What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response
From our Archives: 100 for 100
March 26, 2002
For centuries, the world of Islam was ahead of the West in every respect: militarily, economically, and in the arts and sciences. Then everything changed. The West won victory after victory, first on the battlefield and then in the marketplace.
In this learned talk given just six months after 9/11, Lewis gives a historical overview of this enormous shift. He goes on to explain that in the Middle East today there are two prevailing opinions about why the Islamic world now lags behind the West. One is that it has failed to keep up with modernity. The other is almost the exact opposite: it has become too much "like the infidels" and abandoned its own traditions and faith.
JOANNE MYERS: Thank you for joining us today to welcome Bernard Lewis who will discuss his latest book, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response.
In the past few months the Carnegie Council has hosted many renowned individuals who have spoken to us about the latest developments in the Middle East. For me there is no question that our guest this afternoon is the brightest star in our galaxy of experts who have discussed the Muslim world.
He is not only the world’s preeminent Islamic scholar, but he is also one of our most distinguished historians. His incredibly beautiful prose has the ability to illuminate the Middle East, the Arab world, and Islam in a way very few can. The scope of his work ranges from Persian poetry, to Muslim perceptions of Europe, to a depiction of modern Turkey, and to Middle Eastern history.
Through sheer intellectual force and understanding, he has done much to explain the Arab world to audiences worldwide. Those of us who have been privileged to hear him speak before will recall his penetrating insights into the complexities of the Middle East.
For Bernard Lewis it did not take the horrifying events of September 11th to begin questioning what went wrong. On the contrary, for more than sixty years now, he has been writing about the issues challenging the Muslim world. In What Went Wrong, which is the title of his latest book, he takes the reader on a journey through history, from the time when Islam was the world's greatest, most enlightened, and most powerful civilization, to modern times when it has failed to adjust to the challenges brought about by the reformation and the scientific and political revolutions in the West.
Bernard Lewis was born and educated in England. For many years he was Professor of History of the Near and Middle East in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He spent most of the war dealing with Middle Eastern matters for the British Foreign Office. After the war, he resumed teaching at the University of London and continued his scholarship, writing and turning out book after book, article after article. Our guest has penned over two dozen books, all of which reflect an unparalleled authority and timeliness that is his signature.
These have included The Arabs in History, The Assassins, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, The Political Language of Islam, The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years, and Multiple Identities of the Middle East, the latter two which were discussed at the Carnegie Council in recent years.
In 1974 he was recruited by Princeton, where for many years he was the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies and was named a long-term member of the Institute for Advanced Studies. He remained at Princeton until his retirement in 1986.
As we will shortly learn, this gifted and eloquent historian is as peerless as ever. Professor Lewis, it is an honor to have you back with us again.
BERNARD LEWIS: Thank you for those very kind words. You make it rather difficult for me to live up to the advance announcement.
Let me begin with a word of explanation. In spite of its title and the time when it appeared, this book is not a discussion of the events of September 11th. The book was already in page proof when that happened. I added a paragraph in some of the later printings on the last page, but that was the only change that I made. I cannot, therefore, pretend that the book is in any way a discussion of recent and current events.
I can, however, reasonably claim that it may throw some light not on the circumstances arising from September 11th, but on those leading to September 11th. By that I refer not merely to the immediate preceding events, but to the longer perspective which it is the task of the historian to perceive and present.
The core of the book is a series of public lectures which I gave in Vienna in 1999 at the Institute für Wissenschaften vom Menschen. The theme of the lectures was the 300th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, a treaty which ended a long and bitter war fought between the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian Empire, or the Holy Roman Empire as it still was in those days. There were many wars, but this one was of particular importance for a reason which I shall explain in a moment.
We hear a lot nowadays about "the clash of civilizations," a term which is used in a number of different senses. I have used it myself, but in a sense which is different from the one that is currently popular. Let me explain what I meant by "the clash of civilizations" because it is very relevant to the present topic.
There have been many civilizations in human history, almost all of which were local, in the sense that they were defined by a region and an ethnic group. This applied to all the ancient civilizations of the Middle East—Egypt, Babylon, Persia; to the great civilizations of Asia—India, China; and to the civilizations of Pre-Columbian America.
There are two exceptions: Christendom and Islam. These are two civilizations defined by religion, in which religion is the primary defining force, not, as in India or China, a secondary aspect among others of an essentially regional and ethnically defined civilization. Here, again, another word of explanation is necessary.
