Book Reviews: What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam by Bernard Lewis

Over this past weekend, I read two books by renowned scholar Bernard Lewis. First, I’m not a fan of his writing style.  It’s clear, but he talks up different paths and then he (hopefully) gets to reader to conclude where these different paths are leading to.  Let me start with the first book:

What Went Wrong?

First, the title suggested to me that this book would talk about the history of the West and Islam (particularly in the Middle East) and how these two sides are now in conflict.  After reading through a lot of history, I kept thinking, “ok, when is the major conflict going to come up?”  As I was nearing toward the end of the book, I was in for a major disappointment.  Apparently, the major thesis behind this book is that the Muslim world was the dominant civilization from the 700s up to the 1800s, which is indeed true.  But now with the West quickly being modernized and quickly advancing, the Middle East couldn’t catch up.  Thus, this modernization was (what was viewed through the Middle East’s eyes) as a form of dominance, imperialism, and control over the regime.  The way that Lewis ties all this up is inconclusive.  His chapters are straight to the point, very factual; but he never gets the ball rolling on where he’s going.  It’s as if he talks about an even in history, and then meanwhile, this other thing was happening over here, and then another thing happened over there.  This wasn’t helpful, in my opinion.

Surprisingly, Lewis spends a whole chapter on time and measurement.  The point is that Europe made modern clocks and have calculated exact measurements for lengths that the Middle East people couldn’t compete with that type of advanced system.  It seemed that Lewis was implying that the Middle Eastern people were jealous of Western innovations.  I can see that.  But seriously, were they jealous enough to form Islamism?  This seemed like a huge stretch to me.  There are other models as to why we are in this conflict (and I’m thinking about posting them for a later blog), but to say that the Middle East is responding to being inadequate just seems to be going too far.  I was disappointed with this book because I was hoping he would shed some light into this state of affairs and why this conflict has broken bigger this past decade.  Out of other theories, this has to be the weakest.

This book was somewhat erudite, which I don’t mind, but I was expecting it to be written for the laypeople, not scholars.  Sadly, this book is something I’ll probably get rid of because it offered me explanation.  The title of this book should’ve been called “A History of the Middle East from the 1600’s to 2001” with a subtitle that details about technology.  To his defense, this was published one month after 9/11 and so during publishing, Lewis couldn’t write about those events.  Thus, there is no context about 9/11.

The Crisis of Islam

This book, however, is a keeper and very informative.  It was written in 2003 and it definitely talks about 9/11, the aftermath, what led up to it, and is very clear.  In this book, it gives precise details of it’s rocky history since the beginning, it’s tumultuous relationships about modernity, and how many people have replied.  This is the book that gives a better route to understanding the “reasoning” behind Islamism.   It starts on how the Muslim world started, it’s view on war, the notion of crusades and how they consider any Western influence in the Middle East as another version of the crusades.  It reveals how they saw America as “the Great Satin,” the Soviet Union as evil, how modernity is the major problem, Wahhabism, Sayyid Qutb, and the formation of Islamic terrorism as a consequence from all of this.

It’s a fascinating read.  I read it within two days and it’s really engaging.  His writing style is similar to What Went Wrong? where he talks about different paths and it’s up to the reader to make a conclusion from the readings.  But this definitely explained the crisis in a fashion that is defensible.  A must read for anyone who’s interested in the conflict within Islam (and something that I can add to my teaching points).

In short, there are those within Islam who argue for modernity as the problem and that going back to the original faith is the ultimate answer, especially Wahhabism, which blame all of these problems on whatever modernization and Western influence the Islamic world has already embraced.  This rejection includes violence against Western countries and interests, and most especially violence against “impious” Muslim rulers who have adopted “Western” ways.

To conclude, let me give you an updated view from an interview which was also very enlightening here. Some interesting insights from the article suggests that bin Laden considers the defeat of the Soviet Union the harder enemy; America will be simpler.  The Shiites also have a Messianic figure and since they are also extremists (at least the government is), there is a sense of apocalypticism and any sense of hurrying the end of times will quickly bring back their Messiah.  Perhaps the most starting was this from Lewis:

My worst-case scenario is that Europe, and possibly also the rest of the West, and the Islamic world destroy each other, and the future belongs, or is contested between, India and China as the superpowers of the second half of the 21st century – my best case scenario is that, somehow, with our help, or at least without our hindrance, the peoples of the Middle East succeed in developing open, democratic societies, in which case the Middle East would be able to resume its rightful place, which it has had twice before, in world civilization.

Very frightening stuff.  With this, I will post a blog about various theories as to why this is happening and see if I can make sense out of these different theories.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Book Review, Middle East, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Book Reviews: What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam by Bernard Lewis

  1. Pingback: Theories for the Middle East Conflict « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

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