[This review was published in the Fall 2003 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 369-371.]


Book Review


What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam

and Modernity in the Middle East

Bernard Lewis

Perennial, 2002 


            In The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel P. Huntington refers to "the Western and particularly American belief in the universal relevance of Western culture."  He says that "normatively the Western universalist belief posits that people throughout the world should embrace Western values, institutions, and culture because they embody the highest, most enlightened, most liberal, most rational, most modern, and most civilized thinking of humankind."  The central thesis of his book is that this belief is false, immoral and dangerous. 

            He points to nine coherent civilizations now existing in the world: the Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist and Japanese.  People worldwide cherish their cultural identity.  An interventionist drive by the West to universalize its way of life, Huntington argues, will meet resistance, and deservedly so.

            The belief Huntington criticizes has deep roots going back over a considerable span of time.  One of its most tangible expressions was made recently, however, in the September 2000 report of The Project for the New American Century, an organization chaired by William Kristol.  The report discusses in detail how to "translate U.S. military supremacy into American geopolitical preeminence."  It expresses a point of view that has been immensely influential in the United States, especially since September 11.

            Just as a magnifying glass can focus the sun's rays to burn a piece of paper, the clash of perspectives between Huntington and those whom we might call "The New Centurions" brings into concentrated focus a number of issues that are at once practical, intellectual and cultural.  They are issues that challenge the learning and wisdom of educated people everywhere. 

            Is a claim of rightful preeminence sustainable if thoughtful people come to know the other civilizations in depth?  That is something each educated person is called upon to decide.  Ideally, the decision will be made upon a foundation of knowledge, not ignorance.

            That is where a book like Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong? comes in.  It is a short, readable account of the history of Islam, concentrating particularly on the existential crisis that Muslims themselves have pondered for three centuries: "What went wrong" to topple Islam from the secure, self-confident, insular position it had so long enjoyed?  For those of us who have much "catch-up" reading to do to become knowledgeable about Islam and its history, there is perhaps no better place to start than with this brief book.

            Bernard Lewis is one of the world's leading commentators on Islamic society.  His more than two dozen books include The Arabs in History, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, The Political Language of Islam, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, and The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years.  He is now an emeritus professor in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.

            This most recent book contains an "Afterword" speaking to the situation since September 11, but one of its strengths is that it was written shortly before that event, being based on three lectures Lewis gave in Vienna in 1999.  That means the preoccupations that have followed September 11 have not narrowed it from being what is most useful to those seeking a comprehensive background: an examination of Islam's historic self-perception; a review of Islam's vast conquests and eventual recession; and an analysis of the tensions introduced into Islamic life by the growth within recent centuries of European ascendancy and the accompanying issues of modernization and Westernization.

            Lewis tells the story clearly, and he is in no sense an obscurantist.  Nevertheless, the impression left by a study of the book's pages is that we will do well to keep in mind the line from Hamlet: "There is more in heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy."  The issues for Islam are complex, and one is tempted to think that they will, over a long stretch of time, have to be worked out almost entirely by Muslims themselves.  It requires an overweening hubris to suppose otherwise.


                                                                                        Dwight D. Murphey