- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2002

For more than 1,000 years Islam had been in the ascendant with the Mediterranean a virtual Islamic lake. Muslim armies had marched through North Africa and the Iberian peninsula; Sicily and even parts of mainland Italy had come under the crescent; in the east, the Ottoman Empire had replaced the Byzantine and all the Balkans paid homage. The sultan commanded the most powerful armies, the greatest treasury and the largest collection of centers of learning. Constantinople was a magnet that drew both traders and scholars, and considered itself the hub around which the rest of the world revolved.
What, then, went wrong? Why had the mighty fallen so profoundly? Bernard Lewis, one of the world's foremost authorities on both Islam and the Middle East, attempts an explanation in "What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle East Response" by highlighting the differences of culture between the Islamic Middle East and the Christian West.
For most of its existence, Islam was more egalitarian than the rigidly hierarchical kingdoms of Christendom, which was one of the causes of its great success. For example, in the Ottoman Empire there were only three conditions that impeded a person's rise to fame: if he were a slave, which could be circumvented by buying freedom; if he were a non-Muslim, which could be resolved simply by converting; or if she were a woman, for which there was no remedy. In the West, class and caste distinctions were more dominant and not so easily overcome.
In time, however, the West changed. Inductive replaced deductive reasoning, and civilization turned more pragmatic. It became more important to observe a fish swimming in water than to read Aristotle describing how a fish swam in water. The utility of one's beliefs became important considerations. While the West became more elastic in its approach, a kind of cultural arteriosclerosis developed in the Middle East. For example, the ruling military elites of Egypt thought it was unmanly of the French to kill at a distance by using firearms. Unmanly or not, Napoleon conquered Egypt in a remarkably short time.
Mr. Lewis also believes that the secular state, a concept which arose in the West and was made palatable by the Christian belief of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's, is a critical distinction. In the Muslim empires, God and Caesar were the same. The sultan (temporal leader) and the caliph (spiritual leader) were the same man. Whether such a juncture actually impedes progress can be argued; but the richest, most powerful nation in today's world is also the best example of a true secular state. Modern Turkey, which rose from the shambles of the Ottoman Empire, abolished the office of the caliph and today identifies itself as a secular state, the only Middle Eastern country with a majority Muslim population to do so.
Mr. Lewis, in describing the reconstruction of Turkey points out that Kemal Ataturk and his supporters did not ask who had brought them down, but rather why had they fallen to such lows. They reasoned that if they wanted to improve their lot they had to be the ones to take action. They had to look to themselves, acknowledge their mistakes and rectify them. Only then could there be any progress towards attainable goals.
The rest of the Middle East, however, did the reverse and played the blame game. First it was the Mongols, then the Ottomans, and then the French and English who were to blame for all shortcomings. Now it is the United States and Israel. Mr. Lewis feels that because of the events of September 11 the Islamic world has reached a turning point. The Islamic world must finally take responsibility for its actions, ask how things went wrong and what is needed to get things right, and then perhaps with some injection of democracy, the Islamic world can re-emerge as the major center of civilization it once was. If, however, the Islamic world continues to play the role of victim it will continue in a downward spiral of hate and violence leading to the chaos that invites foreign intervention. The choice is theirs, and they are the only ones who can make it.
Mr. Lewis does not comment on U.S. foreign policy. But in the Arab world, as in most of the world, nothing succeeds like success. Because of our stunning victories in Afghanistan, the tone of Arab criticism has changed. If we continue on our present path with determination, democratic values may yet triumph. It may be a long time before a truly secular democratic state emerges in the Middle East, but if one does appear, and is followed by others, the whole world will change, and for the better.

Sol Schindler is a retired foreign service officer who writes and lectures on international affairs.


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