What Went Right in the West—and Wrong in Islam

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Americans may be notoriously oblivious of history, but Osama bin Laden, his followers, and his larger audience are not. Writing recently in the New Yorker, Bernard Lewis takes note of a moment, opaque to us, in one of bin Laden’s videotapes. Bin Laden, a warrior-prophet in the mold of Mohammed himself, refers to the “humiliation and disgrace” that Islam has suffered “for more than eighty years.” What? Lewis says that bin Laden’s audience, even its illiterate members, would have recognized the reference instantly. Bin Laden had in mind 1918, when the Ottoman empire, the last of the Islamic empires, was finally defeated.

To bin Laden, 1918, and the extinction of the Ottoman empire, was the final humiliation. The sultan was also the caliph, the symbol of Islamic unity and piety. After 1918, Islam was bereft and adrift. Turkey, the only successful contemporary Islamic state, achieved its success by becoming secular and modern—and has therefore, in bin Laden’s view, betrayed Islam.

Addressing the failure of Islam in the modern world, Bernard Lewis writes with great erudition in the lectures published in his book What Went Wrong?, a highly intelligent survey of the Western-Islamic encounter over three centuries. What emerges is the extreme difficulty Islamic culture and society have had in selectively adapting modern institutions and innovations—whether social, military, scientific, or political—to Islamic purposes. By and large, they have only failure to show for these efforts. As Lewis notes:

The Middle Eastern combination of low productivity and high birthrate makes for an unstable mix, and by all indications the Arab countries, in such matters as job creation, education, technology, and productivity lag even further behind the West than in political and military development. Arab nations also lag behind the more recent recruits to Western-style modernity, such as Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. Out of 155 countries ranked for economic freedom in 2001, the highest-ranking Muslim states are Bahrain (9th), the United Arab Emirates (14th), and Kuwait (42nd). According to the World Bank, in 2000 the average annual income in the Muslim countries from Morocco to Bangladesh was only half the world average [and this calculation includes Africa], and in the 1990s the combined gross national products of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon—that is, three of Israel’s neighbors—were considerably smaller than that of Israel alone. The per capita figures are worse. According to United Nations statistics, Israel’s per capita GDP was 3.5 times that of Lebanon and Syria, 12 times that of Jordan, and 13.5 times that of Egypt. The contrast with the West, and now with the Far East, is even more disconcerting.

But Lewis does not really answer the question he asks in his title, leaving the reader to continue wondering, What went wrong? Why the decline of Islam? Why the present unsatisfactory state of affairs throughout the Islamic world? The answer lies deep in history.

One notices at once the key dates. Mohammed was born in Mecca around 570 a.d. into an Arab polytheistic culture, against which he evidently rebelled. He journeyed to Jerusalem, for centuries the center of Judaism and later of Christianity. On the site of what is now the Temple Mount and the Al Aqsa Mosque, he is said to have received the text of the Koran from the Angel Gabriel. (Curiously, many of the figures from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament appear in this document, including even Mary.) The emergence of Islam coincided with the collapse of the administrative, economic, and military structure of the Roman empire and the temporary and consequent decline of Europe into civilizational chaos. By the time of Mohammed’s birth in 570, the collapse of the Roman order was well advanced, under pressure from tribes and warriors from beyond the Danube. Mohammedan armies would have had no chance against the organized legions of Caesar.

The point here is that the centuries of Islamic power in Europe corresponded to the Dark Ages period of European disarray and weakness and came to an end with the administrative reorganization of Europe and the burst of European intellectual, economic, and military energy known as the Renaissance. During the period of Islam’s eminence, luminous scholars and translators within Islam made invaluable contributions by translating the Greek and Latin classics, and the Islamic architectural achievements were remarkable. But, as bin Laden understands, the “glory of Islam” came decisively to an end in 1683, when Ottoman armies were routed at the gates of Vienna and the long and irreversible modern decline of Islam gathered momentum.

Islamic civilization could not match the exponentially gathering dynamism of Europe.

But, again, why?

What Went Right in the West—and Wrong in Islam

Very early in its history, official Christianity opened its doors to Greek philosophy and science. This official sanction allowed philosophy and science to be institutionalized in the great European universities and receive extensive support from the church, the crown, and other groups. Yet from the beginning, and despite its great individual achievements during the European medieval period, Islam never accommodated the cognitive disciplines of Greek philosophy and science.

The victory of rationalism in the West occurred as early as Clement and Origen, church fathers who won decisive victories for rational inquiry in the second century a.d., and pointed down a long vista, through medieval philosophy to the Christian-humanist formulations of the Renaissance and to the perspectives of natural science. From its beginnings, the West refused to reject nature. In the orthodox formulation, grace completed but did not contradict nature. In the West, Aristotelian logic triumphed: A proposition could not be true and false at the same time. In official Islam, by contrast, all important truth was recorded in the Koran.

From this historical fork in the road derives the enormous difference we now see developing between the two civilizations, gradual in the pre-scientific age, catastrophic after the Renaissance and the scientific revolutions. In the West, the life of the mind is cherished and given its independent sphere of inquiry. In Islam, the life of the mind is entirely subject to dogma.

A superficial modernization will not help Islam. Bin Laden’s Wahabism and Talibanism are a hopeless road. Religious Islam must reconsider Clement and Origen. The entire Islamic world needs to undergo its Reformation and Enlightenment, understand the roots of all these things at the level of their profound inspirations, completely renovate its school and university curriculum, establish great universities with its oil money while it still banks it, and import the best minds from the established Western universities.

Why We Must Fight

Meanwhile the West, and the United States in particular, has before it a battle it must win if civilization as we know it is to prosper. Years ago, in a Columbia seminar, we were considering Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and the instructor, the historian Jacques Barzun, understanding that a masterwork of human thought often can be epitomized in a brief and homely way, asked what it was Burke wanted as he attacked the revolutionaries in Paris. Barzun’s answer: “He wanted his morning newspaper to be delivered on time.” Yes, that newspaper was a metaphor for the pleasures, large and small, sometimes beautiful, that come with an advanced civilization. Clearly, defending such a civilization is a task of the utmost exigency. Al Qaeda and all its tentacles need to be exterminated.

This means war.

I will end here quoting once again from Bernard Lewis:

If bin Laden can persuade the world of Islam to accept his views and his leadership, then a long and bitter struggle lies ahead, and not only for America. Sooner or later, Al Qaeda and related groups will clash with the other neighbors of Islam—Russia, China, India—who may prove less squeamish than the Americans in using their power against Muslims and their sanctities. If bin Laden is correct in his calculations and succeeds in his war, then a dark future awaits the world, especially the part of it that embraces Islam.