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Sunday, November 19, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: What Went Wrong?

The mid-term elections of 2006 served a stunning rebuke to the Bush Administration for its execution of the war in Iraq. Recommendations are expected shortly from both the Iraq Study Group and from a hastily commissioned internal review by the Bush Administration on possible strategies for salvaging some approximation of a "win" from the current debacle. The sad reality is that any strategy aimed at "winning" may be fatally flawed for one reason. A win involving the external imposition of a democratic government on an Arab / Islamic country may never have been possible. No book explains why this is likely the case better than What Went Wrong? -- The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East by Bernard Lewis.

What Went Wrong provides amazing insights into the relationship between Islam and the societies in which it evolved. The book describes multiple negative synergies between Islam and its surroundings that over time carved the canyon that now exists between the modern world and Islamic fundamentalists. The original text was published in October 2001 but written before the attacks of September 11. As a result, the points it makes seem even more noteworthy for their lack of any post-9/11 colorization. They're damning enough on their own.

Parallels with Democracy in America

Americans in particular are puzzled by the attraction of Muslims to a theocratic model of government, partly because of our ignorance of cultures outside the Judeo-Christian realm but also because of the mythology of our own country's founding. Assuming you can find an American who knows the basic dates and players involved, the American mythology states that a collection of intelligent, successful businessmen and gentlemen farmers became fed up with the remote tyranny of King George III, decided to set our country out on its own and wrote a great little declaration of our reasons for doing so. An even smaller number of Americans might remember that it took us two tries at forming a Constitution that struck a reasonable balance between federal and state powers. Overall, I suspect most Americans assume that once we decided "enough" with King George III, the actual structure of our government and separation of roles between the civil and religious realms were somehow "obvious" and "inevitable."

In reality, the operating principles of our form of democracy didn’t emerge from a few months of concentrated effort in Philadelphia in 1776. Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy In America traced much of America's cultural and civic DNA to concepts of local government, business and law that arrived in Plymouth and Jamestown nearly 200 years before our Constitution then evolved over time to adapt themselves to the unique challenges and opportunities of North America. If a society with 169 years of practice at democracy had trouble with "obvious" concepts like separation of church and state and checks and balances within a government, imagine the difficulty countries with no such history would have.

What Went Wrong essentially serves as the Islamic equivalent to Democracy in America, with one key difference. Tocqueville's book identified a variety of positive synergies between the traditions the American settlers brought with them and the challenges and opportunities they encountered that strengthened America's political freedoms after its independence. Lewis' book describes a variety of negative synergies between Islam and its societies that in the end turned the religion and its societies inward, leaving them far behind the rest of the world economically, politically and militarily.

The Roots of Islamic Isolationism

Early Islamic teachings held that Judaism and Christianity were earlier, corrupted representations of God's will that were perfected within Islam. Considering this tenet of Islam from a Western perspective doesn't really trigger any alarm bells because few Westerners consciously consider a separation between their religious / spiritual life and simple, practical aspects of their everyday material lives. However, early Islamic teachings drew no distinction between religious and non-religious aspects of one's life. If religious ideas / concepts should be rejected from non-believers ('"infidels"), ALL ideas from non-believers are equally suspect or corrupt.

Lewis cites numerous examples of how this attitude altered Islamic society to its detriment. For the first few hundred years, its societies made significant contributions to mathematics (use of "Arabic" numbering with decimal positioning from India), medicine (extensive writings by a Syrian doctor and writer in the 1200s on the human circulatory system were completely ignored after his death until the 1500s) and astronomy (a state of the art observatory was built in Istanbul in 1577 but shortly afterwards destroyed on orders of a local sultan and none were built afterwards anywhere in the Islamic world). Islamic scholars also translated and preserved many ancient Greek texts into Arabic that were then consulted by Westerners and became incorporated into Western thought.

