What Went Wrong? & The Crisis of Islam

“What Went Wrong?” (Perennial) and “The Crisis of Islam” (The Modern Library) by Bernard Lewis

Those viewers who saw Bernard Lewis on BookTV a couple of months ago witnessed a tour de force – an expert in the field of Islamic studies handling questions from all sides, with patient and lucid authority, for the best part of three hours. The professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University, a speaker of Arabic, was able to pluck out at will the appropriate quotation or reference to bring his points home.

The best-selling What Went Wrong? (which went to press just before September 11, 2001) shows the learning behind the professor’s unruffled eloquence. It is an erudite explanation of how the world of Islam was overtaken in power, prosperity, and scientific advancement by the West. According to Lewis, among the reasons for its decline were the exclusion of women from public affairs, the fear of being tainted by Christianity by any long-term residence in Europe, a widespread lack of interest in foreign learning, literature and history, and a resistance to conceiving of any legal principles outside strict Islamic law. All this the Professor explains with elegance and wit. Yet the book disappoints: Lewis does not identify clearly the various power-plays going on in the Islamic world, and he makes the latter appear all too monolithic. He writes too much in the passive voice: it is not always clear about which agents he is talking when he writes in very general terms about people’s opinions and actions. True, he identifies the fundamentalist threat, but does not make the dialectic crisp.

September 11th jolted his tentative analysis. In the New Yorker of November 19th 2001, Lewis published an award-winning article entitled The Revolt of Islam, in which he came to the now unsurprising conclusion that “Muslim fundamentalists… feel that the troubles of the Muslim world … are the result not of insufficient modernization but of excessive modernization”. The Crisis of Islam is based on this article. Lewis digs down more deeply into the history of fundamentalism and terrorist behavior, and the ascent of extremist Wahhabi doctrines: he shows how the United States, as its economic and military power infiltrated Muslim lands, became the Great Satan in the eyes of Usama bin Ladin {sic – although he appears as Laden in the index}, replacing the British and French, and then the Soviet Union. But you will find also much irritating repetition here from What Went Wrong?, and the same stylistic annoyances: vagueness in identification (“Middle Easterners think..”), and even contradictions, such as how he treats the notion of “Arabian” and the quest for national sovereignty.


Moreover, the author, in his discussion of the Crisis, leaves me with several unanswered questions, of which I list a few examples. Why, when he points out that Osama bin Laden’s primary grudge was Kemal Atatürk’s abolition of the sultanate in 1922, does he spend no more than a few sentences on Turkey’s approach to democracy, or why it is not the focus of bin Laden’s attention? Why, since bin Laden also vents about the support by the U.S. of local corrupt leaders, does Lewis not explore this tension more, and inspect why these rulers do not to more to eradicate the threat of the radicalists, with their distortion of Islam, before it destroys them? While he refers to Western “double standards”, why are Islamics so emphatic about cross-national Muslim brotherhood, but so slow to condemn the massacres of fellow Muslims by such as Saddam Hussein, and the late Hafiz al-Assad of Syria? In short, The Crisis of Islam would have benefited from some tighter editing, and from more emphasis on current politic analysis than historical exposition. A book needs more rigor than a television interview.

All this brings me to a final question that I believe is very relevant to the analysis of Lewis’s Crisis – whether democracy can be reconciled with Islamism. Some recent statements from prominent Iraqis have suggested that democracy in Iraq will be achieved only if all minority groups and factions are represented in the government – a natural response to the clan- and party-dominated Iraq of Saddam Hussein. But democracy has to transcend tribalism to survive, and experience shows (such as in Nigeria and Zimbabwe) that such intentions can quickly turn to tribal domination and patronage. Likewise, government according to the rules of a single ethnic or religious group that happens to be a majority (as Islamists would interpret democracy, according to Lewis), cannot be viable. Democracy needs more than simplification into ethnic group interests: it needs stable institutions and an opposition equally committed to the democratic process, but one maybe with different values and priorities.

In What Went Wrong? Professor Lewis was careful to describe Turkey as a secular democracy, and stated that the stark choice for the region is either a return to fundamentalist Islam or an adoption of secular democracy. In his television program, Professor Lewis declared optimism that Iraq could evolve into a successful democracy, yet offered no evidence as to how that might occur in the highly charged climate of this decade. The Crisis in Islam fumbles the ball here, with the author vaguely leaving it to the various “peoples” to address the challenge. Responding to an on-screen invitation, I emailed the professor with a question on exactly this point, but have not yet had the favor of a response. We shall have to wait for his next book – or look elsewhere.

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