Insightful on Islam, but still no answer to September 11

What Went Wrong?
January 31, 2003

One of the byproducts of the events of September 11 2001 has been an avalanche of books by assorted "Orientalists" and self-appointed experts pontificating about Islam, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. Bernard Lewis' book is more erudite and authoritative, but ultimately disappointing, failing to deliver the explanation implied by its title and offering nothing fresh.

Lewis speaks with admiration of the golden age of Islamic civilisation in science and technology, mathematics, medicine, commerce, philosophy and art. From the Arabian peninsula, Islam spread east and west with lightning speed, with its message of equality and justice, its tolerance and flexibility, and adapted to local customs. The contributions of the conquered peoples in the Persian and Byzantium empires and in India led to the flowering of a civilisation rivalled only by China.

Then things changed. As Europe used Muslim philosophy and science to advance towards the Renaissance and modernity, Islam lost its intellectual vigour and froze in dogma. Lewis believes that a series of defeats in war forced Islamic countries to acknowledge their predicament and look for remedies. In the Middle East the intellectual elite thought modernisation was the only way of catching up with the West. Ataturk in Turkey and Reza Shah in Iran introduced a measure of change, of which the emancipation of women was the most important. But nationalism and socialism degenerated into tyranny, while oil was squandered by corrupt, inefficient dictators.

Middle Easterners, Lewis believes, began to look for scapegoats. But he does not mention that so-called fundamentalism, such as that of the Taliban, was encouraged by the US as a weapon against Soviet communism.

Saddam Hussein, too, was encouraged by western powers in his eight-year war against Iran. You do not have to be given to conspiracy theories to understand that many of the tyrannies Lewis denounces are held in place by American backing. Yet for Lewis, the Arabs, the Muslims and Islam are to blame for the havoc of the Middle East. He says the Palestinian situation is not anyone's responsibility but that of the Arabs: Israel, "outnumbered and outgunned" (outgunned?), is simply fighting for survival.

But Lewis is right to say that Middle Easterners should stop looking at the past. "If they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talents, energies and resources in common creative endeavour, they can once again make the Middle East a major centre of civilisation," he says. Yet this cannot happen unless the world's only superpower starts backing the people instead of their corrupt oppressors.

Shusha Guppy is London editor, Paris Review .

What Went Wrong?: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East

Author - Bernard Lewis
ISBN - 0 297 82929 7
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £12.99
Pages - 180

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