Book Review: "What Went Wrong" by Bernard Lewis

When we were in Istanbul my mother picked up this book on a whim. It was published in 2002 and entirely written, excepting the preface, before 9/11. The subtitle of the book is “Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response” and Lewis’s goal is to explain thinking in the Islamic world as they confront, after several centuries of being at the forefront of civilization and progress, being in a position of declining power and achievement.

Lewis is a professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton and has specialized in medieval Islamic history. He’s written over 20 books and this one has created controversy (unsurprisingly, given the title) and made it to the New York Times bestseller list. For me, in my work with Berkman on technology and political structures in the Middle East, I was interested in his reasoning that focuses on democratic history and political change. Here are the most interesting points I noticed on these topics.

The Longstanding Attention to Political Science and Constitutional Law

Although they didn’t use those precise words, Lewis explains some contextual and cultural differences between how Westerners understand these concepts and how they appear in Middle Eastern history. For Muslims, Holy Law lays out the role of the ruler and his relationship to believers (his subjects). The typical Western metric for evaluating governments (on a scale from liberty to tyranny) is misplaced here since liberty is a legal term in the Middle Eastern context, not a political term as used in the West. The converse of tyranny is justice, not liberty, and justice meant that the ruler was there by right and not by usurpation and that he governs according to God’s law, which usually came down to a spectrum between arbitrary and consultative government. Lewis notes that this latter issue is not well defined in the Koran, and thus debate ensues, but authoritative non-consultative government is seen as undesirable, even from a ruler accepted as legitimate. But even in the Western context the problem of definition abounds, for example the liberty/tyranny scale is seductively simple. We have a well-accepted understanding of what constitutes tyranny but maximizing liberty can mean different things depending on whether you ascribe to Marxist, socialist, libertarian, anarchistic, or another ideology. So ongoing debate is not a difference, but for people thinking about political institutions in the Middle East like myself, the prominence of the notion of justice is an important correction to make to typical Western liberty-based thought.

Interpretations of Women’s Rights

Lewis points out that emancipation of women in the Middle East has been most pronounced in pre-2002 Iraq and the former South Yemen, which were both ruled by comparatively repressive regimes, and lags behind in Egypt, one of the most tolerant and open Arab societies. He cites this as evidence that a more liberal regime won’t necessarily lead to greater rights for women, and further notes that the more conservative and fundamental the regime, such as Iran and most of Afghanistan (before 2002), the less pronounced women’s rights are. Lewis thinks that while the need to modernize is accepted throughout the Middle East even among the most anti-Western fundamentalists, the emancipation of women is seen as Westernizing and a betrayal of true Islamic values. This is an area Wafa Sultan has talked about extensively, pointing out that even modernization accepts Western tenets and accomplishments, and she suggests that women’s rights can be accepted in the Middle East in the same way.

There have been historical figures in the Middle East who have fought for women’s rights. Shi’ite Persian Qurrat al-‘Ayn (1814-1852) became a follower of the Bab (forerunner of the founder of the Baha’i faith) and preached without a veil and denounced polygamy. Princess Taj es-Saltana was educated in French as well as Persian and denounced in her writings the bondage she saw her female compatriots subjected to. Apparently these writings, and women more generally, played a part in the Persian constitutional revolution of 1906-11, where there was a movement for the adoption of constitutional forms of government that would establish Western political mores, supported even by the Islamic leaders.

Modernization and the Internet

A Western eye might associate modernization with Western notions of liberty, but this is not always the way it has played out. Lewis explains that traditionally one way of expressing charity has been to create a waqf, an income-producing endowment dedicated to a pious purpose, such as a soup kitchen, water fountain, or school. Waqfs have predominantly been made by women, to whom Islamic law grants the right to own and dispose of property. In the effort to modernize in the 19th century, many of these waqfs came under state control. Lewis asserts that more recent efforts to modernize have followed this path of increasing state control rather than reducing it. He notes that many Middle Eastern states are evincing stronger control over schools, the media, and print. He feels that the internet, specifically the electronic media revolution, will “no doubt in time” undermine these controls and allow independent and self-supporting associations to emerge. Although he does not explain a mechanism, he suggests that perhaps this will spill into the existing state control over the economy where a large proportion of the population depends on the state for their income (this dependence bringing along with it the usual flourishing black market economy).

Political Change and Democracy

Lewis is careful to note that a view in which advancement assumes an increase in the Western understanding of freedom, such as in his words “freedom of the mind from constraint and indoctrination, to question and inquire and speak; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive mismanagement; freedom of women from male oppression; freedom of citizens from tyranny” is simplistic and perhaps not even the right answer. He notes one need only look at the Western history with democracy to know how long and hard that road is. But he does in the end call for some adoption of certain values: abandonment of grievance and victimhood, reasonableness in settlement of differences, cooperation in creative endeavors. Lewis’s enumeration of a list of freedoms and his implicit suggestion that, at least according to Western observers, they are essential underpinnings of a modern society strikes me as similar to Amartya Sen’s thesis in “Development as Freedom” – that development occurs best in a country that endows its citizens with freedoms, specifically: political, economic, social opportunities, transparency, and protective security. Sen is very clear that these are important because they “help to advance the general capability of a person” and because they reinforce each other development is most successfully made when the freedoms are granted together. I’m not sure if he is right, but both Lewis and Sen seem to be suggesting roads for Middle Eastern societies that aren’t politically correct and advocate changes in local societal norms.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

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