Book Reflection: “What Went Wrong?”

What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East by Bernard Lewis

Reflection:

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe entered the termed “dark ages” of inward warfare and cultural intolerance, and the Middle East entered the Islamic “golden age.” Between now and then, Europe has developed a diverse but relatively cohesive society of personal freedoms and secure social infrastructure, while the Middle East and other regions a part of the Islamic empire have dwindled to inner turmoil toward differing philosophies and a wavering social infrastructure.

I had reservations about reading this book. It covers a controversial topic. After borrowing it I found out the book itself is considered controversial. However, I was curious, especially considering how little I know of the Islamic world’s history. Besides, when it comes to controversial topics you can’t trust the opinions of strangers–they’re probably heavily biased. I had to find out for myself and this book happened to be one of my first steps.

The most paramount aspect to any book, but especially nonfiction, isn’t so much learning new information but to stop and ask oneself more questions. This read forced me to spend more time contemplating all the possibilities one piece of information can mean than the simple reading of words from cover to cover. I love that–“that” means, regardless of the author’s opinions, I was still encouraged to think for myself.

As for the content, I have read little and sporadically of the history of the Islamic empire. I know they kept scientific learning alive for a while, developed many mathematical techniques and hosted colloquiums. For their time period, Muslims were an egalitarian society, disciplined and receptive to ideas within their culture.

An awkward passage the in the text, in history itself, and somehow the Islamic empire becomes militant, conquering much of Saharan Africa, southern Spain, Baltic nations, parts of Russia, and far to the east to Malaysia. As far as this book notes, Muslims conquered to spread their religion, the refined path to God built from the brothers of monotheism, Christianity and Judaism. There was no conquering for resources or political power–at least not in the sense that individual kings, emperors, or centralized governments conquer for power.

How did this transition in agenda occur? “What went wrong?” indeed. I’m inclined to research other books for their stipulations.

This drastic transition is the first of many chronicled in this book that’ll arise that question. Answers litter the pages, and yet they slap you with more questions.

For the most part, one could say Christian society and Islamic society are brothers: they pick on each other, see things they admire in each other, want to take from and out compete each other. While Christianity had a corrupt institution, Islam was expanding its influence. When Christianity began to settle its qualms and lean on secular politics, Islam was receding.

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It’d be one thing if a purely political power was receding, but in the Islamic empire everything was religion. I saw it this way thanks to the author almost saying it himself: in Europe religion is under the umbrella of culture, merely an aspect of society. In the Islamic empire, culture was seen as under the umbrella of religion–removing religious beliefs from other facets of life isn’t as simple as it was for Europe. The weakening of the political phenomenon, the Ottoman Empire, was the weakening  of Islam. In a relatively egalitarian society everyone was respected, though people of other religions were considered inferior. However, any kind of atheist was not tolerated. This hints at the degree of discontent that arose after not only a Christian society taking back territory and power, but the development of an increasingly secular culture.

As for modernizing, it wasn’t until the 1800s before sultans and other leaders began considering learning from the outside world. To this point, few Muslims ventured outside Islamic lands–Europe had a penchant for limiting Muslim movement and isolating them more than other minorities. Also Islamic society had little knowledge of world languages and academic subjects beyond those learned during the Golden Age. Meanwhile, Europeans loved visiting new lands and learning. Christian adventurers living in Islamic territory were not only treated like anyone else but hired to translate texts that, with any luck, held military knowledge that would help the Islamic empire regain power.

Basically, while Europe transitioned through different stages between ancient times and modern times, Islam spent those centuries at more or less the same pace locked in a conquering mentality. In many ways the context reminds me of pre-1945 Japan: the isolation, the warfare traditions and the societal discipline.

As is evident today, much of what we consider “modern” is almost synonymous with “Western”. To modernize is to Westernize–not fun if the West is dear brother and rival. Why the world relied on Western culture to modernize instead of developing independently, I don’t know, though the Islamic world in particular wanted to retain their culture but just modernize the military and things (starting with books) trickled into the borders and the populace got their own ideas. Many gravitated to open ideas and individual freedoms.

Progressives and conservatives clashed.

Europe colonized parts of the Islamic empire. Russia took over. The powerful image of the Islamic empire got buried deeper in history.

The author didn’t try to paint history black and white. He didn’t even explicitly state what he considered good and bad. What I got out of the book was two sibling societies competing with each other, each with a different personality, set of skills, and phases of live. Perhaps some points in history would point to the current extremism, but only perhaps. Overall the Islamic world was much more benevolent than Europe: no Inquisition, no heretic slaying and no violent revolutions. While I intend to learn more, it seems the Middle East developed on a different timeline and they–at the whims of a minority–are going through the inward violence Western Europe already experienced.

Of course, in the modern world, going through a tumultuous phase means access to mass communications and weaponry, affecting a global society, making the scenario unfortunate to various degrees to all of us.

There was so much content in this book that if I were to sacrifice a to-be-read book with a need-to-reread book, I’d reread this on just to give myself a chance to absorb the myriad of details that didn’t get passed the traffic of information to my brain.

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