a Review of Bernard Lewis’ Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response

Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. By Bernard Lewis. Oxford University Press. 180 pages. $23.

Bernard Lewis, leading Orientalist and Professor Emeritus at Princeton, has been in great demand by the American media for his expert opinion since 9/11. Lewis was the one who originally coined the odious term, “clash of civilizations,” in his supercilious Atlantic Monthly article of September 1990, “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” This article appeared after the fall of the Berlin Wall and preparatory to identifying the new enemy. In that article, Lewis rejects all the obvious explanations–failures of American policy, for instance–and looks for “something deeper” that “makes every problem insoluble,” without identifying what that something deeper could be. He dismisses imperialism as an explanation for “rage” and “humiliation,” suggesting that anti-imperialism has a religious connotation. He asserts that Muslims hate the United States, despite the United States never having “ruled any Muslim population,” ignoring the tentacles of the vast unseen empire. He remarks how various strategies of adapting Western ideas and influences have all failed–without offering any explanation why, or even pausing to reflect on it–and then moves on, without a logical transition, to how this has now become a mode of “hostility and rejection.”

In a sense, the present book is a false advertisement for filling this unspoken gap, but it builds on nothing but generalities such as the uniquely explosive nature of Muslim rage. To Charlie Rose, Lewis recently said that asking Arafat to give up terrorism is like asking Tiger Woods to give up golf, that Bush was right to paint Iran and Iraq as part of the axis of evil, and that Saddam Hussein will use weapons of mass destruction if he gets them. To NPR’s Robert Siegel, Lewis made the claim that Muslims are finding it difficult to engage in the question of what went wrong and why because of lack of free discussion (we should relieve them of that responsibility). RAND analyst Laurent Murawiec recommended on July 10 to the Defense Policy Board that we should take over Saudi Arabian oil fields and assets, because their oil wealth funds extremism around the world–essentially, because we don’t agree with their worldview. To Brian Lamb, Lewis rehearsed a mostly similar argument: “get tough” with them. The academic veneer comes off sometimes.

In books like The Arabs in History (1950), The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961), Semites and Anti-Semites (1986), The Jews of Islam (1984), and Islam and the West (1993) Lewis has catalogued what he sees as the incurable pathologies of the Islamic world in its suspended state of humiliation. In his new book, Lewis opens his account of “what went wrong” with the beginning of Ottoman military setbacks in the sixteenth and later centuries. Lewis’s interpretation of Islam is heavily Ottomancentric, hardly dealing with the substance of South Asian, Southeast Asian, Central Asian, Persian or North African civilization, and yet he extrapolates to the whole world of Islam through all of time. Muslim intellect dictated narrow imitations in military and other practical Western innovations, without understanding the cultural substance behind these advances.

After the Ottoman defeat at the second siege of Vienna, and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Carlowitz, the Ottomans learned only that they had to acquire Western weaponry, and “resort to that strange art we call diplomacy, by which they tried, through political means, to modify, or even to reduce the results of the military outcome.” Being stronger than European military powers for some considerable time, of course the Ottomans had little need to resort to diplomatic maneuvers. But Lewis’s approach is to take some Muslim attitude that was a product of their economic, military, and political supremacy, and generalize that there is some deficiency of mind that would not allow them to want to learn. It took a good couple of centuries for Muslims to understand how far behind the West they had fallen; the thread running through the book is that Muslims picked up their lessons from Western modernity too little and too late. In Lewis’s account, after the Reformation and Renaissance all the lending has to be in one direction only, from West to East. Muslims extracted only the superficial, it never penetrated deep within their psyche, and besides, it didn’t fit in with their culture. The implication is that this process of borrowing is futile in the end. They’ll never quite get it.

Lewis’s view is that for centuries Muslims have felt humiliated, and at the same time not known what to do about it. Therefore, when they ask the question, What went wrong?, they often really mean, Who do we blame? It has ever been so and ever will be so. The Ottomans may have asked “What did we do wrong?” and thus given the impression of introspection, but really their mind was not capable of grasping the extent of change (Westernization) that needed to be undergone. So the answer often boiled down to a return to pure Islam. That is what afflicted the Middle East in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and that is what afflicts it now. The Muslim mind is unchanging in its reaction to the West.

