HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

February 26, 2007
From Liberty Street
What Went Wrong?

John Turner


Bernard Lewis's best seller from five year's ago presumes to tell us what has gone wrong with Islamic civilization. It's an ambitious undertaking, and before we begin to ask ourselves whether he adequately answers the question of his title, we need to inquire into the nature of his attempt.

History comes in many varieties, and Lewis's mode is both old-fashioned and grand. Not for him are there stories of a single person, through intelligence, courage or desperation, tipping the course of human development into a new channel. Rather, history is a process of gigantic, amorphous, abstract forces shaping cultures over centuries. And of all the forces that cause people to spend their days as they do, military power is the most potent. As Lewis  says near the beginning of his account, "Usually the lessons of history are most perspicuously and unequivocally taught on the battlefield, but there may be some delay before the lesson is understood and applied."

This is a style, and a philosophy, thoroughly at odds, with the beliefs of those who over the past several decades have been called the "new historians," scholars for whom everyday events in the lives of ordinary people count for more than the doings of kings, presidents, and generals, and certainly for more than the rule of dynasties, empires and nations. For them, the rhythms of life on farms, in workshops, and homes are the real stuff of history far more than what transpires up and down the corridors of power.

Both these styles, of course, have their truths and their weaknesses. And no historian adheres to one or the other perfectly. We categorize historians by what they emphasize, not by what they categorically banish. And, it's appropriate that there should be some melding of these views in every account because the emperor clearly affects the life of the farmer and the farmer influences the emperor, regardless of how much power-crazed rulers like to think they are immune to forces outside their narrow circles of control.

In addition to historiographical philosophy there's another major influence which determines what we get from a historian, one which scholars tend to be reticent about and, sometimes, refuse even to acknowledge. We could call it bias, but it would be more accurate to describe it as an inherent feeling about what are the gratifying and meaningful, and virtuous ingredients of human existence. This goes beyond questions of scholarly style to dip into a writer's personal sense of morality and existential faith. It defines his or her central identity.

Bernard Lewis is a man for whom power, in all its forms, counts for more than anything else. The story of power actually is history, and little else is worthy of being recorded. He might well say he takes his position because power is what shapes everyday life, and that's certainly a point worth considering. But with Lewis the fascination with power goes deeper than that. It is the essence of life. For those who have power, things have gone right. For those who lack power, things have gone wrong. And the costs of acquiring power are not matters to be too much worried about.

His principal theme in this book is that the Arabs' lack of interest in the world outside their own boundaries led them to lag behind the West both economically and militarily. They were simply not interested in the best way to do things, that is, the way that leads to most power. They just wanted to be who they were, and although Lewis does not say this was immoral, he does imply that it was stupid. Their tendency affected all their areas of activity. Take corruption for example. Lewis says, explicitly, that there is no moral superiority between the Western and Islamic forms. But there is a big difference with respect to holding power. In the West, corruption involved amassing money in order to buy power, whereas in the Islamic realms, power was seized directly and then money was expected to come naturally in its wake. From a power perspective, says Lewis, it is much better to buy power than to seize it, and failing to understand that process is one of the ways Islam went wrong.

This is ostensibly a book about Islam and it does inform us of many fascinating events occurring in the region generally known as the Middle East. But over the long run, it may tell us more about Western attitudes than it does about Islamic civilization. Clearly, its tone is prescriptive and the medicine it implicitly recommends is not likely to be readily swallowed by the people of that area of the world. Whether they can ever be brought to see human civilization precisely as Mr. Lewis does is problematic. So if we wish to understand rather than simply to tell people how they are wrong, we probably should not rely solely on his book, or books like his, to inform us.


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