What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response

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MISCELLANEOUS

Bernard Lewis

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, xii, 180pp, US$23.00, ISBN 0-19-514420-1

Ninety per cent of this book consists of a study of interactions between Europe and the Ottoman Empire from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries. After briefly describing the Ottoman expansion through southern Europe and the Balkans 'to the gates of Vienna,' Bernard Lewis discusses the difficulties the Turks subsequently experienced in coming to grips with new intellectual and other currents emanating from Europe. In one sphere after another the creativity and dynamism of Europe challenged the Turks - commerce and enterprise, science and technology, military organization and equipment, the measurement of time and space. Even more daunting was the dissemination of European thinking on political freedom, human rights, gender equality, a free press, and above all secularism. In the end, the challenges proved insurmountable, an increasingly moribund Ottoman empire shrank and then collapsed, and a triumphant Europe reasserted or asserted its control over most of the lands once ruled by the Sultan.

So far, so good. Lewis brings to his task the scholarship and talents that have distinguished his work as a historian of the Middle East for over 50 years. (One of his early works, The Arabs in History, first published in 1950, is still widely read today, and deservedly so.) He demonstrates an impressive command of Turkish sources, illustrating his points with a judicious selection of extracts from Ottoman documents, memoirs, and letters. The writing is clear, elegant, and persuasive. While his judgements of Ottoman failings are often severe, they are neither unfounded nor unfair. Indeed, if this were all there was to this book, it could readily be saluted and recommended as a fine piece of historical writing.

Unfortunately, Lewis has chosen to draw from his study a series of lessons and conclusions of supposedly contemporary relevance about what he calls 'the long struggle between Islam and Christendom.' In so doing, he manages to avoid neither of the twin pitfalls of oversimplification and overgeneralization.

To portray the expansion of the Ottoman empire simply as a civilizational or ideological contest between the worlds of Christianity and Islam is at best misleading. As their empire spread, the Ottomans conquered as many Muslim Arab lands (from Baghdad to Mecca to Algiers) as they did Christian European lands. …