For Lewis, Muslims have always suffered from a fatal lack of curiosity about the West. Yes, they traveled to Western lands, but when they did so they had a condescending attitude toward the infidels. In contrast, visitors from the West have a long tradition of engaging in fruitful comparison of cultures:

Western captives in the East who escaped or were ransomed and returned home produced a considerable literature telling of their adventures, of the lands they had seen and the people they had met in the mysterious Orient. Middle Eastern captives in the West who found their way home for the most part remained silent, nor was there any great interest in the few accounts that survived. The Occident remained even more mysterious than the Orient, and it aroused no equivalent curiosity. The different mutual perceptions were vividly expressed in their attitudes to each other’s languages. The study of Eastern languages was intensively pursued in the European universities and elsewhere by scholars who came to be known as Orientalists, on the analogy of Hellenists and Latinists. Until a comparatively recent date, there were no Occidentalists in the Orient.

That is the crux of the matter. Muslims were unwilling to learn European languages, and by extension, European literature and arts. This makes them incapable of realizing freedom and democracy even when they embark on political reform, introducing parliaments and elections and such, and incapable of achieving gender equality, despite legal reforms aimed to do that. Here is the great flaw in Muslim civilization since the rise of the West: they have not produced great Occidentalist scholars. This is no minor point. It seeps into all of Lewis’s analysis.

For every one of the inadequacies of learning that Lewis points out, he notes that in the eighteenth or nineteenth or twentieth centuries the pace picked up quite a bit; in many instances he implies that the process of adaptation went as far and as fast as it could have gone. And yet this was never enough, for reasons that Lewis doesn’t care to explain. His constant refrain is: They weren’t in the game at the time the West was undertaking some new innovation: time clocks or polyphonous music or whatever; they came to it late, not knowing the full importance of the innovation; eventually, they recognized how important it was, and engaged in a mad-cap effort to make themselves change; but this never worked in the end, because . . .Well, we never get the “because.” The “because” would have to deal with the whole realm of actual Western and Islamic political, cultural, and economic interaction during the last four centuries, and actual Islamic attempts at modernization, industrialization, and liberalism–such messy business as colonialism and neocolonialism. This is outside Lewis’s frame of analysis. He would rather rely on obscure Ottoman texts with which he is exclusively comfortable.

We learn that in the beginning the Ottomans (Muslims) may not have been so interested in sending envoys to Europe. But “in the eighteenth century the situation changed dramatically. Great numbers of such special envoys were now sent, with instructions to observe and to learn and, more particularly, to report on anything that might be useful to the Muslim state in coping with its difficulties and confronting its enemies.” Lewis acknowledges that by the late eighteenth century, the Ottoman state was vigorously pursuing the importation of Western experts in the new practical sciences, instead of relying on earlier “adventurers,” but we do not learn why this was not enough. Lewis opens the book with a panoramic, exciting look at Ottoman military dominance, to get our pulse going: What an exalted empire it used to be, and how deep the fall is compared to the ascendancy! Soon we’re stranded in the shoals of not knowing what brought it about and how to fix it; the book is an extended meditation on how when something goes wrong not all the experts can put it together. Again and again the Muslims suffer defeat, and this permanently scars them, leaves traces of humiliation that make the whole process of adaptation in later centuries nearly impossible:

The impotence of the Islamic world confronted with Europe was brought home in dramatic form in 1798, when a French expeditionary force commanded by a young general called Napoleon Bonaparte invaded, occupied, and governed Egypt. The lesson was harsh and clear–even a small European force could invade one of the heartlands of the Islamic empire and do so with impunity.

Can any civilization recover from such trauma? What can be the cure for such impotence?

For Lewis, Muslims have focused on acquiring the superficial trappings of “wealth and power.” This is explained by a persistent streak of incuriosity about the Westerner: “Muslims in general had little desire or incentive to venture into Christian Europe, and indeed the doctors of the Holy Law for the most part prohibited such journeys, except for a specific and limited purpose.” When the Ottomans did “adopt the European practice of continuous diplomacy through resident missions” they had a hard time doing so, because unlike their European counterparts residing in Eastern lands they did not have a tradition of language scholarship. We already know Lewis’s next move. He’ll admit that Muslims did in fact make serious changes in this practice. So we learn that the Turks “made a determined effort to learn new languages and master new crafts” and did so “with astonishing speed and success,” and later threw themselves whole-heartedly into “sending students to study in Western countries.”