In English we use the word "Islam" with two distinct meanings, and the distinction is often blurred and lost and gives rise to considerable confusion. In the one sense, Islam is the counterpart of Christianity; that is to say, a religion in the strict sense of the word: a system of belief and worship. In the other sense, Islam is the counterpart of Christendom; that is to say, a civilization shaped and defined by a religion, but containing many elements apart from and even hostile to that religion, yet arising within that civilization.
The late Marshall Hodgson of Chicago University, who was the first to draw attention to this confusion, suggested that we use the word "Islamdom" as the counterpart of Christendom, an excellent suggestion. Unfortunately, it didn’t take, perhaps because the word is so difficult to pronounce.
In present usage, therefore, we still use the word "Islam" in these two different senses: the name of a religion and the name of a civilization. A good deal of misunderstanding in the public discourse of the last few months arises from a failure to recognize and appreciate this very simple, basic fact.
I shall be speaking of Islamdom rather than Islam, of a civilization shaped by a certain religion but nevertheless containing many elements that are distinct from it, and sometimes even hostile to it, that arise from within.
These two religions and civilizations, have been in almost continuous clash for the fourteen centuries since the rise of Islam in 17th century Arabia. What has driven them into conflict with each other is not their differences, but their resemblances.
There are many religions in the world, almost all of which are relativist in approach. They all believe that their truths are universal, but not exclusive. Just as mankind has invented different languages to talk to each other, they have invented different religions to talk to God, and all of them are equally true and equally false. That is the generally accepted view, except for two, Christianity and Islam.
The Jews came up with the strange idea that there is only one God, thus endangering the universal tolerance of ancient polytheism. The Christians and the Muslims went one step further and said, "Not only is there only one God, but there is only one way to that God, ours. All the other ways lead to hell." Where you have two religions side-by-side, both with the same doctrine, both claiming to be the exclusive possessor of God's final revelation to humanity, with the duty therefore to bring it to the rest of humanity and not keep it selfishly for themselves, when, moreover, these two are historically consecutive and geographically adjacent, conflict between the two becomes virtually inevitable.
Conflict arises more from their resemblances than from their differences. Christians and Muslims have met time and time again in the course of the centuries, even in the Middle Ages, in what was known as disputation, theological argument between the two sides. Between Christians and Muslims this was possible because they used basically the same theological language. When a Christian said to a Muslim or a Muslim said to a Christian, "You are an infidel and you will burn in hell," each understood exactly what the other meant because they both meant the same thing. Their heavens are rather remarkably different, but their hells are almost identical. Remarks of that kind would be utterly meaningless to a Hindu, a Buddhist, or a Confucian.
This is a necessary introduction to what I have to say about what went wrong. For most of the fourteen centuries of conflict between these two, Islam was, by far, the most advanced, creative, original, and powerful. From its birth in seventh century Arabia, Islam spread with extraordinary speed around the Mediterranean, across North Africa, into Spain, beyond the Pyrenees into France, to Italy, Sicily, eastwards across Asia into India and China. It was, in a sense that Christianity did not dream of being at that time, a world power, an international poly-ethnic, you might even say intercontinental, civilization, while Christendom was still poor, primitive and limited substantially to Europe. I say "substantially" because there were Christians outside Europe, in the Middle East and particularly in Ethiopia, but they remained relatively small and unimportant groups.
For most of the encounter between Christendom and Islamdom, it was Islam that was successful. In warfare, three times they invaded and conquered substantial parts of Europe: the Moors in Spain, Portugal, and even in to France; the Tatars dominated Russia for centuries; and third, last, and perhaps greatest in its impact, the Turkish invasion, the conquest first of Anatolia, then in 1453 of Constantinople, the great Greek Christian citadel, and then into southeastern Europe, reaching twice as far as Vienna.
Now, there are always ups and downs. The Muslims were in Spain for almost 800 years. This long struggle ended with their expulsion by the Spanish Christians. But this was remote, at the far end of the world as far as they were aware, and its impact in the central lands of Islam was limited. We can look at things nowadays in a historical and global perspective. People in the 17th century had neither such perspective. They were concerned with what was happening now and here.
And as far as that went, in the 17th century Islam was still triumphant. Remember, in the 17th century there were Turkish pashas ruling in Buddha and Belgrade, Turkish armies besieging Vienna, and Barbary corsairs raiding the coasts of Europe as far away as England and Ireland, and on one occasion even Iceland, looking for human booty.
And then came the dramatic change. The first Turkish siege of Vienna was what in sports language one might call a draw, or in chess language a stalemate. Neither side won. They confronted each other for more than a century.
