by Bernard Lewis

When Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared Western civilization “superior” to Islamic civilization, the vehemence of the reaction was in direct proportion to his accuracy. Mr. Berlusconi wasn’t commenting on the religious validity of Islam, but on the relative successes of Islamic society and Europe. Islam, despite having the dominant civilization for most of the Middle Ages, has been chasing Europe for almost 500 years, falling progressively further behind. The what went wrong informs Bernard Lewis’s lucid analysis of Western rise and Muslim eclipse over the last half-millennium.

What went wrong was a lack of freedom. The arbitrary, if not always centralized, power, of the Ottomans, the Shahs, and the Egyptian Pashas, bred fear of success, and thus also of innovation. No longer able to innovate for themselves, they chased the latest European developments. Governments forced change on an unwilling and unprepared citizenry.

By 1700, repeated losses on the battlefield had forced Islam into retreat. These losses continued despite the Ottomans’ successful efforts to beg, borrow, and steal Europe’s best military and industrial technology. Factories quickly became obsolete, and rusted away. Concern turned to alarm, and the Ottomans were forced to swallow the very bitter medicine of studying not only Europe’s technology, but their society as well.

Under European influence and sometimes by treaty, the Ottomans and much of Islam reluctantly removed or reduced the three institutionalized forms on inequality. They freed slaves, removed religious barriers in social and economic life, and, belatedly and incompletely, freed women from their second-class status. The economy never really relied on slavery, and freedom for women is still an open question. But the dissolution of the separate official religious communities forced everyone into unsettled and uncertain relationships.

Simultaneously, the Ottomans engaged in another destructive experiment, taking in the twin Trojan Horses of nationalism and patriotism modeled after French Revolutionary ideas. Nationalism in the Balkans only fueled Christian attempts to rid themselves of what they saw as oppressive foreign Muslim domination. It also proved a destructive force within Islam, creating for the first time a separate “Egyptian” identity. Ottoman patriotism merely proved sterile.

From the 1850s to the interwar European protectorates, governments tried to impose parliaments. But Sultans, Pashas, and Shahs dissolved them when they become too troublesome. Strongmen hijacked them when the French and British left.

In The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, Lewis discusses the different and sometimes conflicting religious, political, and social identities of its residents. Europe made the transition from Medieval religious identities to modern ones on its own, although not always smoothly. Islam has found itself behind the curve, lacking the freedom and flexibility to develop new ones to accommodate changing identities. Changes from above or outside merely served to disrupt, without delivering more innovation or success. Now, the challenge is to make older identities, religion and language, work within structures built to accommodate newer ones, such as nation and country.

Century after century, Muslim leaders found themselves chasing the latest developments in the West, trying to impose from above what the West had developed organically from below. It is precisely the same pattern as the old Soviet Union, that of a sclerotic society, no longer capable of innovation, trying to compete by copying, but unable to skip steps in its development. Unwilling to accept the price of a free society, they have also forfeited its benefits.

Lewis’s clarity of thought translates into clarity of writing. His analysis is cool, level-headed, and sympathetic. He judges Muslim civilization of the last half-millennium not harshly or arbitrarily, but on Western standards that Islam itself has accepted. Read along with his defense of Western academic study of Muslim civilization in Islam and the West, it makes one wonder why anyone takes Edward Said seriously.

The frequent overlap among his books only emphasizes the fantastic breadth and depth of his understanding of Muslim civilization. A paragraph in one book turns into a chapter in another; a chapter turns into a whole book. What Went Wrong? provides not only a summary of the last 500 years of Muslim decline, but also a fine jumping-off point for those who want to learn more.