Not that this new openness did any good. Muslims don’t have a word for freedom in their language (we’re told in the familiar disparagement of Orientals), since their brains must be hard-wired to think in terms of liberty and justice as the converse of tyranny, not freedom. Despite superficial adaptations–constitutional government, nationalism, secularism, socialism–nothing really disrupts the continuity of the unsolvable questions. Lewis tells us that “words meaning ‘free’ and ‘freedom,’ in a political sense, occur occasionally in eighteenth-century Middle-Eastern writings, always in a European context.” At first Muslims were “cautious and conservative” in extracting European ideas of freedom for their own condition, but–we’re familiar by now with Lewis’s backtracking–soon young Muslims were attracted to “more radical interpretations of freedom.” The Young Turks were remarkable even for the usage of “young,” a most European trait.

The Ottomans form constitutional government in the late eighteenth century, but the experiment fails. The Egyptians form constitutional government in the same period with the same results, followed by Persia and Turkey in the early twentieth century, but Lewis never tell us why. Simply, “Both [Persian and Turkish constitutional revolutions] began with hope and enthusiasm. Both ended, after brief intervals, in even more despotic regimes, ruling even more impoverished and enfeebled countries.” Meanwhile, the European imperial project was doomed from the start because in order to maintain their empire they had to train the new subjects in their languages–English, French, and Dutch–which meant that new and dangerous ideas about freedom and representation would infect the subject peoples as well. Subsequently, the independence movements were led by Westernized intellectuals, although by now the hopes associated with independence have vanished.

So here are some additional confusions: Muslims did enthusiastically, after early reluctance, learn European languages, which led to decolonization, but ultimately the learning of languages, and along with them Western ideas of freedom, did no good, leading to new forms of tyranny. Why? Lewis has nothing to say about that. About socialism, Lewis says, “various types of socialisms, sometimes called Arab socialism, sometimes called scientific socialism, were adopted. They ended in disastrous failure, in ruination maintained by tyranny.” Lewis does offer a sort of explanation: “The difference between Middle Eastern and Western economic approaches can be seen even in their distinctive forms of corruption, from which neither society is exempt. In the West, one makes money in the market, and uses it to buy or influence power. In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money.” Tell that to the Ken Lays and Bernie Ebbers of America, who influence (buy? seize?) the political process to make money. What this Orientalist reduction does is avoid responsibility for rational analysis of what went wrong. We’re moving closer and closer to mysticism, essentialist racial difference, phenomena irreducible to social facts. Lewis is not one to give up after having come so far along this trail, however. “The mystery of Western success was still not solved”–one wonders, for Lewis himself, or for the Muslims he is supposedly writing about? “Could there be something more than modernizing the armed forces, the state that commanded them, and the economy that fed, supplied, and equipped them? In a word, something more than modernity?” Ah, what could that something other be?

Since there is something more fundamental than military, economic, and political power, it’s best for Muslims not to focus on the visible aspects of power. Lewis extracts from reports of Ottoman visitors to Europe, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to focus on three civilizational differences: “women, science, and music.” Lewis relates the astonishment of Ottoman travelers (weren’t we told that Muslims don’t like to travel and aren’t curious?) Evliya Celebi and Valid Efendi at the courtesies granted women in Europe. Since the Muslim world has been in permanent suspension once the West’s better mores superseded it, “the outcome of that struggle [over women’s rights] is still far from clear.” Lewis says that for fundamentalists like Khomeini women’s emancipation is “a deadly blow to the very heart of Islamic society,” but that “the battle continues.” They’ll go on figuring out for ever what should be obvious. Immediately though, he starts talking about Namik Kemal, Qasim Amin, Kemal Ataturk and other reformers who made women’s emancipation a central project. Lewis offers no analysis of the nature of reforms that have actually occurred in the last century and a half, where they fell short and why. But he does accord a great deal of influence to the adoption of Western dress among Muslim men, particularly the Turkish military, as an outward acknowledgment of–we’re not quite told what–Western superiority?