Then the Turks tried again, in 1683 the second Turkish siege of Vienna, and this time the outcome was unequivocal. It was a calamitous defeat. Here I quote the contemporary Turkish historian Sulabdam al-Afaq [phonetic]: "This was the most calamitous defeat that we have suffered since the foundation of our state." One must commend the 17th-century Turkish historian for his frankness. One only wishes that present-day Middle East historians would achieve equal candor.
The failure to take Vienna was followed by a headlong flight through the Balkans and the Treaty of Karlowitz, in 1699, the first treaty imposed on the Ottomans by victorious Christian enemies.
There had been other defeats elsewhere, but they didn't strike the imagination in quite the same way as this defeat between the two major powers of the two worlds, the Ottoman Empire, the last in many ways the greatest, and certainly the most enduring of all the Islamic states, and the Holy Roman Empire, representing Christendom, the successor of the Byzantium emperors in the Christian world.
The signing of the Treaty of Karlowitz marked the beginning of the debate which has been going on ever since. It began with the Ottoman elite—military, bureaucratic, political—discussing this agonizing question: "What went wrong? More specifically, why is it that in the past we were always able to defeat the infidels; now the infidels are defeating us? In the past, we always captured territory from the infidels; now they are capturing territory from us."
The debate began with the Ottoman elite. It spread in the course of time to wider elements of the population and from Turkey to other Islamic lands, as the awareness of the changed relation between these two historical rivals became more widespread.
A whole series of answers have been offered.
The immediate and obvious one was military: "Defeat was suffered in the battlefield. The cause must be better weapons, training, strategy." And an attempt was made to modernize, Westernize, Europeanize their armies. It led only to bigger and better defeats, ending finally in 1918 with the defeat and occupation of the last of the great Islamic empires, the occupation of its capital, Istanbul, and the partition of its territories between the victorious Christian allies. The military solution didn’t work.
From quite an early date, people thought of other explanations. The defeats in the battlefield were accompanied by defeats in the marketplace, as Europeans produced better and cheaper goods, and were able to outsell the Middle Easterners, even in things which they themselves had originated.
A good example is coffee and sugar. Coffee originally came from Ethiopia, sugar from Iran and India, and both were unknown in Europe. They were introduced from the Middle East where they were established and figured prominently among Middle Eastern exports to Europe. But Europeans learned how to grow both coffee and sugar in their plantations abroad, and to do so cheaply and efficiently, so that by the 18th century if a Turk or an Arab enjoyed that characteristic Middle Eastern indulgence, a cup of sweetened coffee, the chances were that the coffee came from Java or South America and the sugar from the West Indies. Only the hot water was local. And by the 19th century, even that ceased to be true, as European utility companies took over the provision of public services in Middle Eastern cities.
Defeats in the battlefield of the marketplace were accompanied by others, notably in the schoolroom. Here I would draw your attention to one of the most astonishing of the changes.
The Islamic civilization was not only the most powerful and the most wealthy in the world; it was also the most creative in virtually every significant field of human endeavor, and in all the sciences —mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy—they had inherited the wisdom of the ancient Middle East and Greece. But they didn't stop with that. They continued to advance human knowledge in all these areas. In their early relations with Europe, they were the teachers, and the poor benighted Barbarians of the West were the pupils.
That, too, changed. During the centuries which in European history are called the Middle Ages, implying the interval of darkness between the decline of ancient civilization and the rise of modern civilization, was an interval of advanced creativity in other parts of the world, notably in the Islamic world.
So there, too, they tried to change. The problem was economic, so they tried to build factories. It didn't help. That led to a series of derelict factories over various parts of the region.
Then, some more enterprising visitors from the West decided that the secret of Western success, the talisman of Western victory and wealth, was this strange institution, elected assemblies. This was something without parallel or precedent elsewhere in the world. "A written constitution, an elected assembly, this is the secret."
So they experimented with those two, sometimes by indigenous reformers, sometimes foreign powers. It didn't work either, and what was left was a series of shabby tyrannies, European only in their methods of repression.
Some looked further. A mid-19th-century Turkish writer published an essay in Turkish newspapers in the 1850s in which he says: "The real reason why we [meaning the Muslim world] have fallen behind the West is the way we treat our women." He uses a couple of striking images. He said: "We treat our women, at best, like jewels or musical instruments, and most of the time we suppress and oppress them." "Since," he said, "we are depriving ourselves of the talents and services of half the population, it is not surprising that we have fallen behind." Then he produces another striking image: "Our body social is like a human body that is paralyzed on one side."
Now, the position of women in the West was very far from one of equality in those days, particularly, but not exclusively, in the economic field. But in most respects, except married women's property, was vastly better than in the Islamic lands.
As Namicih Kamaldi [phonetic], the writer I quoted, pointed out, "Having women depressed and ignorant also meant that you were entrusting the education of even male children to depressed and ignorant mothers."