Over time, the reflexive rejection of all external influences from infidels gradually crippled the Islamic world scientifically, economically, politically and militarily. What was the effect? By the 1700s, Western forces were conquering territories in the Ottoman Empire pretty much at will. The first chapter of the book describes this period and describes how, at the same time, Islamic powers felt humiliation at being so easily conquered by infidels yet grew to depend upon infidel forces to defend them from other Islamic adversaries. Does this ring a bell? How many Islamic countries are still dependent upon military and economic support from the West to preserve their hold on power (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt) and fend off Islamic extremists? How many of these countries resent the West for being dependent on the West to save them from being slaughtered by their own internal divisions?

Dichotomies of Law and Government

As Americans watch Iraq collapse into deepening chaos, we seem completely puzzled by the difficulty Iraqis are having adopting even basic concepts of representative government. Isn't it obvious that freedom is better than dictatorship? Isn't it obvious that decisions about taxes to build a new road in your town can be made without religions implications? What is WRONG with these people? It's like they insist on thinking in terms of north and south in a world we view in left and right. Incompatible dimensions that produce incompatible comparisons and debates between cultures.

That's exactly what is taking place. Lewis describes differences in thought about law and freedom that continue to complicate relations between the West and Islamic societies to this day. In law, Western society sees value in maintaining separation between contract / civil law and criminal law and value in separating all of those fields from religious considerations. Islamic societies not only made no such distinctions in the beginning, the very idea was antithecal to Islam itself. As Lewis writes,

In an Islamic state, there is in principle no other law than the Shari'a, the Holy Law of Islam. The reforms of the nineteenth century and the needs of commercial and other contacts with Europe led to the enactment of new laws, modeled on those of Europe -- commercial, civil, criminal and finally constitutional. In the traditional order the only lawyers were the ulema, the doctors of the Holy Law, at once jurists and theologians.

Lewis also points out effectively that even when common words are used, differences in underlying philosophy behind the language immediately put the discussion on divergent paths:

Westerners have become accustomed to think of good and bad government in terms of tyranny versus liberty. For traditional Muslims, the converse of tyranny was not liberty but justice. Justice in this context meant essentially two things, that the ruler was there by right and not by usurpation, and that he governed according to God's law, or at least according to recognizable moral and legal principles.

Think about that difference in political dichotomies in terms of Western and Muslim attitudes towards countries like Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Most Muslims will probably agree Saddam Hussein's rule over Iraq was gained by usurpation and thus illegitimate. However, the current Iraqi government isn't viewed as legitimate either since most Iraqis probably view it as a puppet of America which usurped control of the country from another illegitimate ruler. In contrast, the current rulers of Iran and Saudi Arabia are likely viewed as legitimate since they were elected (Iran) or have ruled through family ties for generations (Saudi Arabia) and both claim to rule according to Islamic principles. With hundreds of years of that type of thinking about tyranny versus "justice" ingrained in the culture, should Americans have much hope of democracy taking root in these environments?

The Separation of Church and State

The famous "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's…" quote of Jesus in the New Testament gospels anchors one of the key points Lewis makes in the book. The quote involves an idea that became incorporated into Western / Christian societies that a separation of civic and religious realms was at least permissible. As previously mentioned, Islam only recognized one source of law and governance -- the Holy Law derived from the Koran. Separation of religious and civic rule was impermissible under Islamic law. The interesting point made by Lewis is that initially, the unity of rule in Islamic societies over religious and civic issues helped the faith spread while maintaining a fairly consistent interpretation of its key teachings. In contrast, Western societies allowed more of a separation of civic versus religious influences earlier in the evolution of both the Christian faith and its host societies. In the short term, this early separation actually contributed to the rifts between Christian sects since their host governments were comfortable letting mere religious debates to take place as long as they didn't spill over into the civic realm.

The long term results of this disparity were much different. In Western societies, the different Christian sects eventually gained dominance over government powers which were then driven by those sectarian differences to launch multiple deadly conflicts over hundreds of years. However, a few centuries of this destruction eventually led the host societies to realize the pointlessness of such conflicts and they began to formally define boundaries between religious and civic realms to avoid further bloodshed. As a result, Western societies now tend to institutionalize the separation of church and state and generally tend to be tolerant of individual faiths within their societies.