Lewis grants that the status of slaves, women, and unbelievers was better in the Muslim world than in medieval Europe, all three categories of people having certain legal rights which Europe didn’t grant until much later. As early as the first half of the eighteenth century, legal reforms were enacted by the Ottomans to remove the remaining differences among different religions, by abolishing the jizya (poll-tax) and the ban on non-Muslims bearing arms. We learn of some resistance by the ulema to these radical reforms, but the fact that the Ottoman rulers felt confident enough to embark on a program of radical egalitarianism indicates that the ulema were marginalized. Indeed, Lewis quotes a contemporary American observer noting with astonishment the strong role of women in the constitutional revolution of 1906-1911 in Iran, and the lack of resistance by the ulema. Then what went wrong after that? Noting that there is no equivalent to Christian priesthood in Islam, Lewis fails to develop the reasons why secularism and civil society have not made deeper inroads in Islamic society. Lewis probably fails to do this because as an Orientalist his eyes are firmly set on the past, not on the present or future.

As for science, Lewis quotes Ottoman officials of the early eighteenth century approving the widespread literacy and practical application of science in Europe, and notes the influence of materialism and positivism on Turkish thinkers of the second half of the nineteenth century. But there is no analysis of the failure. He simply says, “And yet, despite all these efforts, and despite the foundation of schools and faculties of sciences in almost all the new universities, the incorporation of modern science–or should one say Western science?–was lamentably slow.” No word why. Lewis must maintain the veneer of compassionate, genteel Westerner dispassionately observing a society held back, permanently paralyzed; and so he must acknowledge past greatness (he places the glories all in the past, making nostalgia a form of patronization): Muslims were great at preserving and transmitting ancient science, and they even developed experimental science. “And then, approximately from the end of the Middle Ages, there was a dramatic change.” In the Muslim world, “independent inquiry” came to an end, while it took off in Western Europe.

By now Lewis is scraping the bottom of the barrel for explanations, having rejected investigating any of the obvious ones. In Kipling’s Kim, the narrator observes, “All hours of the twenty-four are alike to Orientals.” And this is what Lewis’s final analysis boils down to. Muslims have never had an accurate measurement of time and space. Of course, here too Lewis will first indict universally, then acknowledge serious and systematic efforts to achieve precision in time and space measurement, but conclude that it doesn’t matter anyway. He quotes the “English Arabist Edward William Lane” remarking about his travels in Egypt between 1833 and 1835 that “of the measures and weights used in Egypt . . .[he was] not able to give an exact account.” Then the retraction: “[Medieval Muslims] added new knowledge achieved by their own experiments and researches, notably in cartography, geography, geometry, and astronomy. The last-named in particular involved delicate and precise calculations of both time and space.”

Why these high-level scientific investigations failed to penetrate popular culture–if that is even the question to ask–is not explained. So how about some folkloric evidence from the lowest strata of contemporary Muslim society instead? Lewis says that peasants today will tell you that the distance between two villages is “one cigarette,” meaning that it will take as long as the time it takes to finish a cigarette. Lewis implies that the use of clocks and watches is still a bit of a curiosity in the Middle East, and people are barely getting used to them. How does this square with his statement that “From early times, Muslim scholars and scientists devoted considerable efforts to determining and tabulating the correct times and direction of prayer. At one level, this was done by simple observation; at another by the devising of instruments and the preparation of tables”; and also that “[b]y the sixteenth century, European clocks and watches were widely used in the Middle East.”

So which is it? Creators of observatories were writing treatises on clocks, there were guilds of clockmakers and watchmakers, and by the eighteenth century, clocks and watches were commonly in private possession. The only flaw Lewis can find is that there weren’t public clocks, but even this was addressed in the nineteenth century. Reading glasses and telescopes were also quickly appreciated by Muslims. Lewis’s Orientalist generalization doesn’t match with his own historical evidence. We’re told that “as well as time, Western influence also affected the measurement, perception, and use of space.” In a treatise devoted to explaining “what went wrong” we’ve now devolved to a bland statement of Western influence on Islamic adaptation,