The same point was taken up by Kemal Ataturk, the first President of the Turkish Republic, who, after taking office in 1923, first began a campaign tour making speeches on behalf of women's political rights. Anything less likely than an Ottoman pasha and a general campaigning on a feminist platform would be difficult to imagine.
Nevertheless, he did, and he gave his reasons with his normal military terseness: "Our most urgent task today in Turkey is to catch up with the modern world. We will not catch up with the modern world if we only modernize half the population."
Many other explanations have been offered: the lack of wheeled vehicles and religion. This is a very delicate question. Obviously, in Muslim lands it was difficult, if not impossible, to say "Islam is the cause." It was also not very plausible because, after all, Islam was the dominant religion in the age of their greatness. So instead of attacking Islam, they attacked what they called fanaticism.
They said, "It is a misrepresentation, a distortion, of Islam that has prevailed, and in particular, the domination of the state by religion, which is a bad thing." That debate is still going on to this present day. We have two major approaches, which I shall return to in a moment.
When you become aware that something is going wrong and you say "What went wrong?", there are two ways you can follow up. One is what I have just described: in effect, to say "What did we do wrong?", and that leads to "How do we put it right?"
The other response when you are aware that things are going wrong is "Who did this to us?" And that leads into a twilight world of neurotic fantasies and conspiracy theories. This has also been a line much followed by some people, though by no means all, in the Islamic world.
The first victims—the first scapegoat—of the blame game were the Mongols. For a long time it was established doctrine that the Mongol invasions of the 13th century were responsible for the destruction of the great Islamic civilization of the Middle Ages.
More recently, some historians in the Arab world have looked at this more dispassionately and said: "Wait a minute. How could a few thousand nomadic horsemen riding across the steppe from East Asia destroy the mighty civilization of the caliphs and Baghdad? There must have been something wrong with it if it could be toppled so easily by the Mongols."
The same argument applies to most of the other similar "explanations." A popular one of the present time is to blame everything on West European imperialism, the period of British and French rule in the Arab world. Obviously, there was much that went wrong in the period of British and French rule, but the basic troubles began long before they arrived and continued, if anything, at a faster pace after their departure. And the interval of Anglo-French rule was at the most a century and a half, and in most regions considerably less than that.
This blaming others is really looking at a symptom rather than a cause. The question isn’t "Why did the European imperialists invade the lands of Islam?" "Why" is very clear: it was the normal thing to do. They had expelled the Muslim invaders from Europe and they were following the invaders whence they came, playing the same game that they had learned from their teachers. The question to ask is not "Why did they do it?" but "Why did they succeed, whereas previously they would have failed miserably in any such attempt?"
At the present time, I should say there are two explanations that are current and two that are being followed in the Islamic world.
One is what you might call the "modernist" explanation, those who say: "We fell behind because we didn't keep up with modernity." There are many civilizations, but at any one time there is only one modernity. Again to quote Ataturk: "It's nonsense to talk of our civilization and your civilization, this civilization and that civilization. At the present time there is only one civilization that is alive and advancing. We either join that or we are uncivilized." Again, somewhat crude, but he made his point effectively.
And, indeed, what started as a West European civilization is now a worldwide civilization in which non-Europeans, notably in East and South Asia, are playing an increasingly important part.
This is still even more galling for people in the Islamic world when they see the latecomers, those who started the process of modernization long after they did. Japan, more recently Korea, and increasingly India have made much more progress than they have. Compare, for example, the post-imperial destinies of British crown colonies like Aden in the Middle East and Singapore in East Asia, or Hong Kong for that matter.
The argument of this particular school is: "We have failed, we have fallen behind, because we did not keep up with modernity, and the answer is to modernize, to become part of this universal modern civilization which now extends from America to Japan the long way round."
That is the dominant view in the Turkish Republic, where they have also drawn the inferences that this process of modernization has two prerequisites. One is a separation of religion from government. Turkey is one of the very few Muslim states which explicitly says in its Constitution that religion has no part in the government of the state or of the law. The other, with which they have been struggling for a long time now, is democracy, elected responsible government under law.
The Turks demonstrated two things. One is that in a society with ancient traditions of command and obedience, establishing a democracy is very difficult. The second is that, though it is difficult, it is possible.
The other diagnosis of the ills of the Islamic world, and the remedy which they offer, is almost the exact opposite. It is the argument of those who say: "What went wrong is that we abandoned our own heritage, our own traditions, abandoned the God-given faith which our ancestors transmitted to us. What went wrong is that we have aped the ways of infidels and outsiders and foreigners. The remedy is to return to true, authentic Islam."