The Islamic world learned no such lesson. The initial success of Islamic societies at spreading a faith that remained relatively unified further cemented the perceived value of a unified civic and religious government. By the time internal sectarian differences within Islam began to crop up, the ignorance induced by the systematic rejection of infidel influences had taken root and blinded Islamic societies from seeing the possible value of separating civic and religious life. Islamic fundamentalists continue to call for unified Islamic government today, despite the disastrous social and economic results produced in countries like Lebanon, Sudan, Afghanistan under the Taliban and "independent" Iraq. Current Islamic fundamentalists are repeating the same mistake Lewis spotted in attitudes from the 1800s. Rather than viewing their numerous defeats and territorial losses as a sign that adoption of new ideas was necessary, fundamentalists then and now instead believe their problem lies in not being true enough to the original requirements of living under one unified Holy Law.

Other Interesting Points

Several smaller but interesting points are made throughout the book regarding concepts of "clergy" within Islam, anti-Semitism, etc. Many Americans' first exposure to what we thought was the hierarchy of Islam was likely hearing of the Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. What is an "Ayatollah"? In terms of organizational power or theological influence, is an ayatollah akin to a bishop? An archbishop? A cardinal? A Pope? Is an ayatollah someone recognized by the larger faith as someone capable of speaking definitively about matters of belief and theology?

Lewis addresses the question with an interesting conclusion:

I have used the word "clergy." It is of course a Christian word, alien to both the Muslim and Jewish traditions but very much a part of present-day Muslim and Jewish realities. The appointment of a mufti of a place, with jurisdiction over a territorially defined entity, dates from Ottoman times and almost certainly follows Christian examples or responds to Christian influences. Not only were there muftis of places but there was a hierarchy of muftis culminating in the Chief Mufti of Istanbul whom one might reasonably describe as the primate of the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim archbishop of the capital. Even after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the practice continued in the Ottoman successor states in the Middle East… One sees it even more dramatically in the ayatollahs of Iran, a title dating from quite modern times and unknown to classical Islamic history. If the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran but knew it, what they are doing is Christianizing Islam in an institutional sense, thought not of course in any religious sense. They have already endowed Iran with the functional equivalents of a pontificate, a college of cardinals, a bench of bishops, and, especially, an inquisition, all previously alien to Islam. They may in time provoke a Reformation.

It is interesting to see that a country so intent on complying with 1600 year old interpretations of the word of God has established a hierarchy of religious middlemen in the process whose very roles are described nowhere in the ancient texts they claim to support as the one true way.

Regarding anti-Semitism, Lewis notes that the anti-Semitism within Islam today is a relatively recent development.

Another European contribution to this debate is anti-Semitism, and blaming "the Jews" for all that goes wrong. Jews in traditional Islamic societies experienced the normal constraints and occasional hazards of minority status. In most significant respects, they were better off under Muslim than under Christian rule, until the rise and spread of Western tolerance in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. With rare exceptions, where hostile stereotypes of the Jew existed in the Islamic tradition, they tended to be contemptuous and dismissive rather than suspicious and obsessive. The earliest specifically anti-Semitic statements in the Middle East occurred among the Christian minorities, and can usually be traced back to European originals. But the poison continued to spread, and from 1933 Nazi Germany and its various agencies made a concerted and on the whole remarkably successful effort to promote and disseminate European style anti-Semitism in the Arab world.

That seems about par for the course for such a disastrous path of history. The most notable outside idea adopted in modern times by a society struggling with hundreds of years of isolation is one of the most abhorrent, moronic, corrosive and deadly ideas the West has ever produced.


In the conclusion to the book (worth the $12.95 price of the paperback alone), Lewis recognizes that it is impossible to obtain the correct answers by asking the wrong questions. He makes an interesting logical point by stating that rather than the question "What has Islam done to the Muslims?" the more appropriate question the Islamic world needs to answer might be "What have Muslims done to Islam?"