
Hence, the Western Transmutation, once it got well under way, could neither be paralleled independently nor be borrowed wholesale. Yet it could not, in most cases, be escaped. The millennial parity of social power broke down, with results that were disastrous everywhere.
Clearly, Lewis’s presentation of his narrative of Middle Eastern decline without any context is a ploy. His objective is to whittle down world history, to reduce it to a primordial contest between two historical adversaries, the West and Islam. This is historiography in the crusading mode, one that purports to resume the Crusades-interrupted in the thirteenth century-and carry them to their unfinished conclusion, the triumph of the West or, conversely, the humiliation and defeat of Middle Eastern Islam. Once this framework has been established, with its exclusive focus on a failing Islamic civilization, it is quite easy to cast the narrative of this decay as a uniquely Islamic phenomenon, which must then be explained in terms of specifically Islamic failures. Thus Lewis’s agenda in What Went Wrong? is to discover all that was and is "wrong" with Islamic societies and to explain their decline and present troubles in terms of these "wrongs."
If Lewis had an interest in exploring the decline of the Middle East, he would be asking why the new, more dynamic historical system that lay behind the rise of the West had not emerged in the Middle East, India, China, Italy, or Africa. If he had asked this question, it may have directed him to the source and origins of Western hegemony. But Lewis ducks this issue altogether. Instead, he takes the growing power of the West-its advances in science and technology-as the starting point of his narrative and concentrates on demonstrating why the efforts of Islamic societies to catch up with the West were both too little and too late. In other words, he seeks to explain a generic phenomenon-the overthrow of agrarian societies before the rise of a new historical system, based on capital, markets, and technological change-as one that is specific to Islam and is due to specifically Islamic "wrongs."
If one focuses only on the Middle Eastern response to the Western challenge, it does appear to be too little and too late. The Ottoman Empire, once the most powerful in the Islamic world, had lost nearly all its European territories by the end of the nineteenth century, and the remnants of its Arab territories were lost after its defeat in the First World War. At this point, the Ottoman Empire had been reduced to a rump state in northern Anatolia, with the British and French occupying Istanbul, the Greeks pushing to occupy central Anatolia, the Armenians extending their boundaries in eastern Anatolia, and the French pushing north in Silesia. Yet, after defeating the Greeks, the French, and the Armenians, the victorious Turks managed to establish in 1922 a new and modern Turkish nation-state over Istanbul, Thrace, and all of Anatolia. The Iranians were more successful in preserving their territories, though, like the Ottomans, they too had lost control over their economic policies in the first decades of the nineteenth century. However, if one compares these outcomes with the fate suffered by other regions-barring Japan, China, and Thailand, nearly all of Asia and Africa was directly colonized by the Europeans-one has to conclude that the results for the Middle East could have been worse.
There is even less substance to Lewis’s claims about Middle Eastern inertia in the face of Western threats, especially when we compare their responses to these threats with the record of East Asian societies.
First, consider Lewis’s charge that the Muslims showed little curiosity about the West. He attributes this failing to Muslim bigotry that frowned upon contacts with the infidels. This is a curious charge against "a world civilization" that Lewis admits was "polyethnic, multiracial, international, one might even say intercontinental." It also seems strange that the Ottomans, and other Middle Eastern states before them, were quite happy to employ their Christian and Jewish subjects-as high officials, diplomats, physicians, and bankers-traded with the Europeans themselves, bought arms and borrowed money from them, and yet, somehow, loathed learning anything from the same infidels. In addition, Muslim philosophers, historians and travelers have left several very valuable accounts of non-Islamic societies. One of these, Al-Biruni’s monumental study of India, still remains without a rival for its encyclopedic coverage, objectivity, and sympathy for its subject. Clearly, Lewis has fallen prey to the Orientalist temptation: when something demands a carefully researched explanation, an understanding of material and social conditions, better pin it on some cultural propensity.
Lewis is little aware how his book is littered with contradictions. If the Muslims were not a little curious about developments in the West, it is odd that the oldest map of the Americas-which dates from 1513 and is the most accurate map from the sixteenth century-was prepared by Piri Reis, a Turkish admiral and cartographer. It would also appear that the number of Muslims who had left accounts of their observations on Europe were not such a rarity either. Lewis himself mentions no fewer than ten names, nearly all of them Ottomans, spanning the period from 1665 to 1840; and this is far an from exhaustive list. One of them, Ratib Effendi, who was in Vienna from 1791 to 1792, left a report that "ran to 245 manuscript folios, ten times or more than ten times those of his predecessors, and it goes into immense detail, primarily on military matters, but also, to quite a considerable extent, on civil affairs." Diplomatic contacts provide another indicator of the early growth of Ottoman interest and involvement in the affairs of European states. Between 1703 and 1774, the Ottomans signed sixty-eight treaties or agreements with sovereign, mostly European states. Since each treaty must have involved at least one diplomatic exchange, the Ottomans could hardly be accused of neglecting diplomatic contacts with Europe.
According to Lewis, the Ottoman decision not to challenge the Portuguese hegemony in the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century was a failure of vision. Despite some early warnings from elder statesmen, the Ottomans did not anticipate that the Portuguese incursion would translate some 250 years later into a broader and more serious European challenge to their power. As a result, they chose to concentrate their war efforts on acquiring territory in Europe, which, Lewis claims, they saw as "the principal battleground between Islam and Europe, the rival faiths competing for enlightenment-and mastery-of the world." It is of no interest to Lewis that the Ottomans, departing from their own tradition of land warfare, had built a powerful navy starting in the fifteenth century and created a seaborne empire in the eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Red Sea. If the Ottomans chose to concentrate their resources on land wars in Central Europe rather than challenge Portuguese hegemony in the Indian Ocean, this was not the result of religious zealotry. It reflected the balance of class interests in the Ottoman political structure. In an empire that had traditionally been land-based, the interests of the landowning classes prevailed against commercial interests that looked to the Indian Ocean for their livelihood. Although the decision not to contest the Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century was fateful, that policy was rational for the Ottomans.
A Military Decline?
Several Orientalists-Lewis amongst them-have argued that the military decline of the Ottoman Empire became irreversible after its second failed siege of Vienna in 1683, or perhaps earlier, after its naval defeat at Lepanto in 1571. In an earlier work, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, Lewis declared that "[t]he Ottomans found it more and more difficult to keep up with the rapidly advancing Western technological innovations, and in the course of the eighteenth century the Ottoman Empire, itself far ahead of the Islamic world, fell decisively behind Europe in virtually all arts of war.