That is the prevailing philosophy or theology of the Islamic Republic of Iran and also of a number of other Muslim movements, though these are by no means all of the same complexion. They vary among themselves.
The Republic of Iran is explicitly a theocracy. It is ruled by the clergy, institutions set up by them. In saying that I am indicating the extent to which even the Islamic Republic of Iran marks a level of Westernization perhaps greater than that of the Turkish Republic.
I used the word "clergy." This is a Christian word which doesn't really apply to Islam. There is no such thing as "the church," in the sense of a separate, organized institution.
Now, for the first time, in Iran they are carrying out what I might describe, without intending any disrespect, as the "Christianization" of Islam, using the word to indicate not doctrines, not morality, but institutions. What you now have in Iran, for the first time in Islamic history, is the functional equivalent of a papacy, a college of cardinals, a bench of Bishops, and, most important of all, an inquisition, and, inch’Allah, they will soon have a reformation too.
These are in their starkest form the two alternatives which are offered to the Islamic world. There have been others.
During the second half of the 20th century, there were two highly popular ideologies which commanded immense support: socialism and nationalism.
Cast your minds back to 1945. Socialism seemed at the time definitely to be the wave of the future. In Eastern Europe, the Soviet armies had won a decisive victory over their German enemies. In Western Europe, the British Labour Party won a decisive electoral victory, ousting the great Winston Churchill from power. Socialism was the thing.
One Arab government after another tried to introduce one or another form of socialism, in the expectation that this would bring them the prosperity which they desired. There was some argument about what kind of socialism. Some talked of "Arab socialism," meaning socialism which was stripped of its distinctively European characteristics and adapted to Arab differences. Others said: "No, we must have scientific socialism," by which they meant the unadulterated Marxist original.
All of them failed miserably. By the end of the century, most people in the Arab world had agreed that socialism was neither Arab nor scientific.
The other one was nationalism. As socialism was supposed to bring prosperity, nationalism was to bring freedom. Unfortunately, there was a confusion between two related but distinct concepts, nationalism and independence.
In countries under foreign rule, the first demand for freedom is obviously to end foreign rule. That meant to achieve independence. By now, almost all of them have in fact achieved independence. But, far from gaining freedom, for the most part they have lost what little freedom they had before. So nationalism and socialism were both discredited, the one by its failure, the other by its success.
The only brand which did seem to succeed was the bastard offspring of the two, national socialism, and we do have two quite successful examples of the European-style one-party state, in Syria and in Iraq—successful, in the most important of their objectives, survival, but not in anything else.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: Is there any alternative to an American military attack on Iraq?
BERNARD LEWIS:Yes, there is an alternative: doing nothing about it. But I take it that is not what you had in mind.
You can divide the countries of the Middle East in their attitude toward the United States into three groups: countries with pro-American governments and anti-American populations, like the two countries from which most of the hijackers came; countries with anti-American governments and pro-American populations, notably Iraq and Iran; and countries where both the population and the government are pro-American, and those of course are the two countries in the region, Turkey and Israel, where the government can be dismissed by the electorate and therefore have to represent the wishes of the electorate in this as in other matters. In those two countries, elections change governments. Everywhere else in the region, governments change elections.
In Iraq there is an odious tyranny, which, from every indication we have, is detested by its people. However, there is an unfortunate record of what I can only call betrayal. Ten years ago, an American president called on the Iraqi people to rise in revolt against their ruler. They did so, and we made a cease-fire allowing that ruler to retain the use of helicopters, and we sat and watched while he suppressed the rebellion region by region and group by group, with awful bloodshed.
A few years later, there was an attempt again in the Free Zone in the north of Iraq. You will recall that about a quarter of the land area of Iraq is not under the control of Saddam Hussein. It is the Independent Zone in the north, vastly more than what was controlled by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan at the beginning of the recent trouble.
There, too, an attempt was made to set up an independent regime. They even talked at the time of proclaiming a provisional government of Iraq in the north, and I have good reason to believe that they had substantial promises of support from people inside Iraq. All they wanted was some evidence of support from the United States. It was not forthcoming. On the contrary, they were let down.
After that record in 1981 and again in 1995, they will be rightfully mistrustful of a call to rise up against their tyrants and seek their own liberation. They would really need to be convinced.
Whether anything short of military action would convince them, I don't know. Once the Iraqi people are convinced, they will do the job. But they have no wish to be left abandoned at the crucial moment again.
QUESTION: What is happening among academics in the Middle East? Are they not thinking?