Lewis now seems to abandon the idea that there may be some fatal flaw of mentality disallowing Muslims to accurately perceive time and space. So he goes on that “Western perceptions -and measurement–of time and space also had an impact on art and music.” Western influence is clear in art and architecture. The one irreducible thing the Muslims can’t seem to get, however, is “polyphony, by harmony or counterpoint,” which is the essence of team sports, parliamentary politics, and distinctive literary forms like the novel and theater: “all these involve some degree of harmonization.” It turns out that the real absence is “polyphony, in whatever form, [which] requires exact synchronization.” Although the Islamic texts seem to be obsessed by the passage of time, it is a different sort of conception–it is really the “duration of time” that preoccupies Muslims. Philosophical discussions “on the nature of time . . .are of little relevance at the present day.” The “clock and the timetable, the calendar and the program” are of the very essence of modernity. Lewis says that by now these have been thoroughly integrated in the Middle East, but still there is some doubt about the “making and keeping of appointments.” So finally we have the explanation for the ills of the Muslim world: They can’t show up on time! Do we now see why the Muslim world is in such trouble? It’s because they believe:

Why hurry? Why do injury to the sweetness of living? Here, everybody is late. The only thing is to join them. He who arrives at the appointed hour risks wasting his time, and that, after all, is not funny. Therefore, not too much precision. Strict exactitude has minor advantages, but is very inconvenient. It lacks suppleness, it lacks fantasy, it lacks cheerfulness, even dignity.

Lewis is not done yet. Muslims never bothered to translate ancient literature, only works of science, history, and philosophy. “Medieval Islam was an intensely historical-minded society, and produced a vast, rich, and varied historical literature.” The problem is that they weren’t as interested in Western history as Lewis would like them to have been. He did say that theater requires polyphony, strict harmonization–we thought the Muslims didn’t have that–yet he goes on to describe widespread commitment to theater. The same for printing–Muslims quickly adopted this innovation. Muslims translated books like Robinson Crusoe, but this one can be explained away by its similarity to a previous Arabic model. “Sport was not unknown of course,” but perhaps due to lack of the polyphonous instinct, team sports were rare:

It was the English who invented football and its analogue–parliamentary politics. There are remarkable resemblances between the two and both obviously come from the same national genius. The adoption of competitive team games has so far been more successful in the Middle East than the adoption of parliamentary government.

Lewis says that “dining–as distinct from merely eating–is another Western ‘cultural’ influence.” For anyone who knows anything about Islamic culture, this is a laughable assertion. The only reason to say this seems to be to imply that Muslims are barbaric to the extent that they only know how to eat and not dine. Western verbal culture has been thoroughly assimilated by now, although Lewis wonders how that could have been since it is the hardest thing to assimilate. The alleged rejection of Western music–it “falls on deaf ears” in the Middle East–perhaps exercises Lewis more than any single aberration. But this is a demonstrably false proposition. They do care about “pop music and rock music” but “it is too early to say what this may portend.” Perhaps after recolonization of the Middle Eastern oil fields there may be time enough to know what this portends. In short, they can try to copy the forms, but they can never get the content as we who relish football and parliamentary politics as if they were natural to us can. It is an inherent sickness, whatever it is.

So let’s drop this pretense of investigating the causes of civilizational decline altogether, and focus on how upset and enraged and emotionally unbalanced they feel because the West has invaded “the Muslim in every aspect of his public and–more painfully–even his private life.” All this would be funny, if it weren’t so dangerous. Muslims are in a state of infantile humiliation: “The twentieth century, particularly the second half, brought [brought how? through divine agency? through Western imperialism?] further humiliations–the awareness that they were no longer even the first among the followers, but were falling ever further back in the lengthening line of eager and more successful Westernizers, notably in East Asia.” Quite aside from the fact that part of the consciousness of the East Asian project has been to modernize but not Westernize to the extent possible, Lewis wants to insinuate how Muslims are no longer in any frame of mind solid enough to investigate the true causes of their decline. Their humiliation leads to rage. Rage leads to such abominations as terrorism. And that requires the West to overtly step in again, recolonize–Lewis indeed ends on this precise note.

This is the template according to which Americans are being prepared for a final onslaught against those foolish enough to think that there could be an alternative to the American model. All previous Muslim attempts to modernize have only increased the power of the state to tyrannize; the conclusion is that we should take away their power and leave them pauperized.

Anis Shivani studied economics at Harvard, and is the author of two novels, The Age of Critics and Memoirs of a Terrorist. He welcomes comments at: Anis_Shivani_ab92@post.harvard.edu

Anis Shivani is the author of many critically-acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. His recent political books include Why Did Trump Win?, A Radical Human Rights Approach to Immigration, and Confronting American Fascism