I’d not really appreciated before quite how controversial Bernard Lewis (left) is seen in some circles (perhaps especially because he was regularly consulted by the Bush administration – though others had before him). But one of the foremost western scholars of Islam is a Jewish, British-born and now naturalised American, professor emeritus at Princeton. He has written many books and offered profoundly nuanced and scholarly reflections on the knotty issue of Islam’s relationship with the wider world – which is of course perhaps the biggest unresolved question of our times. He is feted or reviled (depending on your perspective) as the originator of the phrase (so famously taken up by Samuel Huntington in his book of the same name) ‘the clash of civilisations‘.

I’m returning to Turkey next week for a few days and so wanted to read this book, on the recommendation of a friend I was with in Albania last month. It was written in 2000/2001 on the back of a series of lectures (and summarised in this 2002 article from Atlantic Monthly) – but then published very soon after 9/11. Pretty timely, then.

A very provocative question!

Lewis asks a provocative but very significant question. How did the centuries-old Islamic civilisation, which was by any measure, an extraordinary historical phenomenon – fall so behind the rest of the world? It’s all the more surprising when it is recognised that they had been at the forefront of scientific, artistic and philosophical development, when the rest of Europe and many parts of Asia were in chaotic turmoil. Of course, the ‘Dark Ages’ is in many ways an unfair misnomer. But Europe wasn’t a patch on the Ottoman and Persian empires for example. And then from, say, the 1450s onwards, the tables started turning. As Lewis says:

… the Renaissance, the Reformation, the technological revolution passed virtually unnoticed in the lands of Islam, where they were still inclined to dismiss the denizens of the lands beyond the Western frontier as benighted barbarians, much inferior even to the more sophisticated Asian infidels to the east. These had useful skills and devices to impart; the Europeans had neither. It was a judgement that had for long been reasonably accurate. It was becoming dangerously out of date. (p7)

One example, which seems to remain to this day, is the issue of economics and manufacturing.

Later attempts to catch up with the Industrial Revolution fared little better. Unlike the rising power of Asia, most of which started from a lower economic base than the Middle East, the countries in the region still lag behind in investment, job creation, productivity and therefore in exports and incomes. According to a World Bank estimate, the total exports of the Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, a country of five million inhabitants. Nor is much coming into the region by way of capital investment. On the contrary, wealthy Middle Easterners prefer to invest their capital abroad, in the developed world. (p47)

I suppose the one exception to this is investment in property (as opposed to Middle Eastern oil revenues). But as Dubai’s recent meltdown has shown, this is built on sand (in more ways than one). To make matters worse, the cultural climate underpinning the business world leaves many things to  be desired. Lewis offers this astute, if somewhat barbed, observation:

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 buy or influence power. In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money. Morally there is no difference between the two, but their impact on the economy and on the polity is very different. (p63)

It’s hard to deny the truth of either claim – though why restrict it to the Islamic Middle East? It could certainly be said to be true of many parts of so-called ‘Christian’ sub-Saharan Africa, as we discovered more than once when we lived in Uganda.

The problem with Islamic Secularism

The book’s title question is certainly a loaded one, presupposing, for example, that the west went right. And towards the end of the book, it’s clear from his perceptions of so-called fundamentalist Islam (a description he takes issue with) that there are many from Bin Laden down who feel that Islam failed precisely when it attempted to assimilate western development.

A good illustration of this problem is the wildly divergent attitudes to secularism, which was perceived by some in the Islamic world as (rightly or wrongly) being essential to European success. The problems were inherent at the start it seems:

Secularism in the modern political meaning – the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated – is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced in the teachings of Christ, confirmed by the experience of the first Christians; its later development was shaped and, in a sense, imposed by the subsequent history of Christendom. The persecutions endured by the early church made it clear that a separation between the two was possible; the persecutions inflicted by the later churches persuaded many Christians that such a separation was necessary.

… in this, the practice of Christianity was in marked contrast with both its precursors and its competitors. (p96)

Of course, as a Christian, it is interesting to read this analysis. For many are alarmed about what is perceived as a creeping secularising agenda in European and American society, whereby religious faith (and Christian faith in particular) are being deliberately privatised and marginalised. But that’s a whole other issue!