BERNARD LEWIS: One of the problems is freedom of expression. There are many people thinking very seriously and deeply. If you talk to people, you will hear all kinds of interesting, and often profound, judgments. But remember that these are countries where freedom of expression is either nonexistent or severely limited.
In Turkey there is a large measure of freedom of expression, and that is why these things can be freely expressed one way or another, for or against. In most of the rest of the Muslim world there are severe limitations.
It is interesting that in Arabic newspapers published in Europe, there is much more freedom of discussion, even though these newspapers circulate in the Arab world.
But one of the crucial problems in this, as in so many other respects, is the lack of freedom of expression, which makes it so difficult for people really honestly to discuss these things and to do so in public.
QUESTION: I want to go back to what you said in the beginning, when you compared Islam and Christianity and you talked about the similarities and about the two dimensions, the civilizational and the religious dimension. In the civilizational dimension, Christendom is up here, and Islamdom is somewhere way below.
On the religious front, if you talk in terms of religiosity, it is quite clear that Christianity as a religion, in terms of its practice and adherence, is going down; and Islam, in terms of the faith, the practice, and adherence, is going up. The change in women's dress shows the growing conservatism in the practice of Islam, and also a growing desire to believe in it.
Islam was in some ways a thin veneer in Southeast Asia, but it is now becoming stronger and deeper. And this is also true in parts of Africa and other places.
How do you explain this growing religiosity?
BERNARD LEWIS: It is certainly true that while in most of the Christian world religiosity is in decline, in the Islamic world it is increasing very rapidly. The secularists will say that that is precisely the trouble; it is because of this religiosity that the Islamic world is falling further and further behind the less religious parts of the world, East Asia or the West.
The people of the opposite persuasion, those who believe that the real problem is the abandonment of religion, will say: "Yes, things are moving in the right direction, and in due course they will take over."
There was an interesting discussion quite recently in a Saudi Arabian newspaper on one of the crucial questions, the question of polygamy. The writer of the article is defending polygamy against this peculiar Christian idea of monogamy. He says that: "Male needs are greater than female needs; women are not available for ten days in the month and whenever they are pregnant; therefore, other provision has to be made. Now, in the West this is done by promiscuity, prostitution, and adultery. Surely our way is better," which he says give legitimacy both to the women and to their children. He has a point.
QUESTION: I have a two-part question. You mentioned nationalism towards the end of your talk. To what extent do you feel that nationalism can be a force for putting right what has gone wrong in the relationship between Islam and the West; or, particularly in view of the fundamentalist approach to the political problem, to create a caliphate that erases boundaries between nations, whereas perhaps a healthy nationalism can restore some of the prosperity and strength of the institutions?
The other part of the question is to what extent the relationship today between Islam and America mirrors the long history of the up-and-down relationship between Christendom and Islam, or does it introduce something new into the picture?
BERNARD LEWIS: I’ll take the second one first.
Yes, you have touched on a very important point there. Here we have an extremely good guide to their thinking. I am referring to the various writings of Osama bin Laden. He is a very eloquent and honest exponent of his views and motivations. As they used to say in Moscow, "It is no accident, comrades," that he uses the term "crusaders" when he wishes to insult the United States.
If you look at his most important statement, the declaration of war, the jihad against America, his first grievance, by far more important than any of the others, is the American military presence in Arabia. Remember that for Muslims Arabia is the Holy Land. That is where the Prophet Muhammad was born, lived, and died, and where the Qur'an was promulgated. For them— not just for Osama but for many Muslims—a non-Muslim military presence in Arabia itself is a desecration.
Remember, even at the time of the Crusades, the Crusaders occupied Palestine and established a Crusader King in Jerusalem with minimal response and reaction from the Muslim world. Even Saladin was prepared to enter into a relationship with the Latin King of Jerusalem. But when Crusader raiding parties raided the Hijas by land into the Hijas, pillaging the pilgrim caravans, and when they raided the coast of the Hijas, then the counter-Crusade began, which eventually drove the Crusaders out.
The military presence in Arabia itself, even though not in the Hijas, has had a similar effect, and certainly evokes a very powerful response among Muslims, who see it as a desecration.
If you look at his writings and those of others of the same persuasion, they see this as a continuation of the struggle that has been going for fourteen centuries, since the advent of Islam and the challenge which it offered to Christendom. He refers frequently to the tragic loss of Spain, other events which for him, obviously, are just yesterday, that is a fairly general perception and an important part of what we are seeing.
It means that America is now seen as the successor of the emperors in Constantinople and Vienna. America has now replaced its various predecessors as the primary power of Christendom and is, therefore, as such seen as the primary enemy.
On your other point, nationalism, an idea imported from Europe, previously unknown in the region, nationalism in the sense that the nation is the defining political identity, which determines identity, loyalty, allegiance. This is a new idea in the region, where identity traditionally was determined primarily by religion and then on a local basis by locality and kinship.
The Middle East is the region of the most ancient civilizations in the world. If you look at a map, almost all the states are new identities with new frontiers and names, because this whole idea of the nation state is alien. It was imposed on them by the imperialists. And the lines on the map are straight lines because, as they are on the map of North America and for the same reason, they were drawn by administrators in offices on maps with rulers and pencils.
The idea of a frontier as a line on the map is very modern and is another European imposition. It's remarkable, for example, that the Ottoman Empire and Iran were neighbors and rivals for many centuries, but the frontier between them was not defined until the early 20th century, when it was done by a mixed commission of Turkish and Persian officials with Russian and British advisors.
This idea of a defined frontier is an alien imposition on the region. And so is the idea of nationality defined in those terms. The aim of nationalism was independence.
What might be a substitute for it is something related, also European, but distinct, and that is patriotism.
If you look at a map of the Arab world, there are only two countries—Egypt and Morocco—that you could call real countries, nation states, in the traditional sense, going back for centuries. Virtually all the others are comparatively modern creations in what was previously a society defined by religion. By ethnicity too for some purposes, but you did not have ethnic states.
The name Turkey, for example, which is the official name of the Turkish Republic, was not adopted in Turkey as the name of the republic until it became the Republic. In pre-Republican times, Turkey was the name used by Europeans, but never by Turks.
As far as Arabia is concerned, there isn’t even a word in Arabic for "Arabia." It is not because Arabic is a poor language. Arabic is an incredibly rich language. It is because they simply didn't think in ethnic territorial terms. If you want to say "Arabia," you have to say "the Arabian peninsula" or "the Arabian land" or "the Arabian kingdom" or "the land of the Arabs." But you don’t have a noun which corresponds to "Arabia."
This is still an alien notion, an imperfectly assimilated notion, and very much overshadowed by religious identity.
We in the West, particularly, but not exclusively, in the United States, tend to think of nation as the basic identity and the nation as subdivided into religions. In the Muslim world, the more traditional way is to think about religion subdivided into nations.
QUESTIONER: Do you personally have an answer as to what went wrong?
BERNARD LEWIS: Historical problems are not like mathematical problems. In a mathematical problem there is one right answer and all the others are wrong. In the human sciences, notably history, it isn't like that. First of all, there are many different ways of posing the problem; and, according to the way you pose the problem, there are many different answers. It is also extremely difficult to distinguish between causes, consequences, and mere symptoms, and a good deal of confusion arises from the intermingling of these.
As a historian, I feel only able to define as far as I can the nature of the problem as perceived by the people who are in it. It's their problem, not mine, and they are the ones who are entitled and have the right and also the duty to define the problem, to identify, explain, and to remedy it. The best that we can do is to refrain from obstructing the process.
Now, what I tried to do is to enumerate a number of the different explanations which have been put forward, some of which can be dismissed out of hand. And there is the whole school of racist explanation, rarely expressed publicly but often privately, that these are inferior people, incapable of anything. This is errant nonsense.
There are two very simple ways of disproving it. One is the great things which they did in the past when they were still the same people. And the other, more obvious, is you take a Middle Easterner out of Middle Eastern society and put him in a West European or North American institution and he does as well or better than anyone else.
The others are more complex. As I said, the distinction between causes, symptoms, and consequences is far too complex for me to offer any simple answer.
QUESTION: Many scholars have some different interpretations of what went wrong. One of them is that most of the Muslim and Arab world until the turn of the century, were under colonial rule–British, French, or Italian. To a great extent, those scholars say that, "Why didn’t the colonial powers plant the seeds that would have led to more enlightened, literate, and democratic societies?" Their explanation is that it was in the interest of those ruling powers to have a relationship with the leaders of those countries before independence so as to exploit them to the maximum, and to build their own empires.
This is a very strong theory that exists in England and other parts of the world, and it has some truth in it.
BERNARD LEWIS: Yes, obviously, the interval of colonial rule is certainly an important factor. But here again I must repeat what I said before.
First of all, the interval of British and French domination in the Arab world is relatively brief. The problems which we discussed began much earlier, long before they arrived. And indeed, those problems were a cause of their arrival. Why is it that in 1798 a comparatively small French force, commanded by a young general called Napoleon Bonaparte, was able to invade, conquer, occupy, and rule Egypt? Here you had a country of ancient civilization, a province at that time of the Ottoman Empire, and yet a small expeditionary force from one Western European country was able to do that. And to make matters worse, to get rid of the French, neither the Egyptians could do it nor their suzerains the Turks. The departure of the French was accomplished by a small squadron of the Royal Navy commanded by a young admiral called Horatio Nelson.