Ataturk, Father of Modern Turkey

And yet, despite its Christian origins, I was very struck by the fact that one of the reasons why Muslims started taking secularism seriously was the 1789 French Revolution (which came at a time when Europe’s social, political, economic and cultural development was far outstripping the Ottoman world). The urgency to catch up and not be left behind was growing – but the attraction for some in the revolution was that it wasn’t Christian.

The first Muslim encounter with secularism was in the French Revolution, which they say, not as secular (a word and concept equally meaningless to them at the time), but as de-Christianised, and therefore deserving of some consideration. All previous movements of ideas in Europe had been, to a greater or lesser extent, Christian, at least in their expression, and were accordingly discounted in advance from a Muslim point of view. The French Revolution was the first movement of ideas in Europe that was seen as non-Christian or even anti-Christian, and some Muslims therefore looked to France in the hope of finding, in these ideas, the motors of Western science and progress, freed from Christian encumbrances. These ideas provided the main ideological inspiration of many of the modernising and reforming movements in the Islamic world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (p104)

Yet the problem with such secularising agendas is that they run completely counter to an Islamic worldview – where there is no dualism between civil and sacred, for example. The attempt to force the distinction is one reason why there has been such a strong reaction against it:

The arch-enemy for most of them is Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and the first great secularising reformer  in the Muslim world. Characters as diverse as King Faruq and Presidents Nasser and Sadat in Egypt, Hafiz al-Asad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Shah of Persia and the kings and princes of Arabia, were denounced as the most dangerous enemies of Islam, the enemies from within.

[Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, the ideological guide of the group that murdered President Sadat of Egypt [wrote]:

Fighting the near enemy is more important than fighting the distant enemy. In jihad, the blood of the Muslims must flow until victory is achieved… There can be no doubt that the first battlefield of the jihad is the extirpation of these infidel leaderships and their replacement by a perfect Islamic order. From this will come release. (p107)

This culture clash (and I use the word only because Lewis does) over the appropriateness of secularism explains a great deal about the tensions we see around. I’ll follow this up tomorrow with some other things i picked up from this fascinating book.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. I definitely going to read this. Thanks so much for the review. And love the 20 qs to ask of a novel.

  2. Borrowing a page from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, Francis Bacon attempted to put and end to scientific and medical tyranny, by innovating the scientific method, recently corrupted by peer review tyranny.

    Francis Bacon

    AS THE births of living creatures, at first are ill-shapen, so are all innovations, which are the births of time. Yet notwithstanding, as those that first bring honor into their family, are commonly more worthy than most that succeed, so the first precedent (if it be good) is seldom attained by imitation. For ill, to man’s nature, as it stands perverted, hath a natural motion, strongest in continuance; but good, as a forced motion, strongest at first. Surely every medicine is an innovation; and he that will not apply new remedies, must expect new evils; for time is the greatest innovator; and if time of course alter things to the worse, and wisdom and counsel shall not alter them to the better, what shall be the end? It is true, that what is settled by custom, though it be not good, yet at least it is fit; and those things which have long gone together, are, as it were, confederate within themselves; whereas new things piece not so well; but though they help by their utility, yet they trouble by their inconformity. Besides, they are like strangers; more admired, and less favored. All this is true, if time stood still; which contrariwise moveth so round, that a froward retention of custom, is as turbulent a thing as an innovation; and they that reverence too much old times, are but a scorn to the new. It were good, therefore, that men in their innovations would follow the example of time itself; which indeed innovateth greatly, but quietly, by degrees scarce to be perceived. For otherwise, whatsoever is new is unlooked for; and ever it mends some, and pairs others; and he that is holpen, takes it for a fortune, and thanks the time; and he that is hurt, for a wrong, and imputeth it to the author. It is good also, not to try experiments in states, except the necessity be urgent, or the utility evident; and well to beware, that it be the reformation, that draweth on the change, and not the desire of change, that pretendeth the reformation. And lastly, that the novelty, though it be not rejected, yet be held for a suspect; and, as the Scripture saith, that we make a stand upon the ancient way, and then look about us, and discover what is the straight and right way, and so to walk in it

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