At the turn of the 18th-19th century, you have a vivid demonstration of the powerlessness of what had been not long previously the mightiest empire in the world. What went wrong that enabled these upstart powers in the West to come and play their games in the region? Something must have been very badly wrong for Bonaparte to be able to come and for only Nelson to be able to get him out.
When we variously assess the role of the imperial powers and what they did, they were able to come and rule. This was not like establishing themselves in pre-Columbian America, which was a land, with rare exceptions, without any established political order or any real force. This was not the case with the Middle East.
By putting it that way you are not answering the problem, you are reformulating the problem. Why were they able to do it? What was the cause of the weakness that enabled a small expeditionary force from France to conquer and hold Egypt so quickly and so easily?
QUESTION: Why did so many Islamic countries fail to modernize?
In Asia there were many relatively successful authoritarian modernizers, military dictators like Park Chung Hee in Korea, Communist dictators like Deng Xiaoping in China, Lee Kwan Yu in Singapore.
In the Islamic world, Ataturk seems to be something of an exception. Do you have any thoughts about why Ataturk was able to do it and no one else, even among some of the generals, has been able to come up with an articulate program for modernization, as has happened in many other parts of the world?
BERNARD LEWIS: You must remember that Ataturk did not emerge like Aphrodite from the sea foam. The movement which he represents had a long history in Turkey before that. The Turks had one enormous advantage over the Arabs, and that is that sovereign independence was not an issue for them. They were running their own country, conducting their own affairs. So that, except for a very brief interval, the struggle for national independence did not divert their energies and attention from other tasks.
They were the ones who first encountered this problem in a dramatic form in the retreat from Vienna and the Treaty of Karlowitz. They began just over 300 years ago to work on this, so that they have had more time than anyone else in the Islamic world. They were the first to encounter it, to confront it, to try a whole series of mostly unsuccessful remedies before they came up with the idea of a secular republic.
It is possible, even likely, that other Muslim countries in time will produce their own solutions, their own equivalents of Ataturk, not necessarily along the same lines as in Turkey. They will evolve their own ways.
It’s not for lack of trying. You had modernizing rulers—Mohammad Ali in Egypt, Reza Pahlavi in Iran—but usually something went wrong, either from inside as in Iran, or from outside as in Egypt. But one may hope that things will still move in that direction.
The important thing about the Ataturk revolution in Turkey is that they showed two things—it's difficult, but it's possible.
QUESTION: Coming back to your point when you cited Osama bin Laden as to why American society has become a focus of hostility, the point you made was this may be perceived as the headquarters of the next Crusading power which had to be brought down to size. Is that the real threat, or the opposite, or will both of these prevail?
BERNARD LEWIS: Yes. That raises interesting issues. Let me try to discuss at least some of them.
You will agree that, even today, there are still only two world religions. Buddhism seemed to come near to that for awhile and then it retreated. Christianity and Islam are still both world religions and both are still expanding, both are still acquiring new converts. And both, particularly the Muslims, less so the Christians, are conscious of the more than fourteen centuries of rivalry between them. This was more conscious on the Muslim side, for the very simple reason that Islam came later. Islam emerged in its present form through the Revelation of the Qur'an in the seventh century of the Christian era.
If you visit Jerusalem, you will certainly go to see the Dome of the Rock, the earliest Muslim religious building outside Arabia. Inside the Dome there are many inscriptions in Arabic, most of them from the Qur'an. They say "There is no God but God, he has no peer, he has no companion, he does not beget, he is not begotten." This is clearly anti-Christian polemic. This is the new religious civilization saying to the old one, "Your time has passed, we are taking over, move away, move over."
It is, therefore, hardly surprising that people through the millennia, a millennium and a half now almost, have seen the two, on both sides, as the rival for the fulfillment of what each perceives or perceived to be its world destiny.
For people like Osama bin Laden this is still the case, and America is the successor of Aramoc Dupol, the previous lords of Christendom, and that is what he means when he calls the Americans Crusaders. This view is shared by some others, but by no means by all Muslims.
Others will see it rather in the terms that you described, that this is not Christendom, but heathendom, against which they are fighting, that this is a struggle between Islam and paganism, idolatry. Yes, certainly, there are many who see it that way.
The final question which one is often asked in a rather plaintive tone, "Why do they hate us?" To which my answer is very simple: It is not possible to be rich, strong, and successful and be loved by those who are none of these things.